Michelangelo Antonioni, Le Amiche (The Girlfriends), 1955, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Left: Rosetta and Cesare (Madeleine Fischer and Franco Fabrizi). Right: Clelia and Momina (Eleonora Rossi Drago and Yvonne Furneaux).
RESTORED TO A LUSTROUS GLOW, the blacks, whites, and grays of a new print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) accent the elegant surfaces of mid-1950s Turin where it was filmed. From the opening pan under the credits to the long shots of the arcades and buildings that form the backdrop for the fashionable personae in the story, the city’s modernity sparkles before us. There is no evidence of the ruins from the Second World War, a conflict that still haunts the lives of the characters in the 1949 Cesare Pavese novel on which the film is based, titled Among Women Only. The adaptation’s ambience is not quite as bleak as the novel’s, but Pavese was nevertheless an important influence on Antonioni’s work. Although Le Amiche differs from its source, the tone of the novel, discernible only intermittently, has greater affinity with the director’s future work, foreshadowing the ennui that imbues the atmosphere of L’Avventura (1960) and the masterpieces that would follow. Not that Le Amiche capitulates entirely to the generic romanticism of its screenplay. A scene of two lovers making out on a beach as one of le amiche strolls by indifferently has the air of casual, meaningless sex typical of Antonioni’s later films.
Both novel and film begin with Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) returning to Turin to open a dress salon, having left her working-class life there years earlier to become an assistant to a couturiere in Rome. Her arrival is marked by the botched suicide attempt of Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), a young woman in the adjacent hotel room––an event that hangs ominously over the film. Rosetta, secretly in love with Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a moody, failing artist who painted her portrait, finally confesses, only to be swept into a fleeting affair that ends in abandonment and her successful suicide at the end. For Pavese, however, it is not romantic rejection but existential despair that plagues Rosetta. A malaise pervades the novel’s atmosphere––partly an effect of the recently ended war––lending a somewhat different cast to the escapist lifestyles of the girlfriends and their men as they appear in the film. But while Antonioni alters Rosetta’s motive, her demeanor, as portrayed by Fischer, bears more than a little resemblance to the young woman whose disappearance on an island is the premise of the plot of L’Avventura.
Clelia is the novel’s narrator and, as a result, conscious of her escape from poverty. Antonioni treats her brief affair with the working-class Carlo (Ettore Manni) as a sign of the life she might have lived had she not pursued a career in Rome. Pavese is careful to distinguish her hard-won success from the shallower lives of the upper-class women she encounters in Turin––especially the cynical, impeccably garbed Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) and the flighty, man-crazy Mariella (Annamaria Pancani). While their flirtations are set against the facades of the modern city, Clelia and Carlo declare their feelings to each other while strolling through the poorer neighborhoods of their roots. And despite her resolve that “working is [her] way of being a woman,” there is, in the final shots of Clelia boarding the train back to Rome, a sense of nostalgia, even regret, as she scans the station for Carlo who observes her departure without revealing his presence. Though an affecting touch, it is one that Antonioni would resist in the future.
Although there are no all-night parties in Le Amiche that end in a somber, disquieting dawn—as in L’Avventura and La Notte (1961)—there are moments that prefigure them. After Lorenzo leaves Rosetta, her desperate flight down a long, dark street, past the bar where her friends still party, cuts abruptly to an overhead shot of the police removing her body from the river the next morning. And the cycle of male weakness and female forgiveness that resonates throughout Antonioni’s oeuvre, appearing at the conclusions of L’Avventura and La Notte, is operative here as well: Lorenzo’s plaintive apology to his mistress, Nene (Valentina Cortese), is met by a steely indifference that melts into a reassuring caress. But while the domestic context in Le Amiche has an intimacy that speaks to human possibilities, Antonioni sets the later scenes within a spatial vastness that dwarfs the pathetic, unchanging nature of mortal beings.
Le Amiche plays at Film Forum in New York June 18–24. For more details, click here.
Agnès Jaoui, Let It Rain, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 110 minutes.
IN LET IT RAIN, a pair of clueless, bumbling documentary filmmakers worry over the tiny details of their framings: whether a fern in the background gives a halo to the subject, whether a poppy pinned to another subject’s dress is “overdoing” it. Director Agnès Jaoui, who is certainly far from clueless, is only a tad less exacting, but her mixture of off-kilter framings and disorientingly close handheld tracking shots (amid more conventionally studied long takes) imparts an appropriately rough-hewn quality to her messily comic look at the familial, racial, and especially sexual resentments of a half-dozen men and women living in or visiting a provincial French town.
