Michelangelo Frammartino, Le quattro volte (Four Times), 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 88 minutes.
A TREE IS A TREE IS A TREE, or so Gertrude Stein would have it. Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (Four Times) suggests otherwise. An omniscient view of life with an unerring blend of wit and wisdom, this irresistible fable is inspired by the idea of cyclical transmigration in the natural order. When the body of a deceased goatherd is interred in its tomb, a momentarily black screen bursts into light in sync with a baby goat emerging from its mother’s body. Later, when the goat dies at the foot of a huge fir, it becomes part of the soil that nourishes the tree. After the tree is subsequently cut down and used in a village festival, it is reduced to wood and converted, via the ancient tradition of kiln smoking, into the charcoal that fuels the homes and cooks the food of the inhabitants of the Calabrian village where the film is set. Without dialogue or narration, the unassailable logic of this structure unfolds seamlessly.
Though officially outlawed by certain religions (one of the few things held in common by Christianity and Islam) the ancient belief in metempsychosis—the idea that the soul of a dead being enters a new life, sometimes in a different form—is still held by many peoples all over the globe. Speaking of the genealogy of his work, Frammartino cites the persistence of this doctrine in Calabria, from the time the philosopher Pythagoras taught it and founded a religious community there (then called Kroton) in the sixth century BC through to the present day. But Le quattro volte is neither a documentary nor a religious tract. Serenely composed and paced as befits the subject it delineates, it seduces us with its gentle, assured manner, laced with charity and humor.
As attentive to the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds as it is to the human, the film confirms cinema as the “redemption of physical reality.” This was the basis of Siegfried Kracauer’s theory that unlike other art forms, film was inherently democratic. Far from privileging the human, it made all things, animate and inanimate, equally compelling before the camera. Frammartino’s long shots give full measure to this idea. They range from Tati-like tableaux of the human condition that only seem blissfully unorchestrated, to bird’s-eye views that recall the kind of landscape painting—e.g., of Bosch, or Poussin—that encompasses myriad narrative details. Several distant shots of a mountainside reveal microscopic movement—of goats, or a religious procession—making incremental progress along a barely discernible path. From such perspectives, mortal lives and ritual events seem little more than the bustling of so many ant colonies. Frammartino’s canvases give us the big picture, so to speak, within which the daily existence of individuals seems very small indeed.
Whether this wonderfully empathic detachment conceals or reveals the director’s belief in the immortality and transference of souls is a mystery he mischievously exploits. If we look condescendingly, for example, at the superstitious goatherd who believes in the curative power of dust from the local church, we are brought up short when the old fellow dies the morning after failing to take his daily dose. And regarding ants, Frammartino adds a touch that deftly links the imagery and theme of his film in the most naturalistic manner. As the goatherd squats in a field, an ant makes its way across his face and onto his forehead, a motif seen again in a close shot of the goat that loses its way, and on the bark of the tree just before it is felled. Less the grim reaper than the humble instrument of nature’s laws, the ant embodies both the industriousness of all living beings and their ultimate subordination to the scheme of things. Neither preachy nor pretentious, there’s not a lovelier, more resonant piece of moviemaking in New York at the moment.
Le quattro volte runs March 30–April 12 at Film Forum in New York.
MICHAEL ROBINSON’S dyspeptic pop concoctions can be unsettling. The first time I saw Light Is Waiting (2007)—a hallucinatory edit, incorporating stroboscopic and mirror effects, of clips from the television series Full House—more than a few experimental film veterans walked out. Robinson’s ability to shock and upset his audience, especially in the context of something that calls itself avant-garde, is significant. He certainly isn’t the first video artist or filmmaker to salvage lowbrow materials, but his use of found footage is distinctly different from the educational filmstrips, newsreels, and classical Hollywood clips typical of many film recyclists. Instead, Robinson mines artifacts of the too-recent past—Top Forty hits, video games, pulpy romance novels, and prime-time sitcoms that haven’t yet accrued the familiar patina of nostalgia—and explores their still-shifting meanings, these semiforgotten objects still rotting atop our collective cultural garbage heap.
