Andrei Ujică, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, 2010, still from a black-and-white and color film, 180 minutes.
THOUGH IT BELONGS TO THE TRADITION of found-footage documentaries—from the work of such Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s as Dziga Vertov and Esther Shub, to such later practitioners as Edgardo Cozarinsky—Andrei Ujică’s astonishing film The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu adds a twist. Boldly declaring itself an autobiography, it invokes the hidden other self that shadows all autobiographies and makes that the nucleus of the film’s deconstructive construction of the public life of the former Romanian dictator. A document of relentless self-aggrandizement that Ceauşescu himself could hardly have matched, the film, through sheer ingestion of the cloying, propagandistic media record—much of it commissioned by the dictator—of its subject’s manufactured persona, is both compelling and repellent. Ujică bookends his work with snippets from the mock trial that immediately preceded the execution of Ceauşescu and his wife, Elisa, on Christmas Day, 1989. Accused of genocide and illegal accumulation of wealth, Ceauşescu faced a judgment that shocked only those ignorant of the years of disastrous rule and economic oppression, blatant nepotism, and personality cult that constituted the truer biography of this socialist Macbeth and his partner in crime. Except for these brief excerpts at the beginning and end, the compiled footage bears hardly a sign of social distress as it tracks Ceauşescu’s twenty-four-year regime, from the time he assumed power after the death in 1965 of his mentor Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej—the country’s first Communist chief of state, whose elaborate funeral constitutes the movie’s opening footage—to his reelection as general secretary of the Communist Party just a month before the end.
Ceauşescu drew attention largely through his unique and paradoxical courting of East and West, as well as his resistance to Moscow’s efforts to control Eastern bloc nations. We see and hear his forceful denouncement of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Under his rule, Romania was the only nation to maintain diplomatic relations with both Israel and the PLO. It was no doubt such postures, reinforced by speeches proclaiming the progressive nature of his goals, that seduced state leaders of the West into believing that there was finally a voice and disposition in the communist world that was willing to communicate, if not negotiate, with democratic nations. The footage includes visits to Romania by both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, as well as receptions by Jimmy Carter at the White House and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. These paled, however, in comparison with the positively giddy extravaganzas welcoming him to China and North Korea, where hundreds of thousands of smiling, cheering indoctrinated youths lined the streets and lent their bodies to immense lawn and stadium mosaics spelling out each country’s euphoric greetings. These rarely seen images, as well as the gleeful interactions with Mao and Kim Il Sung, are precious precisely because of their unadulterated fakery.
Whatever signs of independence and progress Ceauşescu initially pursued, his second decade was marked by increased oppression and an impoverished quality of life while, inspired by the idolatrous cults of Mao and Kim Il Sung, he accumulated debts building costly, improbable architectural monuments to his rule—several of which we see in progress. Having absolute power, as both president of Romania and secretary general of the Communist Party, he suppressed all opposition and isolated Romania from any beneficial communication with the West that he himself once sought. Frightening evidence of his success is provided over and over by the unanimous, on-cue applause he received at every party meeting.
In 1986, a report by the humanitarian organization Helsinki Watch declared Ceauşescu’s regime to be as “totalitarian and repressive as any in Eastern Europe.” As part of what the critic J. Hoberman aptly called the film’s “structuring absence,” such information is not mentioned in the film. Alternating black-and-white footage and color, juxtaposing public appearances with private hunting outings and vacations, the film eschews helpful contextualization and voice-over narration of any kind. But Ujică’s understated rhetorical method does allow subtle relationships between images and sequences to emerge. For example, against the gaudy, cast-of-thousands concoctions of the Chinese and North Korean receptions, Ceauşescu’s tour of Hollywood’s Universal Studios seems paltry indeed. While we might wonder whether the fabricated illusions of the capitalist West were any match for the delirious spectacles of the Communist East, there is no mistaking the irony of watching the man comfortably touring the dream factory.
