FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD MIA is the clenched, invisible daughter of a self-obsessed mother grasping at her mislaid youth. Warehoused in an Essex council estate, Mia (Katie Jarvis) escapes the banal violence of her daily life through hip-hop dance, which she performs secretly in an abandoned flat. Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s new boyfriend—easy in his skin and disarmingly kind—is the first person who really sees her. The long, slow fuse of their attraction burns to inexorable catastrophe, as such attractions will.
Even if Fish Tank (2009), writer-director Andrea Arnold’s second feature, traverses somewhat hackneyed narrative territory, it is a bracingly unsentimental and utterly controlled film. Her remarkably restrained hand leads, happily, to remarkable ferocity. Anchored by humane, intelligent performances from Jarvis and Fassbender, Fish Tank maps the often ambiguous hunger that draws damaged people together. Jarvis is particularly mesmerizing; as Mia, her brittle, carefully cultivated carapace of nonchalance is threatened at every turn by her vulnerability and her devastating anger.
Robbie Ryan’s meticulous camera work—intimate but also clinical—underscores the nebulousness of the boundary between the wild and the contained: between rage and need, desire and love. The Essex borderlands, where industrial plants and housing estates meet the mudflats of the Thames estuary, seem to contain the entire mystery of postmodern life, in which an overpass of the A-16 shelters a talismanic white horse and a gypsy camp of Irish Travellers.
Arnold has been hailed as the heir apparent to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. And Fish Tank, with its echoing canyons of tower blocks and concrete wastelands, is firmly embedded in the tradition of social realism. But the film is ultimately—and refreshingly—less interested in revealing or commenting on ills of the British class system than it is in modeling the contours of one young woman’s awakening.
Fish Tank opens Friday, January 15, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.
IN 1984, at the age of twelve, Charlotte Gainsbourg, wearing only a blue oxford and panties, lounged on a mattress with her shirtless father for his video of their duet “Lemon Incest”; twenty-five years later, she would give herself a clitoridectomy with rusty scissors in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. As the only child of a legendarily decadent union—the great French desiccated dandy/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and British actress/singer Jane Birkin—Charlotte was born with scandal imprinted on her DNA. But as the nine films in the French Institute Alliance Française’s tribute to the gifted actress make clear, Gainsbourg is more than a provocatrice; her Modigliani face and frame show the subtlest shifts of pain and pleasure, grief and joy.
Her formidable talent is immediately evident in Claude Miller’s L’Effrontée (1985), the third film Gainsbourg made after beginning her career in 1984 and her first starring role. Playing Charlotte Castang (one of three instances in the series in which the performer and her character share the same first name), who rages at the misery of being a teenager stuck in a sleepy town, Gainsbourg appears in every scene. Her adolescent mood swings—one minute erupting into frustrated tantrums (“I wish I wasn’t me”), the next staring with moon-eyed wonder at girl-crush Clara, the visiting thirteen-year-old piano prodigy whom Charlotte hopes to run away with—are agonizingly raw yet expertly calibrated. It’s a stunning, fearless performance (for which Gainsbourg would win a César, France’s equivalent of an Oscar, for Most Promising Actress) that hints at the emotional boldness she would display in Antichrist.
Serge Gainsbourg, “Lemon Incest” (1984).
If Gainsbourg’s on-screen collaborations with her father provoke a certain unease—two years after the “Lemon Incest” video, she starred in Serge’s film Charlotte for Ever; they play inappropriately attached dad and daughter—the two films that she’s made with her longtime romantic partner, Yvan Attal, the mediocre writer-director of My Wife Is an Actress (2001) and Happily Ever After (2004), invite other discomfiting questions about where autobiography ends and fiction begins. Attal and Gainsbourg play spouses in both movies, but they are primarily narcissistic vehicles for Attal’s overwhelming insecurities, if not outright hostility about his partner’s success. And yet even in the circumscribed, one-dimensional roles Attal has created for her (particularly as the cipher of the title in My Wife Is an Actress), Gainsbourg finds grace, depth, and humor.
