“I split his skull completely, as if I’d been a specialist, doing it all my life.”
– Yehuda Lerner in Claude Lanzmann’s Sobibor October 14, 1943, 4 P.M., describing how he killed a Nazi death camp guard.
“Resistance, what is resistance? It is material.”
– Novelist Thomas Bernhard in Ferry Radax’s Three Days.
“When you get to my age, there are memories everywhere around the corner. Good ones, bad ones, they’re all the same to me.”
“You’ll cut all this out anyway, won’t you?”
THESE QUOTES suggest something of the range of “Talking Head,” the rich, diverse, altogether amazing series of films that focus on the speech and actions of a single individual, programmed by Jed Rapfogel at Anthology Film Archives. I’ve viewed almost all sixteen programs and there isn’t a dull one in the bunch. If I had to pick just three, they would be Lanzmann’s Sobibor (2001); the Warhol double-screen Edie Sedgwick vehicle Outer and Inner Space (1965) paired with Paul Swan (1965); and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967).
Sobibor, Lanzmann’s stripped-down, journalistically-acute 1979 interview with Holocaust survivor Yehuda Lerner, was originally intended as part of the documentarian’s monumental Shoah (1985). But because Lerner’s story countered the prevailing belief that Jews went to the gas chambers without resistance, Lanzmann decided it deserved a film of its own. That is not to say that Sobibor has anything in common with the recent genre of Holocaust uplift movies. To ensure that we understand that Lerner’s experience was nearly anomalous, the film concludes with a listing of the trainloads of Jews who arrived at Sobibor during its eighteen months of operation. (Some 250,000 were murdered there.) The first half of Sobibor combines Lerner’s voiceover with contemporary footage of bustling cities and bucolic landscapes where the horrors of the past are all but obliterated. But if the sites of various camps and ghettos have been prettified with parks and monuments, trains still rumble along the same tracks that routed Jews to their deaths. The most chilling meeting of past and present involves the screeching of gaggles of geese that live in the ruins of the death camp. The Nazis employed just such geese to cover the screams of the dying in the gas chambers. In the second half of film, Lanzmann fixes his camera solely on Lerner, as he tells the story of how he and about twenty others, most of them Russian-Jewish army officer POWs armed with axes and knifes, carried out an insurrection that gave the population of the camp a chance to escape en masse. Although only about six hundred made it into the surrounding forest, and the vast majority of those subsequently died at the hands of the Nazis or their Polish sympathizers, the uprising forced the closing of the camp. Lerner, a stocky middle-aged man (he was sixteen when he escaped from Sobibor) with a twitch at the corner of his lips (the only visible “scar” left by his traumatic past), tells his story straightforwardly but with a certain amazement at his own luck and courage. Relishing the irony, he explains that the revolt went like clockwork and succeeded, in part, thanks to the Germans’ obsession with punctuality. Lanzmann asks his questions in French and Lerner responds in Hebrew. The complications of translation from Hebrew to French (subtitled in English) causes a delay between Lerner’s words and the viewer’s comprehension, thus making palpable the distance between his experience and our own and giving us time to imagine the unspeakable.
The movies that comprise “Talking Head” fall into two groupings. The foreign language films—from Germany, Austria, France, and China—are narratives of lives shaped by war, fascism, and other forms of state oppression and terror. Among them is Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s The Confessions of Winifred Wagner (1975), which screens in both its 104-minute and 302-minute versions. The antithesis of Sobibor, its titular subject was the widow of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried and the organizer of the Bayreuth Festival. An example of denial to the point of madness, she rhapsodizes on Hitler as a patron of the arts. Syberberg’s ambivalent relationship to German romanticism is better played out in his Parsifal (1983), but Wagner herself is a monster not to be missed. More accurate and painful accounts of lives under the Nazi regimes are found in Christoph Hübner’s Thomas Harlan–Moving Shrapnel/Wandersplitter (2006) and André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002). And in Ferry Radax’s Thomas Bernhard–Three Days (1970), we hear from the bleakest of contemporary writers how his earliest memories of abandonment and illness take place within the landscape of the rise of fascism. Admirably minimalist in form, Radax’s film allows us to hear Bernhard’s actual voice. The weight of its depression and barely contained fury is no different in life than it is on the page.
