Left: Marnie Weber, The Eternal Heart, 2010, color film in Super 8 and 16 mm. Production still. Photo: LeeAnn Nickel. Right: Marnie Weber, Eternity Forever, 2010. Performance view, Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum, Altadena, CA, November 11, 2010.

JEAN GENET famously spoke of a theater among the graves, one that embraced the cagey void of death through the equally mysterious undertaking of art and cast a bit of shadow on “a world that seems to be moving so merrily towards analytical clarity.” On a recent Thursday evening, Marnie Weber conjured Genet’s sublime vision in the shadowy corners and marble hallways of the Mountain View Cemetery and Mausoleum, a sprawling gothic necropolis in the sleepy suburb (sorry, Genet, not your preferred Urb) of Altadena, California.

Eternity Forever, a kind of funeral for Weber’s band the Spirit Girls, comprised film, performance, collage, and rock concert and was also the latest edition to West of Rome Public Art’s “Women in the City” series. The ritual began with a nocturnal graveyard stroll featuring a cadre of ghouls wearing costumes of Weber’s creation: Three lantern-carrying crones greeted the visitors; a mutant chicken and a snowy-fleeced lamb crouched behind headstones; and a masked gravedigger led the way while muttering about the boneyard’s inhabitants and shadowboxing with the night. The parade prepared viewers for happenings at the main stage, a proscenium erected in the mausoleum’s grand vaulted hall, which had no doubt been chosen for its superior acoustics and dramatic lighting.

Vaguely old-timey parlor music (that slipped into atonality) beckoned the night’s nearly five hundred guests into the main chamber, where they gathered under the sepia flicker of The Eternal Heart (2010), a film that centers on the dreamy, quasi-linear parable of Sweet Peaches (a heroine played by Weber), her crotchety father, and the demons released from her lonely heart. Each event in Peaches’s story—her endless sweeping away of dust, her conversations with a taxidermied deer, her frenzied danse macabre—contained mystical significance, meanings that begged not for analytical clarity but for blind faith. At its halfway point, the film switches from a grainier film stock to sickly saturated color that is punctuated by lyrical, materialist touches (sprocket holes, scratched celluloid) fashioned by Jennifer West, who served as Weber’s editor. Poetic intertitles and a quixotic live score—performed by Tanya Haden, Brian Randolf, Debbie Spinelli, Dani Tull, Sachiyo Yoshimoto, and Weber—lent themselves to the work’s aura of enigmatic longing, byzantine obscurity, and homespun witchiness.

As the credits rolled, the musical orchestration shifted gears and the Spirit Girls appeared to perform their final “live” set. The group’s look—matching pinafores, shawls, straw hats, gloves, and white masks à la Franju’s Eyes Without a Face—belies their driving synth-rock sound. So it was no surprise that as the music reached its crescendo, their frontwoman (Weber) reappeared dressed as a cross between Leda, the swan, and a glam rocker. The show, suffused with a dynamic femme energy, spilled over the stage into the crowd, past the columbaria, culminating in a procession that ended at a surprisingly functional art gallery located at the heart of the mausoleum. (There, a series of related collages served as a picture-perfect tribute to the girls.) Cathartic and neurotic, reverent and wicked, Weber’s performance faced the void—even if it meant donning a mask.

Catherine Taft

Left: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, 12th & Delaware, 2010, still from a color film, 87 minutes. Right: Jia Zhang-ke, I Wish I Knew, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 118 minutes.

FURTHER PROOF of the increasing ubiquity of nonfiction movies, last week fifteen films were short-listed for the Documentary Feature category for the eighty-third Academy Awards, culled from a record high 101 qualifying titles. A little more than a hundred films also unspooled at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (Recontres Internationales du Documentaire de Montréal, or RIDM), which ended its thirteenth edition earlier this month. Middling, bad, and masterful, the handful of titles I saw during my three days at RIDM revealed the growing disparity in skill of those working in the genre.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s 12th & Delaware, an important but uneven chronicle of the ever-escalating battle over reproductive rights in the US, focuses on the latest insidious strategies of antichoice groups. In Fort Pierce, Florida, an abortion clinic is besieged not just by a dozen or so protesters (most of whom appear eligible for AARP membership) but by the activities in the building across the street: a vaguely named “pregnancy-care center,” which counsels women, many of whom are seeking abortions but have mistakenly entered the wrong building, against the procedure through emotional manipulation and flat-out lies about health risks. If the filmmakers, best known for the docs The Boys of Baraka (2005) and the Oscar-nominated Jesus Camp (2006), err on the side of repetition, they have unearthed an exceptionally eloquent speaker on the right to choose. “The only regret I have is sleeping with him that one time without a condom,” responds one patient to the pregnancy-care center chief’s insistence that she’ll have nothing but remorse if she goes through with the abortion. The woman cuts through the antichoice mumbo-jumbo even more clearly just a moment later: “That’s what abortion is—a termination of an unwanted pregnancy. And this pregnancy is unwanted.”