The film stars the director as author-turned-politician Agathe, following the character as she visits her sister in the country home where they both grew up, breaks up with her more conventionally minded boyfriend, and agrees to be the subject of the aforementioned documentary as an example of a “successful woman.” As Jaoui divides her focus between Agathe and the other characters, she maps out a tension-filled environment in which everyone is distracted and tuning one another out, each person ruled by his or her particular prejudice.
Key to understanding the characters—whom Jaoui and coscreenwriter Jean-Pierre Bacri treat with a mixture of tentative compassion and critical, often ironic, distance—is the on-screen figures’ attitude toward the film’s two buzzwords: feminism and politics. They become dirty words—the former for most of the film’s men, the latter for just about everyone, including incipient politician Agathe herself. Resentments come out most strikingly during the documentary interviews in which the intradiegetic filmmakers, Michel (Bacri) and especially Karim (Jamel Debbouze), brutally grill their subject with questions about female quotas in politics, which Agathe, who seems uncertain of her political stances, handles with unflappable dignity.
Still, no matter how ugly the expression, every character has his or her justification, and Karim eventually grows from caricature to character as he explains to Agathe the effect of a lifetime of subtle racism—mirrored in the condescension shown toward his mother, who was in fact Agathe’s family’s longtime maid. In the end, communication is possible, resentments can be worked out, and new connections can be established, as Jaoui makes clear, even if the result is that her productively off-kilter film winds up concluding a tad too tidily for its own good.
Let It Rain opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York on Friday, June 18.
IS IT IRONIC that 45365 (2009), a more or less home-baked film that celebrates a particularly American ideal of small-town life, never really makes it back to the cradle from which it sprang? Lovingly created by a pair of natives of Sidney, Ohio, 45365 (the town’s zip code) is about to have a theatrical run—in New York, of course—after screening mostly at festivals in cultural hubs like Austin (where it won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize), London, and Turin. It probably won’t, as they say, play in Peoria.
But the stable, quietly God-fearing America depicted here has broad appeal—just ask any politician. And while not quite everything is rosy in Turner and Bill Ross’s time-capsule portrait of a contemporary Midwestern hamlet, much is. The civic machinery of the Sidney depicted here works along at a gentle hum. Not that 45365 feels too tidy; the editing and camerawork have a pleasantly unforced flow.
Early on, a local patrolman responds to a call from an old-timer whose cable isn’t working; later, he confesses he’s arresting the same people he did when he started on the force—and now their children, too. It’s sad, but there’s a reassuring pattern in it. Spend a little time here, the film suggests, and you’ll soon figure out who the troubled folks are. (Compare that to the opacity, boredom, and deep emotional disturbance Steven Soderbergh explored in Bubble , which was partly filmed across the state in the hollowed-out factory town of Belpre.)
45365 is conservative in the most appealing ways. “I live up the road, I work down the road,” a customer explains at the barbershop, to which the film returns several times. It could be a century ago, except he’s black and has a white guy fussing over his hair. Meanwhile, girls compete in beauty pageants and ride horses, and grunting boys go to football practice and the demolition derby.
The Rosses, to their credit, seem aware that they’re blending authenticity with nostalgia-tinged idealism. The film opens with a trumpet player on an empty stage and a sad, tumbling melody that recalls a Nino Rota score. Later, the filmmakers cut from a lovely musical interlude to a group of hunters blasting away at ducks.
The film’s most obvious forerunner is Frederick Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine (1999). As in that elegiac portrait of a small town, the system works. A new bridge gets built, the cops do their job, a local judge’s successful election campaign goes off without a hitch. And everyone behaves decently, even when they’re in handcuffs. Kids aren’t smoking, getting pregnant, or even texting—they’re talking about relationships and cruising through parking lots, presumably the way their parents did.
But how do you film a teen surfing for porn, anyway? Perhaps out of necessity, 45365 does some glossing. Like the prayer Sidney’s football team chants in the locker room before the big homecoming game, the small-town ideal is a comfort against the chaos and uncertainty that lie beyond it. Which is why the film grows so poignant when, in a single cut, it moves from the full roar of game night to a shot of the same field, months later, empty and blanketed in snow. These are cherished rituals. Whether or not you’re from so-called “real” America, this sincere tour of them probably won’t leave you cold.
