John Hillcoat, The Road, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 119 minutes. Production still.
THE PERFORMANCES MATCH THE LANDSCAPE: devastated and raw, deliberately unrefined. In The Road, we walk alongside an exhausted father and son as they traverse a gray, vaguely familiar hellscape. The father is prone to emotional outbursts, the young boy is still struggling to comprehend his own emotional capacity; yet together, in the shadows of a world where gangs seek victims who can serve as both prison labor and food, these two final members of a devastated family struggle to maintain a semblance of normalcy. When they come across a full can of Coca-Cola, the father (a scruffy Viggo Mortensen) gives it to the boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who self-consciously sips as Dad scans his face. It’s a forced family-album moment—poignant in its artificiality.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel, honored by two incongruous authorities—the Pulitzer Prizes and Oprah Winfrey—is notable for its bleak minimalism. McCarthy asks us to follow the travails of two characters through a hopeless, despairing marathon. Locating the fortitude to brave this nothingness is the point of the story, as a parent tries to shield his offspring from the harsh realities of a nuclear winter, protecting him at night, nursing him through illness, assuring the young one that better times are on the horizon—at “the coast.”
Director John Hillcoat (The Proposition ) has molded a vision that is every bit as bleak and bare as the book’s. Hillcoat resists the quickened dialogic and emotional pace of other Hollywood films and thus remains faithful to McCarthy’s quiet terrors and futile hope. Mortensen and McPhee walk and walk, rummaging for food when they’re not skirting violent gangs. The camera hovers close, and we come to see in their eyes, faces, and bodies what McCarthy was able to describe in his precise prose: an epic vision of parenting, a story that reveals the human need to nurture and protect loved ones. Mortensen carries the emotional load, as an everyman who connects with primal instincts when a stranger threatens to kill his son. McPhee, as the boy, creates a convincing, terrified tween, with a performance so raw and jagged that it might initially read as simply unprofessional; but here his unsteadiness is not a flaw but an attribute. These are two humans out of their element, two actors dwarfed by their surroundings (Chris Kennedy’s production design evinces a compelling no-man’s-land), and this is a family struggling to hold on to something real even after its reality has been obliterated.
The Road opens November 25.
RIVERS HAVE no poetic power anymore, German filmmaker Hans-Jürgen Syberberg tells us in David Barison and Daniel Ross’s 2004 documentary The Ister (now available on DVD). They have lost their mythic resonance and become part of the “machine” of “daily life.” These days, Syberberg asserts, nobody would create a major work of art about a river, the way Richard Wagner or Friedrich Hölderlin did. Syberberg’s musings appear at the very conclusion of Barison and Ross’s three-hour philosophical voyage. The film traces the Danube’s full course, from the Black Sea all the way to its source in southern Germany. Part rhapsodic journey replete with moments of great beauty, part tedious educational program rife with digressions on politics and history, it is not the great work of art that would prove Syberberg wrong. But it is certainly an original undertaking: a cinematic collage that turns on Hölderlin’s epic “river hymn,” The Ister (from “Istros,” the ancient Greek term for the Danube), and, more pointedly, on Martin Heidegger’s famous reading of it.
In Heideggerian thought, great poetry does not merely locate or interpret truth—it produces truth, bringing new verities into the world. “A properly unique beginning thus lies in whatever is said poetically,” said Heidegger in a series of lectures on Hölderlin delivered at Freiburg University in 1942. For Heidegger, the beginning that Hölderlin’s poetry points toward is also an end—the end of Western “metaphysics” and its progressive forgetfulness of Being, initiated by Plato and reaching its completion in technological modernity. What Hölderlin offers, then, is a glimpse of a world at once ancient and yet to come, in which Being as an unmediated process of “presencing” may yet be attained. This is a world far from the Freiburg of 1942, or so it would seem to us—but perhaps not to Heidegger, who joined the National Socialist party in 1933 (and became rector of the university the same year).
In addition to Syberberg, three leading French philosophers—Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Bernard Stiegler, all of whom have studied Heidegger’s philosophy and confronted his politics—help Barison and Ross navigate their serpentine geographical and conceptual course. Excerpts from interviews with these four men are interspersed with shots of riverscapes—some sublime and bucolic, some postindustrial and polluted—and points of interest along the route: residents of Vokovar, Croatia, marching in remembrance of the Serb’s 1991 attack on their city; May Day celebrations in Hungary; Walhalla, King Ludwig I’s monument to Germanic greatness; the empty, debris-strewn lecture hall at Freiburg. Intertitles proffer quotes from Heidegger and Hölderlin and short histories of the various locales.