Of course, without some knowledge of the counterhistory of the subject, Ujică’s film might almost succeed as a propaganda tool, a latter-day Triumph of the Will. Unlike that commissioned masterwork, however, Ujică’s film demonstrates that even adulatory found images culled from the official record and offered ad nauseam can generate enough disgust to implode. More toxic than intoxicating, the overkill of jubilant parades and enthusiastic party endorsements illustrates the potential mock in every documentary. Against this glut, Ujică provides a telling and stirring motif—a silence that often interrupts the blather of politicians and statesmen as the footage continues. In these voiceless intervals—totaling well more than half of the film’s three-hour length, and sometimes accompanied by an ominous musical score—Ujică invites us to look at the ghostly images of the once powerful and reflect both on the dangerous if ephemeral nature of hubris, and on the historical and personal truths left undocumented.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on Friday, September 9.
Sam Fleischner, Willis Glasspiegel, Tony Lowe, and Olivia Wyatt, Below the Brain, 2011, still from a color film in HD video, 59 minutes.
HANDMADE, IMPROVISATORY, and almost as immersive as the event it depicts, Below the Brain is an impressionistic documentary of the Brooklyn West Indian Carnival, an annual Labor Day weekend event that has never been as hyped as New Orleans’s Mardi Gras but certainly should be. Sam Fleischner, co-director of the Jamaica-set Wah Do Dem (2010), one of the best narrative film debuts of the twenty-first century, is a Caribbean music fanatic, as is Below the Brain’s coeditor, musician-artist Tony Lowe. Teaming up with two other filmmakers, Willis Glasspiegel and Olivia Wyatt, the quartet “covered” the 2010 Carnival from sunset one day to sunset the next, each mapping his or her own route through the twenty-four-plus hours of tumult. They then pooled their best footage (everyone used low-end digital cameras) and Fleischner and Lowe compressed all of it into a furiously paced fifty-nine minutes, suggesting a nonstop sampling of sound and image, done on the fly.
Like the parade itself, the movie is rude, crude, hyperkinetic, and deliriously colorful. People deck themselves in feathers and often not much else, paint their skin gold or cover it with flour paste, flaunt their flesh and dance down the street to the polyrhythms of one steel band after another. There’s safety and joy in numbers. Occasionally we glimpse a studied, even ritualized interaction between the revelers and the cops who line the route, the latter clearly having been instructed not to intervene unless something dire occurs. It’s a bacchanal where children and elderly are welcome. One of the movie’s most memorable images is of two androgynous ancients with painted faces, holding hands and regarding the passing parade as if they were already in heaven.
Below the Brain screens September 1 at 6:50 and 9:15 at BAMCinématek in Brooklyn. A Q&A with the filmmakers and a live performance by the Rara group Brother High follow the 6:50 screening. The Brooklyn West Indian Carnival parade takes place September 5 beginning at 11 AM. The route is along Eastern Parkway from Utica Avenue to Grand Army Plaza.
WHETHER HE’S PUTTERING around his storefront studio in Lexington, Virginia, or ordering a turkey sandwich at a local restaurant, Cy Twombly displays a stubborn vitality in a new film portrait by Tacita Dean, made last year during what turned out to be Twombly’s final autumn. The twenty-nine-minute work, titled Edwin Parker after Twombly’s birth name, is a remarkably circumspect tribute. Shot by Dean from a series of judiciously unobtrusive vantage points, Twombly becomes the rare camera subject who is allowed to preserve his privacy.
Presented in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program a mere two months after Twombly passed away at age eighty-three, Dean’s film inevitably takes on an elegiac quality. But that air of finality has nearly as much to do with the death knells for 16-mm film, the medium of choice for Dean as well as for so many of the other artists represented in TIFF’s annual survey of experimental world cinema. Indeed, Dean has been increasingly vocal about the declining availability of film stock and labs in which to develop it. (The last one in her native UK has already closed.)