In fact, Gainsbourg is at her best when struggling against bad object choices, enmeshed in impossible romances. As Gael García Bernal’s crafts partner (they play with cellophane strips and cloth ponies) in Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006), Gainsbourg touchingly, tentatively invites the man-child’s affections and wearily stands up to his passive-aggressive attacks. Beyond the delight of watching Gainsbourg beautifully navigate this awkward flirtation is the immense pleasure of listening to her, as her tongue glides from French to English. This aural intimacy is magically showcased in her most recent film, Patrice Chéreau’s Persécution (2009), during a transatlantic phone call Gainsbourg’s character, Sonia, makes to Daniel (Romain Duris), her difficult boyfriend of three years. “You took me as I am,” Sonia tearfully explains to Daniel when he demands to know why she fell in love with him. Charlotte fans have done the same for nearly three decades.
“Charlotte Forever” runs January 12 through February 23 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. For more details, click here.
James Benning, Ruhr, 2009, still from a color film in HD, 121 minutes.
JAMES BENNING is as synonymous with observing the evolving American landscape as he is with 16-mm filmmaking, so it makes perfect sense that his first feature-length work in high-definition video would be an investigation of a German territory largely unfamiliar to the artist. In many ways, the construction of Ruhr, 2009, will be familiar to Benning’s followers: For each of seven shots that constitute the two-hour work, Benning’s frame remains fixed, allowing events—often subtle and frequently located at the threshold of wilderness and industry—to unfold before the camera in “real” time, unhurried by the narrative expectations of mainstream cinema.
In fact, for most of his forty-year career, the duration of Benning’s takes has been limited to the just over ten minutes of footage afforded by a four-hundred-foot roll of 16-mm film shot at twenty-four frames a second. (For example, the artist’s extraordinary Ten Skies and 13 Lakes, both 2004, are composed entirely of ten-minute takes.) After a suite of six shots, ranging from eight to eighteen minutes each, Ruhr concludes—spoiler alert—with a stunning, dirgelike image of a coking plant’s belching smokestack that slowly fades to postsunset blackness and lasts exactly one hour.
The difference between digital and celluloid images is not simply the difference between the “purity” or indexicality of photographic grain versus cold, clinical pixels: Ruhr suggests that, for Benning, the true promise of HD lies in its capacity to capture images at durations that push the limits of the viewer’s attention toward an almost-inhuman scale of time—albeit in a physical way that an all-too-human viewer, seated in the theater, will surely register.
Benning has long been among the most patient of artists, and therefore his work increasingly seems at odds with an attention-deficient culture. Yet, his films—and, well, video—reward an equally patient viewer and listener. Sound plays a crucial role in Benning’s work and often provides more information than the visual component. (The artist’s initial digital foray was in assembling the lush sound for casting a glance, 2007, his film of and around Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.) The third shot of Ruhr frames the woods at the edge of the Düsseldorf airport, and over the course of eighteen minutes five airplanes take off—we hear them before we see them—and zip through the frame; each passing plane is followed several beats later by the surprisingly violent rustling of leaves.
Similar devotion to detail also informs shots of a man sandblasting graffiti or the mechanized fabrication of steel cylinders—both pointing to the Ruhr Valley’s industrialization. In another shot, Benning’s camera is positioned behind the congregation in a Muslim ceremony, at the sight line of a man kneeling in prayer, and much of the image is occluded—and then revealed—by the repetitive mass supplication. Throughout Ruhr, Benning eschews beginnings and endings in favor of ongoing processes and cycles, whether natural, industrial, or religious.
Not long ago, I found myself seated a few rows away from the filmmaker at a screening of early films organized by cinema historian Tom Gunning. Following a screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Country Doctor, 1909—a pioneering example of parallel editing—Benning wryly noted that Griffith’s construction of cinematic (story) time, and a related set of narrative expectations, was “insidious.” I laughed but understood what he meant: Only a few years after cinema’s invention, many of its lasting codes had already been established, and old-fashioned storytelling became cinema’s dominant mode. Benning, as Ruhr and other works imply, wants to explore other possibilities that were always available to cinema but generally neglected—namely its ability to record what the camera observes, over time, without much intervention. Or, simply put, he wants his viewers to “feel” time rather than forget about it, while looking at and listening to the world around them. In the obsolescence of the celluloid medium, it remains to be seen whether digital technology offers a truly new way of seeing the world or just a more spectacular version of familiar movie “magic”—James Cameron’s Avatar seems to urgently push this question to the foreground—but somehow it’s not surprising to find Benning on the frontier.