Stiegler, Nancy, and Lacoue-Labarthe discourse on matters political, metaphysical, mythological, poetic, technological, and ecological, intermittently returning to Heidegger and the intractable fact of his Nazi affiliation. In one sequence in the Mauthausen concentration camp near Linz, Lacoue-Labarthe quotes the most scandalous of Heidegger’s postwar remarks: “Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs.”
“I don’t want to stupidly accuse Heidegger of having been a Nazi,” Lacoue-Labarthe says, as if that would be too vulgar—an odd statement, since Heidegger was a Nazi. We know that for a fact, though we have yet to answer the great question: How could such a major philosophical mind be attracted to this kind of nationalist ideology? The film does not purport to solve the conundrum, but it does raise the interesting hypothesis that Heidegger’s delusions had to do with an understanding of the German nation and its language that was, in fact, metaphysical. Heideggerian thinking has its own geography, as does the poetic universe of Hölderlin, and these territories overlap: As Lacoue-Labarthe points out, the history of the West for both of them was primarily a Greek-German affair. In such an imaginary universe, a river springing up in the Black Forest is not just a waterway but a mysterious metaphysical power: “What that one does, that river / No one knows.”
Perhaps this accounts for the fact that it is not until we reach the Black Forest—real Heidegger country—and Syberberg appears, dressed in white like a latter-day Kurtz, that things get truly exciting. The creator of the magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) dilates on the “new Germany,” which he calls a “weak and friendly” place. Something has been lost, he suggests: The glory of Germany, the most spiritual of nations, is gone; gone is Hölderlin, gone is Heidegger. If you live in this weak, friendly nation, as I do, you’re especially susceptible to artists like Syberberg—artists who open the door to a world we thought no longer existed, a world of myths and heroic poetry. Syberberg’s art has always tapped into these archaic energies, although on the surface it critiques the irrationalism such energies produce when unleashed. His dangerously attractive soliloquy seems a necessary finale, reminding us that The Ister’s true subject is not the physical river but the metaphysical geography that has been evoked by poets and thinkers to devastating and barbaric effect. Although Syberberg is fully aware of this, he can’t help playing with fire. He is a mild and sophisticated man, someone I would love to get to know. Behind him, the forest whispers: “The horror, the horror.”
This article originally ran in the Summer 2005 issue of Artforum. The Ister is now available on DVD from Icarus Films. For more details, click here.
Lee Yoon-ki, My Dear Enemy, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes.
SOUTH KOREAN DIRECTOR Hong Sang-soo’s films haven’t yet attained steady American distribution, but they have had an impact on younger Korean filmmakers. Lee Yoon-ki’s My Dear Enemy (2008) is perhaps the first prominent Hong-influenced film to reach stateside screens, and it actually shows more of a flair for light comedy than Hong himself achieved in his latest film, Like You Know It All (2009).
Lee has a gift for visual style, but he wears this virtuosity casually. The Steadicam Cinemascope shots that kick off My Dear Enemy make clear that the film will be something beyond the humdrum or prosaic. By contrast, the narrative is more sedate than Lee’s direction—in fact, it sometimes suggests a sitcom pilot. After being met at the racetrack by his ex-girlfriend Hee-su (Jeon De-yeon), Byeong-woon (Ha Jung-woo) looks up other former lovers for loans to pay back a twenty-six-hundred-dollar debt to her. The entire film takes place over the course of a day.
My Dear Enemy often threatens to turn into a conventional romantic comedy, but it ends up flirting with such bromides rather than indulging them. The jazzy score suggests Woody Allen, but the pissy tone brings to mind Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance (1981) and Lost in America (1985)—as well as Larry David’s television series Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000–). The characters aren’t particularly sympathetic: Byeong-woon is an overgrown adolescent who hatches big plans that will never come to pass, while Hee-su sublimates her feelings beneath an icy facade. The two lead actors generate something akin to antichemistry. If there ever existed sexual desire (or even tension) between the two, that day has long passed. While Lee borrows from Hong and other Asian filmmakers (particularly Hou Hsiao-hsien), his sensibility also stems from an openness to more mainstream inspirations. My Dear Enemy successfully dodges the tropes of much “festival cinema,” which now threaten to become clichés.
My Dear Enemy plays at the Museum of Modern Art in New York November 20–27. For more details, click here.
