James Fotopoulos, Alice in Wonderland, 2010, still from a color video in HD, 99 minutes.
“CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER,” said Alice, although I can’t remember exactly where. Was it after she’d fallen down the rabbit hole or when she crossed to the other side of the mirror? No matter: Alice in Wonderland (2010)—James Fotopoulos’s adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by way of Henry Saville Clark and Walter Slaughter’s 1886 musical Alice in Wonderland: A Dream Play for Children—is an extremely curious object in its own right, and its premiere New York screening is a must-see. If you doze through a few of its ninety-nine minutes, your dreams will be the better for it.
A prolific Chicago-based underground filmmaker, Fotopoulos created a stir with his stupendously creepy feature Migrating Forms. It screened in 2000 in the New York Underground Film Festival, which subsequently renamed itself by borrowing the film’s title. The concept of “migrating forms” has remained a constant in Fotopoulos’s work: In Alice, it applies to the fragments of John Tenniel’s illustrations for Carroll’s Alice books and the bits of Carroll’s prose and poetry that migrate to Fotopoulos’s movie, along with excerpts from the score of Clark and Slaughter’s opera. One might view the slow dissolves between the hundreds of drawings that Fotopoulos created for the film as another layer of migration; so too is the mix of the nineteenth-century score with droning metal–art music that sounds as if it’s erupting from the bottom of a swamp.
Alice is a multimedia opera presented in the form of a single-screen movie. In terms of avant-garde genres, it could be classified, to borrow a term from P. Adams Sitney, as a trance film. At the center of the proceedings is a medium close-up of a very beautiful young woman who appears in two guises. In Part I (subtitled “Alice in Wonderland”) her dark hair curls about her face and is held in place by a white housemaid’s bonnet. In Part II (subtitled “Through the Looking Glass”) her hair is blonde, long, and straight, swept away from her forehead in the manner of Tenniel’s Alice. Although her face almost never changes its expression, it seems very much alive, thanks to the talent of the actress and Fotopoulos’s filmmaking. One fully believes that the drawings (most of them charcoal-shaded outlines on a coral ground), which cross-fade seemingly in front of her face and behind her head, are projected from her psyche. As in many of Fotopoulos’s movies, the narrative is couched as a stream of consciousness. The drawings—most of them of body parts, strange animals, whiskers without a cat, a long-eared rabbit head cut off at the neck, a terrifying featureless face, and other less legible organic forms—evaporate before they can be fully grasped, as do the single words and phrases that pop onto the screen in varying sizes of white typeface, punctuated before they can accumulate into a complete sentence by the word “pause,” always placed, as if it were a stage direction, in parenthesis.
And, occasionally, we see a long shot of Alice I and Alice II superimposed on the close-ups of their respective faces. At one point Alice I slow-dances alone, and the undulation of her torso is among the most erotic images in cinema. Alice II is pregnant, which certainly would have taken Carroll aback. I wish Fotopoulos hadn’t tried so hard in the last ten minutes to reach a conclusion with texts that are foursquare on the meaning, unlike anything that came before. I had hoped that the last text on-screen would be “pause.” Instead, in the movie’s only bow to convention, it’s “The End.”
Alice in Wonderland screens Saturday, May 7, at 7 PM at the Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.
TRIBECA (THE NEIGHBORHOOD) has evolved so dramatically over the past fifty years—from nameless industrial district to second SoHo to celebrity nesting zone—that it was fitting, if entirely coincidental, that I chose to attend two documentaries about radical transformation in the tenth year of Tribeca (the film festival).
The first, Limelight, directed by Billy Corben, tells the tale of the rise and fall of New York’s club scene—retroactively embodied by ur–club kid/amateur murderer Michael Alig—through a pocket biography of Peter Gatien, the undisputed king of 1980s–90s Manhattan nightlife as owner-impresario of Limelight, Palladium, and Tunnel. A soft-spoken, deadpan Canadian, known for wearing an eyepatch to cover the eye he lost playing hockey as a teen, Gatien bought clubs in Miami and Atlanta in the ’70s before setting his sights on New York. Correctly noting that “the chrome-and-neon thing had been taken as far as it could go,” Gatien secured an unoccupied Gothic Revival church in the no-man’s-land between Chelsea and the Flatiron district and converted it into the most decadent club of the ’80s and early ’90s—Limelight. Dividing the formerly sacred site into different rooms with disparate vibes, Gatien hired club promoters to throw theme nights in the various spaces. Alig was one of his stars, having come to Limelight after “bankrupting all the other clubs in the city” with his extravagant party concepts.