KELLY REICHARDT’S extremely promising debut feature, River of Grass (1994), suggested that she, unlike her protagonists—a pair of wannabe outlaws, too hapless and depressed to escape their Broward County backwater—was capable of a big move. Instead, she retreated from theatrical feature filmmaking for more than a decade, explaining that she found the experience of dealing with crews and financing alienating. The melancholy indie two-hander Old Joy (2006) was hailed as her comeback, as tough and tender in its revision of the “bromance” as River of Grass was of the road movie. She followed with the even finer, more wrenching Wendy and Lucy (2008).
With Ode (1999), Then a Year (2001), and Travis (2004), the three short films that she made during her hiatus from features, Reichardt returned to her experimental roots. She shot all three herself, using a Super 8 camera, producing images of lush, ephemeral beauty by exploiting the limited contrast ratio, low resolution, tendency toward overexposure, and Impressionist splotched color of the narrow-gauge film stock. Ode, the most ambitious of the three, is based on Herman Raucher’s novelization of his own script for the 1976 Warner Brothers movie Ode to Billy Joe, which was inspired by the more familiar 1967 Bobbie Gentry hit single “Ode to Billie Joe.” Despite the discrepancy in spelling, the titular B. J. is in both song and movie a teenage boy, surname McAllister, living in rural Mississippi, who commits suicide by drowning. The reasons that “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” (that should jog your memory) are not disclosed in the song, and the mystery may be the reason it exerts whatever hold it has had on the imagination. (It’s number 412 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.) It has been speculated that Billie got his girlfriend, Bobbie Lee, pregnant and the object they were seen tossing into the river was a stillborn or aborted fetus; another theory has it that Billie Joe was black passing as white, which made his romance with the sixteen-year-old daughter of conservative Baptist parents doubly forbidden. Raucher, after interviewing Gentry (who herself never offered any public explanation), wrote a screenplay in which Billy Joe, frustrated in his attempts to get Bobbie Lee to go all the way, gets drunk and has gay sex in the woods with the boss of the sawmill where he works. Given that it was produced by a major Hollywood studio in the mid-’70s and starred teen idol Robby Benson, Ode to Billy Joe seems a ripe object for someone’s gender-studies thesis, but I have never read any serious analysis or, for that matter, encountered the movie itself.
Reichardt fully embraces the gay-teen suicide angle. The narrative is told in an extended flashback through the eyes of Bobbie Lee, who falls head over heels for Billy Joe, despite the fact that everyone in town thinks he’s weird. (For starters, he wears one gold earring and looks like a lankier version of the young Todd Haynes, whose support is noted in the end credits.) While it is Billy Joe who dies, it is Bobbie Lee who has our sympathy, for she will have to live with the trauma of a first love that ends in death and the irresolvable question of whether Billy Joe loved her for herself or was merely using her as a beard to prove to himself and the world that he was what he was not.
At fourteen minutes and twelve minutes respectively, Then a Year and Travis marry fragments of texts recorded from radio and/or TV “documentary” programs with images that are abstracted from narrative meaning. In Then a Year, the images are of nature at its most lyric (a waterfall glimpsed through deep summer foliage, a bright red bird perched on an electric wire), and the text, taken from a “true crime” special, suggests that a woman has been murdered—perhaps by her lover, her husband, a one-night stand, an unknown intruder . . . who knows which. What matters is the connection of sex and violence. In Travis, the visuals are entirely abstract—moving color fields created by unconventional camera placement or focus. The audio comes from an NPR program in which an anguished woman describes the experience of learning that her son has been killed in Iraq. Delicate and emotionally harrowing, both films evoke a condition of the psyche in which images and words, separated from narrative cause and effect or concrete references, are repeated in an endless loop to defend against the full realization of loss and horror.
Digital transfers of Ode, Travis, and Then a Year are screened continuously between 12 PM and 5 PM on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays until February 11 at Esopus Space, 64 West Third Street in New York. For more details, click here.
A FILM OF SUBTLE SHIFTS and slowly dawning disclosures, Sweetgrass documents with dispassionate rigor the two-hundred-mile journey undertaken by a group of sheepherders across Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. Eschewing narration, interviews, or any explicit intrusions of directorial viewpoint, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor fix their toiling subjects in exactingly framed, frequently static compositions set off against the backdrop of the varied, occasionally majestic landscapes of the herding trail.
