Eugène Green, The Portuguese Nun, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes. Julie de Hauranne, Vasco, and Carloto Cotta (Leonor Baldaque, Francisco Mozos, and D. Sebastião).

RARELY HAS A MOVIE opened with the serene, picturesque tranquility that flows through the first minutes of The Portuguese Nun’s (2009): a slow and sumptuous 180-degree scan of the Lisbon skyline, shot from the hills above, accompanied by only the sounds of wind and water. It’s a gorgeous but strangely detached beginning to director Eugène Green’s cinematic daydream—an ideal encapsulation of his peculiar filmmaking method—designed to jolt the viewer out of the role of passive observer through characters who move awkwardly about the city, who speak without affect or inflection, and who occasionally gaze directly at the camera when offering philosophical asides about the human condition. Combining these unlikely elements, Green creates movies that are ridiculous yet somehow revelatory. Where some will see slow-moving tedium, others will be alerted to the potency of the film’s words and themes, and the nearly palpable mise-en-scène; much like Kubrick, Green is less interested in characters than in the ideas and ideals they embody.

His thesis concerns the ways in which travelers can be spiritually awakened, even transformed, by fleeting chance encounters and undiscovered countries. (The same theme could apply to Green himself, who abandoned his regular French locales to mold this love poem to the ethereal hub of Portugal.) The protagonist Julie (Leonor Baldaque) is a French actress who travels to Lisbon for the first time as the star of a film shoot. She plays a nun. But as she imbibes the wonders, her interest in the movie wanes. Julie’s nightly conversations with her director (Green) quickly veer from acting critiques to philosophical digressions. As she strolls through town, befriending an array of locals—from a lonely, suicidal aristocrat (Diogo Dória) and an orphaned boy, to a dashing young flirter—she delves into a place of introspection, her “conversations” more closely resembling meditations on life and love. When she stumbles upon a real nun (Ana Moreira) at a nearby church who spends every evening lost in prayer, Julie’s quest to “find her part” becomes something much more profound.

Green’s style can be off-putting to mainstream audiences, as he rigidly divides the story into chapters, often diverting from the central plot, if only to gaze at the city below or to bask in a mournful fado performance at a nearby café. The concept of momentum doesn’t quite apply here. Baldaque, Green, and Dória deliver their lines so statically that emotional sincerity is all but abandoned, as the director instead concentrates our attention on the meaning of his script and the staging of the conversation. But by ignoring these surface pleasures, Green emphasizes instead the deeper questions of Julie’s midnight musings, and the freedom afforded by a new city and fresh perspective. She is a beacon of empathy, always curious and easily moved, and while there is considerable silence in The Portuguese Nun, it’s a deafening silence, filled with both hesitation and hope.

S. James Snyder

The Portuguese Nun runs October 22–28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.

Student Film


Sasha Waters Freyer, Chekhov for Children, 2010, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 74 minutes.

IN THE LATE 1970s, fifth- and sixth-graders at P.S. 75 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side participated in a full-length production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which played for one night in 1979 “on Broadway”—albeit pretty far from the theater district—at Symphony Space at Ninety-fifth Street. With a cast and crew made up entirely of ten- to twelve-year-olds, the play was directed by writer Phillip Lopate, who was a member of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative at P.S. 75 and whose moving and quietly provocative essay “Chekhov for Children” inspired documentary filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer to make a movie based on her experience of the production—for which, at age ten, she served as assistant director. Besides operating as a memory piece and an update on the lives of Lopate and the actors, the documentary challenges current standardized, exam-oriented public school education. It also deserves to be in the collection of any serious performing arts library. Freyer uses brief clips from video recordings of British productions of Vanya, including Stuart Burge’s, featuring Laurence Olivier as Astrov and Michael Redgrave as Vanya, and by comparison the actors in P.S. 75’s production, despite a tendency to saw the air with their hands and to sometimes singsong their words, are no less truthful and urgent in their depictions of the characters than the great actors.

Lopate reflects on the impulse behind the production, which he undertook despite being cautioned that preteens might be disturbed by an immersion in the middle-aged regret that defines Chekhov’s characters and the tendency of some of them to throw themselves into hopeless love affairs as a distraction from their pain. As we watch the video recording of the young actors onstage, we see that they have found, against all expectations, parallels in their own experience for the characters’ dilemmas. As part of P.S. 75’s unorthodox arts education, students used Super 8 and early video rigs to make on-the-street documentaries and short fictions, and to record some of the rehearsals for Uncle Vanya. The Symphony Space performance was videotaped by a member of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and although the technology employed was crude, the excerpts that Freyer has selected for Chekhov for Children are rich with life—the life of the play, of the cast, and of New York as it was during the arts adventure of the ’70s.

