Manuel De Landa, The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle, 1976, still from a color film in 16 mm, 8 minutes.
IN THE LATE 1970s, Manuel De Landa, while still a student in the film department of the School of Visual Arts, produced a series of movies that excelled as audience provocations. More than thirty years later, they still do. Anthology Film Archives, which has turned its attention to films made in the ’70s on both Super 8 and 16 mm and which, for lack of a better term, are dubbed “avant-garde,” has preserved De Landa’s five films and is screening them Friday to Sunday at 7:30. (De Landa will be present for the Saturday show.)
Born in Mexico, De Landa established himself as a commercial graphic artist while still in his teens. He arrived in New York during the city’s near disastrous economic downturn, which, against the odds, proved inspirational to adversarial artists in many media. Taking his graphic talent to the streets, he produced graffiti as witty as it was eye-popping, distinguished by its merging of subversive visuals—cubistically altered billboard faces—with injunctions from French linguistic and psychoanalytic theory splattered onto subway walls and building facades with dripping paintbrushes. Call it latter-day Mexican-American Situationism. Ismism (1979), De Landa’s most straightforward film, is a silent Super 8 (later transferred to 16 mm) documentation of this graffiti. It also serves as a decoder for the sound films, which share the street art’s Pop visuals; theoretical underpinnings; and combinations of sophistication and vulgarity, humor and anger.
To wit: The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle (1976) depicts an ugly quarrel between jealous lovers by transforming conventional shot-countershot technique with luridly colored optical wipes. The basic situation had already inspired movies by such artists as Vito Acconci and Hollis Frampton, but neither of them delivered the aggressive, obsessive-compulsive visuals that the situation deserved and that were, in De Landa’s hands, momentarily cathartic. (Steven Soderbergh, who recently remarked that he felt as if he would kill himself if he had to look at another over-the-shoulder shot, might enjoy De Landa’s brutal solution to the problem.) Incontinence: A Diarrhetic Flow of Mismatches (1978) extends the love-turned-to-hate situation with dialogue lifted from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and a delirious assortment of altered editing tropes repeated ad nauseum.
The longest movie on the program, the thirty-minute Raw Nerves: A Lacanian Thriller (subtitled The Libidinal Economy of Filmus Interruptus ) is set largely in a toilet stall and a couple of stairwells and draws heavily on Robert Aldrich’s transcendently trashy film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955). What were dubbed the neo-noir films of the ’70s translated the expressionist black-and-white imagery of the original noirs into color that was either sun-bleached in the best of them or indiscriminate in the rest. De Landa’s stroke of genius was to gel the lights with clashing Day-Glo colors and project painted zigzags on the walls like some lysergic vision of noir’s signature window-blind shadows. The entire film is a maniacal alienation machine. It hits an assaulting groove of sound and imagery in the first five minutes and never varies or pulls back. It’s a tour de force that needs to be seen to be believed.
After Raw Nerves, De Landa pretty much stopped making films, although as a coda to his career, he turned a micro lens on cockroaches dying hideously after being sprayed with insecticide. This image is accompanied by a synthesized sound track of screams and groans. Titled Judgment Day (1983), the film is both spare and unsparing, eight minutes of what-you-see-is-what-you-get that nevertheless evokes myriad metaphoric readings. It will probably be the first film on the program, so you might consider putting your coat on a seat and waiting it out in the lobby. Me, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
During the past twenty-odd years, De Landa has published six books of philosophy, including the highly regarded War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991). He currently is a professor of philosophy in the architecture department of the University of Pennsylvania. Like his films, his lecture-performance style is like no other. I await his Saturday presentation with eagerness and trepidation.
Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 106 minutes.
IT’S BEEN AWHILE: Certified Copy marks Iranian legend Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature-length fiction film to receive American distribution since Ten in 2002. Since that time, the director has mostly directed shorts and documentaries, a notable exception being Shirin (2008; not released theatrically in the States), a film that consists entirely of fictional female moviegoers reacting to a fictional medieval romance playing offscreen. Shirin works by way of ironies, containing within its uncompromising, anticommercial form a decidedly commercial piece of entertainment.