Michael Robinson, Light Is Waiting, 2007.
Yet beneath the ironic distance that comes easily when confronting yesterday’s junk, Robinson’s films are moved by an undertow of affect, the pull of the pop hook. He doesn’t avoid the sour connotations of bad taste, but plunges deeper, beyond shame or disavowal, to those secret places where we might take seriously Cyndi Lauper’s vigil in “All Through the Night” or shed a tear for Guns N’ Roses’ cold “November Rain.” And though Robinson, twenty-nine, grew up during the 1980s and ’90s, this isn’t Generation (DI)Y irreverence, either. Rather, his work, interlaced and garbled with VCR tracking, confronts media as media, seducing viewers on multiple registers. The dark thicket of And We All Shine On (2006), for example, opens to a Sega Genesis dreamscape menaced by an 16-bit chimera. And in the karaoke-style video Hold Me Now (2008), a hysterical Mary Ingalls (from Little House on the Prairie) strains against her husband’s embrace as the lyrics to the eponymous Thompson Twins song appear in the frame, inviting us to sing along. But I’ve never heard anyone do it, not aloud. Robinson knows better than most how these cracked pop objects continue to work their power over us even after they’ve been discarded.
Patricio Guzmán, Nostalgia for the Light, 2010, still from a color film, 90 minutes.
PATRICIO GUZMÁN’S FILMS are shovels and telescopes—farseeing, barehanded excavations. For over four decades, he has recorded and interrogated Chile’s history with devastating, rallying lucidity—bearing witness to bomb-sieged Allende and Pinochet’s politicidal junta, then advocating, from exile, for the numberless “disappeared” and against national amnesia. The Battle of Chile (1975–78) remains unsurpassed in capturing the heat and precariousness of mass action in the streets during crisis or transition. Though a tragedy, the film trilogy is a paean to the articulate political self-organization of working people. As if in sympathy with the copper miners portrayed there, history-work appears everywhere in Guzmán as an act of digging: Exhumations open The Pinochet Case (2001); peripatetic Madrid (2002) is fascinated by street drilling; in mournful Salvador Allende (2004), his own hand scrapes paint to uncover an old mural.
A spacious film essay, Nostalgia for the Light (2010) revisits his childhood love of astronomy, delving sky as well as earth to explore the past in deep time. It is interested in the calcium composing both bones and stars, in the whorls marbling nebulae and stones, in affinities between petroglyphs and prison scrawls. Threading themes as large as the consubstantiality of matter and the continuity of life, individual voices of historical endurance relate their inner, sustaining sense of longues durées. The film is set in South America’s Atacama Desert, where observatories perch templelike above former sites of colonial enslavement and state atrocity. As astronomers tunnel light-years and archaeologists unearth pre-Columbian mummies, bereft women dig for the desaparecidos strewn here by the thousands during Pinochet’s rule. Limberly, these women sit on the ground, fingers sifting sand; they’ve been taught forensic seeing by decades at this work. Nearby lie the ruins of the concentration camp Chacabuco (originally an abandoned nitrate mine, one exploitation site supplanting another), where, a survivor recounts, he learned inner freedom by stargazing. For a daughter of disappeared parents, meanwhile, the stars instilled a feeling of belonging. Everyone here speaks with the intimate sagacity of those accustomed to thinking through pain and beyond their own lifetimes.
Their narrative ley lines interrelate the film’s nesting scales (generational, historical, cosmological), as does metamorphic montage. A close pan of pebbles cuts smoothly to a pocked planet then traces another rounded, grainy surface—all in an even-paced glide—until reaching two bony hollows where eyes had been. Desert salt formations like hairy blisters or molted cocoons oddly miniaturize the space-observatory pods. A mere pivot of angle can clinch a chilling analogy: Approached from below, shelved cardboard boxes storing unidentified prisoners’ remains become an uncanny model of Chacabuco—two beige burials.
