THE NEW YORK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL is literally all over the map, although films from Europe and the Middle East dominate the selection. There are movies that excavate history and two historic excavations: the 1935 Yiddish Cinema classic Bar Mitzvah, directed by Henry Lynn, and the 1951 East German Holocaust drama The Ax of Wandsbek, based on the novel by Arnold Zweig. Two films from the Middle East, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami and Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open, were critical favorites at Cannes. Both are scheduled for theatrical runs in New York, and both are early contenders for my 2010 best films of the year list. (Sorry, list making became obsessive last month and I can’t shake the habit. And it’s such great shorthand for saying you should not miss these films.)
Codirected and coauthored by a Palestinian (Copti) and an Israeli (Shani), Ajami is largely set in the titular beachfront Yaffa neighborhood, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians live together in an atmosphere of gnawing anxiety and explosive anger. Encompassing a novelistic array of characters and relationships, the film is divided into overlapping chapters. After the somewhat baffling in medias res opening, each segment doubles back to fill in the gaps in what we’ve already seen. The narrative structure is designed to make the audience hyperattentive to detail; it also slows down the rush toward the climactic violent confrontation, thus adding a sense of tragic inevitability to the outcome. The snarelike plot reflects the economic and political situation—the more the characters struggle, the more tightly they’re bound. The adult characters are burned out, corrupted, or operating on the brink of madness. Empty machismo passes for power. At the heart of the film are three fragile Arab teenagers, desperate to save their families even at the cost of their own lives. Cast largely with nonprofessionals and shot with handheld camera sensitive to both action and inner life, the film has a sense of reality and of being made from the inside that very few movies dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have achieved.
Located entirely in a closed, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, Eyes Wide Open is similarly revelatory. A story of forbidden love filled with yearning and passionate, albeit discreetly shot, gay sex, it involves a married father of four small children who runs a butcher shop inherited from his father. One day a wandering Jew—that is to say, a beautiful young man with a gossip-worthy past and no family ties of his own—takes refuge from the rain in the butcher’s tiny, glass-front store. The butcher, who is not unaware of his own homosexual desires, takes him on as an assistant, rationalizing this dangerous decision as a way of proving himself. “The closer to the sin, the closer to God,” he explains. One never doubts his sincerity, nor that desire will win, regardless how tragic the consequences. Soon the “purity police” come banging on his door. In his feature-directing debut, Tabakman is fearless in his pacing (the film is slow but never too slow), and his attention to tactile detail (hands slinging a side of beef, hands fingering a prayer shawl, fingers brushing against each other as if by accident) rivals that of Claire Denis.
Haim Tabakman, Eyes Wide Open, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.
Among other compelling movies in the series, two involve the real-life stories of women of exceptional courage and conviction. Based on the memoirs of Russian poet Evgenia Ginzburg, who was stripped of her Communist Party membership and spent ten years in a Siberian gulag on trumped-up terrorism charges, Marleen Gorris’s Within the Whirlwind is an intelligent film—one that makes you think twice about how anyone who had a choice in the matter could have supported the CP once the Stalinist purges began. It also confirms the impossibility of depicting one of the twentieth century’s greatest horrors in a realistic yet audience-friendly manner. Gorris’s mise-en-scène is absurdly tasteful. Still, the film is worth seeing for the radiant resolve in Emily Watson’s performance.
A more eccentric and privileged independent woman, Pannonica Rothschild, a child of the British wing of the Rothschild family, flew planes for the Free French before coming to New York, where she fell in love with bebop. She recognized the genius of Charlie Parker and was an even more devoted and crucial supporter of Thelonious Monk, who lived out the final reclusive period of his life in the New Jersey house where she also cared for hundreds of stray cats. (Monk was not fond of the cats.) In The Jazz Baroness (2009), documentarian Hannah Rothschild fashions a portrait of her great-aunt “Nica,” whom she met only in the last years of her life. Rothschild had an inside track to her own well-insulated family (the Rothschilds believed that one should be mentioned in the papers only at one’s birth and death), and the details of their extraordinary wealth and how it did not save the Hungarian branch of the family from the Holocaust are jaw-dropping when recounted by Nica’s older sister Miriam, already in her nineties when she allowed her niece Hannah to videotape her. There are terrific bits of performance footage and lively interviews with members of Monk’s family and various jazz luminaries. A movie fashioned from scraps goes a long way toward fleshing out the complex and unquestionably platonic relationship between Monk and Nica. She was a woman of taste and spirit, and I adore her as much for her devotion to her felines as for that to one of the geniuses of American modernism.