Another key figure was the young Staten Island thug who went by the name Lord Michael and almost singlehandedly imported acid house, techno, and the new designer drug ecstasy from the nascent UK rave scene. Much like LSD, E (or X as it was then known) enjoyed several years of default legality due to governmental obliviousness before being classified as Schedule 1, and during this period Limelight served as a new kind of electric Kool-Aid acid test. (Literally: Ecstasy punch was a frequently served beverage in the club at the time.) This led to clubgoers from oil-and-water demographics—Alig-like club kids, established celebs, well-dressed trannies, and, from Lord Michael’s crowd, hooligan mooks from Brooklyn and Staten Island—to melt together in a giant, nightly love-in. “It was Caligula with music,” one observer recalls in the film. Alig, interviewed from prison and surprisingly clean-cut and sweet-natured, remembers a Limelight game called What’s My Line?, where several rails of different substances were carved out on a table and snorters had to guess which drug they’d just ingested. It was “degeneracy without negative consequences,” he sighs. Not for long.
The ecstasy era was also the crack era, and the gang-related street violence of the latter trade led to the election of former US Attorney and zero-tolerance law-and-order candidate Rudy Giuliani as mayor. Abetted by his police commissioner, Bill Bratton, a proponent of the “broken windows” theory of policing, Giuliani went on a crusade against drugs and deviance in the city, soon alighting on Gatien as the Mephistopheles of E, even though the all-business club owner rarely used substances and hardly even drank on the job. The rest of the film concerns Giuliani’s relentless pursuit of Gatien, the closing and reopening of Limelight, and an absurd trial where witnesses for the prosecution (informants, including the recently imprisoned murder suspect Alig) ended up discrediting not only the undercover cops assigned to the case but also each other. Gatien was acquitted of the drug-related charges but later pled guilty to tax evasion and ended up being deported to Canada in 2003. Corben effectively blends period club footage and news reports with talking-head interviews with Gatien, Alig, Lord Michael, and many others in a club-style “bar” illuminated by acid colors. Like Abel Ferrara’s 2008 doc Chelsea on the Rocks, about the last days of the famous bohemian hotel, Limelight is a paean to a lost New York that was sleazier and more dangerous—but also more fun. In a telling conclusion, it is revealed that the Limelight church is now a luxury minimall.
Focusing on a very different (though equally druggy) underground, French-born, New York–based Marie Losier offers the unique love story of Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV frontperson Genesis P-Orridge and his soulmate, arty former dominatrix Lady Jaye. Meeting in a New York dungeon in the early ’90s, the couple were married in 1993 and soon began to merge their identities, seeking “pandrogyny.” They dyed their hair platinum, underwent facial surgery and other operations (including getting breast implants on the same day), and blended their names and personae to the extent that Genesis speaks in what could be taken as the royal “we” (until you realize that s/he’s speaking for both of them). Shot over seven years in intimate circumstances, the film sutures together different film stocks and styles, with experimental interludes (some reminiscent of a low-budget Derek Jarman) linking the handheld 16-mm scenes.
This makes for a sweet, if bizarre, domestic tableau until, beyond tragically, Jaye dies of a seizure in 2007, about three-quarters of the way through the film. It’s a totally unexpected and uncalled-for moment, not unlike the shower scene in Psycho (1960) or the killing of the son in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997). You can’t believe that anyone, not the viewers and certainly not the remaining subject, can go on. But Losier shows Genesis gamely surviving, he/r complete immersion in Jaye’s identity ironically enabling he/r to maintain a measure of positivity. Many people say that their deceased loved ones are “still with us,” but Genesis’s unshakable belief that this is true of Jaye is terribly convincing—and moving. “Reality is just stuff,” Genesis concludes while sitting in front of a sampling keyboard. A lifelong acolyte of the cut-up techniques of William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin, both of whom s/he befriended, Genesis realizes that physical life is just a sample source for endless remixes. This allows he/r to approach the latest version—that of aging pandrogyne, widow/er, retired musician, and currently active artist-writer—as terrain at once familiar and strange.
If anything ties Gatien and Genesis together, it is their stoicism in the face of extreme reversals—an admirable, much-needed quality in these trying times.
Hartmut Bitomsky, Dust, 2007, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes.
THE RATHER WRITERLY GERMAN director Hartmut Bitomsky likes to quote Oulipian writer Raymond Queneau. A work of art, according to Queneau, needs a rules-based structure. If those rules remain invisible, then the unseen and paranoia-inducing regularities will prey on the mind. The audience need not know the creator’s purpose. Neither, then, do the participants in Bitomsky’s new film, who are earnest German housewives, factory workers, construction laborers, scientists, and intellectuals, all of them occupied or preoccupied with dust.
