TRUE/FALSE, A FOUR-NIGHT, three-day documentary film festival which takes place annually in the central Missouri university town of Columbia, has since its humble beginnings in 2004 acquired a reputation for its curatorial excellence, as well as for the fervid, quasi-mystic loyalty that it inspires in regular attendees—journalists, filmmakers, and most anyone involved in the distribution and exhibition of docs. True/False is scheduled immediately before South by Southwest, where many films and filmmakers decamped to immediately after the party in Columbia ended, and with praise for True/False now so universal, at this point it only remains to wait for it to jump the proverbial shark and begin its downhill tumble, as the festival in Austin did many years before. “I just know it,” one longtime attendee said to me a couple of weeks before True/False, “This is going to be the year when it all goes to hell.”
Doomy prognostications aside, in True/False’s eleventh year, the beat went on. Due to renovations to some regular venues, screenings were spread between eleven locations, including churches and University of Missouri lecture halls repurposed to temporarily serve as movie houses, and the flagship Ragtag theater, specially equipped with 35-mm projection to accommodate archival prints imported for critic-curated Neither/Nor film series. A retro sidebar now in its third year, this year’s Neither/Nor, organized by the Warsaw-born, São Paolo–based writer Ela Bittencourt, was dedicated to Polish cinema from the 1970s to the 1990s, with several filmmakers present in person. Particular standouts in the shorts selection included Andrezej Czarnecki’s Rat Catcher (1986) and the works of Bogdan Dziworski, also cinematographer on Grzegorz Królikiewicz’s Through and Through (1973), an at times exhaustingly virtuoso reenactment of a famous 1930s murder case.
The defining feature of True/False’s programming is the pronounced emphasis on heterodox, formally ambitious documentaries, a broadly encompassing mission statement shared by the likes of FIDMarseilles and Lincoln Center’s newly introduced The Art of the Real. The historical perspective provided by Neither/Nor establishes that work in this vein doesn’t constitute any new, revolutionary development, but is rather rooted in the history of documentary since its very inception—that in fact it’s the doctivist tract and the info-dump op-ed films that are the historical aberrations.
True/False’s catholic definition of “documentary” encompasses films which many programming committees wouldn’t generally categorize as such. Last year’s closing night film, for example, was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, eligible for inclusion for the documentary impulse implicit in its time-spanning conceptual framework. This year, one film on the program which wouldn’t pass the strictest nonfiction scratch test was Benny and Joshua Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, a staged and scripted film about junkies living around Manhattan’s Riverside Park, based on the memoirs of its ex-addict star, Arielle Holmes. Field Niggas, positioned ever so slightly nearer to meeting the traditional criterion for documentary, issues its dispatch from the margins from uptown—posted on the corner of Lexington and 125th Street, in the heart of Harlem, filmmaker Khalik Allah collects testimony from winos, the philosophical homeless, and self-styled stickup men in the months after Eric Garner died at the hands of NYPD officers in Staten Island. Shooting entirely at night, Allah captures his subjects in ultrasaturated slow-motion portraits, accompanied by the out-of-sync audio of their testimonials, his own booming interlocution making him very much a character in the proceedings.
Another fraternal team were represented at True/False—this was Bill and Turner Ross, then fresh from Sundance with their well-received Western. New Yorkers have since had a chance to see Western as part of New Directors/New Films, in which it has been included by a curious logic known only to that festival’s programmers, being as it is the Rosses’ third film, preceded by 45365 (2009) and Tchoupitoulas (2012), set respectively in their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, and New Orleans. Like the Rosses’ previous films, Western is a sort of ambient portrait of a place, in this case straddling the Rio Grande. The twin cities of Eagle Pass, Texas, and Piedras Negras, Mexico, have largely been spared the epidemic cartel violence which has afflicted other border towns, but Western documents the alienation of these longtime good neighbors through skittish, overcautious policy imposed by Washington. The Rosses’ intimate technique creates a mosaic of offhand impressions, details for which they have a marvelous eye, though the story is loosely tethered to two protagonists: Eagle Pass mayor Chad Foster, who speaks Spanish with a native fluency and steadfastly opposes federal closed-border policy, and Martin Wall, a doting father and profane cattleman whose business is in buying beef south of the border and bringing it north.