That anxiety and sense of loss permeate many of Wavelengths’ 16-mm selections, including Ben Rivers’s Sack Barrow—an eerie study of corrosion and decay shot in a decrepit electroplating factory outside London—and Joshua Bonnetta’s American Colour, which traces a final pilgrimage for several rolls of 16-mm Kodachrome stock between the film’s original birthplace in upstate New York and the Kansas lab that processed the rolls earlier this year. The Return, another masterful symphony of light, shadow, and shape by Nathaniel Dorsky, stands as further proof that the supplanting of analog forms with digital ones will leave the world a poorer place.
Adding to the gloom of this year’s Wavelengths is the news that it is the last edition to be programmed by Andréa Picard. Thanks to her careful curation, the program became an oasis for adventurous cinephiles otherwise alienated by the ever more frenzied and Hollywood-centric nature of the festival around it. But the works themselves are too full of energy and ingenuity for the mood to grow completely dour.
Among the most dazzling selections is Black Mirror at the National Gallery, a new seven-minute work by Mark Lewis. Lewis, always interested in matters of cinematic space and spectatorship, has created one of his craftiest works yet by inviting viewers to be led by a hulking automated tour guide through two galleries in the National Gallery of London. Blake Williams’s Coorow-Latham Road depicts another memorable journey, this one along a rural Australian highway. But of course there’s a wrinkle: These travels are an animated simulation derived from images collected from Google Street View.
Williams’s work is proof that Wavelengths’ devotion to celluloid wonders shouldn’t be equated with an aversion to digital means. After all, James Benning’s own shift to HD video in recent works hasn’t dented his reputation as America’s master of real-time cinema. A Wavelengths habitué, he’s back this year with the premiere of Twenty Cigarettes, a Warholian gallery of cigarette-smoking subjects lighting up for the camera. Benning’s fellow film artists Thom Andersen and Sharon Lockhart are among the puffers under scrutiny.
While the environs of Wavelengths’ base camp at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall are prime terrain for smoke breaks, TIFF patrons can also venture further afield to the many venues hosting Future Projections, TIFF’s free program of film-based installation art. Gregory Crewdson, Ben Rivers, Duane Hopkins, and Banksy’s coconspirator Mr. Brainwash are among the artists with new works on display in local galleries, though the one that will attract the heaviest foot traffic is surely Memories of Idaho, a collaborative piece by James Franco and Gus Van Sant to be presented in TIFF Bell Lightbox’s atrium. A compendium of outtakes and alternate scenes from My Own Private Idaho (1991), Van Sant’s photographs of Portland street hustlers, and a Super 8 “ghost” version of the feature, Franco’s latest foray into installation art pays homage both to Van Sant’s original movie and to its doomed star River Phoenix. Whatever worries are prompted elsewhere about the future of film as a cinematic medium, Franco’s effort proves we can be confident about cinema’s powers to resurrect our dearly departed stars, at least temporarily.
The Wavelengths and Future Projections programs are presented September 8–18 at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall and various Toronto venues as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
AFTER SERGE GAINSBOURG DIED, at age sixty-two, in 1991, flags were flown at half-mast in France as President Mitterrand eulogized the singer-songwriter as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.” Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, comic-book artist Joann Sfar’s biopic of the louche legend, based on the director’s graphic novel, is short on poetry but long on puppetry.
“Gainsbourg transcends realities. I much prefer his lies to the truth,” the writer-director states in a closing intertitle, a slightly defensive license for his own unconventional methods in recapitulating his subject’s life story. Sfar’s debut film begins during the occupation of Paris, when pubescent Serge—né Lucien Ginsburg in 1928 to Russian-Jewish parents—perversely demands that he be the first to get his yellow star from the prefecture. Walking through the streets, young Lucien (Kacey Mottet-Klein) passes soldiers singing “La Marseillaise.” (The kid’s mangling of the lyrics foreshadows, none too subtly, the controversy that would ensue over Gainsbourg’s 1979 single “Aux armes et cætera,” his reggae version of the French national anthem, dramatized later in the film.) During his stroll, Lucien also notices anti-Semitic propaganda wheat-pasted throughout the city; a hideous caricature of a Jew on one of these posters comes to life, transforming into an enormous papier-mâchéd head that trails the boy. But this is only a fleeting phantasm. A puppet alter ego known as “the Mug,” which grotesquely exaggerates Gainsbourg’s prominent schnozzand ears, is soon introduced and stays for good, a totem of the artist’s self-loathing and self-destruction—and a trial for this viewer.
