Modern Love


Left: Julius Shulman, Spencer Residence—Richard O. Spencer, 1950, color photograph. Right: Julius Shulman, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—Frank Lloyd Wright, 1964, color photograph.

MODERN ARCHITECTURE found its greatest proponent not among its designers and manifestoists, but in a twenty-five-year-old college dropout with a penchant for pictures. Or at least so goes the claim of Eric Bricker’s directorial debut, Visual Acoustics (2009), a documentary portrait of the architectural photographer Julius Shulman. In 1936, Shulman, wholly ignorant of anything to do with architecture, accompanied a draftsman from Richard Neutra’s office on a visit to Neutra’s recently completed Kun residence in Hollywood. Shulman sent his snaps to the architect and unwittingly jump-started a career in architectural photography that would continue—suspended only during the years of postmodernism’s ascendance (a movement Shulman despised)—until his death this past July at the age of ninety-eight.

Guided by Neutra and his Los Angeles associates (including his close friend Rudolph Schindler, who had similarly found his way westward from Vienna to work at Taliesen), Shulman became closely associated with modernism’s Southern California strain, whose protagonists included Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, and Albert Frey. Before descending into tedious encomium, the film, dryly narrated by Dustin Hoffman, offers a few pertinent observations into Shulman’s creative relationship with Neutra that effectively encapsulate the story of California modernism. Architect Michael Webb explains that Neutra’s quick adoption of Shulman as his personal photographer was pure business strategy, the savvy decision of a “terrific self-promoter.” Under Neutra’s guidance, Shulman developed a set of photographic techniques tailored to the representation of modern buildings. In the film, an impossibly sharp ninety-three-year old Shulman recounts the architect’s disappointment with the budding photographer’s even and unnatural illumination of perpendicular walls (an early effort), before he learned to balance artificial and natural illumination, an effect suggestive of a modern interior coextensive with the surrounding landscape. “That’s God,” credits Shulman while pointing a finger to a sun-drenched exterior wall; “This is Julius,” he says, referring to a strobe-lit fireplace reproduced in Taschen’s oversize, three-volume edition devoted to his life’s work.

The film also records Neutra and Shulman’s tiffs: Neutra’s insistence, increasingly to Shulman’s irritation, on waving eucalyptus branches in front of the camera lens to give the appearance of a view opening from a grove of trees, or Shulman’s carload of household items with which he would furnish Neutra’s deliberately arid interiors. The latter technique—the constructed appearance of modern living for which Shulman became known—helped feed a growing appetite for modern architecture in consumer publications and home and gardening magazines. Shulman made modernism not only palatable but chic. Breaking with the tradition of presenting the building as an isolated object, Shulman highlighted the building’s relationship to its site and, most important, populated his photographs with fashionable inhabitants. Shulman’s modernism was, to take a cue from Columbia University’s Kazys Varnelis summation of Southern California modernism, “less . . . a societal utopia, and more . . . a personal utopia.”

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Trailer for Eric Bricker’s Visual Acoustics (2009).

It is this utopia that Visual Acoustic’s star-studded cast giddily rediscovers, whether it’s Tom Ford describing the “optimism” of the modernist moment in tones of breathless 1-900-number ecstasy, actress Kelly Lynch calling Shulman a “rock star” (twice, for the nonagenarian’s failing ears) and enthusing over the parties she’s hosted in her experimental John Lautner house, or Benedikt Taschen promising Shulman a monograph “bigger, of course,” than Taschen’s titles on Nobuyoshi Araki and Leni Riefenstahl. Like the book publishers and art directors the film follows (the Hollywood cinematographer Dante Spinotti re-creates an iconic Shulman photograph in a self-referential, dolly-driven sequence), Visual Acoustics, too, is fascinated more with the image of this architecture than with the buildings themselves. It’s an attitude that doesn’t perhaps do justice to its subject: a photographer who genuinely loved architecture and who, in a telling moment, contrasts his work with that of the architects he admires. Discussing the photography profession with the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, the usually outsize Shulman deprecates: “It’s a good business—let the architects do all the heavy work, and we come in and take pictures.”

