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.
Manuel De Landa, The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle, 1976, still from a color film in 16 mm, 8 minutes.
IN THE LATE 1970s, Manuel De Landa, while still a student in the film department of the School of Visual Arts, produced a series of movies that excelled as audience provocations. More than thirty years later, they still do. Anthology Film Archives, which has turned its attention to films made in the ’70s on both Super 8 and 16 mm and which, for lack of a better term, are dubbed “avant-garde,” has preserved De Landa’s five films and is screening them Friday to Sunday at 7:30. (De Landa will be present for the Saturday show.)
Born in Mexico, De Landa established himself as a commercial graphic artist while still in his teens. He arrived in New York during the city’s near disastrous economic downturn, which, against the odds, proved inspirational to adversarial artists in many media. Taking his graphic talent to the streets, he produced graffiti as witty as it was eye-popping, distinguished by its merging of subversive visuals—cubistically altered billboard faces—with injunctions from French linguistic and psychoanalytic theory splattered onto subway walls and building facades with dripping paintbrushes. Call it latter-day Mexican-American Situationism. Ismism (1979), De Landa’s most straightforward film, is a silent Super 8 (later transferred to 16 mm) documentation of this graffiti. It also serves as a decoder for the sound films, which share the street art’s Pop visuals; theoretical underpinnings; and combinations of sophistication and vulgarity, humor and anger.
To wit: The Itch Scratch Itch Cycle (1976) depicts an ugly quarrel between jealous lovers by transforming conventional shot-countershot technique with luridly colored optical wipes. The basic situation had already inspired movies by such artists as Vito Acconci and Hollis Frampton, but neither of them delivered the aggressive, obsessive-compulsive visuals that the situation deserved and that were, in De Landa’s hands, momentarily cathartic. (Steven Soderbergh, who recently remarked that he felt as if he would kill himself if he had to look at another over-the-shoulder shot, might enjoy De Landa’s brutal solution to the problem.) Incontinence: A Diarrhetic Flow of Mismatches (1978) extends the love-turned-to-hate situation with dialogue lifted from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and a delirious assortment of altered editing tropes repeated ad nauseum.
The longest movie on the program, the thirty-minute Raw Nerves: A Lacanian Thriller (subtitled The Libidinal Economy of Filmus Interruptus ) is set largely in a toilet stall and a couple of stairwells and draws heavily on Robert Aldrich’s transcendently trashy film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955). What were dubbed the neo-noir films of the ’70s translated the expressionist black-and-white imagery of the original noirs into color that was either sun-bleached in the best of them or indiscriminate in the rest. De Landa’s stroke of genius was to gel the lights with clashing Day-Glo colors and project painted zigzags on the walls like some lysergic vision of noir’s signature window-blind shadows. The entire film is a maniacal alienation machine. It hits an assaulting groove of sound and imagery in the first five minutes and never varies or pulls back. It’s a tour de force that needs to be seen to be believed.
After Raw Nerves, De Landa pretty much stopped making films, although as a coda to his career, he turned a micro lens on cockroaches dying hideously after being sprayed with insecticide. This image is accompanied by a synthesized sound track of screams and groans. Titled Judgment Day (1983), the film is both spare and unsparing, eight minutes of what-you-see-is-what-you-get that nevertheless evokes myriad metaphoric readings. It will probably be the first film on the program, so you might consider putting your coat on a seat and waiting it out in the lobby. Me, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
During the past twenty-odd years, De Landa has published six books of philosophy, including the highly regarded War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (1991). He currently is a professor of philosophy in the architecture department of the University of Pennsylvania. Like his films, his lecture-performance style is like no other. I await his Saturday presentation with eagerness and trepidation.
Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 106 minutes.
IT’S BEEN AWHILE: Certified Copy marks Iranian legend Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature-length fiction film to receive American distribution since Ten in 2002. Since that time, the director has mostly directed shorts and documentaries, a notable exception being Shirin (2008; not released theatrically in the States), a film that consists entirely of fictional female moviegoers reacting to a fictional medieval romance playing offscreen. Shirin works by way of ironies, containing within its uncompromising, anticommercial form a decidedly commercial piece of entertainment.