45365 plays at Anthology Film Archives in New York June 17–23. For more details, click here.
ONE MIGHT LOOK for the effects of ten years’ time—the era-straddling span between Jacques Tourneur’s noirs Out of the Past (1947) and Nightfall (1957)—in the voice of Aldo Ray. Playing, in the later film, a war vet who’s pursued by bank robbers, the bull-necked actor speaks with a baggy hoarseness, as if his character, Jim Vanning, has spent too many nights drinking and too many days keeping still till the shadows fall and give relief. Vanning looks a little worn out, but not glamorously so, and his savoir faire is that of the underdog who is called upon to hold his own rather than Robert Mitchum’s cool. Even his would-be femme fatale, Marie, who asks the underemployed illustrator (“Soup cans or sunsets?”) for a five-spot in a bar, turns out working-girl ordinary, played with something between understatement and resignation by a young Anne Bancroft.
Vanning’s nightmare begins, as explained in flashback, with an exploded 1950s idyll in the countryside: Hunting buddies (Jim and a doctor friend) investigate a crashed car only to find two fugitives who want no witnesses. “I can’t believe this is happening,” the shell-shocked doctor says. (Later, Marie: “Things that really happen are always difficult to explain.”) The cheerful brutality of one thug (Rudy Bond) is as unsettling as the likability of the other (later TV star Brian Keith).
The chase continues into the movie’s present, Jim and Marie teaming up, with efficient filmmaking that reflects ex-editor Tourneur’s talent for editing with the camera. Tourneur’s director of photography, Burnett Guffey, who shot In a Lonely Place, expresses Jim’s open-air paranoia at an oil derrick, an outdoor fashion show, and a cabin (in a scene whose sounds, snow, and sadism are cribbed in Fargo’s wood chipper climax). Select, fearful point-of-view shots help make a noir that’s not did-they-do-it or would-you-do-it but—streamlining David Goodis’s 1947 source novel—a question of can-they-make-it.
Aaron Katz, Cold Weather, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes.
BEN CHACE AND SAM FLEISCHNER’S Wah Do Dem (2009), in which a young man from Brooklyn comes to knowledge during a trip to Jamaica, has a sensational climax. The movie is among the highlights of the BAMcinemaFEST, and it’s a measure of how exciting a festival this is that Wah Do Dem is not the only astonishing movie on a schedule that mixes recent American indies—Aaron Katz’s lovely shape-shifting Cold Weather (2010) is another knockout, as is Bryan Poyser’s claustrophobic spin on sibling rivalry, Lovers of Hate (2009)—with fabulous music docs and vintage genre flicks.
Wah Do Dem (Jamaican patois for “What’s wrong with them?”) opens with cool Brooklyn musician Max (Sean Bones) being jilted by his girlfriend (Norah Jones in a two-minute cameo), which forces him to go solo on a luxury cruise to Jamaica. Out of his element among the moneyed oldsters, Max spends a couple of days lurching from deck to deck and from ballroom to cabin, alternately drunk and seasick. Chace and Fleischner’s editing is fast and elliptical, and Fleischner keeps the camera close and unpredictably angled. The effect is a Fred and Ginger movie sampled on crystal.
Nothing could be further from the cruise ship’s glitzy excess than the lush natural beauty and desperate poverty of Jamaica. An innocent abroad, Max accepts a ride to the beach with a sweet-talking couple. They relieve him of his money, passport, clothes, and shoes while he’s taking a swim. Barefoot and shirtless, Max hitches a ride back to the boat, only to arrive as it’s pulling away. For the next forty-eight hours, he tries to make his way across the island to the American embassy in Kingston, cadging a few bucks from a pair of suspicious tourists and some beat-up sneakers from a group of soccer-playing locals. The Jamaicans he meets warn him that he’s lucky no one has murdered him yet, but it’s the eve of Obama’s election, when few would begrudge even the most callow and pasty-skinned American his life. And then something happens that could have come out of one of those Carlos Castaneda guidebooks to 1960s-style enlightenment. Max encounters an aged Rasta (Carl Bradshaw) who seems to exist on a plane so crazily high that just to look at him made me feel as if I were levitating. He escorts Max to a full moon celebration where the great reggae group the Congos play on and on, and time, which had been galloping along, stands still.