Michael Wang

Visual Acoustics opens October 9 in New York at Cinema Village and October 16 in Los Angeles at Landmark Nuart.

Making Waves


Margot Benacerraf, Araya, 1959, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 82 minutes.

A STUNNING, STRANGELY LIMINAL MOVIE in form and content, Margot Benacerraf’s Araya (1959) takes its name from the place where it was shot—a Caribbean peninsula in northern Venezuela where for centuries a closed economy has been supported by the sea. Araya’s indigenous population makes its living either by gathering salt from the seemingly inexhaustible marshes or through fishing. The salt gatherers sell what they collect to exporters who arrive every day in cargo boats. They use the money to buy fish (fresh or salted) from the fisherman. Three generations of men, women, and children labor side by side. Almost no one from the fishing or the salt-gathering villages has ever left the peninsula. Once a week, they purchase water from a tanker truck that comes from inland. One woman makes pots—without the aid of a wheel. The soil is so arid and the sun so baking that only cacti and a few stunted trees survive. The trees are dry even before they are cut down for firewood.

In 1957, Benacerraf, a Venezuelan who had studied film at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématografiques in Paris and had made a short experimental documentary about the Venezuelan artist Reveron (which brought her to the attention of the legendary head of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois), returned to her home country to scout locations for what she thought would be a fiction film. She found Araya, and the feature she shot there shared the Critics Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour. It was a moment of boundary-breaking filmmaking in France, but Araya defied categories to the extent that it never received theatrical distribution, although it has been programmed and won awards in various documentary retrospectives in the fifty years since its premiere. Benacerraf abandoned filmmaking after one or two aborted attempts to make another feature and, like two other radical female filmmakers before her—Germaine Dulac and Maya Deren—devoted her energies to creating an infrastructure for film distribution and preservation, founding Venezuela’s Cinemateca Nacional in 1966.

Araya is what is often termed a poetic documentary. It depicts the daily labors of the salt gatherers and fishermen in ethnographic detail, but it also employs expressive sound and image elements that exceed or violate the codes of documentary realism. Benacerraf combines audio recorded on location (the voices of the workers, the sound of the waves and of the salt being dredged and cut) with music that surges like the sea and is as harsh as the salt tearing the skin of the people who handle and walk on it. She also employs a voice-over narration (the film’s weakest element) that leans toward purple prose and poeticisms (which Benacerraf refers to as “biblical”), and interjects bits of fiction, which are not identified as such. The black-and-white cinematography by Giuseppe Nisoli captures the strange, pitiless beauty of the marshes, the salt pyramids, and the sea. The sound mix is extraordinarily rich. (The press kit describes how Benacerraf asked Raoul Coutard—Godard’s favorite cinematographer in the 1960s, then working as a sound-effects technician—to create “the sound of the earth as it expands from the heat of the sun.” He responded that the director editing in a nearby studio had just asked him “to produce the sound of a caress.” That director was Resnais and the film was Hiroshima mon amour.)

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Trailer for Margot Benacerraf’s, Araya, 1959.

Despite the dated voice-over prose and the questionable mini-fictions, Araya remains a powerful and suggestive hybrid. Its liminality is not merely a matter of a form located between documentary and fiction: Araya itself was, at the moment Benacerraf made her movie, in transition from primitive past to industrialized future, the derricks, cranes, and conveyor belts of which were only just arriving. Benacerraf shows the machinery but never speculates on how mechanization will affect people who’ve labored with their bodies and bare hands and need to work to survive. For anyone involved with documentary, Araya is necessary viewing. It would also make a great double bill with Harun Farocki’s elegant In Comparison (2009), which screened last week in the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar and which depicts brick making and bricklaying in some half-dozen societies.

