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.
IT WAS ONE OF THE GREAT UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES in American history: Hoping for a truth serum or psychological weapon, the CIA tested the powerful, still-legal psychedelic LSD on human volunteers during the late 1950s and early ’60s in research hospitals and mental wards across the country. The project, it was later revealed, was called MKULTRA, and one of its unwitting subjects was the young, soon-to-be-famous novelist Ken Kesey, a creative writing grad student on a fellowship at Stanford. Kesey also worked the night shift at a local “nut house,” as he put it, and his experiences caring for the insane, combined with the roiling hallucinations he endured in nondescript hospital rooms during the original, government-sponsored “acid tests,” inspired him to write the novel that made his name, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).
Visiting New York City in 1963 to see Kirk Douglas star in a stage adaptation of the novel, Kesey observed the construction for the following year’s future-themed World’s Fair in Queens, and, being quintessentially American, optimistic, and hungry for the new, he vowed to attend the fair when it opened. Back in La Honda, California, Kesey and a growing band of friends were taking LSD in less “controlled” conditions. To travel to the fair, Kesey had the idea of buying an old school bus, painting it in bright, protopsychedelic colors, dubbing it “FURTHUR,” and rigging it with audiovisual gear. Film and audio recording would be crucial to the cross-country journey, according to Kesey. As he says in an archival voice-over interview in Magic Trip, Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s small miracle of a documentary, “If Shakespeare were alive today, I don’t think he’d write with a quill pen.”
Kesey and his crew, who came to be known as the Merry Pranksters, “weren’t old enough to be beatniks, but a little too old to be hippies, but everyone had read On the Road.” Who better, then, to navigate this search for the “soul of America” than the living inspiration for Kerouac’s Beat bible, Neal Cassady? A wiry, motormouthed speed freak from Denver, Cassady became the inexhaustible driver of the bus and patron saint of the trip, which would take the Pranksters from Northern California through the Southwest and up the Eastern seaboard to New York, turning on and turning heads wherever they went, constantly filming and recording.
The Pranksters’ American odyssey was memorialized by Tom Wolfe’s totem of New Journalism The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), but no one ever did anything with the endless hours of film and tape captured along the ride (although Kesey and the Pranksters tried unsuccessfully for years to cobble together a coherent narrative from the footage). Gibney, director of political docs like the 2006 Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, along with his partner Ellwood, were given unfettered access to the archive (now housed at UCLA) by the Kesey family and set about the seemingly impossible task of restoring, syncing, and editing the unmarked reels into a film worthy of the legend.
They succeeded beyond anyone’s hopes, largely because they let the original tapes do the talking—there’s not one present-day reminiscence interview in the film. Using audio from the trip and interviews with Kesey over the years, the filmmakers had actor Stanley Tucci record questions that are “answered” on the sound track by Kesey and had actors perform voice-overs of the Pranksters’ written transcripts or barely audible master tapes. For the ever-perilous rendering of the visual distortions of LSD to illustrate audio from one of Kesey’s MKULTRA sessions, the filmmakers hired the production house Imaginary Forces, who wisely eschewed CGI by painting and drawing on the film cells by hand, resulting in an aesthetic triangulation of Stan Brakhage, Ralph Steadman, and Peter Max.
The film the Pranksters shot crackles with visual exuberance, equally due to the charisma of the subjects themselves, the painterly post-Technicolor quality of 1964 16-mm stock, the look of roadside America at the time, and the unbridled amateurism of the cameramen and women. The men wore horizontally striped shirts, the women pegged pants, and everyone’s hair was relatively short, making them look more like mods than nascent hippies. Those allergic to paisley and patchouli have nothing to fear here; these people really were the vanguard. As one of the Prankster women says in the film, cops and onlookers might have been bemused by the Pranksters’ appearance and behavior, but no one thought they were drug freaks or hippies “because that wasn’t in the news yet.”
Kesey saw himself as the liberator of a generation. He wanted Americans to realize that fun could be a political platform, and that you could be different without being a threat. (The Pranksters flew the flag on the bus and wore red, white, and blue without an ounce of sarcasm or irony.) He believed that psychedelics could cure insanity and depression. As he said of his MKULTRA trips, “I felt like I had discovered a hole that went into the center of the earth, and you could see jewelry in there, and you wanted your people to go down and enjoy it.” Unlike the other psychedelic proselytizer of the day, Timothy Leary, Kesey and his band were irreverent and irresponsible with the “sacrament.” When they descended on Leary’s compound in Millbrook, New York, after visiting the World’s Fair, the ex–Harvard professor snubbed them, leaving colleague Richard Alpert to play the embarrassed host. “Millbrook was very clinical and controlled,” one of the Pranksters says. “We were free-form; we were the explorers, they were the scientists.”
Having experienced General Motors’ Futurama exhibit and DuPont’s “Better Living Through Chemistry” stage show at the fair (on acid, naturally), Kesey and the Pranksters returned to California, realizing that “the trip is more important than the destination.” Acid parties thrown at Kesey’s house to watch film footage from the bus trip expanded to the point where he decided to hold them in San Francisco and other nearby cities in 1965–66. These were the Acid Tests of Wolfe’s title, and the moment when “the sixties” went public. It was all over in a few years, but during the Pranksters’ 1964 sojourn, anything seemed possible. And it was all due to a CIA mind-control experiment.
Magic Trip opens Friday, August 5.
“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.