A similarly intense sense of place and mastery of tonal shifts distinguishes Aaron Katz’s third feature, Cold Weather. Doug (Cris Lankenau) drops out of college just short of getting his degree in forensic science. He moves into a Portland apartment with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). For a while nothing much happens. Doug gets a job at an ice factory and makes friends with another worker (Raúl Castillo). Just when the movie begins to feel as if it’s going limp, Doug’s ex-girlfriend shows up acting nervous, and suddenly we’re in the middle of a rescue-the-damsel-in-distress mystery that’s not quite as nightmarish as Blue Velvet but that has the same Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew antecedents. Cinematographer Andrew Reed worked with Katz on his first two features, Dance Party USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007), but here, shooting with the Red One (a very cool digital camera), he provides more expressive and subtle imagery, just as Keegan DeWitt, the composer for all three movies, delivers a score with just enough genre elements to get the adrenaline running.
Like Matt Porterfield’s debut narrative Hamilton (2006), which John Waters included in his Artforum Top Ten, his Putty Hill (2010) is set in an impoverished, largely white Baltimore neighborhood. A young man has died of a drug overdose, and family and friends have assembled for his funeral. The movie is filled with vividly detailed behavior and many small, moving, emotional moments. In the large cast of nonprofessional actors, the young women make the strongest impressions, but there are just too many characters to allow any of them to develop fully. Forced by his limited budget to work quickly and improvisationally, Porterfield uses the device of having an offscreen reporter interview some of the characters, who turn away from whatever they are doing and talk directly to the camera. It may be an economical way of delivering exposition, but it also makes the movie seem like an acting-class exercise. One can’t believe that these characters would be quite so eager to confide in a stranger.
In Tiny Furniture (2010), director/writer/star Lena Dunham also toys with screen “truth,” but in a creepier way. Dunham plays Aura, Tiny Furniture’s protagonist, who, after graduating from college and being dumped by her boyfriend, returns to the TriBeCa loft where she grew up. And in fact, the filmmaker actually did grow up in the loft that she uses as the movie’s set, and she cast her actual mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, and her actual younger sister, Grace Dunham, as Aura’s artist mother and precocious younger sister. In the movie, Mom is a nasty piece of work—cold, narcissistic, willfully indifferent to her needy daughter’s pain. She and younger sis form a united front of rejection, but the extremity of Aura’s masochism guarantees that she won’t move out. She also courts the contempt and rejection of two male losers who barely notice her presence sufficiently to abuse her. And stickier still, she courts our rejection by walking around the house in nothing more than a T-shirt, flaunting her ass and thighs for anyone who’s looking—and we can’t help but look—as if daring us to pass judgment on her body. It’s a game I dislike being roped into, just as I dislike being roped into speculating about whether Simmons knew she was playing an art-world Mommie Dearest, and whether she worried that her daughter really thought she was a monster, or whether the audience would think that, and was this movie meant to be a satire or a psychodrama. On the other hand, if you know nothing about the people involved, I suspect you’ll just be bored.
Along with the Congos’ appearance in Wah Do Dem, the musical treat of the festival is Goran Hugo Olsson’s Am I Black Enough for You, a documentary about the Philadelphia soul singer Billy Paul, famed for his gorgeous, sexy 1972 hit single “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The film is chock-full of thrilling singing and frank, amusing conversation, threaded with a complicated debate about music, militancy, and black identity. Paul, who still has great pipes, is slated for a post-screening Q&A with Olsson. Among the other special events: Olivier Assayas presents two of his favorite films, David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972). There’s brutish, bloody horror aplenty in Nicolas Winding Refn’s heavy-metal Viking saga Valhalla Rising (2009), and Refn is on hand also to introduce William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). See it and be disabused of any romance you may have cultivated about NYC in the ’70s. The horror is psychosexual in Ted Kotcheff’s Australian cult classic Wake in Fright (1971) and in G. W. Pabst’s more austere Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), starring Louise Brooks, which screens at the closing night special event with live music by 3epkano.
BAMcinemaFEST runs June 9–20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For more details, click here. Wah Do Dem opens theatrically June 18 at Cinema Village in New York.
Left: Jean-Pierre Gorin, Routine Pleasures, 1986, still from a video, 81 minutes. Right: Zhao Liang, Petition, 2009, still from a color video, 123 minutes.