The central importance of characters to documentary is a point stressed by two new French films screened at the fest. The first, Claudine Bories and Patrice Chagnard’s rather audaciously titled Rules of the Game, concerns goings-on in a private HR firm subcontracted by the French government to find placement for the unemployed. The movie’s use of “chapter head” intertitles, with coy descriptions of the contents in the fashion of nineteenth-century novels, adds little, but it is blessed with the presence of a genuine star in the form of Lolita, a brusque, sullen teenager whose flagrant disregard for social niceties makes for ripping comedy. Ioanis Nuguet’s Spartacus & Cassandra likewise deals with recalcitrant outsiders being dragged kicking and screaming into the role of citizens of the French Republic, in this case an immigrant family of Romani. The eponymous adolescent siblings, through court order, are gradually separated from their parents—their father is a feckless alcoholic; their mother a madwoman with a regal, ruined face—placed in the care of a circus performer who lives a responsible, sanitized version of the Romani’s real hand-to-mouth bohemianism.
In Lyric R. Cabral and David Felix Sutcliffe’s (T)ERROR, one can view another itinerant lifestyle heretofore hidden from cameras. The film is an “embedded” ride-along with Saeed Torres, an American Muslim and former Black Panther turned FBI antiterror informant, seen here attempting to collect damning evidence against a homegrown suspect in Pittsburgh—it’s a startling exposé of just how unglamorous, morally dicey, and frankly janky our domestic spy game is. Which leads me to the most undefinable and engrossing work that I encountered in Columbia this year, another mission-driven movie: Adirley Queirós’s White Out, Black In. (Set to play New York as part of Art of the Real.) A lo-fi sci-fi piece in which past and future overlap in the liminal zone of dystopian present-day Brasilia, Queirós’s film stars a handful of handicapped middle-aged men, self-sufficient and isolated, yet united by the common past that they share—a memory of the club scene of the mid-1980s, of its music and its dancing, and of the night whose scars they will bear forever, left crippled by a police raid. The survivors’ compulsion to relive their trauma isn’t a matter of self-pity but a crucial act of keeping historical memory alive, providing vital, damning testimony to help a visiting emissary from a tribunal in the far-flung future collect evidence to redress the past injustice. It’s a too-rare instance in which a filmmaker can be found using pop music cues not just to siphon the emotional effect of a song but to signal their function as vessels for collective cultural memory. Here, in this this film with a most fantastic premise, we find a compelling case for the historical necessity of the documentary project.
The True/False Film Festival ran March 5–8 in Columbia, Missouri.
ABEL FERRARA’S WELCOME TO NEW YORK—a thinly veiled recounting of Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s infamous May 2011 stay at midtown Manhattan’s Sofitel Hotel in which only the names have been changed—begins with a lengthy disclaimer, and so will this review. The version of the film set for theatrical and VOD release this Friday—and the only one I’ve seen—is not the one that made its world premiere last year at Cannes (where it was conspicuously not part of the festival’s official selection). More to the point, the most recent iteration of the movie—which, ostensibly to secure an R rating, shaves off seventeen of the original’s reportedly more orgy-filled 125 minutes—is the one that Ferrara emphatically doesn’t want you to see. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Ferrara “issued a cease and desist letter [on March 13] addressed to [the movie’s US distributor] IFC Films in New York and to the film’s global distributor Wild Bunch in Paris”; the latter company made the trims to Welcome to New York after the director refused to do so.
With this caveat now out of the way, I’ll say this: Despite the troubling violence done to Ferrara’s movie, it’s difficult to imagine that the original is a vast improvement over the expurgated version. Welcome to New York begins unpromisingly: A fourth-wall-obliterating scene features Gérard Depardieu, who plays the DSK surrogate Devereaux, participating in a staged press conference, where a “journalist” asks, in heavily French-accented English, “Why did you accept to play this part?” The superfluous gambit may be an epigraph of sorts but plays more as a hedge for the actor, who was also the subject of a fairly recent scandal, if one not as sordid as that which brought down the one-time head of the IMF: Depardieu’s stature as beloved pillar of French cinema was tarnished in 2013, the year he became a citizen of Russia, where he enjoys significantly lower taxes—and Putin’s friendship. More wearying still is the opening-credits sequence that follows, a dully ironic montage that features twenty-dollar bills being printed and bundled, and is scored to a lethargic C&W version of “America the Beautiful.”