Amy Taubin

Chekhov for Children screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on October 21. For more details, click here.

Michael Mann, Thief, 1981, still from a color film in 35 mm, 122 minutes. Frank (James Caan).

MICHAEL MANN’S crime-film oeuvre, guided by codes of masculinity and professionalism, begins with James Caan confidently heaving an electric drill against the front of a safe, which the whirring bit enters in mesmerizing close-up. In the shots leading up to the break-in, Thief (1981) lays down the notes for Mann’s many cool nocturnes to come—the warm, precise globes of glowing titanium-white street lamps and red taillights, streets and other surfaces turned gleamily reflective (here shot by Donald Thorin), evenly cruising motion and harbor-gazing stillness, both seductive and self-contained. And before the pastel-clad boom-time Miami of Crockett and Tubbs, there came Caan’s Frank, “Joe the boss of my body,” straight-shooting Chicago safecracker with a used-car lot as a front.

Unlike other selections in Film Forum’s “Heist” series, the failed escape in Thief comes not after a botched job or double cross but when Frank compromises his own independence. Accustomed to running the show and going home with the proceeds, he enters the employ of a crime boss, Leo (Robert Prosky). He hardheadedly believes he really can buck an entire system of mob-family ties and corrupt cops (who beat him in a room painted the same institutional green as those he laments to an adoption official from his “state-raised” days). But Frank is not a fatalistic solitary wanderer held over from the 1970s—when, in fact, the character was still in jail, like the beloved mentor he visits there, played by Willie Nelson. His desired out is to start a family (with Tuesday Weld), but exposing this feeling, then reverting to prison-taught nihilism, is what does him in.

Having written a bracing, tight script from a burglar’s memoir, Mann shoots in rough neighborhoods he remembers from his childhood, when his uncle used to take him on architectural tours. Fatherhood is in trouble in Thief: Frank seeking a dad in Nelson’s master thief, getting brutal godfather Leo, wanting his own son at any cost. But, stating his facts to whoever-the-fuck with contractionless enunciation, Caan puts across a no-nonsense craftsman hero for the early ’80s (one who Leo mockingly suggests should join a labor union). The much-maligned Tangerine Dream synthesizer score is like sheets of factory-cut metal, brutally beautiful and hard, suited to the industrial imagery of the drills. The break-in tricks come from safecrackers, aka “technical advisors”; actual cops (like then detective Dennis Farina) play crooks, and vice versa; the guns are handpicked; and, above all, the urgency of making a go of life before time runs out feels real.

Nicolas Rapold

Thief plays on October 14 in “The Heist” series at Film Forum in New York, which runs October 1–21. For more details, click here.

Carey On


Left: Timothy Carey, The World's Greatest Sinner, 1962, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 82 minutes. Right: Stanley Kubrick, The Killing, 1956, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 85 minutes.

SOMETHING LIKE THE CRISPIN GLOVER of his era, the eccentric, explosive character actor Timothy Carey lent his genuinely off-kilter presence to films as varied as the swampsploitation C-movie Poor White Trash (1957), Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), and John Cassavetes’s Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Along the way, he sprayed beer in Brando’s face in The Wild One (1953) (Brando, as director of One-Eyed Jacks [1961], later paid Carey back by stabbing him with a pen), was attacked by Elia Kazan on the set of East of Eden (1955), parodied his own menacing, maniacal image in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and the Monkees’s Head (1968), and turned down offers to act in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part 2 (1974).