Bitomsky, who is currently working in grimy Berlin after a long stretch teaching cinema in sunny California, has created a work engineered to feast on the anxieties of tidy-minded Teutons. Dust is his meditative, polymorphous essay on the pulverized: that which remains formless, invasive, unprunable, and uncategorizable. Bitomsky’s dust is not mere meaningless bits of fluffy gray trash, but an itchily anal Freudian antisubstance that pours in through every crack in the German psyche.
Bitomsky never coaches his players; he simply sets up a camera and waits for them to do something unheimlich. They consistently oblige him. Most of the figures portrayed here are burdened with formidable academic learning and gleaming, ultraspecialized machinery. There are a few perky, lighthearted ones, such as the grinning female obsessive who collects lint balls and dust bunnies, categorizes them in fake Linnaean fashion, and preserves choice samples within solid plastic as a kind of “jewelry.” She’s clearly having a ball with her stark confrontation with the ineffable.
As for most of the film’s other women—crop-haired cleaning ladies, glum assembly workers, and dutiful, objective scientists devoid of cosmetics and nail polish—they all tote psychic burdens that would baffle Hitchcock. Locked in intimate combat with irrevocable forces of decay, these fading flowers are morosely resigned to the microfilth that besieges them; each softly falling mote of dust weighs on their souls like an anvil.
The queen among them is surely the museum staffer, who is fluent, heavy-lidded, conscientious, and yet touchingly disheveled in Berlin alterna-girl fashion. This punked-out functionary’s melancholy task is to remove the dust from medieval statuary. She is keenly aware, as she reveals to us, that the ancient, crumbling paint on the drying wood is itself just a kind of dust. The polluted air of modern Berlin and even her own human exhalations are integrating themselves into the very substance of Germany’s cultural heritage. She’s in a quiet, ruthless, unwinnable war of camel’s hair and damp Q-tips. It’s painful to see her postmodern penance at the feet of a crumbling icon whose original artisan probably finished in a week, put down his chisel, and went out for a beer.
There’s also an extensive tour of a paint factory, where plastic tubs of pulverized pigment would seem to offer a golden chance for some sticky, Disney-style polychromatic lyricism. That’s a temptation Bitomsky firmly resists: This rainbow factory is a whirring, clanking tomb, which breeds dust in fantastic profusion. There’s no getting away from the stuff, anywhere; it even haunts high-tech clean rooms where bunny-suited metaphysicians have to chase it down with sponges. Naturally the debris they pursue is commonly skin cells flaking off their own bodies. Ashes to ashes.
As the film rumbles on, spewing dense clouds of billowing particles, the scale methodically expands. Closets become echoing clean rooms, dead factories become exploding quarries, and quarries become old battlegrounds bedizened with toxic, fetus-wrecking spews of depleted uranium shells, which saw lavish use in Iraq and Kosovo. The eponymous Dust Bowl also takes its turn on the stage, where yesterday’s hapless Okies endured desiccating woes that make Katrina look like a cakewalk.
As a documentarist whose previous works pondered (among other subjects) bomber aircraft, road construction, and an aging movie studio, Bitomsky is known for his wry repurposing of found footage. In Dust, he’s outdone himself by finding some grainy reels literally eaten up with dust. These are writhing, spotty, and ontologically horrible, like some Man Ray experiment in cinematic autocannibalism.
In Oulipian fashion, Dust is a 35-mm film that tackles the smallest object that can be captured on film. As is pointed out in voice-over, film itself is merely colored micrograins haphazardly stuck to a frail plastic substrate. One hates to contemplate the inspired riffing Bitomsky might bring to digital bits, which are just like dust, only not even visible.
Dust “has its own life,” intones our narrator, who is a definite presence in many of the scenes, although nameless and persistently invisible. This sardonic, gravelly character becomes quite sinister when, still invisible to us, he slyly infiltrates a woman’s home to interrogate her as she twitchily vacuums the upholstery.
Rather than working itself up to a Wagnerian crescendo, the film slows in its closing moments. Dust is finally overwhelmed by its own fine, choking substance, and loses its ability to breathe. One section near the end is downright pedantic, although its topic, the cosmic physics of dust during planet formation, ought to glitter with Carl Sagan–like pop-sci brio. Instead, hapless astrophysicists, trying to get dust to adhere and cohere, find themselves puzzled and frustrated.
Dust is a world of true grit—even our stellar aspirations are grit. We’re compounded of stardust, which, under Bitomsky’s microscope, looks as glumly unpromising as an East German Trabant. Under this film’s shrouded skies—a leaden miasma of coal exhaust, factory smokestacks, and the wind-lofted grains of the perpetually stricken Sahara—we can no longer aspire, or even respire. Our feet are still firmly in the gutter, but the stars are denied us, these days.
Dust plays at the REDCAT in Los Angeles on Monday, May 2, 2011. This essay originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Artforum.