To be fair, there is something admirable about Sfar’s tinkering with the biopic, one of the most hidebound of genres, even if it involves a voluble creation that looks a lot like Sesame Street’s Count von Count. But this conceit seems even more misconceived when it becomes clear that Gainsbourg is just another paint-by-numbers retelling. After abandoning his ambitions as a painter, adult Serge (Eric Elmosnino, who uncannily resembles the singer) focuses on the chanson, his arrangements and clever lyrics eventually earning him a private audience (and more) with hep lady cat Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), who popularized his composition “La Javanaise” in 1963. Most of Gainsbourg unfolds as a series of clichéd encounters, lasting no longer than the A-side of a 45, between the libertine and the women who made him more famous. The entrance of Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) to the strains of “Initials B.B.” is followed by a quick rehearsal of their duet “Bonnie and Clyde,” orgasmic moans that serve as the genesis of “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” and Bardot’s morning-after query: “Are there any croissants?”
The transitions between lovers/muses are even creakier. “After an affair with Bardot, who cares about some English girl?” Gainsbourg says over the phone in between puffs of Gitanes, setting up, of course, the entrance of Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Their most famous creation, daughter Charlotte, is represented briefly as a half-pint, though Sfar skips the scandalous collaborations of père et fille: the 1984 song “Lemon Incest,” recorded when Charlotte was only twelve, and Serge’s film Charlotte for Ever, made two years later, in which they star as inappropriately attached father and child. Not even a puppet-id, it seems, could make sense of that.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens August 31 at the Film Forum in New York.
Asif Kapadia, Senna, 2010, stills from a color film, 106 minutes.
PERHAPS YOU HAVE NO INTEREST in Formula One racing. Perhaps you’re resistant to documentaries in general. Neither of these should keep you from seeing Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010), a marvel of a movie that has at its center the very thing one longs for and seldom finds on screen today: a brilliant, charismatic, romantic hero. Three times a world champion in a ten-year career, the Brazilian racing car driver Ayrton Senna is considered by aficionados of the sport to have been the greatest driver of his generation—and perhaps of all time. He was also wildly handsome, generous, honest, intelligent, and intensely spiritual. He loved racing, his family, and his country. He donated millions to educating poor Brazilian children. He faced down the Formula One hierarchy that looked on him as an upstart from a third world country—not that that prevented Formula One from capitalizing on his audience appeal—and he challenged himself in every race, not only to win but to achieve the perfection of a form. In other words, he was an artist and a superhero, who tragically is unavailable for a sequel to the most exhilarating and heartbreaking action movie of the summer. Senna was killed in 1994 in a race about which he had grave misgivings, but from which he could not bring himself to walk away.
Like Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything Is Going Fine (2010), that director’s portrait movie of Spalding Gray, Senna consists entirely of archival footage. Kapadia, producer James Gay-Rees, and writer–executive producer Manish Pandey, as well as the production company Working Title, convinced the Senna family to give them the documentary rights to Ayrton’s life story and also to home videos, family photos, and other memorabilia. From Formula One honcho Bernard Ecclestone they received unlimited access to the entire F1 archive, including meetings between drivers and management, interviews, and onboard camera recordings. (In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Senna argues furiously with France’s head of F1 over an issue of driver safety, something none of the other drivers in the meeting dare to do—and Senna wins.) In addition, the filmmaking team collected TV footage from ten countries. When they began editing, they had five thousand hours of film and video, which then took them more than a year to edit down to seven hours, and many months more to streamline into a thrillingly paced 106 minutes.