French filmmaker Florent Tillon also tries—and largely fails—to elucidate American woes in Détroit ville sauvage (Detroit Wild City), a poorly structured look at the blighted Motor City. Interviewees—many of whom are curiously positioned as authorities—aren’t identified until the end, with a fleeting title card that lists only names. Tillon’s incongruous collection of interlocutors is matched by his odd instincts for ostensibly mythopoeic images, reaching a nadir in a scene featuring a mime dressed like Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp holding a balloon and going to sleep.

But another city symphony, Jia Zhang-ke’s beautifully lensed ode to Shanghai I Wish I Knew, towered above everything else I saw during my seventy-two hours in Montreal. Originally commissioned by the Chinese government to open the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, Jia’s latest work features eighteen mostly gray-haired subjects who reminisce about the changes, both seismic and personal, wrought by the victory of the Communist Party of China in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution. Several of Jia’s interviewees are directors who made Shanghai-set works, sampled generously throughout I Wish I Knew—an idiosyncratic history of a metropolis constantly in flux, told by a filmmaker who never underestimates the importance of both form and content.

Melissa Anderson

The thirteenth edition of RIDM ran November 10–21. For more details, click here.

Stage Fright


Maximilian Schell, Marlene, 1984, color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Production stills.

“FROM THE FLAT SCREEN she stormed the senses, looking always tangible but at the same time untouchable,” Kenneth Tynan wrote of Marlene Dietrich in 1967. In Marlene, Maximilian Schell’s 1984 documentary on the actress, she is unfilmable.

Schell, who had costarred with Dietrich in Judgment in Nuremberg (1961), spent years trying to persuade her to take part in a film about her life; she finally agreed in 1982, on the condition that neither she nor her apartment in Paris, where she had been living as a near-recluse since 1979 and where Schell interviewed her, be photographed. Contracted for “forty hours of my blah-blah-blah,” Dietrich, eighty-one at the time, gives the tetchiest performance—and one of the most quotable—in cinema history. Most of Schell’s earnest inquiries, delivered in English and German, are met with some variation of the following: “Kitsch!” “Rubbish!” “It’s in my book,” “I’m not interested in the past,” “You don’t have to show me anything—I know it all,” “I don’t know what you’re after,” or “You should go back to Mama Schell and learn some manners.” (The director makes sure to include his subject’s kinder moments as well: Dietrich, asking what time it is, tells the crew, “I made you all little snacks.”)

Schell supplements the audio of the icon’s indignant outbursts with expertly curated clips, including scenes from her films with von Sternberg (of whom she says, “He was deliberately making life difficult for me”), concert performances (“Who is talking? Shut up,” she demands at one gig), and TV interviews (“No, I never fight with anyone,” Dietrich casually notes during one chat). But throughout her bilious explosions at Schell, the actress offers occasional self-abnegating assessments: “I wasn’t erotic. I was snotty,” recalls Dietrich, who so memorably ogled and kissed another woman on the mouth in Morocco (1930). Yet her refusal to be filmed, her rage, and her disparagement all contribute to the legend-making that began with her breakthrough performance in The Blue Angel (1930). Perverse genius that she was, Dietrich knew that adamantly hiding in the shadows in Schell’s film would make viewers crave images of her from the past that much more. Marlene is an excellent companion to the actress’s indispensable volume of alphabetical aphorisms and observations, Marlene Dietrich’s ABC (1962). Under the listing “Dietrich,” she writes, “In the German language: the name for a key that opens all locks. Not a magic key. A very real object, necessitating great skills in the making.”

Melissa Anderson

Marlene screens November 23 at the IFC Center in New York as part of the “Stranger Than Fiction” series. For more details, click here.

Claire Denis, White Material, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 102 minutes. Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert)

DREAMY AND ELLIPTICAL in its fractured timeline and visual lyricism, yet so searing and bloody that it’s indelible, Claire Denis’s White Material (2009) hinges on the central conflict of its beleaguered protagonist Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert, steely and obdurate): that the Africa she loves doesn’t love her. The film unfolds in an unnamed country—Congo, Angola, Senegal, or Ivory Coast, perhaps—engulfed in civil war in a nebulous present or recent past. “The horror! The horror!” swirls around Maria as she struggles to bring in the harvest at the coffee plantation she runs on behalf of her feckless ex-husband (Christophe Lambert), her ailing father-in-law (Michel Subor), and her slothful son (Nicolas Duvauchelle).

