Jim Finn, The Juche Idea, 2008, still from a color film, 62 minutes.
THE FILMMAKER JIM FINN is best known for the subtle wit of his quasi-documentaries, which appropriate traditional documentary filmmaking techniques to explore socialist/communist ideologies and to parody totalitarian regimes. On Monday, February 1, Finn’s most recent feature, The Juche Idea (2008), will screen as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Modern Mondays series spotlighting contemporary film artists. The Juche Idea, written by Kim Jong-il, is North Korea’s official doctrine on philosophy, theology, and art; it expounds on self-reliance, a trait to which any North Korean filmmaker must aspire if they want to be considered a good artist and an effective arm of the state. (For Kim, these two qualities are indissociable.) The Juche Idea turns its namesake dogma on its absolutist head, mixing scenes that revolve loosely around a South Korean woman’s artist residency outside Pyongyang and that collectively explore Finn’s signature territory of wooden documentary fantasy.
Finn will also present two recent shorts, Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell (2009) and la loteria (2004–05). The former uses images of children skating on a frozen (and thawing) river to allegorize the collapse of constitutional liberties traceable to the eponymous ex-VP. For la loteria, Finn, a militant romantic, created a medley of seventeen mini–music videos mixing home movies (often featuring the filmmaker) with television footage of subversive political figures (Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Donald Rumsfeld, etc.) and imperialist spectacles (Major League Baseball, episodes of The OC), which he then matches with songs that alternate between sweet, near-mythical desire and unruly, pan-American folksiness.
As Finn says of Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell, “Impunity is not just the stuff of autocratic dictatorships in the third world.” Likewise, the filmmaker’s “utopian comedies,” as they have been called, reveal as much about the savage follies of democratic societies as they do the despotic governments they claim as subjects. Even if it is more obvious to a public enlightened by the Bush years that democracies and dictatorships share at least one foundational attribute—a vulnerability to systemic abuse of power—Finn’s work (made during that enervating era) plumbs ideology for absurdity, elevating concerned cynicism to a form of philosophical activism.
“Utopian Comedies: The Films of Jim Finn” runs May 27–June 2, 2010 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Adrian Piper, Funk Lessons, 1983, still from a color video, 15 minutes 17 seconds.
SHORTLY AFTER GRADUATING from Harvard with a Ph.D. in philosophy, Adrian Piper began to teach. She lectured, scribbled on chalkboards, and gave precise instructions: Here’s how you do the shoulder shrug and head nod; this is how you isolate your hips while thrusting your pelvis. Piper called these performance-lectures Funk Lessons, 1982–84, and she used them to address xenophobia, an issue increasingly central to her art. Under the guise of a “get down and party together” affair, she began to teach white, primarily art-world audiences about the histories of African-American funk and soul music. Yet the lessons also underscore that “at least some perceived racial distinctions are learned, and learnable, behavior,” as critic Holland Cotter notes.
A nearly fifteen-minute video directed by Sam Samore in 1983 shows Piper giving her lessons to a large and noticeably diverse audience at the University of California, Berkeley. The work is intercut with soft-focus shots from Soul Train, sound bites of the cheerful artist interviewed postlecture, and clips of singers like James Brown and Aretha Franklin that support Piper’s improvisational points (“What Chuck Berry was for Elvis Presley . . . Bootsy [Collins] was for the Talking Heads”). Meanwhile, didactic phrases like FUNK IS MODULAR and FUNK IS IMPROVISATIONAL are overlaid in static, character-generator-driven text.
Never light with her touch, it’s worth keeping in mind that ten years earlier Piper began more outlandish performances as her male alter ego the Mythic Being; not long before that she was covering her body in vinegar, eggs, milk, and cod liver and stinking up buses, among other public spaces, with her Catalysis works. By her mid-twenties Piper had conceived of her art as a much larger (and lifelong) project of consciousness raising, which she assiduously tracked in her self-critical essays. In Notes on Funk (1985), for instance, she writes that Funk Lessons offered a path to “self-transcendence and creative expression within a highly structured and controlled cultural idiom, in a way that attempt[s] to overcome cultural and racial barriers.” In the video, she describes it another way. When asked about stereotypes, particularly the one about why “whites can’t dance,” she replies (with a dash of skepticism): “It’s just a matter of practice.”
Funk Lessons and a selection from Piper’s Shiva Dances with the Art Institute of Chicago (2004) play at the Maysles Cinema on January 29 at 8 PM; a dance party will follow. Artist Monica Carrier organized the screening as part of her fellowship at AIR Gallery.