Certified Copy is the complete inverse: a superficially commercial vehicle replete with international stars (Juliette Binoche), picturesque European settings (Tuscany), and a story concerning relationships and communication. But the boilerplate trappings boldly pull the rug out from under the movie’s audience. In the first half of the film, Binoche, playing an unnamed antiques dealer, escorts a friend-of-a-friend British writer (William Shimell) through Tuscany after the final stop on his book tour. Shimell has penned a controversial study on the nature of reproduced and forged art, and in the style of My Dinner with Andre (1981), he discusses with the harried and somewhat daft Binoche the complex nature of authenticity, subjectivity, and the difference between juvenile and adult approaches to the world.
In short, we’re led to think we’ve seen this movie before: a middlebrow European import touching tastefully on matters of art and life as the principal characters slowly gravitate toward love. But midway through, something completely unexpected occurs: Binoche and Shimell become different characters in a new story. No major event demarcates this shift. Now they are a long-married couple on the verge of a breakup; as they continue to traverse the pleasant landmarks of an old village, Binoche confronts Shimell about his increasing remoteness while Shimell angrily defends himself.
Kiarostami’s unusual narrative structure could be read any number of ways. Toward the end of the film’s first half, an Italian café owner mistakes Binoche and Shimell for a couple; the details Binoche invents as she plays along are then taken up in the second half. Binoche also alludes to having suffered a mental breakdown in her past, and thus the second half of the film could be a fantasy dreamed up by this slightly disturbed single mother of one. Or the entire thing is a formalist exercise. At one point Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière makes a cameo. Among Carrière’s credits are The Milky Way (1969) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), films that similarly warp traditional form to emphasize the fluidity of identity and the endless possibilities of representation.
Such concerns are announced early in Certified Copy’s cerebral first half, but what makes the film the most successfully bifurcated narrative since David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) (or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady ) is the way it challenges cinematic convention while also harmoniously joining theme and character (are our protagonists just mimicking the relationship narratives they know by rote?), creating surprising correspondences between affect and philosophical musings on artifice and perception. Kiarostami makes good on his gamble by creating unique compositions, playful sight gags, and a resonant sadness out of the interactions of his principal couple, or couple of couples. That their identities remain ambiguous doesn’t mean Kiarostami has divided his attention or spread himself thin—if anything, he has conceived a film with inexhaustible meanings, moods, and ideas, returning to our screens as subtle and mysterious as ever.
Certified Copy opens Friday, March 11, at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center in New York, and at various theaters in Los Angeles.
David Weissman and Bill Weber, We Were Here, 2011, black-and-white and color film, 90 minutes. Production stills.
AT THE TIME of Harvey Milk’s murder in 1978, the virus that would come to be known as HIV was already present in San Francisco, with an estimated 10 percent of the city’s gay population unknowingly infected. By 1981, that number had risen to 50 percent. The 1980s would encapsulate the largest tragedy in the city’s history, but the decade was also—as We Were Here, a new documentary, suggests—a moment of great heroism and feats of compassion for both the living and the dying.
While such a vast topic would seem to necessitate a chaotic cast of thousands, director David Weissman instead focuses on five diverse individuals from the trenches: writer Ed Wolf, who began working as a volunteer in the city’s first AIDS hospital ward and now works in the field of HIV prevention; activist and current director of the GLBT Historical Society, Paul Boneberg; artist Daniel Goldstein, himself HIV positive for more than twenty years; Guy Clark, owner of a Castro flower shop; and nurse Eileen Glutzer, who worked on some of the earliest HIV/AIDS medical studies.
Weissman skillfully employs a talking-head approach, interspersed with filmic and photographic footage from the period, to convey an extremely painful history. We Were Here moves through the earliest days of the “gay cancer” to the formation of political activist groups such as ACT-UP in response to the political establishment’s indifference to the epidemic, and then into the mid-‘90s, when the obituary pages in the Bay Area Reporter finally began to diminish.
Thirty years on, the film reminds us of the cataclysmic demise of an entire generation of artists, cultural figures, activists, and people who perhaps never had the chance to realize their potential. We Were Here leaves us to wonder how different the world might look today if those lost to AIDS were still here to help shape it.
We Were Here runs at the Castro Theater in San Francisco February 25–March 3, 2011. For more details, click here.
