Ramin Bahrani, Goodbye Solo, 2008, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes.
RAMIN BAHRANI’S FILMS examine quotidian ebbs and flows and are quiet but potent meditations on the human drive to merely persevere. Man Push Cart (2005) records the hourly and daily routines of a food-cart operator in New York. Chop Shop (2007) captures the brilliant energy of an adolescent struggling to work his way out of a sprawling junkyard in Queens. Bahrani’s latest work, Goodbye Solo, is his most harrowing yarn yet, a humorous and haunting examination of unconditional (and unrequited) love.
In all his films, the director has shown a keen fascination with the unexpected, tenuous connections that rouse people from their daydreams. Goodbye Solo follows a taxi driver in North Carolina named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) who fortuitously banters with William (Red West), a fading, irascible old-timer, one night in his cab. William offers the Senegalese immigrant a sizable sum if, in a few weeks, he will agree to drive him to a cliff in a nearby state park. It’s a not-too-subtle announcement of an impending suicide, and Solo’s concern for the old man leads him to forge an unlikely friendship in a bid to show his customer all he has to live for.
As played by Savane, Solo is an effervescent and charismatic free spirit, an ebullient life of the party who single-handedly propels the story. He bickers with his wife, but in a loving way. He tells anyone who will listen about his dream of one day working as a flight attendant, but in the meantime he remains determined to be the best taxi driver in town. Bahrani has a knack for casting fierce and indelible personalities in his movies, and his stories are dependent on characters who seem larger than their lives would indicate. Once again, in Goodbye Solo, Bahrani’s lens pushes in close, probing an unlikely and frequently humorous tug-of-war between two men while seeking to understand what makes these characters––one an introvert, one an extrovert––tick.
There’s a claustrophobic feel to his approach, an airtight quality that initially suggests his films are about hopeless figures in intractable situations. Yet whether it’s a food cart operator saving money to buy his own cart, a child in a chop shop who dreams of a brighter future, or a cab driver struggling to love a man who refuses to love himself, Bahrani is an unswerving advocate for can-do spirits. He’s inspired by the struggle, not the victory, and one can easily envision an elderly Solo, still reaching out to anyone in need of a lift.
Goodbye Solo opens March 27 at the Angelika Film Center in New York. For more details, click here. The film also opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas on April 3 and BAM Rose Cinemas on April 10.
Lav Diaz, Melancholia, 2008 (details), stills from a black-and-white HD video, 480 minutes. Jenine and Danny (Angeli Bayani and Roeder Camanag).
IN A RAIN-DRENCHED FILIPINO TOWN, three lonely figures seek some measure of redemption or, short of that, somewhere dry enough to smoke a cigarette. Jenine is a prostitute who’s new to Sagada, which may explain her lack of street savvy. A pimp who arranges live sex shows for voyeuristic clients, Danny is a slick talker but not half as cool as he pretends. Completing the trio is a nameless nun who gamely solicits “charity for the poor” from all who come her way, albeit to little avail.
Given that viewers of Lav Diaz’s latest feature will have nearly eight hours to spend with these characters, it’s not surprising that their identities are far slippier than these stark first impressions imply. The winner of the best feature prize in the Horizons sidebar at the Venice film festival last year, Melancholia (2008) has its North American premiere at Cinematheque Ontario on March 29. An alternately serene and disconcerting drama whose themes range from the instability of self to the ramifications of radicalism, it’s another powerful example of the (very) long-form aesthetic that has made Diaz simultaneously one of the most revered and least seen new filmmakers of the past decade.
Since turning to cinema in the late 1990s after stints as a journalist in the Philippines and the US, the fifty-year-old director has produced an enormous volume of feature film and documentary work; for Diaz, though, the boundary between fiction and nonfiction is a porous one.
Melancholia is marginally more manageable than his nine-hour Death in the Land of Encantos (2007) and the almost-eleven-hour Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004). But conventional concepts of time tend not to apply here. The long stretches of apparent stasis disguise the sophistication and intricacy of detail present within Diaz’s avidly novelistic style of narrative. His canny use of ambient sound and the visual richness of his preferred format of black-and-white high-definition video also make for a remarkably immersive viewing experience. That’s especially true of the jungle scenes that dominate Melancholia’s final hours, which are grueling enough to make the in-country slog in Steven Soderbergh’s Che: Part 2 (2008) seem like a gentle stroll.
We feel less like observers than travelers on the same path. No wonder Melancholia evokes such a feeling of liberation during the occasional eruptions of noise, as when Diaz himself plays guitar in the free-jazz freak-out that occurs somewhere in hour 6. The final emergence from the dark and pain-filled world of Diaz’s characters feels just as revelatory.
IT’S FITTING THAT the first video artist released on Lux’s DVD label would be George Barber, whose early efforts screened widely on home televisions. Barber became known in the mid-1980s through his participation in Britain’s short-lived but influential Scratch Video movement, which transformed appropriated images from popular film and television through fast edits, vivid graphics, audio samples, and industrial-synth beats; he distributed his colleagues’ work beyond both galleries and broadcast TV via a VHS tape called The Greatest Hits of Scratch Video, sold in record shops.