The American movies in “Talking Head” are notable for their lack of overt political dimensions. The exception—it is in that sense the swing movie in the series—is James Nares’s No Japs at My Funeral (1980) which juxtaposes British television’s outrageously biased coverage of the “Irish Troubles” with the first-person account of an IRA member gone underground. Nares who moved from London to New York in the early 1970s was at the time, unlike the American-born filmmakers in the series, an outsider by birth as well as by choice, the choice being to make movies of no commercial value. Indeed the American movies selected are all films about outsiders made by outsiders. Thus two of the young Martin Scorsese’s early documentaries, ItalianAmerican (1974) and American Boy (1978), are respectively a portrait of his first-generation immigrant parents and a monomaniacal rant by Steven Prince, better known for his performance as the gun salesman in Taxi Driver (1976). Prince is a riveting performer but no more so than the deadpan Joe Gibbons, whose investigations of his own addictions, obsessions, and general lapsed-catholic-with-a-vengeance amorality confound documentary and fiction, true confession and wild fantasy. Gibbons’s magnum opus is Confessions of a Sociopath (2002). It’s programmed with earlier, slighter works including the hilarious Barbie’s Audition (1995). Gibbons is also the subject of Saul Levine’s Driven (2003), which is notable for its depiction of an extended adolescence suddenly overcome by middle age.
Portrait of Jason (1967) is culled from twelve hours of film Shirley Clarke shot of Jason Holliday, her gay African-American household assistant, over the course of a single drunken night. Holliday aspired to be a cabaret performer and the camera gives him the license to let it all hang out. In its sadomasochistic coupling of the voyeuristic filmmaker with the exhibitionist performer, and in its use of a third party (Holliday’s glamorous cousin and Clarke’s lover, the actor Carl Lee) to needle Jason from off screen, the film resembles many of Warhol’s talking portraits. But because racial difference comes into play here, the power relationship is more complicated and disturbing.
Warhol’s Outer and Inner Space (1965) is the first American video-art work. Using a prototype home video rig lent to him by Norelco, Warhol recorded his superstar Edie Sedgwick, framing her in a TV screen–filling close-up as she talks to someone outside the frame. He then shot two sequential thirty-three-minute films of Sedgwick placed in front of the TV screen on which her own video portrait is playing as again she chatters to an unseen person and tries to ignore the presence of her own recorded recent past tantalizingly near but out of sight (unless she turns her back to the camera). The two sequential films (the final form of this mixed-media work is 16-mm film) are projected side by side so that there are four Edies on the screen. The title suggests enough meanings—concrete and metaphoric—to make your head spin throughout the film even if you barely pick up a word, good sound being a nicety that Warhol cared little about. The sound is surprisingly sharp, though, in Paul Swan (1965). Warhol filmed the former Isadora Duncan dancer who continued to perform the “aesthetic” dances he choreographed at the turn of the century for invited audiences in his Chelsea studio. As he plods through his atrophied routines, one imagines Warhol peering through the lens and seeing his possible future, especially when Swan reveals a shoe fetish that “Drella” (Warhol’s factory nickname, a combination of Dracula and Cinderella) could certainly relate to. There are few works of art that marry form and content to reveal the fissures of narcissism and the fear of death that seeps through them as powerfully as these Warhol talking heads.
“Talking Head” runs August 4–17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
CALL IT MY NIGHTS AT MORIN’S: An attractive widow (Emmanuelle Riva) in a rural village visits a priest’s bare walk-up to mess with him and gets drawn into religious and philosophical debates shadowed by desire. Jean-Pierre Melville helped inspire the La Nouvelle Vague with Bob le Flambeur (1956), and in Léon Morin, Priest (1961)—the filmmaker’s return after the flop of Two Men in Manhattan (1959)—he directs Riva (Elle in Hiroshima Mon Amour ) as the bored Barny opposite Jean-Paul Belmondo. Ten years after Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, the Breathless icon plays the improbable militant curate Léon Morin: young, sly, questioning, and boxer’s-mug handsome.