Robert Bresson, Diary of a Country Priest, 1951, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 115 minutes.
FOR THOSE who know Robert Bresson only as the director of A Man Escaped (1956), Pickpocket (1959), and later films, the newly subtitled 35-mm print of Diary of a Country Priest (1951) is must viewing. Consistent with Bresson’s tendency to confront a spiritual perspective with an indifferent world, Diary is based on the 1937 novel by Georges Bernanos and is among the few film adaptations of a work of literature to equal its source. Structured in the form of a diary kept by an earnest young priest whose labors to stir the souls of his first parish in a provincial village are met with coldness and hostility, the narrative is both a microcosm of the human condition and a via dolorosa that leads, inevitably, to the protagonist’s death. Bresson does not soften the meanness of Bernanos’s characters or excuse the primal flaws that transcend class. All—farmers as well as local aristocracy, children as well as adults—play out the spectrum of the seven deadly sins. Neither comforting fable nor lofty celebration of pastoral devotion, Diary is the darkest, most psychologically penetrating movie ever made about a priest and his vocation.
One of the few indisputable masterpieces of post–World War II French cinema, the film excels in all the characteristics of the classical tradition that the later Bresson would curtail, if not renounce: memorable performances, dramatic scenes, a powerful musical score, and atmospheric cinematography. On the other hand, the integration of diary entries, their filmic enactments, and the voiceovers of the protagonist is something Bresson would continue to refine to leaner proportions in other films. And, as the tight and elliptical editing that marks his later work confirms, never again would he indulge in extended long takes, deployed with such aplomb in Diary to profoundly emotional effect. No filmmaker I can think of went on to take such pains to dismantle the very grounds of such an achievement in pursuit of a more disciplined, purer form of film art.
The more expansive style of Diary seems tied to Bresson’s discovery of Claude Laydu, a Belgian actor whose prior stage experience was eclipsed by the astonishing impact he made in this, his first film. Laydu’s face, voice, and demeanor radiate an inner conviction and divine possession matched in film history only by Maria Falconetti’s incarnation of Joan in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). So devoted to the project was Laydu that he spent months living among priests to absorb their lifestyle and carried the Bernanos novel around with him at all times. In him, Bresson found not only the embodiment of his saintly, tormented priest but the model of protagonists in his subsequent work: a figure of angelic, impassioned youth tested by but ultimately triumphant over worldly corruption. The significance of this discovery is evidenced by many long-held shots of Laydu’s face, which the slowly approaching camera searches for signs of its divine fire. In other long takes, the respectful distance and patient gaze of the camera imbue the space between the priest and other characters with an intimacy and rapport befitting the former’s ministerial efforts to retrieve souls from loneliness and despair.
A new print of a classic is always welcome, especially when extraordinary care has been taken with English subtitles. Though in every film from A Man Escaped (1956) to L’Argent (1987), Bresson would become more exacting about the relationships between image and word, image and sound, and onscreen and off-screen space, the importance of these hallmarks is already apparent in Diary of a Country Priest. It is a pleasure, therefore, to report that the new print of Diary not only offers clearer translations in many instances but is also sensitive to the placement of subtitles, bringing them into view, for the most part, not a second sooner or later than the French dialogue or voiceover. Instead of struggling with a subtitle while the image or moment that induced it has passed, we grasp both simultaneously. Such care respects, even parallels, Bresson’s attention to formal relationships. Given the density of the verbal text in Diary of a Country Priest, this could not have been easy. Thanks are due, therefore, to translator and subtitler Lenny Borger and to his editors at Rialto Pictures, Bruce Goldstein and Adrienne Halpern.
STORY OF ABSENCE, OR ABSENCE OF STORY? Matt Porterfield’s second feature, Putty Hill, follows the tried-and-true template of a community brought together by a funeral, our surrogate an expat who has returned home. Set in a leafy, desolate-seeming suburb of Baltimore—a city defined in the last decade, fictionally, by The Wire—the film ports the discursive wait-and-see global-festival cinema indebted to Pedro Costa to an American working-class milieu. With the exception of singer Sky Ferreira (who, as the deceased’s cousin Jenny, belts out a song at the moving karaoke wake), the cast of young survivors consists of nonprofessionals who range from affectless to startlingly present.
