NEW YORK HAS OFTEN been the setting for films about junkies: Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1962), Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971), and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) are all gritty, cautionary portrayals of skag addicts tying off, shooting up, and nodding out. Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 cult classic Liquid Sky may be the first example of heroin cheek, imagining an invasion of extraterrestrials drawn to a city where new-wave androgynes languidly hope to score and the Empire State Building looms as a giant hypodermic needle.
Tsukerman, a Russian émigré who arrived in New York in 1976, cowrote Liquid Sky with his wife, Nina V. Kerova, and the film’s star, Anne Carlisle, who plays both Margaret, a bisexual model-actress with a fondness for Adam Ant maquillage and extravagant peroxided hair, and her archrival, Jimmy, another bottle-blond runway vamper when he’s not seeking out his next fix. The director’s own downtown penthouse apartment doubled as the home Margaret shares with her sadistic girlfriend, Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), a pint-size performance artist and dope peddler whose warmest term of endearment for her lover is “uptight WASP cunt from Connecticut.” Their rooftop dwelling—seemingly equidistant from the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building—is also the landing spot of a Frisbee-size flying saucer, its occupants feeding off the rush humans feel after they inject horse, which, a Berlin astrophysicist explains, is similar to the effect of reaching orgasm. Those who have sex with Margaret, often nonconsensually, vanish right after coming, the preclimax rutting rendered through far-out solarized imagery and scored to the nihilistic drone of a Fairlight CMI.
Tsukerman’s fascination with his new city and its infinite subcultures—similar to that of the aliens in his movie—would leave its imprint on other Gotham-set mood pieces: The Bauhaus-scored, ominous pansexual chic of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) immediately recalls Liquid Sky’s avant-garde gender tweaking; Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) presents a much sunnier vision of New York’s weirdness but is linked with Tsukerman’s film through its supporting performance by Carlisle. But one line from the highly ridiculous dialogue in Liquid Sky, which premiered one year after AIDS was first reported, suggests the real-life terror that would dominate the city for the next three decades: “If you fuck me, you’ll die.”
Liquid Sky screens October 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea, 2011, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm blown up to 35 mm, 86 minutes.
AS ALWAYS, this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde, a sidebar of the forty-ninth New York Film Festival, offers a variety of media works and sensibilities. For the first time, the series will present a composition in “official” 3-D—i.e., requiring glasses. Titled Upending, it’s a stunning piece by the OpenEndedGroup, running about fifty minutes and accompanied by excerpts of a recording of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 1, performed by the Flux Quartet. The visual world summoned begins simply enough, with a copper-toned curved line emerging from the screen’s darkness to the sound of a brief pizzicato phrase from the strings. Before long, elaborate designs take skeletal shape within the three-dimensional space, as the camera (or cameras) moves toward, away from, under, over, and through them. The shapes themselves, according to the artists, derive from actual objects—tables, chairs, people, trees, a garden, a swing—existing in real space, but abstracted into atomistic elements that no sooner come together into recognizable form than they swim apart, dissolving back into the endlessly protean mise-en-scène of the work’s cosmology. These lines and shapes, defined and constructed through light and color (reddish orange, white, gold), achieve a richness altogether unexpected, given their genesis within the overall fragmentary nature of the entire “performative” space. The music has a singular, tactile quality affined to the viewer’s tendency to want to reach out and touch these fragile forms before they vanish. One feels one has entered an impossible space, conjured by the mind but uninhabitable, a space in which music, mathematics, and the concept of form itself dance elusively.