Amy Taubin

Araya plays at the IFC Center in New York from October 7–20. For more details, click here. The film was restored by Milestone and will be available on DVD in the near future.

Joan Braderman, The Heretics, 2009, stills from a color film, 95 minutes. Left: Detail of Joyce Kozloff's Voyages. Right: Lucy Lippard.

“IT BECAME VERY CLEAR TO ME that everything in my life, in terms of my art, I was going to have to fight for.” So says artist Nina Yankowitz in The Heretics, Joan Braderman’s info-packed documentary on the groundbreaking feminist art magazine Heresies. The film contextualizes the hurdles faced at the dawn of second-wave feminism: Prior to the 1970s, as interviewees attest, one of the highest compliments a female artist might get from teachers and critics was that she “painted like a man.” Published from 1977 to 1992, Heresies was produced out of (still) scrappy Lower Manhattan by a sprawling collective of artists and writers drawn together to support and explore women’s art in defiance of a curatorial and historical vacuum. Herself a Heresies veteran, Braderman reconnects with former participants, now living around the globe, including critic Lucy Lippard; filmmaker Su Friedrich; architect Susana Torre; artists Amy Sillman, Miriam Schapiro, Mary Miss, and Cecilia Vicuna; and twenty or so others, editing together their stories into a fast-paced, thematically chaptered montage.

Upbeat and affirmative, the documentary employs copious low-tech text and graphics sequences in keeping with the style of Braderman’s canonical video-lecture projects like Joan Does Dynasty (1986) and Joan Sees Stars (1992). Though The Heretics ends with a nod to the present with a short sequence on third-wave feminist collective publishers LTTR, it’s Braderman’s portrait of another era that drives the film. The stories these women tell envision a radically different moment in art-world history, one in which questions of career and market are barely mentioned, and philosophical arguments are firmly grounded in street-level politics. Braderman’s take is unabashedly utopian and celebratory but looks to the past for lessons rather than nostalgia. For as artist Emma Amos notes, “There are more women artists than there are male artists. More of them will get into the best programs. And then what happens? The boys still have the edge on us.”

Ed Halter

The Heretics screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, October 9–15. For more details, click here. A website devoted to the film and Heresies archives can be found here.

Chantal Akerman, D’Est (From the East), 1993, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 110 minutes.

“WHILE THERE’S STILL TIME, I would like to make a grand journey across Eastern Europe. To Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the former East Germany, and back to Belgium,” Chantal Akerman says of the impetus behind her monumental 1993 documentary, D’Est (From the East). While there’s still time suggests urgency, a need to capture, if not catalogue, the former Soviet bloc in its earliest, most precarious stages of transition: A fleetingly glimpsed Panasonic shopping bag hints at the free markets to come. Yet time slows and expands in Akerman’s mesmerizing travelogue, as she “shoot[s] everything. Everything that moves me.”

Akerman, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, follows the seasons, beginning at the end of summer and concluding in deepest winter. Slavic languages are heard, Cyrillic letters seen on signs, though towns, cities, and countries are never identified. Rather than having an unmooring, distancing effect (at least for the non–Eastern European viewer), Akerman’s method uncannily draws the spectator in, as we glimpse both public and private settings. There are several shots of interminable lines, people huddled at bus and train stations and outside phone booths, silent resignation sometimes giving way to tetchy-sounding outbursts. Juxtaposed with the exterior scenes are Akerman’s precise, fixed-camera compositions of the rituals, pleasures, and lulls of domestic life—episodes that resonate with the director’s first masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman (1975). A woman standing in her kitchen looks down, her head bobbing slightly to music. A teenage girl, sitting on a couch, assiduously applies lipstick. A little boy watches TV, an older relative (his brother? His father?) playing the piano right next to him.