“IT’S NOT THAT I DON’T LIKE WORDS,” Claire Denis said when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. “There’s sometimes no need for words.” Denis is a filmmaker who privileges sensory experience, but while she may often strip away words, she never foregoes music, and in fact views it as central to a cinema that strives to act on the unconscious. Since her fourth feature, Nenette and Boni (1996), she has collaborated with the great, perennially underrated British band Tindersticks. (The one exception is her Beau Travail , which used the Benjamin Britten opera of the Herman Melville novel on which the film is loosely based.) Claire Denis Film Scores 1996–2009, a five-disc box set out this week from the Montreal-based Constellation Records, brings together all six sound tracks (only two of them previously available) that the band—and two of their members, working solo—have composed for Denis.
As with all great director-composer pairings, from Hitchcock-Herrmann to Leone-Morricone to Paul Thomas Anderson’s associations with Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood, the Tindersticks make film music that goes far beyond its traditional illustrative role. You could call this a match made in synesthetic heaven—critics have long tagged the Tindersticks’ expansive orchestral rock as “cinematic,” and Denis’s elliptical films certainly have a musical quality—and it’s telling that the musicians have described this artistic kinship in the most fundamental terms. Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples has said that their music and Denis’s films both create “a sense of space”; for violinist and multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchliffe, the common factor is that they “don’t fit easily into standard time.”
Along with cinematographer Agnès Godard and the stable of actors that includes Alex Descas, Gregoire Colin, and Isaach de Bankolé, the Tindersticks have become part of Denis’s creative family, long-standing collaborators for whom working together is largely a matter of shared intuition. When Denis says that the Tindersticks are in her films, she means it quite literally, given how deeply embedded each party is in the other’s process. They start when she shows them the script (which tends to be spare), and their music, as it evolves, helps her find the rhythm and shape of the films.
Denis met the band at a show in Paris in the mid-’90s. At that point they had made two albums (1993 and 1995, both self-titled, still their high-water marks), and the wide-screen sweep of their baroque romanticism made them naturals for film music (parallel to their relationship with Denis, the band has worked with the British filmmaker Martin Wallace on a series of “companion films,” among them a Super 8 charmer for the second album’s “Traveling Light”). Denis had just finished writing Nenette and Boni, an intimate brother-sister story set in Marseille, and had been listening compulsively to “My Sister,” a droll, delicate mumbled-word number from the 1995 album. The Nenette and Boni score, which largely riffs on the shimmering “My Sister” (beginning with a rearranged instrumental version called “Ma Soeur”), goes a long way toward creating the film’s daydream atmospherics.
The range of the sound tracks speaks to the band’s versatility, and of course to Denis’s appetite, her desire never to make the same film twice. Trouble Every Day (2001), her notorious tale of vampiric, cannibalistic sex, matches the Tindersticks’ predilection for orchestral gothic, right on the cusp of beauty and dissonance, tenderness and savagery. (Denis said of the film, “It starts with a kiss and ends with a bite.”) For Friday Night (2002), an altogether more civilized erotic fable, set in an enchanted (though traffic-clogged) Paris, Hinchliffe conjures an air of expectancy and quiet delight from a narrowed musical palette and a small string section. Staples, handling the more opaque and experimental The Intruder (2004), accompanies the hallucinatory final journey of a man and his fading, newly transplanted heart with a kind of cardiogram motif: a repetitive guitar loop, by turns lulling and ominous.
After making six studio albums, the band members took a break for solo projects, and half of the original sextet—Staples, keyboardist Dave Boulter, and guitarist Neil Fraser—regrouped in 2007. (Hinchliffe has gone on to a prolific scoring career in indie film, working with Ira Sachs, Debra Granik, and James Marsh.) The reformed band scored Denis’s last two films, the Ozu-inspired father-daughter drama 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and the roiling postcolonial African nightmare White Material (2009). As with their predecessors, these are sound tracks that easily survive the transposition to home listening even as they instantly summon a welter of indelible images for anyone who has seen the films. A wistful melodica refrain brings to mind the crisscrossing railway tracks of 35 Shots; slow-building crescendos evoke the stealthy progress of the child soldiers in White Material––a testament to the respective power of the images and of the music but, more than that, to their mysterious inseparability.