FEATURING SOME OF THE MOST UNHINGED parenting decisions ever made, brothers Josh and Benny Safdie’s semiautobiographical Daddy Longlegs is a moving, often hilarious, oddly buoyant tribute to a father who knows—and does—worst. Ronald Bronstein (director of 2007’s Frownland, a mordant look at social dysfunction) stars as Lenny, a wiry, wired, divorced NYC dad who has custody of his two sons, nine-year-old Sage and seven-year-old Frey (exceptionally spirited real-life siblings Sage and Frey Ranaldo), for two weeks. Lenny is often the perfect playmate for his kids, mainly because his sense of logic is about as developed as a fifth grader’s. Called into work unexpectedly and unable to find a sitter, Lenny, a projectionist, decides that giving his boys a third of a sedative is the perfect solution.
Much like Josh Safdie’s first feature, The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), Daddy Longlegs (originally titled Go Get Some Rosemary) succeeds by assembling a superb cast of weirdos orbiting around a main character, who, though profoundly flawed, is still affectionately drawn. “Only in the world of jokes are mosquitoes that big,” Dad reassures his concerned tykes during bath time at his Murray Hill tenement, though Lenny often doesn’t know when to leave the world of jokes for the real world of paternal caretaking. With their loose, freewheeling shots of New York, Josh and Benny Safdie, filmmaking vets at the ages of twenty-five and twenty-three, respectively, have been compared to Cassavetes and Jarmusch. But just as significant a touchstone in the brothers’ first feature collaboration is Truffaut’s Small Change (1976), a deeply empathetic portrait of schoolkids figuring out both the arbitrary rules of adult authority and the complex rituals of childhood. Key scenes of Sage and Frey without Lenny—in class, during recess, drawing comics while Dad’s busy in the projection booth—reveal a tender but never sentimental admiration for half pints. Made by two directors who’ve barely entered adulthood, Daddy Longlegs is expansive enough to look back fondly at the resilience of children while forgiving the outrageously imperfect grown-up who tried to raise them.
Daddy Longlegs screens at BAM on January 28 as part of Sundance Film Festival USA and will be released theatrically in the spring. For more details, click here.
IT CAN SOMETIMES FEEL like Toronto is Michael Snow’s city, and the rest of us are merely living in it. No other contemporary Canadian artist has made such a thumbprint on the civic landscape, whether through the many iterations of his “Walking Women,” the fiberglass Canada geese suspended within the Eaton Centre, or the gargoyle-like fans spilling off the walls of the Rogers Centre. He reached his peak of ubiquity with “The Michael Snow Project,” a multigallery exhibition in 1994. By that time, he’d even been forgiven for spending his most prolific years (1963–72) living with his late wife Joyce Wieland in New York. Like so many other peripatetic Canucks before him, he’s been thoroughly reclaimed and repatriated.
And like so many artists who find themselves enshrined in their own time, the ever-industrious eighty-one-year-old has remained better known to the hometown crowd for popular public pieces than for the unrulier work that he continues to make. The fact that most of the seven projected works in “Recent Snow”—his first exhibition at the Power Plant since “The Michael Snow Project”—have never before been publicly screened in Toronto may come as a surprise. Then again, Snow’s film and video works—always a cornerstone of a practice that also includes painting, sculpture, and music—long ago earned a reputation for being more admirable than accessible. Surely only the hardiest moviegoers would endure the 45-minute-long zoom in his landmark Wavelength (1966) or the 266-minute runtime of Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1970–74).
Yet the new and old Snow works now filling spaces in the city readily dispel that idea. One of the projections at the Power Plant, The Corner of Braque and Picasso Streets (2009), consists of a real-time shot of an intersection outside the gallery projected onto, and fractured by, a staggered series of rectangles, creating a sort of cubist movie screen. In Piano Sculpture (2009), Snow creates a piano quartet with himself playing all four parts in shots projected onto each of the walls. And in the equally jazzy though speechless That/Cela/Dat (1999), he fills three screens with texts in English, French, and Flemish that may be roughly identical in meaning but whose contents nevertheless refuse to stay in sync. Like the other works at the Power Plant, it’s remarkable for its ingenuity and playfulness, and Snow is once again delighted to confound received notions about word and image, meaning and reception.
Michael Snow, La Région centrale, 1971. Clip from a color film in 16 mm, 180 minutes.
In the coming weeks, other venues are presenting rare screenings of earlier works. TIFF Cinematheque offers the most monumental of the lot when La Région centrale (1971) plays January 28. Filmed over five days on a mountain peak in northern Quebec with a specially designed 16-mm camera that turns in almost every direction, the resulting three-hour work is less a serene study in landscape than an audacious exercise in disorientation. As he would do throughout his career, Snow reinvests the old business of watching moving images on a screen with an even older sense of awe and wonder.