The New York Jewish Film Festival runs January 13–28 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. For more details click here. Ajami plays February 3–13 at Film Forum in New York, and Eyes Wide Open begins its run at Cinema Village on February 5.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 7915 Km, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.
IN PRIPYAT (1999), Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary about postmeltdown Chernobyl, a policeman refers to his beat as a “dead zone.” A handful of elderly residents remain, but most, like a cheerful plant manager and the technician who sneaks the filmmakers into the ruins of her old apartment, now commute to Chernobyl from the outside. In this still-functioning wasteland, radiation clings invisibly to everything, from mushrooms to clothing to abandoned helicopters—the last a poignant image of the state’s helplessness in the face of a disaster it helped create.
It’s a sad survey, but withered landscapes like this one are where Geyrhalter (who filmed Pripyat in black and white) thrives. The Austrian director burrows into parts of the world normally walled off from more privileged eyes, marginal territories we don’t (want to) know much about.
For his most recent film, 7915 Km (2008), Geyrhalter didn’t just go to the Sahara and western Africa whenever; he went during the Dakar Rally, an overland race that’s hugely popular among gearheads and joyriding Europeans. To many Africans, it resembles an alien visitation. One girl explains she named her goat Rally because it was born the day the foreign drivers came through her village. But the race, inevitably, also stirs resentment and tears up roads; the dust, once kicked up, seems to linger, the residue of a drive-by moment that encapsulates, for Geyrhalter and many of his subjects, the glamour, elusiveness, and cruel disregard of the near but distant West.
Pointedly, the only images of the rally proper in 7915 Km come from revved-up publicity materials and European TV programs. Geyrhalter and his crew purposefully fall behind the pack, training their sights on other subjects. In Senegal, a local carpenter speaks of the demand for “boats of death” hired by would-be immigrants. In Mali, young African men who haven’t already left for Europe wait around at Western Union all day for allowances from relatives abroad; night after night, they watch the same European porn film at what has to be one of the world’s saddest movie theaters.
The film’s final segment, shot in an airplane that Italian immigration authorities use to patrol their borders, ends with a grainy image of African refugees being intercepted at sea. It’s an effective juxtaposition: the Africans’ slow, easily captured boats and the European’s speedy jeeps, trucks, planes, and rally cars.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Our Daily Bread, 2005, still from a color digital video, 92 minutes.
Geyrhalter is no less astute when approaching the land of plenty these refugees are so desperate to access. In his best-known film, Our Daily Bread (2005), the director offers an unflinching, unsettling view of Europe’s food-production industry. Whereas American films like Fast Food Nation (2006) and Food, Inc. (2008) take to the pulpit, Geyrhalter’s nearly wordless documentary depicts slaughterhouse horrors with the cold precision (an Austrian specialty?) of a Haneke thriller.
The emotional response Geyrhalter cultivates is more profound and subtle than outrage. If anything, his technique highlights the system’s genius and efficiency. The compositions emphasize machinery, as Geyrhalter’s Steadicam charts seemingly endless corridors of crops and chicken boxes. He and his longtime editor, Wolfgang Widerhofer, hold shots just long enough to achieve a mesmerizing sense of day-in, day-out repetition.
The rhythms of this ultra-rationalized industry contrast starkly with the natural processes it supplants. Bulls are interrupted midmount to capture their semen, squeaking chicks are shot out of tubes like tennis balls, olive trees are throttled by machines until they spill their fruit, and pigs and fish are corralled along conveyor belts to their death, then stripped and disassembled by automaton-like workers.
All this for human sustenance. But the spotless food-production facilities so clinically depicted in Our Daily Bread have mastered the vagaries of the life cycle in a way that suggests that the cycle itself will someday be obviated. These, too, are dead zones.
FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD MIA is the clenched, invisible daughter of a self-obsessed mother grasping at her mislaid youth. Warehoused in an Essex council estate, Mia (Katie Jarvis) escapes the banal violence of her daily life through hip-hop dance, which she performs secretly in an abandoned flat. Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s new boyfriend—easy in his skin and disarmingly kind—is the first person who really sees her. The long, slow fuse of their attraction burns to inexorable catastrophe, as such attractions will.
Even if Fish Tank (2009), writer-director Andrea Arnold’s second feature, traverses somewhat hackneyed narrative territory, it is a bracingly unsentimental and utterly controlled film. Her remarkably restrained hand leads, happily, to remarkable ferocity. Anchored by humane, intelligent performances from Jarvis and Fassbender, Fish Tank maps the often ambiguous hunger that draws damaged people together. Jarvis is particularly mesmerizing; as Mia, her brittle, carefully cultivated carapace of nonchalance is threatened at every turn by her vulnerability and her devastating anger.
Robbie Ryan’s meticulous camera work—intimate but also clinical—underscores the nebulousness of the boundary between the wild and the contained: between rage and need, desire and love. The Essex borderlands, where industrial plants and housing estates meet the mudflats of the Thames estuary, seem to contain the entire mystery of postmodern life, in which an overpass of the A-16 shelters a talismanic white horse and a gypsy camp of Irish Travellers.
Arnold has been hailed as the heir apparent to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. And Fish Tank, with its echoing canyons of tower blocks and concrete wastelands, is firmly embedded in the tradition of social realism. But the film is ultimately—and refreshingly—less interested in revealing or commenting on ills of the British class system than it is in modeling the contours of one young woman’s awakening.
Fish Tank opens Friday, January 15, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.
IN 1984, at the age of twelve, Charlotte Gainsbourg, wearing only a blue oxford and panties, lounged on a mattress with her shirtless father for his video of their duet “Lemon Incest”; twenty-five years later, she would give herself a clitoridectomy with rusty scissors in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. As the only child of a legendarily decadent union—the great French desiccated dandy/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and British actress/singer Jane Birkin—Charlotte was born with scandal imprinted on her DNA. But as the nine films in the French Institute Alliance Française’s tribute to the gifted actress make clear, Gainsbourg is more than a provocatrice; her Modigliani face and frame show the subtlest shifts of pain and pleasure, grief and joy.
Her formidable talent is immediately evident in Claude Miller’s L’Effrontée (1985), the third film Gainsbourg made after beginning her career in 1984 and her first starring role. Playing Charlotte Castang (one of three instances in the series in which the performer and her character share the same first name), who rages at the misery of being a teenager stuck in a sleepy town, Gainsbourg appears in every scene. Her adolescent mood swings—one minute erupting into frustrated tantrums (“I wish I wasn’t me”), the next staring with moon-eyed wonder at girl-crush Clara, the visiting thirteen-year-old piano prodigy whom Charlotte hopes to run away with—are agonizingly raw yet expertly calibrated. It’s a stunning, fearless performance (for which Gainsbourg would win a César, France’s equivalent of an Oscar, for Most Promising Actress) that hints at the emotional boldness she would display in Antichrist.
If Gainsbourg’s on-screen collaborations with her father provoke a certain unease—two years after the “Lemon Incest” video, she starred in Serge’s film Charlotte for Ever; they play inappropriately attached dad and daughter—the two films that she’s made with her longtime romantic partner, Yvan Attal, the mediocre writer-director of My Wife Is an Actress (2001) and Happily Ever After (2004), invite other discomfiting questions about where autobiography ends and fiction begins. Attal and Gainsbourg play spouses in both movies, but they are primarily narcissistic vehicles for Attal’s overwhelming insecurities, if not outright hostility about his partner’s success. And yet even in the circumscribed, one-dimensional roles Attal has created for her (particularly as the cipher of the title in My Wife Is an Actress), Gainsbourg finds grace, depth, and humor.
