Left: Ericka Beckman, Out of Hand, 1981, still from a color film in Super 8, 30 minutes. Right: Ericka Beckman, Cinderella, 1986, still from a color film in 16 mm, 30 minutes.

LIKE A BOOMERANG hurled across three-plus decades and carrying today’s viewer back with it to that fervent, hard-edged but oddly innocent downtown moment when the free-for-all 1970s (free because no one had or was willing to admit to having money) gave way to the more practical and materialist ’80s, Ericka Beckman’s Super 8 “Piaget Trilogy” (1978–81) arrives on the Anthology Film Archives screen. Its restoration in 16 mm was made possible by Anthology’s experimental film preservation project, which has recently focused on work from this period. (Two weeks ago, restored movies by Manuel De Landa were screened; on April 15–16, it’s Bette Gordon’s turn.) I can’t remember seeing an actual boomerang in any of Beckman’s works, but so many of the trajectories of camera and object movement in her films evoke that kind of kinetic and aggressive back-and-forth that to include the thing itself would be redundant.

Beckman’s place in the pantheon of daredevil experimental moviemakers should have been secured in 1983, when You the Better, the thirty-five-minute, 16-mm film that followed the “Piaget Trilogy,” caused a riot at the New York Film Festival, where it preceded Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion. I recall that at the time, Godard, perhaps as a defensive maneuver, anointed Beckman as the most talented young American experimentalist. Two years earlier, Beckman’s Super 8 work was lauded by J. Hoberman in his catalogue for “Home Made Movies,” the 1981 marathon survey of 8-mm and Super 8 films he organized at Anthology. Hoberman described the films in what would only later be dubbed the “Piaget Trilogy”—they were partly inspired by the learning theories of the psychologist Jean Piaget—as follows: “Filled with images of disembodied limbs, toy-like models, and anthropomorphized furniture, scored to doo-wop mantras and abstract cheerleader chants, Beckman’s films suggest the amalgam of Max Fleischer’s oneiric Bimbo’s Initiation and Oskar Fischinger’s geometric Composition in Blue.” Of Out of Hand (1981), the last film in the trilogy, he memorably blurbed: “like an Allstate Insurance commercial as it might appear to an autistic child.”

Of all the artist-filmmakers who debuted in the ’70s, none have shown more consistency than Beckman. That is to say that each of her films is distinct from the others while also being part of a uniquely envisioned oeuvre. (You have to see her films to understand how derivative, clumsy, and vacuous Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle is.) What I wrote in 1979 in the Soho News about two of her early films—about their fragmentation, dreamlike displacements, and associative connections; about how clear, diagrammatic, often primary-colored iconography is placed within a shadowy, shifting, ambiguous space; about the incantatory power of her sound tracks with their repeated percussion riffs and nursery rhyme–like chants—applies to her more recent, technically formidable work as well. In the stunning 2006 Tension Building—an unfortunate omission from the Anthology program, though it can be found in its entirety on her website—she uses stop-motion, camera movement, and variations of focal length and exposure to transform the Harvard University coliseum into a giant thrashing machine. A mere three minutes, it seems to go on for hours, sucking you in like a black hole. It’s the only film that’s ever given me motion sickness.

Milking the Surrealist roots of Pop, Beckman creates brightly colored, psychologically threatening, sexually charged worlds in which her avatars are hurled to and fro, trapped inside a game plan whose rules they desperately try to discern. In what is probably still her most narrative-like film, Cinderella (1986), her heroine, decked out alternately in baggy overalls and a green bouffant prom dress topped with a blonde flip wig, is shunted between an industrial furnace that she’s forced to tend and the ballroom where she dances with the prince until she loses her chance to marry him because she doesn’t make it home by midnight. It’s not until she realizes that she can come home whenever she likes that she breaks out of the confines of the game. “And that night, I didn’t get home until two!” she exclaims, in one of the most thrilling moments of liberation in a Beckman movie. It wasn’t until looking at Cinderella again, twenty-five years after its debut, that I realized how deeply Beckman’s films were lodged in my brain in their entirety, as deeply as the childhood nursery rhymes and picture books that are undoubtedly their sources. They touch down where the wet dreams of girlhood arise.

Amy Taubin

Two programs devoted to the filmmaker Ericka Beckman will run April 1–2 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Left: Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds, 1955, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm. Kengo Tomioka and Yukiko Koda (Masayuki Mori and Hideko Takamine). Right: Mikio Naruse, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm. Keiko Yashiro (Hideko Takamine [left]).

OF ALL THE WOMEN to suffer on-screen in classic Japanese cinema, few matched actress Hideko Takamine for her startling mixture of resentment, resignation, and resolve. Takamine, who died last December at the age of eighty-six, had a career that lasted five decades: Discovered on a sightseeing trip to Shochiku studios at the age of five, she appeared in her first film (Haha) in 1929. She was a beloved child star in prewar Japan, often sharing a bill with Shirley Temple. Known affectionately as “Deko-chan,” she later played the spirited teenager in movies such as Composition Class (1938) and Horse (1941).

In the 1950s, Takamine made the transition to leading lady. Her comic talents are evident in Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home (1951), in which she plays a big-city stripper returning to her rural village. But her greatest films are the elegant black-and-white shomin-geki, or dramas of ordinary people, made for director Mikio Naruse, including Lightning (1952), Flowing (1956), and Yearning (1964). In Floating Clouds (1955), her Yukiko is a destitute woman in ruined postwar Tokyo, obsessed with a faithless lover played by Masayuki Mori. In Takamine’s modulated performance, romantic masochism isn’t noble or saintly.

She’s equally sublime in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), where she plays a thirty-something Ginza bar hostess trapped by circumstance and surveying her limited options: Marry for money? Secure a patron and open her own bar? Pursue the married banker (Mori again) whom she truly loves? This is pure women’s picture, transposed to a different key than Mildred Pierce (1945) or All That Heaven Allows (1955) by Takamine’s understated playing. She maintains a mask of placidity for her customers, but her eyes and posture convey an inner turbulence. Hideko Takamine never played the victim.

Tom Beer

Six films starring Hideko Takamine will screen as part of the series “Five Japanese Divas,” which runs April 1–21 at Film Forum in New York.

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.

Tony Pipolo

Le quattro volte runs March 30–April 12 at Film Forum in New York.

Pop Up Video


Left: Michael Robinson, If There Be Thorns, 2009, still from a color film in 16 mm transferred to digital video, 13 minutes. Right: Michael Robinson, And We All Shine On, 2006, still from a color film in 16 mm, 7 minutes.

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.

Genevieve Yue

“Victory over the Sun: Films and Videos by Michael Robinson” plays Monday, March 28, at 8:30 PM at REDCAT in Los Angeles.

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.

Chinnie Ding

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.

Nicolas Rapold

Senso is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. For more details, click here.