That bluntness never ceases in Welcome to New York, which, after this prologue, essentially recapitulates the chronology of Strauss-Kahn’s flameout after he was accused of sexually assaulting Nafissatou Diallo, a housekeeper at the Sofitel. (Here played by the Carlton, whose branch in Lille, in northern France, was central to the trials that concluded just last month in which DSK and thirteen others were charged with “pimping and abetting prostitution”; a verdict is expected later this spring.) But that isn’t to say that Ferrara, who wrote WTNY’s script with Chris Zois, wields his cudgel wholly unadmirably. Devereaux is consistently presented as a pig: His grunts during a three-way in the bedroom of his VIP suite are indistinguishable from those uttered when, held by the NYPD after the alleged attack on the hotel maid, he must submit to a strip search—the denuding also forcing the viewer to submit to Depardieu’s obscenely massive gut. Though the case against DSK was soon dropped by the prosecution owing to Diallo’s lack of credibility—Ferrara includes obviously Internet-sourced footage of Kenneth P. Thompson, Diallo’s lawyer at the time, stating as much—it’s never in doubt whose side Ferrara takes.
But the director’s bracing fury is weakened during much of the second half of the film, when Simone—the analogue for Anne Sinclair, DSK’s billionaire (now ex-) wife, played by Jacqueline Bisset, who replaced Isabelle Adjani—posts her debauched spouse’s one-million-dollar bail and secures a sixty-thousand-dollar-a-month rental in TriBeCa, where the couple hole up while Devereaux is under house arrest. The ferocious fights between the couple, which, puzzlingly, are carried out mostly in English—even though the UK-born Bisset is fluent in French, a bilingualism that her costar hasn’t quite yet attained—often come perilously close to farce. Depardieu’s untamable vowels (“I don’t need your monay!”) and elision of prepositions (“I jerk on that lady. On her mouth”) are almost as bad as the truisms that Bisset must deliver: “The other side of love isn’t hate—it’s indifference.” In the end, Ferrara’s fact-based film fails to leave the scalding imprint of one that more obliquely treats the Sadean excesses of DSK and other French operators: Claire Denis’s Bastards (2013), which stages its scenes of unspeakable depravity not in high-end resorts but in corncob-strewn barns just outside Paris.
Welcome to New York opens in San Francisco and will be available nationwide on VOD on March 27.
Sam Gorski and Niko Pueringer, Superman with a GoPro, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 2 minutes 53 seconds.
“THE QUESTION is not who are you wearing, but what were you flying?” my neighbor in the press corral floated his drone joke for the nth time.
“Turbo Ace Matrix.”
“Uh, the cameras?”
Yes, of course the cameras—why else would you be one of thirty-five teams of filmmakers standing there on the red carpet, boom mic stuffed in your face, speaking to your fans before a backdrop patterned with the logos of NBC News, DJI Global, something called Yeah Drones, and the six-rotored emblem of the first-ever New York City Drone Film Festival?
“I was just a little kid flying a drone around, you know?” said Randy Scott Slavin, the festival’s manic founder, crossing the step-and-repeat. “The footage was…OK.” Today, according to the DFF program, Slavin is “an award-winning director, aerial cinematographer, and surrealist photographer”—one of the lucky few living out his drone-lofted passion at the cutting edge of dronespace. “It’s like everyone’s got a drone now, man!” he said.
Drones—some more threatening than others—are in the air. John Cale performed a “drone opera” at the Barbican in London. The current Nora Schultz show at Reena Spaulings includes drone-based videos. Fans in Los Angeles celebrated the Kings’ Stanley Cup win by taking down a quadrocopter with championship T-shirts. The list goes on. Hollywood, too, has drones pretty well in its toolkit. Harry Potter, The Expendables 3, and The Wolf of Wall Street all use drone footage. There’s even a drone moment in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. If Kubrick had made The Shining in 2015, instead of a tricycle, Danny would run circles through the hotel by drone.