Maria is a spiritual cousin of the landowner played by Huppert in 1930s Indochina in The Sea Wall (2008) and to a lesser extent Aurore Clement’s plantation wife in wartorn Cambodia in Apocalypse Now Redux (2001). She is probably the most physical character the star has ever played: Constantly on the move, Maria clings to the back of a bus and also drives a tractor, a motorcycle, and, at gunpoint, a truck full of enraged, terrified day laborers. She’s a heroine in denial and out of time. Her beloved farm, a holdout against all that’s reasonable, becomes the symbolic nexus of postcolonial arrogance as “The Boxer” (Isaac de Bankolé), a dying icon of the rebel forces (and Maria’s secret sharer) takes root in her son’s bedroom. As his army of kids toting huge assault weapons approach from one direction and a murderous patriot militia approaches from another, the “half-baked” son goes native.

Denis was partially raised in Cameroon (where the film was shot) and other French colonies. She began her directorial career with the semi-autobiographical Chocolat (1988), which filtered racial inequality in a ’50s colonial household through a web of desire. Her exploration of homoerotic tensions among French legionnaires in Dijbouti in Beau Travail (1999) was a typically oblique study of colonizers in extremis. When White Material slows down, interracial desire emerges as an inevitable metaphor for irreconcilability—the ex-husband has fathered a son with the black housekeeper; Maria is regarded as the troublesomely blonde, blue-eyed sexual other by the manipulative local black mayor. But it’s the threat of carnage that propels the movie over and above Maria’s need to gather, rake, and cleanse the beans to make what a hectoring pro-rebel DJ describes as “mediocre coffee” that the blacks don’t drink. It’s this imperial folie and the destruction of her family that brings this dynamic, wrong-headed woman of the earth to the brink of murder.

Graham Fuller

White Material opens at the IFC Center in New York on Friday, November 19. For more details, click here.

Jean Cocteau, The Blood of a Poet, 1930, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 55 minutes.

IN THE AGE of CGI digital wizardry, the homespun effects of Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy appear quaint and sometimes clunky. But even (or especially) in their simplicity, numerous scenes remain seared on our collective cinematic imagination—whether Jean Marais locked in a narcissistic embrace with his own mirrored reflection, or Lee Miller as a talking, armless statue come to life. Of course, the thirty years that separate The Blood of a Poet (1930) from The Testament of Orpheus (1960) underscore a chasm between contexts: from the burgeoning realm of sound film to the technical advances of the postwar period (including a quick color sequence in Testament), in addition to the director’s own aesthetic vicissitudes. But Cocteau’s obsession with keyholes and doorways, mirrors and passages, transformation and nostalgia, remains steadfast. So too does his navel-gazing poetics of the self, and its nexus in the charismatic negotiation between modernity and myth.

That Orpheus was himself the most renowned of poets and musicians in Greek mythology suggests the unabashed self-absorption at the heart of Cocteau’s cinematics—characteristic, too, of his larger, prodigious oeuvre as a poet, artist, playwright, and tireless aesthete. Whether in a self-portrait made out of pipe cleaners, or a cast of his profile inserted into random scenes, the director’s likeness appears in numerous guises. Even when embodied by Marais or Enrique Rivero, Cocteau looms as his films’ thinly veiled protagonist. The themes of opium and frustrated romance saturate Blood of a Poet with allusions to Cocteau’s own addiction and unrequited loves. Still, these are couched in a seamless and mesmerizing alchemy of absurdity and classicizing grace. It was just that fluid mix that got Cocteau in trouble with the more radical strain of the French avant-garde, who accused him of popularizing their work as a mere passing fad, rendered effete and genteel. Cocteau’s vexed relationship to Surrealism is in full evidence in the fifty-five-minute Blood of a Poet (which was funded by the Vicomte de Noailles, who also bankrolled Dalí and Buñuel’s L’Age d’or of the same year). Cocteau’s film borrows certain tropes from the latter artists’ bag of tricks, such as the appearance of disembodied lips on his Poet’s hand. The film’s somewhat fragmented narrative appears more faithful to a set of tableaux vivants than to a narrative drive.

Though certainly elliptical, Orpheus (1949) proceeds in a comparatively linear fashion, transposing the myth of the eponymous figure’s descent onto the underworld into contemporary Paris. For Testament of Orpheus, Cocteau himself assumed the title role, playing an eighteenth-century poet suspended in a kind of temporal purgatory. Following a somewhat overwrought, baroque script—featuring cameos by Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso, as well as roles by Lucia Bosé and Charles Aznavour—the film fails to match real pathos to its overweening ambition. (In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther cruelly deemed it “a glorified home movie” by a Cocteau “who is no longer pretty.”) Still, perhaps more than any of his other films, Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy anticipates his influence on future generations of filmmakers, from Sergei Parajanov to Carmelo Bene. Even when Cocteau’s scenes fail to cohere, or to transcend their heavy-handed stylization, they evoke like few other contemporary films the plastic versatility of the cinematic medium as a nexus between the visual and the verbal, embodiment and cerebration, time and fixed image. At once disaffected and sensual, self-punishing and indulgent, Cocteau’s three “Orphic” films remain dedicated—as announced in the epigraph to his first full-length feature, Blood of a Poet—to the pursuit of enigma. That it is often an entirely personal enigma is, like Cocteau’s poetics in general, equal parts endearing and exasperating.