WHILE MOST FESTIVALS rush to trumpet the abundance of premieres in their lineups, the Viennale, a two-week cinephile’s delight that concluded last Wednesday, prides itself on a discerning mix of old and new. In fact, the sheer range of its retrospective programming tells you all you need to know about this ambitious, eclectic festival. This year’s edition featured a ten-film retro of the late Filipino director Lino Brocka, handpicked by his younger compatriots, including Khavn de la Cruz and Raya Martin. A parallel retrospective at the Austrian Filmmuseum, titled “The Unquiet American” and curated by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, found examples of the boisterous American character in a broad sample of “transgressive” comedies, from the freewheeling Victor Fleming–Douglas Fairbanks adventure When the Clouds Roll By (1919) to Mike Judge’s dystopian satire of butt-headedness, Idiocracy (2006).
Even the actor tributes have a whiff of the unexpected. This year’s spotlights fell on Timothy Carey, late character-mugger extraordinaire (Paths of Glory ) and director of the underground classic The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), and Tilda Swinton, represented by her Hollywood present (Michael Clayton ), her British past (various Jarmans, of course, but also rarities like Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death  and John Maybury’s Man to Man ), and her idea of a great performance: the title role in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). (“You can project yourself onto that donkey,” she explained in the program note.)
In keeping with the rich local avant-garde tradition, the Viennale has long been a prominent showcase for experimental cinema. This year’s slate featured new work by festival regular Jean-Marie Straub (Corneille-Brecht, a world premiere, directed with Cornelia Geiser), Ben Russell’s psychedelic “Trypps” series, and a program of old and new shorts by bargain-basement innovators George and Mike Kuchar (as well as a new documentary about the brothers, Jennifer Kroot’s It Came from Kuchar). The festival trailer itself is a stand-alone experimental short and a big-name commission to boot (past contributors: Stan Brakhage, Agnès Varda, and, last year, Jean-Luc Godard). This year’s, a remarkable miniature from James Benning called Fire & Rain (after James Taylor), reduces an industrial steel-rolling process to a kind of elemental equation: a stream of molten steel, a spray of water, a cloud of steam. (It’s an outtake from Benning’s latest—and first digital—work, Ruhr, which just premiered at the Duisburg Film Week.)
James Benning, Fire & Rain, 2009. Trailer for the 2009 Viennale.
An event as convivial and well attended as the Viennale gives the lie to the pseudo-populist contention that a rigorous festival is necessarily audience-unfriendly—ticket sales were up this year, and many screenings were sold out or close to capacity. The main slate sweeps up many of the year’s best movies, never mind that they had premiered in Cannes (João Pedro Rodrigues’s To Die Like a Man) or Berlin (Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax). With curatorial taste much more a factor than competitions and red-carpet bait, it’s the kind of festival that offers a clear perspective on the most significant movements in contemporary world cinema. For one thing, Chinese independent film—and especially Chinese independent documentary—retains its capacity to surprise. Yu Guangyi’s video doc Survival Song (2008), which won a prize from the critics’ jury (on which I served), tells the story of a new-China casualty: a forest ranger, displaced by the construction of a new reservoir, turns to the hard work of hunting and herding.
The changing nature of work and a vanishing way of life are also the themes of Agrarian Utopia (2009), by the Thai filmmaker Uruphong Raksasad. The son of farmers, Uruphong left the Bangkok film industry and returned to his childhood village to make his serenely mournful first film, Stories from the North (2006). Agrarian Utopia, about two rural families working the same rice paddy, is even lovelier, with its golden fields and time-lapse skies, but also more tough-minded in its assessment of the economic and political realities that make its title deeply ironic.
Utopia looks like a documentary but is in fact scripted, shot on a rented plot, and cast with nonprofessionals (playing roles not too different from their real lives). This blurring of narrative and documentary has become an increasingly common—and productive—mode, evident in the films of Lisandro Alonso, Pedro Costa, and others. Another case in point: The Anchorage (2009), the first feature by C. W. Winter and Anders Edström (and a prizewinner at the Locarno International Film Festival this year). A meditative, enigmatic portrait of a middle-aged woman who lives alone on a remote Baltic island, it sometimes brings to mind Jeanne Dielman—we are, after all, observing a woman’s everyday life, acutely aware of her environment, the passage of time, and the smallest variations in her routine. (She’s played by Ulla Edström, the codirector’s mother, who lives part of the year on the island.) But The Anchorage is more insistent in its minimalism than Akerman (or Ozu, whose pillow shots are another reference point). There’s no plot to speak of, save for the eerie occasional appearance of a passing hunter. A film that forces and rewards close attention (which means not just watching but also, given the intricate sound recording and design, listening), it’s proof that you can make something, if not from nothing, then certainly from the in-between.
BRIAN JONES PRESENTS THE PIPES OF PAN AT JOUJOUKA arrived in New York record stores in 1971. The name of the remote Moroccan village where Jones recorded the “Master Musicians”—as they are called on other recordings—is, in fact, Jajouka (the error was corrected when the recording was reissued in 1995), but everything else about this magic LP was perfect. I played it every day for weeks and have it still.