The parameters here, though—entries to the NYCDFF had to be under five minutes, and more than half shot by drone—mostly exclude high-budget efforts. High-concept efforts, too, were few. If aliens landed at the NYCDFF, they might think the state-of-the-art of drone cinematography was limited to high-end vacation footage—circling around cruise ships anchored in azure bays or across a tropical patio, threading tiki bars and beach umbrellas—or (truly stunning) feats of extreme sport: for example, in Danny MacAskill’s The Ridge, a guy rock-hopping his bicycle on the pinnacles of the Isle of Skye. The sound tracks had two speeds: cheesy dubstep and overwrought opera. The FPV/Proximity/Technical category mostly consisted of people flying their drones really close to things without hitting them. Watch any UAV blooper reel to get an idea of how hard this is—and how much editing went into these crashless entries. Though to his credit, after weaving his rig at high speed around banyan trees and collapsing warehouses, pilot Carlos Puertola ends his clip with a wipeout.
Danny MacAskill, The Ridge, 2014.
Films in the Narrative and X-Factor categories took greater advantage of the drones’ conceptual mobility. A music video by Los Angeles–based band OK Go, directed by Morihiro Harano, definitively outclassed the field—perhaps unsurprising, given that the quartet is known for their avant production. Over the course of an intensely choreographed, long single shot, the drone cameraman pulls back from the band’s routine on gyroscopic stools, through Busby Berkeley–like swirls and worms of umbrella-toting Japanese schoolgirls, up into the lower atmosphere as hundreds of opening, shutting umbrellas form the pixels of a Jumbotron. Then, something truly artistic happens: The camera drifts up, into the clouds, executing a slow pan across the now tiny city, and, with a nod to Antonioni’s The Passenger, the drone loses interest in human drama...
But wait, aren’t drones supposed to be the deathless, lustless, sleepless avatars of our dystopian controllers? The darkest vision by far at the NYCDFF came courtesy of Alex Cornell’s Our Drone Future, in which a bloodthirsty security bot is kept in check by its human operator. (“Am I weapons free?” “Uh, negative…”) When the drone ends up disobeying orders, descending into a warehouse district to investigate a robbery, some kind of cyberpunk vigilante quickly guns it down. Even bearing in mind that the whole festival could be considered pro-drone propaganda, Future seems eager to put our fears to rest—by force, if necessary—as if, when the tool flies amok, we might still have a chance to stop it.
Yet the message was largely upbeat. For every flyover of Chernobyl, there were three life-affirming sweeps across rock faces and a pass by Mont Saint-Michel. Late in the long evening, the festival presented Patrick Meier of UAViators.org—an organization dedicated to promoting the humanitarian potential of drones “before disasters, during disasters, and after disasters.” One slide, for example, showed villagers cobbling together an RC airfoil out of scrap plastic. In another, a drone snaps a photo of the word HELP roughed out in wreckage in a Philippine slum. “What if to solve our problems,” goes the group’s slogan, “we simply have to rise above them?”
Between each group of films, Randy Slavin took the stage to raffle off his sponsors’ pro-grade drones. Walk in liking drones, walk out owning one. Each winner a convert.
“Always use your drone in a positive way,” said Slavin.
Which is slightly more evangelical than what drone maker DJI’s Jon Resnick said shortly before the screening as we stood outside the venerable Directors Guild Theater on Fifty-Seventh Street—a venue that, it was mentioned more than once, lent the night’s proceedings an air of legitimacy.
“We fought it at first,” he said. “We called them UAVs, flying cameras, but nothing caught on. Finally we just said ‘Uncle’ and called them drones.” Still, something chilling about every shot of smiling children running on a crumbling jetty or a clay-colored rooftop after—you know—a drone.
“I mean there are planes,” said Resnick. “There are F-14s and there are Cessnas.” And with any luck, people are smart enough to know the difference.