For all its own love of the untouchable, cradling sky, Nostalgia for the Light refuses consoling transcendences. Loyal to memory’s “gravitational force,” it is resolutely, audibly grounded: Cosmic silences and the cavernous echoes of unlatching telescope apertures lend expanse, but Guzmán’s ear keeps closest to shovel blades slicing dry earth, feet treading its brittleness. “We have hidden away our nearest past,” laments the archaeologist, “as if this history might accuse us.” Like all of Guzmán’s work, this film sounds out both hard-won hope and eloquent, invincible accusation.
Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light opens Friday, March 18, at the IFC Center in New York. Three Guzmán retrospectives run in April: “Obstinate Memories: The Documentaries of Patricio Guzmán,” at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, New York, April 1–7, 2011; “Patricio Guzmán’s Chile” at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, April 1–7, 2011; and “Afterimage: The Films of Patricio Guzmán” at Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, April 2–28, 2011.
Luchino Visconti, Senso, 1954, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 123 minutes. Left: Countess Livia Serpieri and Laura (Alida Valli and Rina Morelli). Right: Countess Livia Serpieri (Alida Valli)
IT’S THE CONCEIT of historical melodramas that their characters’ passions overshadow the earth-shattering events going on around them. Luchino Visconti’s Senso (1954), set during the Risorgimento and the foreign occupation of Venice, willfully confounds love and war, with each having consequences for the other. Over the course of the film, the countess Serpieri’s amour fou for Austrian officer Franz Mahler will drive her to betray a movement (and her own family, given that the nationalist revolution is run by her cousin) and, fatally, the very object of her obsession. In Visconti’s framing, current events are cropped to spotlight a battle lost by the nationalists rather than the key victories on record, as if reflecting the turmoil of the relationship.
The filmmaker’s first color feature and post-Neorealist salvo is fueled by the tension between foreground and background, from the opening scene in which a performance of Verdi’s Il trovatore is first a backdrop for Serpieri and Mahler’s meeting, and then disrupted by nationalist pamphleteers. The man who made La terra trema (1948) with fisherfolk and grubby locations here directs two stars (Alida Valli and American import Farley Granger) in opulent settings and re-creations (La Fenice opera house, the Serpieris’ Aldeno villa amid painterly countryside). The resulting chronicle—touching on events in which Communist aristocrat Visconti’s own ancestors must have participated—was hotly debated in the journal Cinema nuovo by the likes of André Bazin, Vittorio Taviani, and Italo Calvino.
It’s the flame trail of all-consuming passion that inspires devotion among admirers of Senso’s Technicolor ardors (even if Granger, as a fresh-faced scoundrel, never seems entirely up to the cruelties he is asked to inflict on Valli’s veiled, cowering Serpieri). But in the film’s climactic long shot, which depicts Serpieri’s cowardly revenge on her venomously resentful lover, a chill falls that feels at once like a lover departing and like history moving on.
Senso is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. For more details, click here.
Left: Oliver Laxe, Todos vós sodes capitáns (You Are All Captains), 2010, still from a black-and-white film, 79 minutes. Right: Pietro Marcello, La bocca del lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf), 2009, still from a color film, 75 minutes.