In any nonfiction film that feints Wisemanian objectivity, the shaping of the material assumes principal importance, and in Sweetgrass the relative straightforwardness of the narrative—thirty minutes of shearing and lambing followed by a linear account of the journey—obscures several important focal shifts. In the early, preparatory scenes, the emphasis is strictly on process: the way an ewe is made to feed a newborn, how a row of hands shave their charges. The men themselves are beside the point; if any faces emerge from the mechanical process, it’s those of the sheep, striking dryly humorous expressions. But as the party sets out on its trek, the film’s attentions gradually transfer to the workers and, as the group begins to dwindle, to the two increasingly harried herders charged with tending the flock the rest of the way.
While any project that pits perfectly framed landscapes against the plight of the working poor has its ethical work cut out for it, Sweetgrass makes a virtue of the potentially thorny setup. By juxtaposing a frustrated worker’s profanity-laced tirades with some of their most heart-stopping visuals, the filmmakers make the audio/visual contrast sufficiently explicit so that, while foregrounding their own (and the viewer’s) privileged position, they’re able to evoke the opposing roles the landscape plays for audience and subject.
After the journey, the film makes a final shift into elegy: Just before a closing title informs us that the Montana trail is now closed, the camera fixes on one of the workers riding shotgun in a pickup truck. As he slowly, haltingly ponders what to do next, his words fade into the steady gravel roar of the country road and then into silence. Who would have thought it would take a formalist project about sheep to burrow so deeply into the secret sorrows of the working class?
Sweetgrass has its theatrical premiere January 6–19 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Leslie Thornton, Jennifer, Where Are You?, 1981, still from a color film in 16 mm, 11 minutes.
THE PENULTIMATE INSTALLMENT of Thomas Beard and Ed Halter’s “Summer Knowledge” series at Artists Space featured early 16-mm films (1975–1987) by the seminal and enigmatic Leslie Thornton. In keeping with the spirit and format of Light Industry, the programmers’ home venue in Brooklyn, Beard and Halter facilitated an open, rigorous conversation to complement each of the series’s six evenings of work by moving-image artists—William E. Jones, Anne Charlotte Robertson, Michael Robinson, Paul Sharits, Emily Wardill, and Thornton—artists whose practices straddle the film and art worlds and whom some consider unrecognized or underappreciated in the latter. Following last Friday’s screening, Thornton was joined onstage by the artist Seth Price, a student of Thornton’s at Brown in the 1990s whose work shares an erudite reticence with hers.
With a matter-of-fact, ominous sense of humor, Thornton wished the audience viewing her early works “good luck.” The screening began with X-TRACTS (1975). Like many of her films taken in their rawest sense, X-TRACTS explores language and technology by mixing structuralist strategies inherited from her mentors (including Hollis Frampton, Peter Kubelka, and Sharits) with a more personal style of filmmaking rooted in narrative and its abstraction. Until X-TRACTS, Thornton had worked primarily in painting, and she described the work’s intention as “primitive”: She aimed to replicate painterly gestures by cutting together incomprehensible pulses of sound and image. The pulsing motif recurred in her next film, All Right You Guys (1976), and eventually evolved into the usage of phrase repetitions, as in Jennifer, Where Are You? (1981), in which the titular question (spoken atop a baroque sound track) plays against a close-up of a young girl’s face. The girl circles her mouth in lipstick until she looks something like Heath Ledger’s Joker, while, in the foreground, a flame consumes a match.
The notion of “generations” was, according to Halter, a cornerstone of the series, an idea that grew more resonant throughout the evening, as Thornton shared projects that she has revisited and reworked to illuminate a genealogy of her own practice. Following Jennifer she showed, for comparison, a one-minute clip of the same work on HD video, and after that a rarely screened short film, Oh China Oh (1983), which seemed a coda to her better-known, contemporaneous meta-Orientalist meditation Adynata.
The exemplary model for Thornton’s tendency to reopen even “completed” works is also her best-known project, Peggy and Fred in Hell, a sprawling antimasterwork the artist built over twenty-five years (1984–2008; a “final” version was presented during the 2008 Whitney Biennial). At Artists Space, Thornton showed the first section, known as “The Prologue” (1985), in which the audience is introduced to two children who are “raised by TV” in a world evaporating into a miasma of media. “Writing with media,” she says of her work, and indeed Peggy and Fred in Hell can be read as a diary of eras shaped by their technologies—or itself as a technological creation with its own dimensions of empowerment/disempowerment. “We’re in the hell now,” Thornton noted at the screening, describing how the film anticipated an “information overload” and a “loss of agency and responsibility.” “And I don’t mean hell as a negative thing, necessarily.”