Ara H. Merjian

Screenings of Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy run at Anthology Film Archives Thursday, November 18–Sunday, November 21. For more details, click here.

Left: Athina Rachel Tsangari, Attenberg, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Right: Allan Sekula and Noël Burch, The Forgotten Space, 2010, still from a color film in HD, 110 minutes.

IN AN AGE when film festivals seem increasingly packaged (as opposed to programmed), when their supposed goal of something-for-everybody plurality mainly begets middlebrow blandness, the curatorial coherence—and one might even say, the unapologetic good taste—of an event like the Viennale sets it apart more than ever. Most festivals of a certain size struggle to retain any trace of personality, but the Viennale, which concluded its forty-eighth edition earlier this month (featuring some 350 screenings over thirteen days), is a big festival with a legible point of view, rooted in a strong sense both of film history and of what matters in contemporary world cinema.

The festival trailer sets the tone: Following commissions from Jean-Luc Godard (2008) and James Benning (2009), this year’s was by Cannes Palme d’Or laureate Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose atmospheric minute-long spelunk, Empire, is a refashioned outtake from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). As usual, the main selection included most of the year’s cinephile-anointed favorites—films by Apichatpong, Manoel de Oliveira, Raúl Ruiz, Godard—but also made ample room for emerging filmmakers. Quebecois director Denis Côté, the subject of an early-career spotlight, presented his new feature, Curling; the story of an isolated father and daughter in a snowbound backwater, it derives its power from a creeping flavor of mystery and a slowly emerging humanity. Likewise finding surprising depths of emotion in off-kilter moods and characters (not to mention another eccentric father-daughter relationship), Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is a wholly original coming-of-age movie, rife with erotic stirrings and mortal dread, and anchored in a Red Desert–like sense of place. (The setting is a Greek industrial town.) An equally intriguing experiment in the art of deadpan, Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation is yet another dispatch on the spiritual emptiness of the new China, but the film assumes the ingenious guise of a radically distended slacker comedy.

Equal emphasis is given to documentaries, and this year’s nonfiction slate was notable for the range of formal approaches to politically or historically charged subjects. Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu recounts the dictator’s career exclusively through Romanian state footage (and craftily invented sound design). Similarly, Susana de Sousa Dias’s 48 looks back at Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship (the title refers to the number of years he was in power) through official archival images, pairing mugshotlike photographs of political prisoners with their voice-over recollections. Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario, Room 164 filters the familiar headlines of Mexican drug violence through a sustained, gruesomely detailed motel-room monologue of a masked ex–cartel hitman, who provides visual interest by compulsively sketching and list making in a drawing pad. John Gianvito’s four-hour-plus Vapor Trail (Clark), ostensibly an account of toxic military pollution at the US Clark Air Base in the Philippines, opens up—via essayistic digressions, archival photos, and expansive interviews with victims and activists—into a sober, epic indictment of the American imperial project. Equally ambitious and pointed in its politics, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space is a Marxist cine-essay about the contemporary maritime economy. Reminding us that 90 percent of the world’s cargo still travels by sea, the film traverses major ports (from Rotterdam to Hong Kong) and ventures inland on highways and railroads, examining the rise of the shipping container, the changes in transport systems, and the toll that global capitalism has exerted on human labor.

As at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the Viennale’s closest counterpart in terms of sensibility, retrospectives comfortably share center stage. In conjunction with the Viennale, the Austrian Filmmuseum organized a monthlong Éric Rohmer survey. The festival also honored another recently departed giant of French cinema, the director of photography William Lubtchansky, showcasing his collaborations with Jacques Rivette, Straub/Huillet, Godard, Agnès Varda, and others. A less obvious choice, American B-movie pulpmeister Larry Cohen received his own tribute, and the comic anarchy and tabloid energy of films like God Told Me To (1976) and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) seemed as fresh and subversive as ever. It was one of the festival’s most successful retrospectives in years, and Cohen, a youthful seventy, was in conspicuous attendance, wisecracking his way through Q&A sessions. At one introduction, he graciously thanked his hosts for the honor, then added: “Don’t let it happen again.”

Dennis Lim

The forty-eighth edition of the Viennale ran October 21–November 3, 2010. For more details, click here.