EVEN THOUGH THE US FILM FESTIVAL LANDSCAPE gets more congested each year—every city, every demographic, and every taste seem catered for by now—America still lacks a truly progressive showcase for nonfiction film. Such events have proliferated in Europe, where many of the most adventurous new festivals of the past decade are nominally devoted to documentaries, among them FIDMarseille (where the boundary-erasing programming has helped shape our current understanding of hybrid cinema), Punto de Vista in Pamplona (which skews toward experimental nonfiction and is named for Jean Vigo’s conception of a “documented point of view”), and CPH:DOX in Copenhagen (which one year awarded its top prize to Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers). The dominant American view of documentary film, challenged by woefully few events (MoMA’s far-ranging Documentary Fortnight is one partial exception), has much to do with the type of work that HBO or PBS will finance, that Sundance will program, and that the Academy will nominate. While this system produces several worthwhile films in any given year, it also creates a glut of issue-oriented and celebrity-driven docs, and reinforces a de facto ideology that equates the art of the documentary simply with journalistic storytelling, prizing content over form, and information over contemplation.
The True/False Film Fest, which concluded its eighth edition on Sunday, is a small but significant corrective step, splitting the difference between this traditional perspective and a more pluralistic notion of nonfiction film. Unfolding over three and a half very busy days in the college town of Columbia, Missouri (home to the University of Missouri, Columbia College, and Stephens College), T/F is also the model of a regional festival, bringing diverse international work to enthusiastic, open-minded local audiences. The mood is celebratory (buskers take the stage between screenings), and while the festival makes a point of avoiding a juried competition, it requires all filmmakers to attend Q&As (a handful are inevitably Skyped in, but almost all make the trek to central Missouri) and there is also a strong industry presence (producers and programmers are brought in to serve as discussion “ringleaders”).
Timed perfectly to skim the Sundance crop, T/F this year included the obligatory Park City news makers and crowd-pleasers. Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters follows, at close range, the harrowing, heroic work of Chicago activists who have tasked themselves with defusing and preventing gang violence. (The film received the festival’s annual True Life Fund, which raises money to help the subjects of a documentary.) Exploring an ethical and philosophical minefield, James Marsh’s Project Nim recounts the tragic life story of a chimpanzee that was raised as a human as part of a hippie-ish psychology experiment and then abandoned to the cruelties of animal research. Andrew Bate’s Shut Up Little Man!, the saga of a loud-neighbor home recording turned underground viral sensation, touches on—and implicates itself in—the perils of hipster irony and freak-show voyeurism. But T/F also made room for smaller, less flashy American films that would be hard to picture at Sundance, like Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts (currently playing at MoMA), an exemplary portrait—precise, lived-in, tender but unsentimental—of an endangered junkyard community in the Willets Point section of Queens. Taking a different approach (talking heads, archival footage) but similarly subtle—and political—in its considerations of race, class, and urban space, Chad Friedrichs’s The Pruitt-Igoe Myth uses the fate of the titular Saint Louis housing project, long seen as an iconic failure of public housing and modernist architecture, to anchor an intelligent meditation on the decline of American cities.
As its name suggests, True/False takes a special interest in films that inhabit a space between documentary and fiction; and, perhaps inevitably, the most formally daring works could be found among the non-American selections. Clio Barnard’s The Arbor (set for US release next month) revisits the life and work of Yorkshire playwright Andrea Dunbar through a complex weave of Brechtian devices: archival footage, scenes from Dunbar’s work staged in the actual setting, actors posed in hyperreal tableaux and lip-synching to audio recordings of Dunbar’s family and friends. The half-hour Out of Love, by the Danish director Birgitte Staermose, enlists Kosovo street kids to deliver scripted monologues about their lives—and, much like The Arbor, the film works up a fruitful tension between distance and intimacy, surrounding the private tragedies of its subjects in an aura of protective mystery.