Instead of finding dogmatic certainty she can rattle, Barny encounters Morin’s jujitsu-like engagement with her doubts and criticism. Framing and reframing his two stars during their dialogues, Melville and DP Henri Decaë keep the audience on its toes; one scene in a confessional is shot in profile, the intimacy of the space recast as a disarming directness. Set during the wartime occupation—when the Army of Shadows director served in the Resistance—the film is filtered through Barny’s perspective on her changing surroundings, though these occupy only part of her charged internal monologue. Rolling tanks are heard through her shutters, not seen, and the war-related events that most hit home involve her precocious daughter, whom she secrets away with spinsters because of the girl’s Jewish father.
Morin’s ascetic rooms are a refuge from boredom and from the noise of the office where she works, but her visits with the priest are a battleground of a different sort. For Melville, ever alert to the treachery in the lived experience of absolutes, the spiritual and bodily temptation that Morin poses demands a torturous faith, but it is one, with cruel irony, that Barny cannot ultimately find satisfying.
Léon Morin, Priest is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection.
She was hundreds of years old, the oldest star ever, if you count emotional years, the toll they take, dramas galore for a dozen lifetimes. She was ‘She,’ who had stepped into the Flame once too often. – Kenneth Anger on Judy Garland, Hollywood Babylon (1975)
TINY JUDY GARLAND (she stood four feet eleven inches) was a performer of colossal talent, though her gifts were frequently overshadowed by just as enormous tendencies toward self-sabotage. Pills, illnesses (real and psychosomatic), chronic lateness to or absences on the set, suicide attempts: All contribute to the legend of “She,” still remembered, forty-two years after her death at age forty-seven from an overdose of Seconal, as the greatest casualty of Hollywood, of nonstop performing that began when she was just two and a half years old.
Viewing any Garland movie, thirty-one of which (nearly her entire filmography) will screen at the Walter Reade Theater, is undoubtedly affected by knowledge of her offscreen tribulations. And no Garland vehicle invites a biographical reading more than George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), which boasts one of Garland’s most titanic performances.
A CinemaScope musical about Hollywood dreams and nightmares (and an adaptation of William Wellman’s 1937 movie of the same name), A Star Is Born was Garland’s comeback role after MGM, her employer since 1935, suspended her contract in 1950, a result of her inability to complete several films. (In between her MGM dismissal and work on A Star Is Born, Garland performed in an acclaimed vaudeville-style show at the Palace Theatre on Broadway; she would return to the venue several more times during her life, and daughter Liza Minnelli would mount a comeback of sorts there in 2008.) Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a singing and dancing hopeful promoted by the constantly pickled Norman Maine (James Mason), an A-list actor whom she saves from public embarrassment at a benefit concert at the Shrine Auditorium. They fall in love and marry, though their bonds are strained more than once as her career ascends and his flames out.
Esther, renamed Vicki Lester when she becomes a contract player—just as Frances Gumm would later be rechristened Judy Garland—represents an idealized version of the actress who plays her: always on time to the set, devoid of neuroses and self-destructive urges, steadfast in her care of an unwell spouse. In Norman, we’re painfully reminded of Garland’s own ignominious episodes, particularly when his studio drops him after twenty years of service, and during a stint in a sanatorium to dry out. (Following a nervous collapse during the filming of 1948’s The Pirate, Garland would convalesce in a private institution, one of her many hospitalizations.)
“What is it that makes him want to destroy himself?” Esther sobs to kindly, paternal studio head Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford), losing hope that Norman will ever get better. Garland fans, then and now, have wondered the same; her mistreatment and exploitation by MGM, especially during her adolescence, may provide one explanation. But to dwell too long on the etiology of the actress’s personal misery and dysfunction—though Garland’s torments certainly inform the vulnerability so often associated with her persona—risks not fully appreciating the staggering power of her genius in A Star Is Born (and at least a half dozen other titles). “There are certain pleasures you get—little jabs of pleasure,” Norman tells Esther, describing his experience watching her sing “The Man That Got Away” at an empty after-hours club. Those jabs become tremors as we watch Garland, now as flawless headliner Vicki Lester, exult during the ecstatic musical number “Lose That Long Face.”
A Star Is Born screens July 31, August 5, and August 9 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of the series “Judy Garland: All Singin’, All Dancin’, All Judy,” running July 26–August 9. A complementary program, “Judy Garland: The Television Years,” plays at the Paley Center for Media in New York July 20–August 18.