In fact, Gainsbourg is at her best when struggling against bad object choices, enmeshed in impossible romances. As Gael García Bernal’s crafts partner (they play with cellophane strips and cloth ponies) in Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006), Gainsbourg touchingly, tentatively invites the man-child’s affections and wearily stands up to his passive-aggressive attacks. Beyond the delight of watching Gainsbourg beautifully navigate this awkward flirtation is the immense pleasure of listening to her, as her tongue glides from French to English. This aural intimacy is magically showcased in her most recent film, Patrice Chéreau’s Persécution (2009), during a transatlantic phone call Gainsbourg’s character, Sonia, makes to Daniel (Romain Duris), her difficult boyfriend of three years. “You took me as I am,” Sonia tearfully explains to Daniel when he demands to know why she fell in love with him. Charlotte fans have done the same for nearly three decades.
“Charlotte Forever” runs January 12 through February 23 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. For more details, click here.
James Benning, Ruhr, 2009, still from a color film in HD, 121 minutes.
JAMES BENNING is as synonymous with observing the evolving American landscape as he is with 16-mm filmmaking, so it makes perfect sense that his first feature-length work in high-definition video would be an investigation of a German territory largely unfamiliar to the artist. In many ways, the construction of Ruhr, 2009, will be familiar to Benning’s followers: For each of seven shots that constitute the two-hour work, Benning’s frame remains fixed, allowing events—often subtle and frequently located at the threshold of wilderness and industry—to unfold before the camera in “real” time, unhurried by the narrative expectations of mainstream cinema.
In fact, for most of his forty-year career, the duration of Benning’s takes has been limited to the just over ten minutes of footage afforded by a four-hundred-foot roll of 16-mm film shot at twenty-four frames a second. (For example, the artist’s extraordinary Ten Skies and 13 Lakes, both 2004, are composed entirely of ten-minute takes.) After a suite of six shots, ranging from eight to eighteen minutes each, Ruhr concludes—spoiler alert—with a stunning, dirgelike image of a coking plant’s belching smokestack that slowly fades to postsunset blackness and lasts exactly one hour.
The difference between digital and celluloid images is not simply the difference between the “purity” or indexicality of photographic grain versus cold, clinical pixels: Ruhr suggests that, for Benning, the true promise of HD lies in its capacity to capture images at durations that push the limits of the viewer’s attention toward an almost-inhuman scale of time—albeit in a physical way that an all-too-human viewer, seated in the theater, will surely register.
Benning has long been among the most patient of artists, and therefore his work increasingly seems at odds with an attention-deficient culture. Yet, his films—and, well, video—reward an equally patient viewer and listener. Sound plays a crucial role in Benning’s work and often provides more information than the visual component. (The artist’s initial digital foray was in assembling the lush sound for casting a glance, 2007, his film of and around Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.) The third shot of Ruhr frames the woods at the edge of the Düsseldorf airport, and over the course of eighteen minutes five airplanes take off—we hear them before we see them—and zip through the frame; each passing plane is followed several beats later by the surprisingly violent rustling of leaves.
Similar devotion to detail also informs shots of a man sandblasting graffiti or the mechanized fabrication of steel cylinders—both pointing to the Ruhr Valley’s industrialization. In another shot, Benning’s camera is positioned behind the congregation in a Muslim ceremony, at the sight line of a man kneeling in prayer, and much of the image is occluded—and then revealed—by the repetitive mass supplication. Throughout Ruhr, Benning eschews beginnings and endings in favor of ongoing processes and cycles, whether natural, industrial, or religious.
Not long ago, I found myself seated a few rows away from the filmmaker at a screening of early films organized by cinema historian Tom Gunning. Following a screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Country Doctor, 1909—a pioneering example of parallel editing—Benning wryly noted that Griffith’s construction of cinematic (story) time, and a related set of narrative expectations, was “insidious.” I laughed but understood what he meant: Only a few years after cinema’s invention, many of its lasting codes had already been established, and old-fashioned storytelling became cinema’s dominant mode. Benning, as Ruhr and other works imply, wants to explore other possibilities that were always available to cinema but generally neglected—namely its ability to record what the camera observes, over time, without much intervention. Or, simply put, he wants his viewers to “feel” time rather than forget about it, while looking at and listening to the world around them. In the obsolescence of the celluloid medium, it remains to be seen whether digital technology offers a truly new way of seeing the world or just a more spectacular version of familiar movie “magic”—James Cameron’s Avatar seems to urgently push this question to the foreground—but somehow it’s not surprising to find Benning on the frontier.