Perhaps in the spirit of the end-of-the-world themes of several of the festival’s main slate entries, Views includes Studies for the Decay of the West (1979–2010) by veteran German filmmaker Klaus Wyborny. Few of Wyborny’s works are known in the US. Even Birth of a Nation (1973), his first major piece, is rarely screened. Studies is divided into five parts whose titles suggest more distinction among them than one might discern at an initial viewing. For example, part one, “Turning; tumbling towards the end,” is largely composed of relatively static industrial images—refineries, smokestacks, nuclear reactors, and chemical plants—while part four, “About the Light of the North,” is dominated by movement: rivers and canals, boats and trains, seashore views, and city life. Except for the bulk of Part four, most of the images throughout are tinted red, yellow, or blue, suggesting perhaps a parallel between chemical deterioration and what they display.
The most striking formal aspect of the work is that Wyborny has edited his images in nearly perfect synchrony with a musical score he composed for piano and strings. In the silent era, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling composed films based on musical principles (e.g., rhythms of repetition and variation), and in the sound era, the Disney studios animated graphic shapes to classic musical pieces. But to my knowledge, I don’t think anyone has timed the editing of filmed images of the world—iron structures, concrete buildings, beaches, waterfronts, apartment buildings, waterways, people, and so forth—to the notations and phrases of a musical composition. In many instances (further viewings would indicate how extensively), images are repeated in sync with the repetition of the musical note first associated with them. At nearly eighty minutes, the effectiveness of this may tend to lose force, but I found the work even more seductive on second viewing.
NOT IMMUNE TO APOCALYPTIC FOREBODINGS HIMSELF, Ben Rivers makes work that celebrates the simplest virtues of craft, self-reliance, and the solitary life in the face of a future that may expunge all traces of humanity. These themes, discernible in I Know Where I’m Going (2009), are played out in different ways in Rivers’s three works on view this year. Though Slow Action is closest to the darker side of Rivers’s sensibility, I find the two other offerings more affecting. Sack Barrow, dedicated to the workers in a factory that had engaged in metal electroplating and finishing since 1931, was filmed during its last month of operation in 2010. Though the site appears old and grungy, the colors and compositions of every shot are anything but. To stress this painterly quality, Rivers inserts full frames of vivid red, yellow, green, and blue that also reflect the heating and cooling stages of the work. No interviews explain the work in any detail. We do get glimpses of it, but Rivers is less interested in documenting a process than in capturing the atmosphere—popular music streams from radios or recorders; cheesecake photos are generously displayed on walls and lockers—and in extracting the physical beauty in rusty surfaces and corrosive decay. These indelible imagesespecially those of objects deformed by toxic chemicalsevoke comparable artifacts of antiquity.
Rivers’s feature-length Two Years at Sea is an entrancing, all-out tribute to a hermitic, Thoreau-like existence, given wide-screen grandeur and photographed in a black-and-white made appropriately grainy through a blowup from 16 to 35 mm. It is no criticism to remark that there is nothing especially avant-garde about this work. (It is far more viewer-friendly, for example, than Béla Tarr’s aggressively minimalist The Turin Horse, one of the festival’s main slate entries.) Filmed in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, its lone protagonist lives a self-sufficient existence amid pine-crowded mountains and vast gray skies: rising briskly, whistling old pop melodies, brewing coffee, taking long walks through woods and hills, and hauling fallen tree limbs for his wood-burning stove. We know he has access to water and gasoline, since he takes showers and drives a jeep, but we’re not sure where or how he gets them. He is also well supplied with sophisticated tools: With a rope and pulley, he constructs a tree house by hoisting a small trailer atop several tall pines that he has bent downward into a kind of huge nest, just to provide an alternative view of his surroundings. In similar fashion, he constructs a raft supported by plastic containers just to float aimlessly. On two occasions, we see him reading assiduously. Who he is and why he is there is never explained. A single shot of a nearby rock is held long enough for us to read its markings as the grave of a Scottish clansman from centuries earlier—a kindred spirit, perhaps? The film has a directness and an innocence that are anything but sentimental. Rivers shows how existence itself and its duration in a specific place and time is sufficiently compelling, requiring no metaphors or symbols to impress its value on us. There is no surer sign of the filmmaker’s trust in his methods and of the human composure of his protagonist than the final, five-minute-long take: a close-up of the man’s face on frame right, flanked by the blackness of the wide screen, as a sputtering fire burns down, casting soft, diminishing light across his features until the screen goes dark.