The Brooklyn-born Carey was physically imposing—a strapping 6’4”—making him ideal for roles as brutish heavies, and he resembled a love child of Nicolas Cage and John Turturro. His penchant for improvisation—bizarre dancing, unscripted outbursts, mumbled nonsense—often got him into trouble with directors and other actors, but made lifelong fans of Jack Nicholson (who wrote Head and likely borrowed elements of Carey’s persona for his performance in The Shining [1980]); Cassavetes (who claimed Carey had the “brilliance of Eisenstein”); and Quentin Tarantino, who considered Carey for the role of crime boss Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

For mondo video devotees, Carey sealed his immortality with the self-written/produced/directed oddity The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), which can be characterized as Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) as directed by Ed Wood Jr. The film, which has some of the same proto–John Waters tackiness of The Honeymoon Killers (1970), tells the tale of a bored insurance salesman who becomes an early Elvis-style rockabilly sensation. Noting the frenzy he inspires in his audiences, he begins calling himself “God,” founds a religious cult, and runs for President. Carey and his singularly untalented “band” played their own detuned rock ‘n’ roll in the concert scenes, but the film was scored by a young, pre–Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa. Narrated by the devil and featuring the real God at the climax, Sinner was admired by Elvis himself (who asked Carey for a print) and remains one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll films.

Carey was equally enraptured by flatulence and Dalí, and both influences are evident in the unfinished pilot of his proposed TV series Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, which he began shooting in 1968 and which, along with many of the aforementioned films, will get a rare screening at Anthology Film Archives’s Carey retrospective. Concerning an idiot man-child named Tweet Twig (Carey) who works for the “Don’t Drop a Stitch” knitting club (old ladies, some played by men in drag) and seeks to rescue every stray animal he can find, this truly surreal labor of love was partially funded by Cassavetes and was sporadically worked on through 1982. Unsurprisingly, it got nowhere with network executives, but probably resides in the bootleg VHS collections of Waters, David Lynch, and Harmony Korine.

The saying, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” generally applied to things, perfectly sums up Tim Carey. Joaquin Phoenix merely wishes he were this weird.

Andrew Hultkrans

“Agog: The World of Timothy Carey” runs October 15–25 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Left: Segundo de Chomón, Les Cent Trucks (One Hundred Trucks), 1906, still from a black-and-white film, 3 minutes. Right: Segundo de Chomón, Ah! La barbe (Ah! The Beard), 1905, still from a black-and-white film, 2 minutes.

SPANISH FILMMAKER SEGUNDO DE CHOMÓN began working in the medium less than half a decade after its invention, first as a renowned colorist in the days of labor-intensive frame-by-frame tinting, then as a pioneering special-effects designer. His career unfolded during the historical phase scholar Tom Gunning has dubbed the “cinema of attractions”—before narrative took hold as the dominant mode, when fairground-style spectacle and legerdemain remained the eye-baffling norm. One of Chomón’s earliest films, The King of Dollars (1905), makes the link to stage magic clear. It shows a disembodied hand performing coin tricks, enhanced by simple editing techniques that would have still been unfamiliar to audiences. Later works recall the baroque theatricality of his contemporary George Méliès (whose films he hand-colored), with a somewhat more sinister edge to their elaborate fantasy. In one of Chomón’s best-known titles, The Red Spectre (1907), a leering Satanic magician traps women inside tiny glass bottles while cavorting in his rouge-tinted subterranean lair. In Bob’s Electric Theater (1909), a boy shares a miniature toy stage with his friends, whereupon it plays host to stop-motion animated dolls who skewer one another with swords and furiously kick-box. A less violent variation on this theme appears in The Electric Hotel (1908), in which a bellhop employs a novel device that causes luggage to fly upstairs, then unpack on its own. These last two proto-Surrealist items serve as reminders of how much the mechanism of cinema itself remained a source of wonder for Chomón, and the use of “electric” parallels the way “electronic” would be employed in the 1960s—or, indeed, “digital” today—as a slippery marker of seductively ineffable technological newness. Though populated with dancing sorcerers, gypsy alchemists, and ghostly apparitions, Chomón’s work now feels ironically materialist, capturing the weird essence of cinema in its primordial form: an industrial-era machine, rigged out of gears and shutters, incandescent bulbs and chemical photography, that nonetheless creates lifelike phantoms from a projected beam of moving shadows.

Ed Halter

A selection of films by Segundo de Chomón will be shown at a special screening hosted by the New York Film Festival on Sunday, October 10, at 12:30 PM. A retrospective of Chomón’s work will appear at Anthology Film Archives in New York October 29–31.

Sam Taylor-Wood, Nowhere Boy, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 98 minutes. Left: Mimi Smith and Julia Lennon (Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff). Right: John Lennon (Aaron Johnson).