Michael Snow speaks at the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on January 27 at 7 PM. La Région centrale screens at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall on January 28 at 7 PM. “Recent Snow: Projected Works by Michael Snow” continues through March 7 at the Power Plant in Toronto.
ANDRÉ TÉCHINÉ’S EIGHTEENTH FEATURE, a disclaimer notes at the end, is “a work of fiction inspired by true events”: the RER D (a Paris commuter line) affair of July 2004, in which a non-Jewish young woman falsely claimed to be the victim of an anti-Semitic attack by six men, whom she identified as Arabs and blacks. As in Téchiné’s previous film, The Witnesses (2007), about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the fiction surrounding the facts in The Girl on the Train too often branches off into a series of distracting plot threads. Writing with frequent Chabrol collaborator Odile Barski and Jean-Marie Besset, Téchiné overstuffs his putative observations on contemporary French society and politics with dizzying melodrama: Couples form, split, and reunite; old loves are revisited; rites of passage are undertaken.
The girl of the title, the unemployed, twenty-ish Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne, best known for her role as the eponymous teenage protagonist in the Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film, Rosetta), is constantly in motion: if not on the RER train that goes right by the house in the Paris suburbs that she shares with her widowed mother, Louise (Téchiné regular Catherine Deneuve, flourishing in another great maternal role), then on Rollerblades. Gliding through a park, Jeanne meets thuggish wrestler Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who becomes her boyfriend and sets up house with her, tending to a warehouse of stolen goods and smack. Louise urges Jeanne to apply for a secretarial position with Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a lawyer and Jewish activist, once in love with Louise, who specializes in hate crimes—and acts as intermediary between his son, Alex (Mathieu Demy), squabbling with his Orthodox ex-wife, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), about whether or not their son, Nathan (Jérémy Quaegebeur), should have a bar mitzvah.
“I never met such a submissive girl,” Franck says of Jeanne, whose motives for her unconscionable act Téchiné maddeningly insists remain unknowable; indeed, the character is a nearly mute blank amid the voluble hysterics around her. By the time Jeanne finally confesses to Bleistein, the larger questions of anti-Semitism, racism, and media frenzies have been buried underneath a pileup of mini–soap operas. Though shot by cinematographer Julien Hirsch with exceptional visual immediacy and fluidity, The Girl on the Train derails, unable to carry its heavy load.
The Girl on the Train opens Friday, February 19 in Los Angeles.
MOST MOVIES ABOUT HISTORY—whether personal or social—depict the past as an orderly string of highs and lows, every piece of the puzzle neatly adding up to a whole. But not A Room and a Half, Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s surrealistic half-fictional “autobiography,” which follows in the footsteps of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007) and Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (2008) to suggest that the defining episodes of our experience are less etched in stone than drawn in sand. Realism, one could easily imagine Khrzhanovskiy saying, has no place in tales of memory.
Juggling fiction and nonfiction, Khrzhanovsky, an acclaimed animator, employs archival footage, stills, animation, and scripted dramatic material to tell the life story—and evoke the deep heartache—of Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-Jewish-American poet who was expelled from the USSR in 1972; he subsequently received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987 and became America’s poet laureate in 1991. Brodsky’s banishment fueled much of his written work, and no doubt fans of the poet will be surprised to find A Room opening with an adult Brodsky (played by Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy) boarding a boat on an imagined sail home to mother Russia. Along the way, the writer recalls his younger days on the streets of Saint Petersburg, a freeform mélange of memories that highlights his formative experiences while also underscoring the ways that fact, fantasy, and nostalgia intertwine.
A young boy fantasizes about a cartoon cat that occasionally takes control of the story in a series of animated vignettes. An older boy, unaware of the anti-Semitism that surrounds him, mourns the loss of the family piano, even as Khrzhanovsky depicts that piano taking flight with all the other instruments that have been discarded by Jews in the city. An adult Brodsky returns to his childhood home and sits down to dinner with his parents—a haunting, fictional event that never actually took place.
Alternating between declarative historical footage that recreates the Russian Jewish struggle of the 1950s and ’60s and ambiguous flights of fancy, Khrzhanovsky subtly obscures the edges between reality and fantasy. What remains is a thoroughly subjective history, molded out of memories that are imprecise, prone to delusions of grandeur. This isn’t Saint Petersburg, but Brodsky’s Saint Petersburg, and this may not be the life Brodsky led, but perhaps it’s the life he felt he led.
A Room and a Half opens January 20 at Film Forum. For more details, click here.