It speaks to the diligence of T/F’s programming that some of the festival’s best movies have received little to no exposure stateside. Pietro Marcello’s La bocca del lupo (The Mouth of the Wolf), a mysterious, beautiful film that reaches for transcendence and often achieves it, tells a real-life love story worthy of a Fassbinder melodrama. The lovers, who met in prison, are Genoa tough guy Enzo and transsexual ex-junkie Mary, and Marcello refracts their grand romance (and that of the old port city’s atmospheric waterfront) through a mist of myth and near subliminal memories, combining love letters and home movies, forgotten stories and invented histories. La bocca del lupo has barely screened in the States and is still without distribution. T/F’s other high point, Oliver Laxe’s You Are All Captains, which showed at Cannes last year, finally made its US premiere here. Although it mirrors the Spanish director’s actual experiences teaching filmmaking to children in Tangiers, the film is not a documentary so much as a metafictional provocation. The film-within-a-film changes course—the on-screen Laxe disappears after a midmovie mutiny—and from there the film we are watching only gets harder to categorize and to contain. While movies that reflect on their own making tend to sink into self-conscious paralysis, You Are All Captains is an altogether rarer and headier sort of intellectual exercise, one that matches conceptual rigor with a liberating sense of play and discovery.
The True/False Film Fest ran March 3–6, 2011. For more details, click here.
François Truffaut, The Soft Skin, 1964, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 119 minutes.
FRANÇOIS TRUFFAUT followed up Jules and Jim (1962), one of his most critically acclaimed and popular films, with another love-triangle story, The Soft Skin (1964). Though it was poorly received upon release (and still often overlooked today), Truffaut’s fourth feature, about a married, middle-aged, celebrated literary critic who has an affair with a flight attendant in her twenties, stands as one of his most emotionally sophisticated, thanks largely to the performance of Françoise Dorléac as the object of desire.
Truffaut’s interest in making a film about adultery was inspired both by an image he had of a couple sharing “a terribly sensual kiss in a taxi in a big city” and by a real-life incident in Paris in the summer of 1963, when a woman walked into a restaurant and killed her cheating husband with a hunting rifle. Pierre (Jean Desailly), the unfaithful spouse of The Soft Skin, is first seen frantically saying goodbye to his adoring wife of fifteen years (Nelly Benedetti) and young daughter in their well-appointed apartment (Truffaut’s own Paris residence) before racing off to the Orly Airport to catch a plane to Lisbon, where he’s giving a lecture on “Balzac and Money.” On the flight he meets stewardess Nicole (Dorléac). She gives him a reproachful look for not extinguishing his cigarette after the NO SMOKING sign is illuminated; he wolfishly gazes at her legs while she changes shoes before landing. In Lisbon, they meet for a drink, staying up until dawn as Pierre regales Nicole with Balzac anecdotes. She invites him to her hotel room; when they return to Paris, she encourages him to call her.
Continuing the affair, though, is made nearly impossible by logistics: Nicole’s erratic schedule, the difficulty of finding assignation spots that aren’t “sordid.” Even a planned two-day lovers’ getaway in Reims, where Pierre is giving another lecture, is nearly bollixed when he can’t break away from his obligations to the town’s cultural mavens, making Nicole eventually break down in humiliation.
But these are the only tears she sheds; no clinging mistress, Nicole is one of Truffaut’s most independent, least manipulative female characters. Forward, frank, and foxy, she casually tells Pierre about her sexual past (“I like to make love, but I can go without for months”); when besotted, bewildered Pierre ultimately demands a much more conventional arrangement, she immediately sees it as domestic imprisonment.
François Truffaut, The Soft Skin, 1964. (Teaser)
The most memorable instance of the free-spirited flight attendant’s self-assurance occurs during Pierre and Nicole’s first dinner together in Paris. In the background, couples shimmy and jerk to a yé-yé record. After inept Pierre encourages Nicole to dance without him, she immediately establishes herself as the most graceful, sensual gyrator on the floor. Dancing with herself, Dorléac gives one of the best performances in her too-short career: The actress—Catherine Deneuve’s beloved older sister—would die in a car accident at age twenty-five in 1967. Writing an eloquent homage in Cahiers du cinéma one year after her death, Truffaut would remember Dorléac, who would always be overshadowed by her younger sibling, as an actress “insufficiently appreciated.”
The Soft Skin plays at Film Forum in New York March 11–17. For more details, click here.