Certified Copy is the complete inverse: a superficially commercial vehicle replete with international stars (Juliette Binoche), picturesque European settings (Tuscany), and a story concerning relationships and communication. But the boilerplate trappings boldly pull the rug out from under the movie’s audience. In the first half of the film, Binoche, playing an unnamed antiques dealer, escorts a friend-of-a-friend British writer (William Shimell) through Tuscany after the final stop on his book tour. Shimell has penned a controversial study on the nature of reproduced and forged art, and in the style of My Dinner with Andre (1981), he discusses with the harried and somewhat daft Binoche the complex nature of authenticity, subjectivity, and the difference between juvenile and adult approaches to the world.
In short, we’re led to think we’ve seen this movie before: a middlebrow European import touching tastefully on matters of art and life as the principal characters slowly gravitate toward love. But midway through, something completely unexpected occurs: Binoche and Shimell become different characters in a new story. No major event demarcates this shift. Now they are a long-married couple on the verge of a breakup; as they continue to traverse the pleasant landmarks of an old village, Binoche confronts Shimell about his increasing remoteness while Shimell angrily defends himself.
Kiarostami’s unusual narrative structure could be read any number of ways. Toward the end of the film’s first half, an Italian café owner mistakes Binoche and Shimell for a couple; the details Binoche invents as she plays along are then taken up in the second half. Binoche also alludes to having suffered a mental breakdown in her past, and thus the second half of the film could be a fantasy dreamed up by this slightly disturbed single mother of one. Or the entire thing is a formalist exercise. At one point Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière makes a cameo. Among Carrière’s credits are The Milky Way (1969) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), films that similarly warp traditional form to emphasize the fluidity of identity and the endless possibilities of representation.
Such concerns are announced early in Certified Copy’s cerebral first half, but what makes the film the most successfully bifurcated narrative since David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001) (or Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady ) is the way it challenges cinematic convention while also harmoniously joining theme and character (are our protagonists just mimicking the relationship narratives they know by rote?), creating surprising correspondences between affect and philosophical musings on artifice and perception. Kiarostami makes good on his gamble by creating unique compositions, playful sight gags, and a resonant sadness out of the interactions of his principal couple, or couple of couples. That their identities remain ambiguous doesn’t mean Kiarostami has divided his attention or spread himself thin—if anything, he has conceived a film with inexhaustible meanings, moods, and ideas, returning to our screens as subtle and mysterious as ever.
Certified Copy opens Friday, March 11, at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center in New York, and at various theaters in Los Angeles.
David Weissman and Bill Weber, We Were Here, 2011, black-and-white and color film, 90 minutes. Production stills.
AT THE TIME of Harvey Milk’s murder in 1978, the virus that would come to be known as HIV was already present in San Francisco, with an estimated 10 percent of the city’s gay population unknowingly infected. By 1981, that number had risen to 50 percent. The 1980s would encapsulate the largest tragedy in the city’s history, but the decade was also—as We Were Here, a new documentary, suggests—a moment of great heroism and feats of compassion for both the living and the dying.
While such a vast topic would seem to necessitate a chaotic cast of thousands, director David Weissman instead focuses on five diverse individuals from the trenches: writer Ed Wolf, who began working as a volunteer in the city’s first AIDS hospital ward and now works in the field of HIV prevention; activist and current director of the GLBT Historical Society, Paul Boneberg; artist Daniel Goldstein, himself HIV positive for more than twenty years; Guy Clark, owner of a Castro flower shop; and nurse Eileen Glutzer, who worked on some of the earliest HIV/AIDS medical studies.
Weissman skillfully employs a talking-head approach, interspersed with filmic and photographic footage from the period, to convey an extremely painful history. We Were Here moves through the earliest days of the “gay cancer” to the formation of political activist groups such as ACT-UP in response to the political establishment’s indifference to the epidemic, and then into the mid-‘90s, when the obituary pages in the Bay Area Reporter finally began to diminish.
Thirty years on, the film reminds us of the cataclysmic demise of an entire generation of artists, cultural figures, activists, and people who perhaps never had the chance to realize their potential. We Were Here leaves us to wonder how different the world might look today if those lost to AIDS were still here to help shape it.
We Were Here runs at the Castro Theater in San Francisco February 25–March 3, 2011. For more details, click here.