Peter Bo Rappmund, Psychohydrography, 2010, stills from a color video, 63 minutes.
PETER BO RAPPMUND’S PSYCHOHYDROGRAPHY is exactly what its title portends: a psychological portrait of water. Following the Los Angeles Aqueduct from its source in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains to the city (more than two hundred miles), and then from the Los Angeles River to its endpoint at the Pacific Ocean, the hour-long HDR digital video recombines visual and aural elements—both natural and industrial—to graph the massive technological harnessing of water, turning it into a pulsing, strobing kaleidoscope of the mind’s eye.
Rappmund’s main tool is time-lapse photography, usually the hallmark of glorified DP reels such as the Discovery Channel–esque Baraka (1992). Such supercompression of time provides a sense of temporal enormity, a bit of an obvious effect. But Rappmund—working with a camera that can process a single image with different timescales—emphasizes to a far greater degree time-lapse’s visual possibilities, using it to distort the texture, shape, and reflective properties of tranquil and flowing water to achieve an otherworldly aesthetic. Waterfalls and streams become surreal, glassy apparitions amid vast deserts; mirroring pools of streetlights and stars take on the appearance of frenzied wavelengths in urban canals. Psychohydrography makes us marvel not at the quantity of its subject but at how resplendent and constantly in flux it is.
The hulking, slowly crumbling technological apparatuses that reshape nature define the topography of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas. Psychohydrography features the drills and pipelines of the Aqueduct as well as the frescoed and graffitied concrete channel guiding the river (the latter memorably spectacularized in Repo Man  and Terminator 2: Judgment Day ); both are equally important characters in the drama of environmental engineering. Rappmund relies on an aural tapestry as much as an imagistic one, creating a nocturnal symphony of clangs, hisses, whooshes, and hums that accompanies shots of the channel’s neighboring power lines and train yards, increasingly overwhelming the sounds of frogs, birds, and humans. (It comes as no surprise that Rappmund studied with both James Benning and Thom Andersen at CalArts.) When Psychohydrography ends—with a glorious ten-minute, reverse-motion shot of the Pacific darkening against a psychedelic horizon of red and orange (evidently the result of the 2009 Station wildfire)—we realize we’ve experienced the journey of an artist who wishes to show the inherent conflicts of our man-made universe while remaking it himself.
Psychohydrography plays Friday, July 22–Sunday, July 24 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Otto Preminger, Skidoo, 1968, color film in 35 mm, 98 minutes.
THE SQUAREST HEAD MOVIE EVER MADE, Otto Preminger’s Skidoo (1968) is a lunatic combination of gray hairs and longhairs—an unhinged misfire about youth culture starring actors who were teenagers during the FDR administration. Its hippest cast member is unquestionably Carol Channing, then forty-seven, who wildly frugs, sports oddly structured geometric clothes in brash primary colors, and sings the title song wearing an outfit best described as Revolutionary War chorine and a wig that presages the hairdo of The Muppet Show’s Janice.
Preminger, the director of classics such as Laura (1944), Carmen Jones (1954), Anatomy of a Murder (1959), and Exodus (1960), approached the film, the biggest flop of his nearly fifty-year career, with absolute sincerity. The director admired the script by Doran William Cannon, essentially a depiction of the clash between the Man—here represented by the Mafia—and hippies. The screenwriter, according to the Turner Classic Movies website, thought the film “delivered an important message of peace and love at a time when America was engaged in the war with Vietnam.”
In his early sixties, when Skidoo began production, Preminger had recently experimented with LSD and was eager to let the kids know that he dug their psychedelics. Turning on, tuning in, and dropping out is Jackie Gleason, starring as a retired mobster named Tough Tony, who’s summoned by God to carry out one last hit, a germophobic syndicate boss played by Groucho Marx. (The comedian also reportedly tried acid to prepare for Skidoo, which would be his last film.) Tony must pose as a prisoner at Alcatraz, where his target, “Blue Chips” Packard (Mickey Rooney), sits in luxe solitary confinement. But before the kill, Tony—obsessed that his wife (Channing) has been two-timing him, leading him to doubt that he’s really the father of his Vassar-bound daughter, who has just taken up with a bunch of freaks and peaceniks—is introduced to LSD by the Professor (Austin Pendleton), his draft card–burning cell mate.