UTE AURAND’S YOUNG PINES, a chronicle of her trip to Japan, is a lovely example of what is usually called the “diary” mode of avant-garde filmmaking. It recalls the distinction made by P. Adams Sitney (in his indispensable study Visionary Film ) between that term and what he aptly phrased the “quotidian lyric.” Both terms refer to the form in which a filmmaker, with handheld camera, shoots in the moment—from the hip, so to speak—amassing footage through a kind of editing in camera. But while the word “diary” implies daily chronicling, the “quotidian lyric” accommodates a self-contained quality and stresses the poetic nature of such works.
Like the best exemplars of the genre, Aurand’s film reminds us that the critical element is the presence of the artist—not visibly, but via every pulse and movement of the flow of images. No form of filmmaking comes closer to palpably rendering the exterior and interior being of the artist—the camera becoming, as Stan Brakhage once said, an extension of the body, recording not only what the filmmaker sees but everything he or she feels each instant, transferred from the rhythms of breathing and gestures to the images pulsing before us. Balancing rapidly edited phrases of grave markers in a cemetery or bicyclists in motion with longer-held gazes at rice fields, vegetable harvesting, and floral arrangements, Aurand’s film manifests a sensibility as attuned to what she sees as it is to the mechanics of the apparatus in her hands. Tonal shifts from color to black and white and from silence to sound recharge the image track as it does the viewer’s attention. The filmmaker’s steady hand, keen eye, and empathic, patient demeanor invest this familiar form with a vibrancy often unappreciated.
FILMING AN ARTIST AT WORK is not merely a challenge for the filmmaker but a potential trauma for the subject. Indeed, the dual process of scrutinizing and recording an act that is meant to be private amplifies the artist’s self-consciousness—and the effects can be detrimental. Legendarily, it drove Jackson Pollock to alcoholic relapse, eventually killing him. The key to a satisfying encounter between filmmaker and artist could be the trust that emerges out of a mutual understanding of the creative process; it is no coincidence that one of the few successful experiments in this regard happens to have been one great artist filming another: Aleksandr Sokurov recording Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at scribble in The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (2000), a remarkable scene that is somehow intimate yet noninvasive.
Corinna Belz comes close but doesn’t quite nail it in Gerhard Richter Painting. Those expecting a revealing biopic of the famously elusive painter will be mostly disappointed with this exercise in observational idolatry, which confines itself to two years, 2008 and 2009, in Richter’s working life, culminating in “Abstract Paintings,” the November 2009 exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.
To Belz’s credit, her camera elegantly captures the artist’s complex method of applying paint through squeegeeing several different layers on a large canvas. It is a complex process—filled with doubtful, contemplative pauses—wherein one painting becomes several different paintings before arriving at the finale. At one intense moment, however, when a painting doesn’t seem to be going right, Richter begins to falter. “Painting under observation: That’s the worst thing there is,” he says. The moment is as uncomfortable for the spectator as it is for the artist, as one cannot determine whether the actual filming itself is to blame or if Richter is merely flustered by being caught in a creative blunder.
In a subtle way, Belz implies that such “traumas” are actually rather slight for a figure like Richter, who understands firsthand the impact that far harsher forces can have on the individual psyche. The film crescendos about three-quarters into it, as Richter is going through a collection of old family photographs. With great restraint, he divulges that, after leaving East Germany in 1961 as a political refugee, he was never able to see his parents again. It’s the closest we are able to get to the core of Gerhard Richter, who otherwise channels all of his emotions and intellect into his canvases and seems to relate to the world purely through images.