The Tindersticks will perform with scenes from Denis’s films on April 30 in Los Angeles at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex and at the Castro Theater on May 2 as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
KEVIN JEROME EVERSON’S two-minute film Something Else (2007) begins with a bit of worn color 16 mm—evidently shot for a local television-news station, perhaps sometime around 1970—depicting an interview with Miss Black Roanoke, Virginia, a young woman in a scoop-necked russet gown, with a sparkling tiara perched atop her Afro. The footage seems battered by time. The sound drops out, more than once, and split-second bits of dialogue repeat, as if two prints had been badly spliced together. Following some initial questions, the awkward white male reporter asks the beauty queen whether she’d prefer to be in a racially integrated event or remain in segregated pageants. “Well, I don’t think it’s a matter of preference,” she responds, smiling sweetly into the reporter’s microphone. “I think it’s a matter really of whether I was to win or lose, you understand. Because in the other pageant—I call it the regular pageant—the black girl doesn’t have much of a chance of winning. I hate to say it, but it’s kind of true. It’s not that it’s segregated, but it’s necessary to segregate, in order to give black girls a chance to feel . . . ‘up.’ ” As soon as she utters that final word, Everson’s film cuts to silent images of a more recent African American pageant queen, waving from atop a parade float, shot from a low angle on digital video, artificially distressed to imitate the flaring light leaks at the end of a roll of 16-mm film.
This bit of the past replayed in Something Else might strike some viewers as unexpected—an African American woman calmly arguing for the benefits of a segregated institution, applying the theory of Black Power to the pageant system. Such an emphasis on the overlooked particulars of history has become increasingly central to Everson’s filmmaking, which now comprises nearly seventy short pieces made since 1997 and four feature-length films: Spicebush (2005), Cinnamon (2006), The Golden Age of Fish (2008), and Erie (2010). For more than a decade, working in numerous film and video formats, Everson has presented images of the lives of African Americans—and other people of African heritage, worldwide—through his own distinctive practice of cinematic portraiture, a blend of fiction and documentary that analyzes minute aspects of individual personality by homing in on everyday gestures of labor and leisure. Whether shot from real life, rediscovered in archival images, or performed according to Everson’s direction, these gestures subsist as parallels and cognates for artmaking. His films suggest not records of reality but, rather, recordings of performance.
Thus, in Something Else, the significance of Miss Black Roanoke’s statement lies as much in its structure as in its content, functioning as an example of the material practice of her avocation: the media interview as part of the beauty queen’s job. At the same time, her statement points to the many variations on individual experience and expression that transpire, for the most part unremembered, within the larger sweep of history. Everson captures and reclaims the particularity of this woman’s performance by reduplicating the final word of her statement “I felt very privileged” in a way that viewers might think indicates a physical problem with the footage: The added emphasis raises the question of how and exactly in what manner a young black woman in the South would have experienced “privilege” at that point in time. As signaled in the angle of the film’s second shot, Everson is less interested in bird’s-eye views than in observations from the ground up. Achieved through an understated formalism rather than through traditional documentary modes, this materially inflected history of racial politics remains always immanent, even if, at times, occluded in symbolism and metaphor.
Similarly, in The Reverend E. Randall T. Osborn, First Cousin—part of the 2007 “Cleveland Trilogy,” which also comprises North and Emergency Needs (the latter shown in the 2008 Whitney Biennial)—Everson reedits monochrome footage of an African American television reporter interviewing the titular Reverend Osborn (“first cousin to the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King,” as the reporter himself announces), at night, against a sharply lit white brick wall. The youthful but determined Osborn relates an incident of police violence in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland during the race riots there in July 1966, and his account is intercut with reaction shots of the unnamed reporter nodding to his words. Here, Everson shifts the focus slightly to the reporter himself, who is shown barely evincing emotion, his voice perfectly even, in a calm but insistent telejournalistic tone. By the end of the three-and-a-half-minute film, it becomes apparent that Everson has subtly duped and repeated these shots of the reporter, increasing his presence in the footage and underscoring its theatrical construction. The significance of the piece thus moves away from the obvious grand narrative of racial conflict and civil rights–era protest toward the trace of this reporter’s unheralded career, expanding what Everson sees as the slim cinematic and televisual record of African Americans and suggesting that significances lie at the margins of this visual history.
Understated artistic interventions such as these go back to the earliest instances of Everson’s work, in sculpture, photography, and installation. The exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994 included Mansfield, Ohio, End Table, 1994, one of a series of small tables Everson hand-fabricated to imitate the mass-produced modernist furnishings found in the working-class homes of Mansfield when he was growing up there in the 1970s (and at least one critic at the time missed Everson’s handiwork, mistaking the piece for a readymade). On the table he placed framed photographs: some, portraits taken for high school yearbooks; others, snapshots of prison guards. “What I really liked was the fact that I knew people, like my parents or my uncles or neighbors or whatever, would go down to Bing’s Furniture,” he told Cinemad magazine in 2006, “and pick out frames for family pictures and assemble them in their house.” The photos of corrections officers silently bear witness to Mansfield’s painful transition to a postindustrial economy: By the early ’90s, the local prison had become one of the city’s major employers.