The film is attuned to the reflection and exhausted solitude often occasioned by the death of someone near, and it feels less like a collection of scenes than a series of living portraits (group and otherwise) in which we observe dialogue occur: two skate heads walking into deep background, girls cracking wise on a forest wander. Not to mention the loud/soft drama of Jenny’s blow-up at her tattoo artist deadbeat dad. That logy mood, abetted by tight sound design, is intensified by many characters being in or fresh out of adolescence. Porterfield regularly sharpens focus on individual characters, asking questions from offscreen (as a nebulous interrogator). These candid moments, though the technique might sound affected on paper, bring out the characters’ self-possession, a weight of presence also conferred by strains of cello.
What the director has described as “an interest in the world first and storytelling second” can also feel hands-off and flat. The movie, which premiered in slightly different form at last year’s Berlinale, arrives theatrically with perhaps insurmountable praise: “It looks with as much perception and sympathy as it is possible for a film to look,” writes one critic, whereas another advocate calls Jeremy Saulnier’s cinematography as “essential” as Coutard’s for Godard (which, depending what you mean by “essential,” overlooks any of several similar slow-cinema gazes lensed globally in the past decade). There are also the bugaboos of “respect” for characters and the moniker of “regional cinema,” both problematic terms used by the filmmaker himself and echoed by critics. In any case, the critical enthusiasm comes as an ironic counterpoint to the objects of the praise, who at times so poignantly, like many of us in grief (or, as one character expresses, in its apparent absence), know not what to think.
Putty Hill opens Friday, February 18 at Cinema Village in New York before touring nationally. For more details, click here.
A TERRIFIC MOMENT occurs halfway through Norman Mailer’s nonfiction novel The Armies of the Night (1968) when, writing in the third person, Mailer interrupts an account of his participation in the 1967 march on the Pentagon to introduce an important bit of information: All along, including during his subsequent arrest, he was being followed by a camera crew. At the head of that crew was Dick Fontaine—a ubiquitous figure in the 1960s—whose resulting Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? (1968) possesses a journalistic immediacy and experimental drive manifest throughout the bulk of the director’s pioneering documentary work.
Fontaine pushed to the fore of Britain’s post-Grierson documentary scene through Granada TV’s World in Action, an investigative news program for which he wrote and directed controversial episodes on Tory politician Alec Douglas-Home (1963) and the Gulf of Tonkin incident (1964). While working in television Fontaine became increasingly concerned with the effects of media, and he sought new forms to explore the intersections of art and his own profession. “Temporary Person Passing Through” (1965), the debut episode of the BBC series One Pair of Eyes, examines the paradoxes of post-colonial India via the self-reflexive impressions of journalist James Cameron; “Heroes” (1967), for ABC’s unconventional New Tempo series, sends up the celebrity industry with a collage of publicity-age image-gods and image worshippers; “Who Is Sonny Rollins?” (1968), also for New Tempo, creates a moving profile of the jazz legend, then on spiritual break from the pressures of fame and practicing solos on the Williamsburg Bridge.
In Will the Real Norman Mailer . . . Fontaine becomes a satellite to the fragmented personality of the writer who is here no longer simply a man of letters but a veritable media figure, expending his energy on antiwar theater, contentious television appearances, and his own gonzo improvised filmmaking ventures. (Norman Mailer Vs. Fun City, USA  later documents the author’s run for mayor of New York City.) In Mailer, the director found a subject through whom politics, art, and media all strangely and powerfully converged. And as part of the collectivist production company Tattooist International, Fontaine captured his own creative and personal contradictions in kaleidoscopic cine-memoir Double Pisces, Scorpio Rising (1970).
But his greatest passion has been African-American culture, as documented in Beat This! A Hip Hop History (1983), the graffiti defense Bombin’ (1988), and I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1980), a James Baldwin–led odyssey through the torn and struggling cities that gave birth to the civil rights movement. Whether charting the sympathetic contact between South Bronx spray-paint stars and marginalized Thatcher-era British youth or listening to the unfinished dreams of the men and women who marched with Martin Luther King Jr., Fontaine’s real subject seems to be the founding principle of the documentary genre: communication.