Gerhard Richter Painting is now available on DVD from Soda Pictures. A retrospective of Richter’s work will be on view at Tate Modern in London from October 6, 2011 to January 8, 2012. The film screens at Tate Modern on select dates between October 6 and 23; the October 6 screening is to be followed by a conversation between Belz and Tate Modern curator Mark Godfrey.
“HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE,” the money line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944), could easily serve as the subtitle to the latest film by Roman Polanski, master director and controversial exile. Based on the award-winning 2006 play Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) by French playwright and novelist Yasmina Reza, Carnage is a minor, stagey film that returns the Polish filmmaker to the physical and emotional claustrophobia of the boat in Knife in the Water (1962) and the apartment in Repulsion (1965), as well as to the misanthropic gallows humor of Cul-de-sac (1966). The narrative draws on a well-worn dramatic trope—No Exit and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) being just two examples; since the 1980s, they’re too numerous to count—that of the small group of presumably normal adults who come together in an enclosed space and, over time, degenerate into psychological sadism and monstrous behavior. In this case, two sets of parents—a power couple (corporate lawyer and investment broker) and a liberal couple (bathroom-fixture wholesaler and author/activist/bookstore clerk)—meet in the latter couple’s apartment to negotiate the aftermath of the power couple’s son injuring the liberal couple’s son with a stick in Brooklyn Bridge Park. As for how things turn out, see above.
In several respects, Carnage feels like Polanski’s version of a late Woody Allen film—a modest, naturalistic production that gathers great actors, nurtures their craft, and doesn’t let a lot of “cinema” get in the way. (That both men have been semi-disgraced by personal peccadilloes, but are beloved of the best actors the world has to offer, merely reinforces the parallel.) Nevertheless, Polanski is too much of an artist to simply film a one-set play, and one can see the director and his talented cameraman, Pawel Edelman, trying to make the most out of the limited visual material. The apartment-bound, real-time constraints of Carnage recall Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) with cuts, and Polanski’s frequent use of actor close-ups threatens the status of Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949) as the ultimate face-off in film history. Carnage was shot in Paris, but veteran production designer Dean Tavoularis completely nails a contemporary Brooklyn Heights apartment, and the views of Brooklyn and Manhattan through the windows are bluescreen magic. I was perfectly willing to believe that Polanski somehow smuggled himself into New York for the shoot.
With three Oscar winners and one nominee, the cast is hard to fault. While Jodie Foster (as the humorless, politically correct author/activist) and Kate Winslet (as the buttoned-up investment broker) are not natural comics, they both acquit themselves well, with Foster’s neck veins bulging as she huffs about “suffering in Africa” and (spoiler alert) Winslet delivering the most effective onscreen vomit since The Exorcist (1973). John C. Reilly (as the wholesaler) adds some edge to his schlumpy, regular-guy persona—peppering his standard Norm-from-Cheers routine with dashes of Archie Bunker, and Christoph Waltz, best known for his utterly chilling turn as the unctuous, ingratiating Nazi in Inglourious Basterds (2009), is perfect as the glibly self-satisfied corporate attorney, constantly interrupting the action as he fields BlackBerry calls about a bad-drug scandal unfolding for one of his Big Pharma clients. Hints of his native Viennese accent only add to his unforced air of urbane venality. The “carnage” the characters inflict on one another is overstated; there’s gobs more in Albee’s play, for instance, and Polanski himself has gone much further than this in his best films. One hopes that he returns to the locational breadth of latter-day triumph The Ghost Writer (2010), but Carnage will satisfy fans of Polanski and the four actors, and if you’re a parent, it will make you feel a bit better about yourself.
So, not exactly The Tenant (1976), but what is?
Carnage opens the 49th New York Film Festival on Friday, September 30.