Under the theater’s red awning, folks formed a line in the bitter cold hoping for spare tickets to the sold-out screening. Behind us, mounted to the building’s black granite cladding, was the Guild’s bronze seal: an eagle, wings spread, talons gripping a banner, either taking flight or landing.
The first New York City Drone Film Festival took place Saturday, March 7, 2015 at the Directors Guild Theater.
Kunio Watanabe, Song of the White Orchid, 1939, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 102 minutes. Kazuo Hasegawa and Shirley Yamaguchi.
IN THE LIFE OF SHIRLEY YAMAGUCHI, who died in the fall of last year at age ninety-four, the entire twentieth-century history of the Pacific Rim is reflected.
An actress, songbird, and legislator who lived and worked in Manchuria, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong, Yamaguchi is one of the subjects of a Japan Society film series timed to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II. “The Most Beautiful: The War Films of Shirley Yamaguchi & Setsuko Hara” is somewhat deceptively named—the nine-feature program focuses on female stars, and so none of the movies are dispatches from the front lines, exactly. Most take place far from the battlefield, and four were released after the surrender of the Empire of Japan. In another respect, however, the marks of the war are all over these films: Japanese imperialism, the reverberations of combat on the home front, and the confusion of new possibilities that followed defeat—new possibilities that Yamaguchi would seize upon in the course of a most remarkable career.
Guest-curated by Markus Nornes, professor of Asian cinema at the University of Michigan, “The Most Beautiful” looks at this period as reflected in the films made by the two actresses, both born in 1920, who came to fame in “national policy” propaganda films reinforcing the official doctrine of the empire and were subsequently reborn along with Japan itself. Setsuko Hara, who’d made her film debut in 1936, would have been all of sixteen years old when she appeared in The New Earth, a German-Japanese coproduction meant to illustrate the virtues of Japanese culture to their new white-supremacist allies. The codirectors, Mansaku Itami (father of director Juno) and visiting German Arnold Fanck, best known for his “mountain films” featuring Leni Riefenstahl, clashed openly, and settled on shooting two different versions of the story, involving a German-educated Japanese returning home, being reconciled to his motherland, and embarking as a settler to Manchuria with his new bride (Hara). (Japan Society will show Itami’s version, not Fanck’s, whose German premiere Hara herself attended in the company of one Mr. Hitler.)
One might think that such associations would’ve sullied Hara forever, but in roles for Naruse, Kurosawa, and particularly Ozu, she became more famous than ever for her radiant, self-sacrificing purity, and retired in 1962 as Japan’s “eternal virgin.” For these high-profile collaborations, Hara is today the better remembered of the two actresses in the West—she was among the “Five Japanese Divas” singled out for recognition in a 2011 Film Forum series of the same name—so I will concentrate instead on the case of Yamaguchi who, per Nornes’s notes for the series, took another path: “Rather than running away from history, she participated in it.”
Subject of a March 28 lecture at Japan Society titled “An Actress with a Thousand Names,” the woman who we will for the sake of simplicity call “Shirley Yamaguchi” was variously credited as Yoshiko Yamaguchi, Ri Koran, Pan Shuhua, Li Xianglan, and Yoshiko Otake. I first became aware of the diminutive yet resolute actress in the movies she’d made during her marriage to the American-Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi: King Vidor’s too-little-seen Japanese War Bride (1952), and Samuel Fuller’s House of Bamboo (1955), which will play Japan Society in a brand new 35-mm print. (The hasty New York Times obit for Yamaguchi, “Actress in Propaganda Films,” identifies these as “Hollywood B-movies” which, point of fact, they are not.)
Yamaguchi was born in northeast China in the years of increasing Japanese influence in the area preceding to the 1931 invasion that created the puppet state of Manchukuo, and was raised in the mainland speaking what I am told is flawless Mandarin. This, along with other obvious assets—she had a lovely, tremulous soprano singing voice and photographed strikingly, with large eyes and a prim bow of a mouth—brought her to the attention of Manchuria Film Production, a Japanese company half owned by the South Manchuria Railway, of which her father, Fumio Yamaguchi, was a sometimes-employee.