“I see mathematics!” the sweat-soaked, chortling Tony announces during his altered state as bodies shrink and searing magentas and electric blues fill the screen. Soon the entire penitentiary is hallucinating after the Professor spikes the prison mess, culminating in Skidoo’s looniest scene: Two guards envision bare-assed football players, an image that morphs into solarized trash bins dancing to “Living in a Garbage Can,” sung by Harry Nilsson (who plays one of the sentries and who later sings the closing credits in their entirety, including the copyright information).
Released in December 1968, the film was a commercial and critical disaster; in his review for the New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Skidoo [. . .] is something only for Preminger-watchers, or for people whose minds need pressing by a heavy, flat object.” The director himself admitted, with great understatement during an interview with Peter Bogdanovich collected in Who the Devil Made It, “I don’t think it was altogether successful in projecting what I wanted to project.”
But just what was Preminger trying to project? Tweaking the tone of Cannon’s script, Preminger tries to send up hippie-speak, having the chief flower child say things like “So we can all groove and do our own thing.” Yet the parody is about as biting as a Laugh-In skit. And though Preminger did succeed in casting one sort of outré star—the model Donyale Luna, who plays God’s girlfriend and was briefly a Factory habitué—most of his actors look as though they’d much rather be working the stage at Caesars Palace and pitch their performances so that everyone in the borscht belt can hear them. There’s no redeeming Skidoo. I suggest you see it immediately.
Skidoo is available on DVD beginning July 19 from Olive Films.
Ridley Scott, Alien, 1979, still from a color film in 35 mm, 117 minutes. Dan O’Bannon, The Return of the Living Dead, 1985, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.
DAN O’BANNON may not be a household name, but when he died two years ago at the age of sixty-three he left his fingerprints on two of the most famous science fiction and horror films of the last thirty-five years: Star Wars (1977), for which he did computer effects, and Alien (1979), for which he wrote the script. He was something of a jack-of-all-trades: For Dark Star (1974)—his as well as director John Carpenter’s feature film debut—O’Bannon served as co-writer, editor, production designer, special effects supervisor, and star.
“Shock Value,” an upcoming BAM retrospective, displays the full range of O’Bannon’s talents. Gathering almost all of them in one bizarre package, Dark Star is a true oddity, a 2001 satire with hints of Keatonian slapstick and the absurdist philosophical musings of early Woody Allen. During a nearly twenty minute sequence, O’Bannon’s Sergeant Pinback (he plays the goofy, accident-prone astronaut with relish) chases a beach ball–shaped and -textured alien through a labyrinthine space shuttle, nearly getting crushed by an elevator in the process. In the climax, a nuclear bomb equipped with artificial intelligence is prevented from exploding when befuddled by a Cartesian brainteaser.
The cosmic darkness of Alien, on the other hand, is never tempered with camp or intellectual humor. Though known more for its grungy, futuristic set design and H.R. Giger’s primordial, sexually suggestive title creature, Alien works largely due to O’Bannon’s ability to elevate B-movie scenarios into mythological nightmares with archetypal economy.
That ability remains untapped in Blue Thunder (1983), a bland, helicopter-centered action film starring Roy Scheider that indulges rather than interrogates the surveillance technology of its titular super-vehicle. More exemplary of the O’Bannon touch is his directorial debut, The Return of the Living Dead (1985), which he also wrote. On the surface a trashier version of George Romero’s iconic Night of the Living Dead (1968)—at one point a nymphomaniacal punk (scream queen Linnea Quigley) performs a striptease, for no discernable reason, atop an open-air crypt—Return nonetheless possesses some of the funniest, bleakest imagery to appear in any zombie film. After scenes that include the excruciating onset of rigor mortis in a couple of unfortunate zombie victims and the tactical ambushing of local police by an army of talking, intelligent zombies, the film ends with the military containing the zombie epidemic by nuking Louisville, all moral qualms swept nonchalantly to the side.
“Shock Value: Dan O’Bannon” runs at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn July 11–13 & 18–19.