TWO NEW FILMS bookending the life of John Lennon, who would have turned seventy on October 9, elide his momentous trajectory through the 1960s. Although Nowhere Boy (2009), a fictional movie directed by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, shows how Lennon (Aaron Johnson) met Paul McCartney and George Harrison and brings him to the eve of their band’s departure for Hamburg, the Beatles aren’t mentioned by name. The film nods ironically to the Liverpool glory years in a scene in which drunken young John is turned away from the Cavern Club, but it is concerned with something more primal than creativity and fame: how Lennon’s troubled mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), fought a battle of wills for emotional possession of her son against her stable older sister, his widowed Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas).

The emotional upheavals Nowhere Boy depicts see the emergence of the cruel and self-destructive side of Lennon’s personality—chickens that came home to roost in his thirties, according to LENNONYC (2010), which was made by Michael Epstein for PBS’s American Masters series. This documentary focuses on the ex-Beatle’s Manhattan years—and his eighteen-month “lost weekend” in Los Angeles—when he fought not only his personal demons but the FBI’s attempt to have him deported for his antiwar activism, before he settled into a new groove as a mellowed musician and devoted family man. Together the movies compellingly weave an intertextual web, the central strand of which is Lennon’s lifelong need for a mother or mother substitute.

Nowhere Boy begins auspiciously, marrying the first clanging chord of 1965’s “Help!” with a shot of the schoolboy Lennon cavorting around Liverpool’s colonnaded Saint George’s Hall. Johnson adequately captures his coltishness, irreverence—later boorishness—and vulnerability, if not the viperish wit that Ian Hart brought to the young Lennon in The Hours and Times (1991) and Backbeat (1994). Flashbacks reveal that Mimi and her husband adopted five-year-old John when Julia and his father, Alfred, asked the boy the impossible on their separation—to choose between them. Seeking out Julia, when he’s seventeen, John is all but seduced by her: Sometimes clad in a red coat that screams “scarlet woman,” she flirts outrageously with him, calls him her “dream,” tells him that rock ’n’ roll means “sex,” and installs him in the home she shares with her lover and younger daughters. Genteel Mimi fights to keep him, upping the ante when she buys the neophyte rocker an expensive guitar for his birthday. Dreadful scenes between the sisters bring him close to the breaking point; then comes rapprochement, and tragedy. There’s time amid these vicissitudes for John and a teddy girl to fornicate in a park, but the fascination here is with John not as a leader of men or as a Casanova but as a boy at the mercy of well-meaning but needy mothers.

Given Lennon’s wayward streak, Nowhere Boy is oddly safe and functional. Taylor-Wood departs from formalism only in the sequence in which John, taught banjo chords by the musical Julia, strums thoughtfully as her family rushes around him at almost time-lapse speed. Though a doc, LENNONYC is more style-conscious, deploying some fancy curlicued graphics and images of the newspaper packaging of the Some Time in New York City album morphing into video. Driven by interviews with associates, including Elton John and David Geffen, and featuring wonderful footage of the Lennons wandering shyly in Central Park, it is otherwise solid, thorough, and mercifully nonhagiographic. Ono, who supported the film’s production, is interviewed, but so is May Pang, whom Ono enlisted as Lennon’s paramour when Ono separated from him after he humiliated her by sleeping with another woman at a party. Dependent on Ono, Lennon drank heavily during his LA exile and reunited with her in New York in early 1975. The birth of their son Sean later that year led to his five-year holiday from the music business, during which he reinvented himself as hands-on father (in a way he never was to Julian Lennon during Beatlemania), house husband, and baker of bread. In 1980, he recorded the Double Fantasy album and was murdered three weeks after its release. (The film decorously refuses to name his killer, Mark Chapman, but the pall of that crime hangs heavily over it.)

Listening to the songs on Double Fantasy—which include “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Woman,” “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” and “Dear Yoko”—it’s hard to reconcile them with such randy numbers as “Twist and Shout” and “Please Please Me”; similarly, it’s hard to reconcile the confused rebel of Nowhere Boy with the contented forty-year-old Lennon at the end of LENNONYC. Though Christopher Eccleston played John from 1967 to 1971 in this year’s British TV drama Lennon Naked, what happened in between Taylor-Wood’s and Epstein’s films—four thousand days in the life—is an intimate epic as yet unattempted.

Graham Fuller

The US theatrical premiere run of Nowhere Boy begins Thursday, October 8, at Film Forum in New York. LENNONYC was screened during the 2010 New York Film Festival and premieres nationally on PBS on Monday, November 22, at 9 PM.