This same socioeconomic circumstance underwrites one of Everson’s early films, Second Shift (1999), which depicts a guard at a correctional facility—played by the filmmaker himself—arriving at work through a repetition of specific actions: lugging his lunch pail to the counter, placing his keys in a plastic bin for inspection. The camera crops Everson from the shoulders down, an unusual framing that emphasizes the motions of his hands. The kind of mundane tasks alluded to indirectly in installations like Mansfield, Ohio, End Table are here explicitly depicted. The somatic repetition typical of daily labor recurs in later films such as A Week in the Hole (2002), which portrays a tyro worker at a paint factory learning the skills needed for his job, and Company Line (2009), narrated by Mansfield municipal employees, shown plowing and deicing streets that once demarcated the areas where southern African Americans had settled during the Great Migration after World War II.
Beyond his clear emphasis on the experiences of everyday workers, Everson also stresses high-art models for his filmmaking. He has remarked that Emergency Needs, which pairs archival footage of a press conference by Cleveland’s first African American mayor, Carl B. Stokes, with a reenactment on an adjoining screen by a female actor, was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s seemingly identical collage paintings of 1957, Factum I and Factum II, which, hung side by side, reveal subtle variations—though the differences between Everson’s paired images are far more conspicuous, serving to call attention to Stokes as public actor. The filmmaker has also made related remarks about the content of his feature Cinnamon, which explores the black auto-racing subculture by following a fictional African American female driver through the routines of preparing for a competition in Virginia, where Everson now lives and works. “Drag racing is like abstract painting,” he told Filmmaker Magazine in 2006. “The layperson thinks it is easy, but it has its own complex language.” Everson’s own formal strategies are likewise a specific kind of cinematic abstraction. Elsewhere, he speaks of wanting to “abstract everyday actions and statements into theatrical gestures,” which he achieves in Cinnamon and other works by probing at the boundaries between scripted performance and documentary recording. And by drawing out the roar of engines into a rich and enveloping soundscape, he insists on the essentially aesthetic nature of drag racing, which, like art, is portrayed as both a physical and a technological discipline. Beyond these details, Everson’s point in invoking abstract painting is strategic, meant to dislodge any expectations of simple social realism. (It is also, undoubtedly, part of his own sense of performance that he brings to interviews and artist’s statements, which, like his films, are seemingly offhand but nonetheless rehearsed and precisely calibrated.)
Such comparisons also serve a larger purpose, as reminders of the collision between the formal necessities of art and the socioeconomic determinations of plain life. The resonance between the art of workers and the work of artists, a junction that Everson returns to again and again from different angles and by various methods, is not merely one of conceptual elegance. It should be felt—deeply—as a means of confronting and resolving the tensions and incongruities consequent to the sort of class migration of which Everson’s own life is but one example. It speaks of an urge to bridge disparate modes of living. What may have its roots in personal history becomes a platform for reflecting on and analyzing larger patterns in the structure of society through work that, while drawn from life, nevertheless avoids straightforward autobiography.
If art-world references are buried and complicated in his films, so, too, are the sociological verities that critics typically wish to mine from anything made by or about nonwhite cultures and the working class. In Everson’s work, tiny details are fabricated and fictionalized, archival footage is framed in new ways, events that seem documentary are directed and staged. Old Cat (2009) consists of an unbroken roll of silent black-and-white 16 mm, shot by Everson in a small boat navigating what seems to be a broad river. One man pilots the boat from a perch at the fore; another lies port side with his leg in a splint, crutch under his right arm. What seems like a single-take slice of life is in fact an instance of theater: The man’s injury is fabricated, inserted into the shot as a means of suggesting some unseen narrative. The half-hour-long BZV (2010) takes the same tack. Shot in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, as a commission for the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s “Where Is Africa?” program this year, BZV opens with another sequence on water—this time, featuring three young African men in a rumbling speedboat. Later shots show a woman walking through the city holding water skis, then a couple shopping for a bed frame who finally journey through the capital’s dirt streets, captured from the back as they navigate the roads, rolled-up foam mattress in their hands. Without narration and with little dialogue, BZV feels like documentary but is in fact entirely scripted, collecting fragments of a narrative into an open-ended whole. Everson once again proposes, then refuses, an anthropological role, instead crafting a fiction from the bits of reality at hand. This film of Africa works less as a window than as a surface, composed by the artist with several layers of remove. The cusp between reality and fiction is here more explicitly revealed in the displacement from America to Africa, but the de-realizing effect of cultural and class migration suffuses his work as a whole: The differences between modes of being allow everyday actions to more markedly present themselves as performances.