Billed as Li Xianglan and playing a native Chinese, Yamaguchi appeared in the so-called Continental Trilogy films opposite Kazuo Hasegawa. These movies explicitly endorsed the philosophy behind Japan’s pan-Asian ambitions, gozoku kyowa, or “harmony of the five peoples” (Chinese, Koreans, Manchus, Mongols, and Japanese), a doctrine raised to the level of utopian cult by Fumio Yamaguchi, among others. Two of these films, Song of the White Orchid (1939) and China Nights (1940), play Japan Society, and follow approximately the same narrative arc: Stubbornly nationalistic Chinese Xianglan/Yamaguchi is at odds with Japanese Hasegawa, but gradually comes to appreciate the benevolence of his intentions, and prostrate herself before him. The Chinese people were not so grateful for the lesson they were being taught by Manchuria Film Production and Yamaguchi—“a Chinese manufactured by Japanese hands,” as she wrote in her 1987 autobiography. She was imprisoned for nine months and sentenced to death by Chinese Nationalists, only saved when proof of her Japanese origins was smuggled into the country inside a doll. The judge presiding over her case called her “a Chinese impostor who used her outstanding beauty to make films that humiliated China and compromised Chinese dignity,” which is something like the ultimate in backhand compliments.
Returned to a foreign homeland, Yamaguchi began the first of the reinventions which would mark her career, traveling between national film industries with an ease unmatched by any Asian actress of her era. Japan Society has Yamaguchi’s best-known Japanese and American efforts, Akira Kurosawa’s Scandal (1950) and House of Bamboo, in both of which she plays a woman scorned—a classical singer smeared by the tabloid press for romantic indiscretions for Kurosawa, a Japanese detested by her own people for shacking up with a gaijin for Fuller.
After her divorce from Noguchi, Yamaguchi briefly revived the Li Xianglan sobriquet to film and record in Hong Kong, then became a television anchorwoman in Japan, in which capacity she secured the first interview with Japanese Red Army founder Fusako Shigenobu, in large part due to her outspoken support for the Palestinian cause. Yamaguchi visited Palestinian refugee camps, traveled to Vietnam and Cambodia during the war, and interviewed world-historical figures including Yasser Arafat, Nelson Mandela, Idi Amin, and Kim Il Sung. After ending her career as a broadcaster, she ran for and won a seat in the upper house of the National Diet of Japan in 1974, and remained there for eighteen years. Throughout this time she agitated for Japanese recognition of war crimes, advocating for and winning the payment of reparations to Korean “comfort women” sold into sex slavery, and continued this work after her retirement as vice president of the Asian Women’s Fund. In 2005, she chastened Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi for his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s war dead, and at least one Chinese media outlet was quoted praising her for transforming “from an abettor in Japan’s aggression on China to a messenger of peace.”
Playing Chinese, Japanese, even an aboriginal Taiwanese in 1943’s Bell of Sayon, Yamaguchi might’ve created the mold for the multiplatform pan-Asian pop star, a torch later carried by Taiwanese Teresa Teng, who covered Yamaguchi’s “Hen Bu Xiang Feng Wei Jia Shi” (If Only We Had Met Before I Married). None of this was quite enough to warrant Yamaguchi’s inclusion in the Oscar death montage, but Japan Society has given a much greater tribute to this remarkable, complicated career.
Sylvia Schedelbauer, Erinnerungen (Memories), 2004, HD video, color, sound, 19 minutes.
WITH SIX SHORT WORKS to her videography, Sylvia Schedelbauer is easily one of the most impressive moving-picture artists to emerge in the past decade. Born in Japan of a Japanese mother and a German father—both of whom severed ties to their postwar childhoods—Schedelbauer’s videos are so eloquently and exquisitely constructed that it is easy to underestimate the passion and urgency that underlie them. Driven to conjure a past to replace the one her parents have denied or hidden from her, she has, through an ingenious use of found footage and the endless possibilities of montage, created a series of works that turn artifice into a means of investigation and a bridge to repair the rift between desire and knowledge.