KELLY REICHARDT’S extremely promising debut feature, River of Grass (1994), suggested that she, unlike her protagonists—a pair of wannabe outlaws, too hapless and depressed to escape their Broward County backwater—was capable of a big move. Instead, she retreated from theatrical feature filmmaking for more than a decade, explaining that she found the experience of dealing with crews and financing alienating. The melancholy indie two-hander Old Joy (2006) was hailed as her comeback, as tough and tender in its revision of the “bromance” as River of Grass was of the road movie. She followed with the even finer, more wrenching Wendy and Lucy (2008).
With Ode (1999), Then a Year (2001), and Travis (2004), the three short films that she made during her hiatus from features, Reichardt returned to her experimental roots. She shot all three herself, using a Super 8 camera, producing images of lush, ephemeral beauty by exploiting the limited contrast ratio, low resolution, tendency toward overexposure, and Impressionist splotched color of the narrow-gauge film stock. Ode, the most ambitious of the three, is based on Herman Raucher’s novelization of his own script for the 1976 Warner Brothers movie Ode to Billy Joe, which was inspired by the more familiar 1967 Bobbie Gentry hit single “Ode to Billie Joe.” Despite the discrepancy in spelling, the titular B. J. is in both song and movie a teenage boy, surname McAllister, living in rural Mississippi, who commits suicide by drowning. The reasons that “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” (that should jog your memory) are not disclosed in the song, and the mystery may be the reason it exerts whatever hold it has had on the imagination. (It’s number 412 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.) It has been speculated that Billie got his girlfriend, Bobbie Lee, pregnant and the object they were seen tossing into the river was a stillborn or aborted fetus; another theory has it that Billie Joe was black passing as white, which made his romance with the sixteen-year-old daughter of conservative Baptist parents doubly forbidden. Raucher, after interviewing Gentry (who herself never offered any public explanation), wrote a screenplay in which Billy Joe, frustrated in his attempts to get Bobbie Lee to go all the way, gets drunk and has gay sex in the woods with the boss of the sawmill where he works. Given that it was produced by a major Hollywood studio in the mid-’70s and starred teen idol Robby Benson, Ode to Billy Joe seems a ripe object for someone’s gender-studies thesis, but I have never read any serious analysis or, for that matter, encountered the movie itself.
Reichardt fully embraces the gay-teen suicide angle. The narrative is told in an extended flashback through the eyes of Bobbie Lee, who falls head over heels for Billy Joe, despite the fact that everyone in town thinks he’s weird. (For starters, he wears one gold earring and looks like a lankier version of the young Todd Haynes, whose support is noted in the end credits.) While it is Billy Joe who dies, it is Bobbie Lee who has our sympathy, for she will have to live with the trauma of a first love that ends in death and the irresolvable question of whether Billy Joe loved her for herself or was merely using her as a beard to prove to himself and the world that he was what he was not.
At fourteen minutes and twelve minutes respectively, Then a Year and Travis marry fragments of texts recorded from radio and/or TV “documentary” programs with images that are abstracted from narrative meaning. In Then a Year, the images are of nature at its most lyric (a waterfall glimpsed through deep summer foliage, a bright red bird perched on an electric wire), and the text, taken from a “true crime” special, suggests that a woman has been murdered—perhaps by her lover, her husband, a one-night stand, an unknown intruder . . . who knows which. What matters is the connection of sex and violence. In Travis, the visuals are entirely abstract—moving color fields created by unconventional camera placement or focus. The audio comes from an NPR program in which an anguished woman describes the experience of learning that her son has been killed in Iraq. Delicate and emotionally harrowing, both films evoke a condition of the psyche in which images and words, separated from narrative cause and effect or concrete references, are repeated in an endless loop to defend against the full realization of loss and horror.
Digital transfers of Ode, Travis, and Then a Year are screened continuously between 12 PM and 5 PM on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays until February 11 at Esopus Space, 64 West Third Street in New York. For more details, click here.