Kevin Jerome Everson, Erie, 2010. (Trailer)
The strategies of Old Cat and BZV culminate in Everson’s latest and, arguably, strongest feature, Erie, which like these two shorter works is told in a series of long, unbroken takes, each shot on a single roll of grainy black-and-white reversal 16-mm stock. In the first sequence, two workers in hard hats unfurl a billboard depicting what appears to be an African American man in a beret, proudly posing with a Beetle, with a tagline reading THERE’S A BIT OF THE COOL IN EVERY BUG. VOLKSWAGEN OHIO. The billboard was fabricated by Everson: The photo is of his own uncle, taken while he was stationed in West Germany in the 1960s, though the film never reveals the picture’s origins. (Everson will install the billboard—titled American Motor Company, 2009—as part of his show at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo in June.) Succeeding events play with different kinds of duration: A title sequence shows Niagara Falls; a young girl (Everson’s daughter) stares at a lit candle as it melts; two men fence—one shirtless—in what looks like a dance studio or auditorium; young performers practice piano, singing, and krumping in a warehouse; workers sort and sterilize surgical scissors at a medical facility; and, finally, two women back on another boat in clear plastic rain ponchos approach the falls, wind whipping into the microphone and water clinging to the lens.
These scenes bear the inherent pleasures of actuality-style longueurs, but they also present tangential references to the story of African Americans in Ohio, Niagara Falls calling to mind the Underground Railroad’s great gateway to Canada, the medical workers evincing the area’s more recent transformation, especially hard-hitting in the Rust Belt, from a manufacturing to a service economy. The most overt gesture in this regard is a segment early in the film recording a conversation with some of Everson’s older relatives, former General Motors plant workers and UAW members reminiscing about how the unions were blamed for the industry’s decline. “Mainstream America,” one of them recalls, “really did not like a UAW worker. ‘You people should not be making that kind of money. You do not have the education to make that kind of money. How did you get that job?’ ” she mimics. “You didn’t need the education to have that job. You just needed to know how to do that job. And everybody was taught to do a job. It was a learning experience. You didn’t go in there knowing how to build a panel. Nobody knew that. Everybody had to learn to do that.” The discussion draws from local history but also returns to one of Everson’s primary considerations—that of labor as an ongoing mental and physical process of learning, as well as a form of discipline and performance not always understood as such from the outside.
The idea—the validation, even—of education through practice and repetition goes to the heart of Everson’s work, as seen in Erie and beyond. Because so much of his output feels fragmentary and evocative, with connecting themes hidden behind what only seems to be a documentary lucidity, his filmmaking benefits from cumulative viewings, patterns emerging slowly over time. This element of intentional opacity can be seen as a reaction to the identitarian baggage inherited from long-standing debates about the politics of representation in cinema. Everson rejects the role of cultural explainer in his work, opting instead to place the burden of understanding on the audience and its own labor. In this way, he has carved a place for himself outside both the typical expectations of documentary and the conventions of representational fiction, attempting to work from the materials of the worlds he encounters to create something else.
THERE ARE OLDER FESTIVALS in Latin America than the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film—BAFICI, to use its Spanish acronym—and there are certainly flashier ones (like the more mainstream event in the Argentinean coastal resort of Mar del Plata), but none has staked out so central a place in cinephile culture. As a municipally funded event, BAFICI has endured the whims of government bureaucracy during its brief existence—the festival, which concluded its thirteenth edition on Sunday, is already on its fourth artistic director. But while it may be subject to variable political pressures, it has avoided having to make serious artistic compromises. Through personnel changes and through what has been a tumultuous decade in Argentina, BAFICI has cultivated an identity, one might even say an ideology, that sets it apart from the pack. Put simply, this is a festival with both the discernment and the freedom to oppose the pervasive (if often unacknowledged) notion that film festivals should be temples to industry more than to art. The fare that most other fests relegate to the margins or smuggle in amid would-be crowd-pleasers—adventurous, risk-taking work, in other words, the kind that cultural gatekeepers often tar as obscure or elitist—is unapologetically front and center here.
Under its current head, Sergio Wolf, BAFICI has continued on the distinctive path forged by the critic Quintín, the festival director from 2000 to 2004, who did more than anyone to boost the event’s global profile. There are no red carpets at BAFICI, and there is no insistence on premieres; the festival also resists the curatorial habits—or marketing practices—of sectioning work off into, say, documentary, genre, and experimental categories. At the core of the program are three competitive slates—one international; one Argentinean; and one, called “Cinema of the Future,” for nominally edgier work—generally reserved for first- or second-time filmmakers.