From the East is the first of Akerman’s documentaries to focus on geographic location; 1999’s Sud (South), set in Jasper, Texas, where James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death, and 2002’s De l’Autre Côté (From the Other Side), shot along the Arizona-Mexico border, would follow. Of this trilogy, From the East is the only one without interviews. The people and places of From the East may be unnamed, but they are not anonymous: Their images are indelible.

Melissa Anderson

Chantal Akerman’s From the East is available on DVD from Icarus Films Home Video beginning October 6. For more details, click here.

Left: Jack Bond and Jane Arden, Vibration, 1974, still from a color video, 36 minutes. Right: Norman Mailer, untitled, 1947, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 9 minutes.

AVANT-GARDE CINEMA has become more historically minded in recent years, a phenomenon that can be chalked up to multiple factors: Archival preservation efforts, new scholarship, DVD releases, and programming have explored and expanded the history of experimental filmmaking far beyond the once-standard canons. Paralleling this trend, curators Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten have annually peppered the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar with older rarities. This year’s edition, the festival’s thirteenth, includes a number of noteworthy revivals, anchoring the three-day program’s slate of new film and videos by contemporary artists.

The most surprising is the world premiere of a nine-minute 16-mm film by Norman Mailer, made in 1947 when the writer was in his mid-twenties, a year prior to the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. Mailer himself thought the untitled project had been long lost, but after his death in 2007, the majority of the footage was discovered amid a jumble of home movies; the rest was later found in the possession of its lead, Millicent Brower, who had borrowed the opening sequence decades ago for use in securing acting jobs. An amateur but nonetheless carefully constructed work, Mailer’s tyro cinematic effort is designed as a young woman’s dream-state, replete with visual symbols (a bubble of rising bread dough representing pregnancy) and—perhaps meaningfully—a red, white, and blue color scheme. Intriguingly, it shares its oneiric structure with Maya Deren’s Meshes of Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1944); while it remains unknown whether Mailer had seen Deren’s work by this time, it’s more likely he encountered similar themes in European art films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930).

A more speculative restoration is offered in La Rabbia di Pasolini, a 2008 reconstruction by Giuseppe Bertolucci of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1963 feature La Rabbia (Rage). La Rabbia’s concept came from producer Gastone Ferranti, owner of the archives of Mondo Libero, a defunct 1950s newsreel. Inspired by the international success of the Italian exploitation documentary Mondo Cane (1962), he wanted Pasolini to craft a similar compilation film from the newsreel’s eight years of footage. After viewing the result—a poetic but stridently leftist critique of global postwar politics—Ferranti cut down Pasolini’s film and paired it with an ideological counterweight created by a notoriously conservative journalist. Bertolucci later simulated the excised portions using Pasolini’s original script. In the context of “Views,” La Rabbia reveals itself as an exemplary early instance of a European tradition of avant-garde essay films crafted from appropriated sources, stretching through the work of Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard, and Johan Grimonprez. Its most breathtaking sequence is a proto-Barthesian analysis of Marilyn Monroe, intercutting images of the doomed starlet with atomic-test footage, presaging similar combinations in the work of Andy Warhol and Bruce Conner.

Conner’s contemporary Chick Strand, who passed away earlier this year, is represented with two memorial programs, one at McElhatten’s three-day “Walking Picture Palace” series, which follows at Anthology Film Archives as an unofficial “Views” coda. Mixing deft observational documents, found-footage exercises, and feminist explorations, Strand’s work exhibits significant formal links to that of colleagues Conner and Bruce Baillie; together, the three filmmakers define a distinctly West Coast sensibility. Easily the most far-out artifact, however, is Vibration (1974), a psychedelic mind trip from the UK by Jack Bond and Jane Arden. Shot on Super 8 and then image-processed on analog video, Vibration explores what Arden called “hypnogogic techniques to release the constricted life pulse from our paralysing rationale,” incorporating Jung, Sufic philosophy, and the practice of creative visualization. Unabashedly visionary, Vibration serves as a reminder of the long-standing ambitions of experimental cinema—not simply aesthetic pleasure, but the expansion of consciousness.