ASKED ONCE to describe his 1986 essay film Routine Pleasures, Jean-Pierre Gorin settled on saying that it is simply “a film about about.” One might argue the same of the Migrating Forms festival, held May 14–23 at Anthology Film Archives, where three of Gorin’s works screened amid a selection of films and videos that cannily sustained breadth and focus while corralling explorations, co-presenters, and essentials from both the art gallery and the cinema. Besides programs of new and recent experimental shorts by the usual suspects, the Gotham-bound one-stop cinephile could scoop up rare revivals (Gorin, Ed Ruscha’s 16-mm works), catch-up suites (Stanya Kahn, Kerry Tribe, Straub plus or minus Huillet), and ambitious documentary deployments (Zhao Liang’s Petition , John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail [Clark] , Kutlug Ataman’s Journey to the Moon ).
The Gorin screenings demonstrated the nimble insights of the former Godard collaborator and “twin brain” to Manny Farber (a fellow UCSDer). Poto and Cabengo (1979) is an extraordinary funny-sad document of Gorin’s encounter with pidgin-speaking six-year-old twins and their desperately optimistic half-German parents. Shot by Les Blank and enlivened by the distinctive stonerlike drawl of Gorin’s voice-over, it’s a film about translation, and it’s as restless as its pent-up subjects, replete with text scrolls, sound looping, and freeze frames. The film presents a suburban California snapshot of ready-made housing, eye-popping wigs, and Dad’s hopeless realtor-ing. (The title alone is a fascinating closed circuit: the children’s names for each other.)
Even more fertile and visually engrossing, Routine Pleasures treks into the clubhouse of a group of train hobbyists, with its replica terrain and “temporal landscapes.” Full of reflective pivots and outright comedy, Gorin’s “small-scale epic” is punctuated with considerations of Farber and his own omnidirectional work (on canvas and off). It’s about men hanging out, a Frenchman in America, tools (“What you do with them and what they do to you”), and, in a spectacular climactic montage, the heavy grace with which the clubhouse’s wires and rigging hang together. Less an essay film than a collaborative chronicle, My Crasy Life (1992) goes heart to heart with ethnic-Samoan gangbangers in “Strong Beach.” There’s homegrown rap and the bizarre conceit of a beat cop’s Knight Rider-ish onboard computer making ironic observations.
Gorin’s films were the sort that send one walking away with freshly inquisitive eyes, and the festival’s programs likewise tapped multiple modes of attention: the immersive sylvan nocturne of Robert Todd’s Golden Hour (2009); shifts in and out of headily dynamic animal perception in Ruth Maclennan’s Three Short Films on Hawks and Men (2009); Dani Leventhal’s lusciously disorienting close-ups in 54 Days This Winter 36 Days This Spring for 18 Minutes (2009); the hypervivid field recordings and Song of Ceylon–descended sonic pastiches of Luke Fowler’s A Grammar for Listening (2009); and hypnotic digressions in Peggy Ahwesh’s Ape of Nature (2010). In these mixed contexts, a program of critically adored Straub and Huillet shorts was free to seem as precious as any other sampling of exactingly executed but rigid and off-putting aesthetics.
The feature documentary work in Migrating Forms (which opened with the trompe l’oeil actualités of Kevin Jerome Everson’s Erie ) included Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark), about the toxic legacy of the US military presence in the Philippines. Originating in Gianvito’s scouting for documentary material for a fiction project, the 264-minute mammoth is part history lecture, part marathon testimonial by activists and victims. While informative and boasting Gianvito’s striking landscape photography, the film suffers from the literal-minded conceit that duration ensures fidelity and, at worst, suggests a kind of penitence cinema. (“I’m not sure the film asks enough of you,” Gianvito said in introductory remarks.)
Zhao’s Petition achieves more with less, burrowing into the psychological hellholes of Beijing legal petitioners from the provinces. Whole chunks of life, a decade or more at a time, are sheared off during their disputes; the dead-end disorder of their victimhood is echoed in the screen-filling clutter of their temporary shantytown rooms and environs, and in slurry grays of debris and the sad washed-out synthetic pinks and blues of clothing. Last, continuing the extraordinarily intimate globe-trotting, was Stephanie Spray’s As Long as There’s Breath (2009), in which a family frets over a son gone to Maoist rebels in between bickering, bantering, frank sex talk, and offhand wisdom: “Things look good used.”