ROUGHLY TWO YEARS after her passing, the first of filmmaker Chick Strand’s unfinished films, Señora con flores (Woman with Flowers, 1995/2011), will come to light on Monday at REDCAT (copresented with Los Angeles Filmforum), anchoring a program of classic Strand shorts that have been newly restored by the Pacific Film Archive and the Academy Film Archive. Technically the screening is a “precursor” to Los Angeles Filmforum’s yearlong series tracking midcentury Southern California experimental film for Pacific Standard Time, and it’s fitting that the cinema arm of the chronophilic behemoth should dawn with Strand. For one, she was a cofounder of the vital Bay Area distributor Canyon Cinema. For another, she was an artist who clung enduringly to the present—an inclination that fills her work with halcyon poignance.
Commenting in 2006 on her approach to ethnography, Strand said that “to leave out the spirit of the people presents a thin tapestry of the culture, easy to rent, lacking in strength and depth. I want to know really what it is like to be a breathing, talking, moving, emotional, relating individual in the society.” Her brand of documentary maintains an intense closeness to its subjects, photographically and psychologically, as in Señora con flores, shot in 1995 on one of Strand’s several summerlong sojourns to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The camera follows a woman over the course of day that she spends playing with her children next to a river. Simultaneously, she chronicles her long marriage to a brutal alcoholic in a narration that runs over the footage. The composite of her personal story and glimpses of her quotidian joys creates a truthful portrait of her life. Of all the moods that Strand strikes in her films—some of which depict the more buoyant likes of synchronized swimmers, golden retrievers, and lovers tumbling outdoors to Aretha Franklin—the most palpable one is caused by the quiet that suddenly discloses itself after the credits roll. In Señora con flores, there is no decisive end to the woman’s tale, no epiphany or tragedy. She seems at terms with her life, and in the silence after the film ends, the audience is left with an imperfect sense of peace, which, as Strand’s diligent lyricism conveys, is always, on some level, present.
Señora con Flores (Woman with Flowers) has its world premiere on Monday, September 26, at REDCAT in Los Angeles.
Cam Archer, Shit Year, 2010, stills from a black-and-white film, 95 minutes.
I IMAGINE THOSE WHO had written off Cam Archer as yet another Gus Van Sant acolyte after seeing his debut, Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006), will be in for a shock when confronted with his latest film, Shit Year (2011), a mature work with a distinct, idiosyncratic approach to difficult questions.
The film is ostensibly about Colleen West (Ellen Barkin), a middle-aged actress retiring from the industry and settling into a life of intensive self-isolation in a forest cabin. This deceptively simple premise serves as a convincing departure point for a prolonged meditation on solitude: Shit Year shows the ways one can become a victim of seclusion while embracing its apparent freedoms—the process is satirized brilliantly as we watch West slowly cave in to friendship with an eccentric chatterbox neighbor when she would clearly rather be left alone—as well as the vocational manias that naturally come when one’s career has been devoted to becoming other people. In West’s case, her doomed affair with a twenty-two-year-old actor, Harvey (Luke Grimes), that endured throughout her final acting foray becomes the lingering stain on her conscience. It is not only her failure to find a satisfying resolution to the fling with Harvey that haunts her, but the existential symbolism of that failure: Harvey becomes for West a distant idol of her own waning vitality and desire.
Much of the film’s strength can be readily located in Barkin’s performance; she carries herself valiantly (she is never really offscreen) through a montage of flashbacks, dream sequences, and fantasies, accompanied by the frequent sound collages that Archer has incorporated throughout the film. These visual tactics scramble the film’s temporal continuity and enforce the illusion of living within the central character’s thoughts and motions as she goes about her day. The director’s choice to shoot the film in black-and-white celluloid further contributes to the timeless feel.
“Can you confirm that this is the real deal?” a television interviewer asks her, in regard to her retirement plans. West laughs before replying, “Real. Deal. I hate those two words together.” Ultimately, the subject of Shit Year is reconciliation: the lifelong process of learning to agree with the “real deal” that existence entails.
Shit Year opens Wednesday, September 21 at the IFC Center in New York.