In Erinnerungen (Memories, 2004), her first movie, she counters parental silence directly, appropriating dozens of family photos, accompanied by a voice-over commentary that presents her plight. It begins with a series of images from a photo album she discovered in a shoebox buried in a closet when she was fourteen. Vivid and sepia-colored, these affecting, carefully framed photographs document her grandfather’s service as a German soldier during World War II. Seen at rest and in groups, ordinary, uniformed men emanate a humanist spirit wholly at odds with the realities of the ideology they served and the war in which many of them lost their lives. Though Schedelbauer tells us that her grandfather died at Stalingrad, she cannot identify him in any of the photos. As elusive as the past of which he was a part, he seems to embody the paradox that she implies is intrinsic to photography: its documentation of a world that remains unknown. For all its irrefutability as data, every photo in this group, however evocative and haunting, remains a tantalizing enigma, its truth-value indecipherable and irretrievable. Schedelbauer’s work suggests that this is not merely a matter of technical limits or human fallibility, but the byproduct of the perpetuation of wars and the conditions that promote them.
Schedelbauer follows up with more casual-looking photos from the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, many presumably taken by her parents. In juxtaposing the suppressed past with the one she has lived through, she contrives a wished-for continuity, a gesture both pitiable and palpable. Thus when, near the close of her movie, she provides a list (retrieved from the Internet) of international wars, mostly throughout the twentieth century, she links her own incomplete story to those of the countless millions whose pasts were similarly fractured and suppressed. In so doing, she affirms that the distortions that beset personal and cultural histories are among the most far-reaching casualties of war.
Given the relative uncertainty and malleability that bedevils photography, it is no surprise that Schedelbauer saw the even greater possibilities of found footage. Her subsequent works, equally marked by semifictional, “biographical” impulses, use montage to bind these found images—and the “stories” embedded within them—to her need to summon the missing pictures from her life. Indeed, her title Remote Intimacy (2007–2008) suggests the very contradiction of this phenomenon. Schedelbauer manifests an acutely intuitive sense of selection (her sources here and elsewhere include Craig Baldwin, master of found-footage compilations, with whom Schedelbauer has collaborated), evoking times and places with uncannily apt images and sounds—of ships sailing to the music of 1940s radio, men cutting down trees, children playing baseball in a California forest—as well as hints of the Japanese internment that took place there during the war. In the last third of the work, color images, including shots from Japanese movies, highlight the cultural dislocation her parents survived. It is tempting to imagine that the fleeting found images of a Western man and a Japanese woman are meant to evoke them.
Sylvia Schedelbauer, False Friends, 2007, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 5 minutes.
False Friends (2007) ups the ante, so to speak, adding noir-like suspense to Schedelbauer’s repertoire. In the spirit of the title—a phrase that refers to words which, though identically spelled in two languages, mean different things—she repeats a select number of images, crosscutting them with others to imply both complementary and contradictory meanings. The opening shot of newborns in a hospital nursery seems linked somehow to the two men greeted by a nurse at the entrance of a medical building. But the latter is interrupted repeatedly by images of unspecified menace: a possible intruder exploring a house with a flashlight, a figure running through a darkened terrain from some undetermined danger. Shots of a nude couple making love, seen briefly and translucently, may be Schedelbauer’s imagining of a primal scene—both intimate and remote—imbued with cultural ambiguity. In the penultimate shot, the figure seen running throughout suddenly pauses and looks offscreen left, in the direction, the editing implies, of the men who have just been admitted to the building by the nurse. In welding two segregated pieces of found footage into quasi-narrative coherence, this gaze, symbolically, might be that of Schedelbauer herself, in poignant pursuit of the very connective tissue that eludes her.
Despite the presence and recurrence of a male figure walking across a muddy field at the beginning, middle, and end of way fare (2009), the footage, taken from educational and industrial films, seems more diverse and the overall effect more abstract than the previous works. This impression is compounded by faster editing and superimpositions, tending to blur and blend images temporally as well as spatially. A vague family resemblance prevails: trees, leaves, woods, farmers, tractors, rivers, a grasshopper eating a leaf, then being devoured by insects, emerging larvae—first accompanied by bird sounds and then by a distant buzz saw, which we see later resting on a tree trunk—might suggest that nature’s cycle is a unifying theme. But we also see vehicles moving along highways, people who seem to be migrating illegally via boats—and that lone walker who might just be the artist’s surrogate traveling consciousness, attempting to piece together the disparate places, times, and experiences that constitute an individual’s life.