Ed Halter

The New York Film Festival’s thirteenth annual “Views from the Avant-Garde” runs October 2–4 at the Walter Reade Theater. For more details, click here. “The Walking Picture Palace,” curated by Mark McElhatten, shows October 5–7 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.

Ermanno Olmi, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978, color film in 35 mm, 186 minutes. Production still.

IN ONE OF THE MANY CLOSE-UPS in Ermanno Olmi’s Il posto (1961), audiences come face-to-face with the film’s young, wide-eyed protagonist, Domenico, who is seated at the desk of his new big-city position (the “posto” in question), staring at a mimeograph machine as his colleague’s arm works the machine’s rotating plates. The boy’s glazed look registers the rote ceremony with a kind of detached horror. We watch as this aspiring office worker—recently arrived in Milan from a small town—is inducted into the unfeeling rituals of corporate efficiency. More an affectless anticlimax than a momentous denouement, this shot–reverse shot arguably constitutes Il posto’s key moment, a condensation of the film’s chilling pathos and wry humor. For Italy’s belated arrival as an economic and industrial powerhouse after World War II came at a dire price—one etched, with a confusion at once ineffable and definite, into Domenico’s ingenuous face.

As part of what film scholar P. Adams Sitney once dubbed “New Wave Neorealism,” Il posto rode the resurgence of Italy’s postwar cinema scene, which had crested a year earlier with Fellini’s La dolce vita, Antonioni’s L’avventura, and Visconti’s Rocco e i sue fratelli. Like these directors, the young Olmi used the recent lessons of Neorealist film to forge his own, somewhat more auteurist vision—though one still rooted in a basic concern with ordinary subjects and featuring nonprofessional actors. If any single leitmotif links together the works in Olmi’s expansive oeuvre, which has evolved over several generations and countless governments, it is the theme of work. Whether as a dehumanizing atomization of individual plight or a redemptive source of intimacy and solidarity, the labor trope threads together films as disparate in setting and subject as Il posto, One Fine Day (1969), and The Scavengers (1970).

In ways comparable to his contemporary Pier Paolo Pasolini, Olmi fetishized certain aspects of premodern society and culture, using them as counterpoints to the alienated (and alienating) conditions that subtended Italy’s induction to urban modernity. Another peer, Antonioni, distilled that alienation into a visual and spatial subject in its own right. But Olmi never relinquished his belief in, and evocation of, the redemptive humanism of social bonds. Olmi’s origins—he hails from a Lombardian farming family of humble means and worked as a clerk for the Edison-Volta electric plant before turning to film—clearly inform his cinematic career. Perhaps most striking in this vein is the nostalgia that underlines his important film The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), for which he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (All the film’s actors were peasants with no previous acting experience.) But if this film revisited the spontaneous rhythms and humble textures characteristic of Neorealism (Visconti’s 1948 La terra trema stands as a notable precedent), Olmi’s work also increasingly engaged with aspects of cinematic modernism. The Circumstance (1974) ventured further in this direction than his other works, while still engaging with the theme of work (in this case, the consequences of industrialization on its bourgeois protagonists).

In Terra madre (2009), a documentary released this year that focuses on Italy’s so-called Slow Food movement, the octogenarian Olmi returns to a genre that informed his cinematic debut. (He incorporated aspects of documentary into his 1959 Time Stood Still, which considered the relationship between two laborers, one young and one old.) Whether in this final work or manifested in the environmental concerns of his 1993 narrative, The Secret of the Old Woods, Olmi has refused to recoil from the ideological and social concerns that shaped his earliest efforts. A fixture of Italy’s cinematic history and an industry outsider, Olmi stands as both emblematic of the Italian postwar film scene and exceptional to some of its fitful logics.

Ara H. Merjian

“Life’s Work: The Cinema of Ermanno Olmi” is showing at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) from September 25 to October 30. For more details, click here.