Jones was introduced to Jajouka and its glorious kef-smoking, Sufi-related reed and percussion ensemble by Brion Gysin, who was a frequent visitor, along with his Tangiers literary pals William Burroughs and Paul Bowles. Burroughs dubbed the Jajouka musicians “the world’s only four-thousand-year-old rock band.” Jones’s excellent field recordings were issued after his death under the Rolling Stones label, and later the Stones used the Jajouka players on Steel Wheels (1989). But it was a long essay by rock critic Robert Palmer in Rolling Stone that brought the music of Jajouka to the attention of Western “new music” audiences.
The wildest music writer to hold a berth at the New York Times, Palmer was a frequent visitor to Jajouka from the early ’70s almost until his death in 1997 at age fifty-two. He was not just an inspired and learned critic (see his book Deep Blues, published in 1981), he also played clarinet and saxophone with the same intensity as he wrote. In Augusta Palmer’s documentary about her father, The Hand of Fatima (2009), Ornette Coleman, in a much too brief vignette, recalls being at Jajouka when Palmer blew one of the most amazing sustained notes he’d ever heard. The Hand of Fatima is full of terrific clips (archival and recorded directly by the filmmaker), not to mention some tantalizing footage of Jajouka and its musicians, now led by Bachir Attar. The form of the film—a daughter’s search for the father she barely knew—is, however, not particularly illuminating except perhaps to the parties involved. Palmer was hell on women—he left his first wife soon after his daughter’s birth and subsequently had three other marriages. It’s a tribute to the transcendent force of Jajouka’s “Pipes of Pan” that the filmmaker found in their sound a way of reconciling with her errant dad, but I would have preferred to witness less of the personal drama and more of the music.
The Hand of Fatima plays at Anthology Film Archives in New York November 13–19 at 7:30 PM and 9:15 PM. In person at the early show on November 13: Bachir Attar, Anthony DeCurtis (editor of Blues and Chaos: The Music Writing of Robert Palmer), and Augusta Palmer. On November 16 at Le Poisson Rouge: a tribute to Robert Palmer to benefit Jajouka, hosted by the same trio and with musicians Ned Sublette, Lenny Kaye, and Gary Lucas.
DISTINCTLY TWENTY-FIRST-CENTURY HEROINES, the protagonists in the Los Angeles–set videos of Harry Dodge and Stanya Kahn exert tremendous willfulness and conviction, whether confronting social isolation or the apocalypse. The duo’s rough-hewn, largely improvised work showcases the singular, motormouthed talents of Kahn, whose bizarre, hilariously detail-rich monologues are boastful claims and pleas for connection. In their first work, Winner, 2002, Kahn plays Lois, a woman who has won a cruise on a radio call-in show; she’s filmed by Dodge, in the role of a never-seen camera operator named Peter who simply needs an upbeat sound bite about her good fortune. Lois, however, only wants to show off her pathetic sculptures, neatly assembled in the trunk of her car: “This one is Sad Nugget,” she says proudly while holding a lumpy seat cushion with a brown wooden egg on top of it. Lois reappears in Let the Good Times Roll, 2004, trying to find a shuttle bus in the desert that will ferry her to a rock concert. (“I can’t wait to see Blizzard of Friends and White Chaps.”) Dodge is behind the camera again, this time as “Dave,” who films Lois’s reflections on the tenth anniversary of “young Cobain’s” suicide and her memories of an orgiastic night of fisting and “Ecstasy enemas.” This unbearably lonely figure needs to constantly remind herself (and anyone else who will listen) of her capacity for belonging to—and being appreciated by—forces outside herself.
Kahn remains a fascinating presence even in the works in which she utters not a word. In Whacker, 2005, Kahn, in a dress, heels, and sunglasses, defiantly takes on the chore of ridding a brown, cruddy hill of weeds. As cars pass by on the highway below and Elvis’s “In the Ghetto” fades in and out, Kahn seems hell-bent on completing and repeating this Sisyphean task for her very survival. Matters of life and death are presented more grimly in All Together Now, 2008, set in a postapocalyptic LA of dead kittens, water shortages, and white- and blue-hooded beings who toil away in some kind of infernal sleeper cell. We first see Kahn bludgeoning something off-screen; her skin a sickly brown from toxins or too much sun, the Hoods monitor her as she siphons water from a stream. But even in this nightmare vision—as in Lois’s pixelated reminiscences—there’s a hint of hope, of the potential for some kind of connection, no matter how tenuous and fleeting.