Although Kapadia relies on voice-over commentary—much of it from Senna himself—there are no talking heads. You’ll need to go to Google for hard information about Formula One’s complicated scoring procedures or to get an overview of the economics and politics of the sport, or even to find out the details of the controversy around Senna’s fatal crash. Senna makes no bones about disliking the politics. He was happiest, he says, when he drove go-karts in his teens: “That was pure driving, pure racing, that made me happy.” Given his intensely competitive nature, however, he had no choice but to enter Formula One, because that’s where the greatest drivers are. Although he fought the F1 authorities and the car companies over safety, he took risks that angered rivals and teammates (sometimes one and the same), who felt he put their lives as well as his own in danger. But he was adamant about competing to win. “If you refuse to go for a gap,” he said, “you are not a racing driver.”
For all the kinetic excitement of the racing sequences, this is an extremely intimate movie. Action and subjectivity come together most powerfully in the extended onboard camera sequences in which we are locked into a point of view that’s almost exactly the same as Senna’s. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment in the movie was recorded by a tinny microphone on an onboard camera. As he crosses the finish line to win the Grand Prix in Brazil, Senna lets out a long wailing sound—a mix of physical release and out-of-body exultation—like nothing I’ve ever heard before. And then, of course, there is the heart-in-the-throat agonizingly long onboard camera POV of that tragic final race, which mercifully cuts away to a long shot just a second and a half before the crash. I asked Kapadia if he cut away from the onboard camera footage because of morality or taste. He answered that he had used every frame of the shot he was given. The tape went black just before the impact, but he was unable to ascertain whether the camera had malfunctioned or something was erased after the fact. So what’s absent from the movie becomes part of the still unsatisfactory explanations of the tragedy.
If the picture editing by Gregers Sall and Chris King is amazing for its seamlessness in cutting among the coverage of four or five TV crews to form a single dramatic scene, the sound design (by Andy Shelley and Stephen Griffiths), in which Antonio Pinto’s surging romantic orchestral score figures prominently, is even more extraordinary. The digitally souped-up sound that nevertheless allows voices—particularly Senna’s—to retain their fragile expressive qualities is what gives the movie the expressive scope and weight of a big-screen action epic.
Senna opens Friday August 12 in New York.
EVEN IF HE WINS—especially if he wins—he loses. That’s Robert Ryan in The Set-Up (1949), playing beaten-down boxer Stoker, who opts not to take a fall. The first half of Robert Wise’s boldly drawn film, set mostly in the ring’s warm-up room, captures in miniature Stoker’s life as a whole until that moment: one long wait for the fight that will change everything. And then it’s happening—success, or failure—in front of everyone choreographed by lank former university champ Ryan and enacted before a vividly realized avid crowd, the bout is edited into an exhausting sequence. By the end, we feel his experience in our own muscles. As noted film critic Samuel Fuller put it: “Bob caught all the nuances of guts and shattered hopes, and small-time aspirations of a never-was beating the hell out of the desperation of being a club fighter.”
Film Forum’s two-week series rolls out twenty-three features with Ryan. Whether he plays victim or villain, or a noir-esque mix of both, it’s easy to go along with his characters’ shifts in emotion and trains of thought. The violent rages of his cop in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952), at times full of pleading even as the aggressor, are abrupt, terrifying, and grounded in a fully inhabited psychology that also seems to represent a darker side to postwar masculinity. Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948) and Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) (the latter film provided Ryan’s first and only Oscar) see the actor portraying veterans determined to share their psychological wounds by inflicting new ones.
Ryan’s daunting intensity, which may have kept Ryan from headline-star status, could easily lend itself to scenarios of mania and extremity, such as the paranoid odd-jobber who traps Ida Lupino in Beware My Lovely (1952), or the cuckolded husband abandoned in the desert in an unusual experiment in crosscutting and voice-over, the 3-D Inferno (1953). (Anthony Mann’s 1958 God’s Little Acre finds the actor infusing a nutty bumpkin patriarch with downright weird energy.) By the time he joined the acclaimed 1973 American Film Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh (he died from lung cancer soon thereafter), Ryan, playing a former anarchist, could draw on the hard-won wisdom of what felt like several lifetimes of on-screen experience.