The main competition lineup does not simply depend on product availability—more than that, it’s an attempt to survey the cinematic landscape for ripples of urgency and pockets of resistance, to summarize the state of the art. Alongside pickings from last year’s Cannes (Le quattro volte) and Venice (Attenberg), there is room for an oddity like the scruffy Os monstros, by four young Brazilian directors, Guto Parente, Pedro Diógenes, and twin brothers Luiz and Ricardo Pretti. A film in search of something—freedom, art, the real, a means of expression (all of which is to say, itself)—it plays like a melancholic slacker movie, halting and meandering, and culminates in a fifteen-minute free-jazz jam, an extraordinary feat of camaraderie and alchemy.
Both the top prize and the critics’ prize went to the French director Sylvain George for May They Rest in Revolt (Figures of Wars I), a black-and-white portrait of illegal migrants in the shadowy borderlands of Calais, France, as radical in its lyrical intimacy as in its activist point of view. George’s project—to reinvigorate the possibilities of the political documentary—was shared by films as different as Palazzo delle Aquile (by Stefano Savona, Aliessia Porto, and Ester Sparatore), a purposefully grueling vérité immersion in the chaotic daily existence of homeless families during a monthlong occupation of city hall in Palermo, Sicily, and Mercedes Alvares’s Futures Market, a philosophical essay film on the life cycle of objects and the existential crisis of late capitalism, journeying from expos hawking unbuilt Dubai towers to an overstuffed Barcelona junk shop. A highlight of the Cinema of the Future section, Ion de Sosa’s True Love, a chronicle of the Spanish filmmaker’s doomed romance while living in Berlin, boldly subverts another familiar form—the diary film—by both going deeper into self-exposure (literally, as in endoscopy footage) and abstracting emotion into ambient impressionism.
BAFICI is not immune to festival bloat (more than three hundred features this year), but its tentacle-like reach pays off in the many retrospectives, which counter the embalming tendencies of such showcases by featuring not only anointed masters but sundry bodies of work, large and small, that have eluded local (or, for that matter, most) audiences. Stuffed into the mix this year: Japanese New Wave icon Kiju Yoshida; Andrei Ujica’s remarkable post-communist trilogy; a midcareer spotlight on the Canadian comic (sub)urbanist Gary Burns; and a catch-up session on Sandro Aguilar, an important producer and editor in the Portuguese independent film world and, in his own right, a director of several enigmatic experimental shorts and one potently moody feature, Uprise (2008).
Santiago Mitre, El estudiante (The Student), 2011, still from a color film in HD, 124 minutes.
A major draw for foreign visitors is the prospect of finding Argentina’s next big thing, especially now that the key figures of the last national new wave (Pablo Trapero, Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel) are a decade or more into their careers. The Argentinean jury, on which I served this year, awarded its top prize to Nicolás Grosso’s Animal’s Run, an atmospheric, elliptical drama about the aftermath of a factory closing and the pull of an absent father figure. While this year’s BAFICI offered nothing to match the excitement of the domestic cinema’s last great discovery, Mariano Llinas’s 2008 epic Historias Extraordinarias (which will receive a New York run at MoMA starting May 4), the two Argentinean films that played in the international competition, both debut features, are proof of the local scene’s continued health.
Hermes Paralluelo’s documentary Yatasto follows the lives of a family on the outskirts of Córdoba that subsists on scavenging and begging—follows is the operative word, as Paralluelo’s film implicitly wrestles with the question of how best to observe its subjects and to reveal the particularities of their world. Far from effacing the presence of the camera, Paralluelo calls attention to it with an ingeniously simple, almost theatrical device. The most vivid scenes are captured in long takes with a camera mounted to the clip-clopping horse-drawn cart that transports the family members, primarily the very garrulous kids, through town. It’s a privileged perspective, granting us an unusual, head-on intimacy, but also one that reveals a larger social context as the cartoneros, in these scenes of continuous motion, navigate the traffic and the neighborhoods of the city.
El Estudiante, written and directed by Santiago Mitre (who has cowritten scripts with Trapero), centers on a twenty-something newcomer to Buenos Aires who becomes entangled in the byzantine world of campus politics. Anchored by Esteban Lamothe’s nuanced, charismatic performance, El Estudiante complicates the bildungsroman narrative of education and disillusionment, emphasizing the endless adaptability—or malleability—of its protagonist. An intelligent, engrossing portrayal of politics as a game, an addiction, and a vicious cycle, the film was enthusiastically received (and won a special jury prize). Some wondered whether it would travel, given the hyperlocal details, the allegorical relevance in light of Péronism. But El Estudiante doesn’t merely transcend its specifics. At its best, it’s a truly universal political thriller, one that illuminates the conspiratorial pleasure, the sheer labor, and the moral murk of what it memorably calls “politics in its pure form.”
The thirteenth Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente ran April 6–17, 2011.