This idea seems, in fact, to be the unifying motif of Sea Vapors (2014), a gorgeous, lyrical mosaic in which a woman—shot first from the back of her head in close-up, and near the end from the front, but whose face we never fully see—lifts a cup (of tea or coffee?), ever so incrementally, to her mouth, every stage of her movement interrupted by a horde of disparate images, including other shots of her, until, as the bowl of the cup seems to fill the screen like some giant orb, she drains it entirely. This barely hints at the density of the work’s texture, in which dissolves and superimpositions are compounded by the flickering effect produced by the rhythmic intercutting of black leader. Schedelbauer describes it as an “allegory of the lunar cycle,” but, no less than her other pieces, Sea of Vapors suggests, in a condensed form, that the most mundane of gestures contains a world of associations and meaning, both those we experience consciously and those that remain beyond our grasp.
Anja Marquardt, She’s Lost Control, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Ronah (Brooke Bloom).
SHE’S LOST CONTROL, writer-director Anja Marquardt’s first feature, clocks in at ninety minutes—which, coincidentally or not, is also the duration of a typical appointment with sex surrogate Ronah (Brooke Bloom), the film’s aspirational protagonist. Some of Ronah’s clients have been referred by a psychotherapist, Dr. Alan Cassidy (Dennis Boutsikaris), who feels that certain of his male patients require both the talking and touching cure. Much like a typical therapy session, She’s Lost Control is marked by repetition, clichés, preposterousness, and occasional insight.
Marquardt’s movie, chilly and remote, if studiedly so, shares some subject matter with The Sessions (2012), a gooey docudrama about a man long confined to an iron lung who seeks out a sex surrogate so that he won’t die a virgin, but little of that mawkish project’s sensibility. Yet despite its austerity, She’s Lost Control isn’t immune to narrative improbabilities, most egregiously so in its final-act paroxysms of violence. The movie is additionally burdened by the obviousness and easy metaphors that attach to many films about outsourced intimacy; this deadweight is also found in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience (2009), which, like Marquardt’s film, whose heroine gazes out a window at a still-under-construction One World Trade Center, takes place in New Gilded Age New York.
Other, less iconic Gotham edifices are brazenly defiled in She’s Lost Control. The severity of the psychosexual problems of Ronah’s latest referral from Dr. Cassidy, a handsome, bearded nurse anesthetist named Johnny (Marc Menchaca), who spends his off-hours caring for his wheelchair-bound sister, is signaled during the film’s opening minutes: The camera, which had been trained closely on the back of Johnny’s head, captures him in long shot as the butch strawberry-blond, his body nearly flush with a building’s exterior, jerks off in broad daylight. “We’re just gonna create a safe space,” Ronah, bedecked in Talbots chic, tells her new client during their initial meeting in a hotel room—its decor as crushingly drab as that of Ronah’s apartment. In the film’s most absorbing moments, Ronah demonstrates the specifics behind that hackneyed expression, her patient, step-by-step simulation of physical intimacy including an exercise that involves touching only from the fingertips to the elbow.
Yet too often, She’s Lost Control hazily drifts from scene to scene, invested in examining the exhausted topic of what happens when a sex professional finds that the rigid boundary between work and off-duty pleasure has become uncomfortably porous. (The scenario dates back to at least 1971, the year of Alan J. Pakula’s Klute, a distant relative of Marquardt’s film; the Jane Fonda–starring neo-noir vehicle, its paranoia rooted partly in anxiety over second-wave feminism, is one of the few to have explored the topic fruitfully.) Bloom, for her part, is adept at maintaining the long silences required of her character, a near-friendless graduate student in behavioral psychology accustomed to chopping vegetables for dinners for one. Sometimes, though, the quiet reveals more than Ronah’s solitude: The film has run out of things to say.
She’s Lost Control opens in New York on March 20 and in Los Angeles on March 27.