Several of Barber’s fantastic Scratch-era pieces appear on Beyond Language: Selected Video Works 1983–2008, many of which betray the influence of earlier video artists like Dara Birnbaum and Nam June Paik, filtered through a sharp post-punk sensibility. For Tilt (1983), Barber employed an old video mixer found at Goldsmiths to layer pastel 2-D shapes and other image-processing patterns over footage from American television shows and commercials. On his commentary track, Barber says that at the time he was interested in “disrespecting the rectangle”—breaking up the TV image with abstract compositional elements—and finding ways to place “a very kind of hippie, drug-induced machine” in the service of a more angular, ironic aesthetic. For Absence of Satan and Yes Frank No Smoke (both 1985), two of his finest videos, Barber reedited one-inch masters of movies from Columbia Pictures, given to him by a studio rep interested in having the material promoted to a younger generation. Whether Barber’s fantastic, dreamlike, and color-laden collages of scenes with Sally Field, Paul Newman, and Brooke Shields ever boosted UK ticket sales remains unknown; the film’s source materials become nearly unreadable beneath his dense and rhythmic montage.
Barber’s later work retains his outsider wit, exploring video as a medium for the slacker raconteur: taking the piss out of adverts by adding new verbal sound tracks in Schweppes Ad (1993) and Hovis Ad (1994) or spinning enigmatic art-world allegories in Waiting for Dave (1993) and I Was Once Involved in a Shit Show (2003). He returns to the palette of colors from his Scratch period for Automotive Action Painting (2007), a prankish one-shot in which paint is poured in blobs onto a motorway, turning passing vehicles into unwitting artists as the pigments streak patterns across the road: evidence that Barber is still finding new ways to disrespect the rectangle.
George Barber, Automotive Action Painting, 2007.
Helen Klodawsky, Malls R Us, 2008 (detail), still from a color film, 78 minutes.
A SHOPPING MALL is “a place where idealism, passion, and greed can come together, all under one roof,” intones the voice-over narrator near the outset of Canadian filmmaker Helen Klodawsky’s Malls R Us (2008), her latest work. The seventy-eight-minute documentary chronicles what these feelings provoke in a diverse cast of characters: megalomaniacal ambition in real estate developers, utopian fantasies of behavior engineering in corporate architects, slightly smug moralizing in critics of consumerism, and rousing antimall activism in environmentalists and labor activists. Klodawsky’s cameras alight on one luxury megadevelopment after another. Some are still in the making, whether being built by hundreds of workmen or existing solely in artists’ renderings; some are gleaming and overrun with glassy-eyed shoppers; a few older examples are kept alive by a handful of lingering tenants, like patients in a terminal ward. The film suggests that the geographic trend in mall development is toward the Middle East, India, and Asia. It also suggests that the lifespan of these projects, despite the billions of dollars and the thousands of hours of labor that go into them, is approximately thirty years.
Though Malls R Us dexterously balances seduction and repulsion, it’s not necessarily due to Klodawsky’s attempts at neutrality. One senses that her fascination is morbid and her intent exhortative, not least in a scene in which Canadian developer Rubin Stahl is caught, in an outsize sporting-goods chain store he hopes will anchor his new project, holding an automatic weapon that an off-camera store employee informs him is “meant for humans.” Yikes! The moment precedes a crescendo of crosscuts that juxtapose starkly the cross purposes of Stahl; Eric Kuhne, a London-based American architect at work on a million-square-foot project in Dubai; and Vikram Soni, an Indian environmental activist attempting to halt a development that will trample the Delhi Ridge Wilderness Preserve.
Nonetheless, at the end of the film there remains something to the claim made at the outset that the mall is a kind of sacred place. This is partly because of the lovely cinematography of François Dagenais, with whom Klodawsky worked on her 2005 film No More Tears Sister, about a Sri Lankan human rights activist. His images of privileged, contented young women among the seventy thousand trees planted on the roof of an Osaka megamall and of the dramatic, angular spaces enclosed with glass in Jon Jerde’s Złote Tarasy (Golden Terraces) development in Warsaw evoke a Pavlovian response in the viewer. One almost doesn’t begrudge the young Japanese mother who blithely announces, “To be around people with the same background makes me feel at ease.”
What undergirds this ongoing romance with shopping malls, even among those whose critical faculties lead them to acknowledge the enormous fiscal, social, and environmental costs of building and maintaining them? Jerde and the writer Ray Bradbury suspect it has something to do with the mall’s ability to foster community as the downtown promenades in small American cities once did. Aurelie, a makeup-counter salesgirl at Forum des Halles in Paris, believes it’s because the shopping mall is a place where people are gratified to be on display. The elderly women who stride purposefully around a near-empty mall in Middle America, unable to imagine what they’ll do if it closes, benefit from the consistency it affords their exercise routine. One of this film’s virtues is Klodawsky’s ability, despite her own inclinations, to let viewers empathize—to some degree—with each of these positions.
Malls R Us will receive its US premiere on Saturday, March 21, and Monday, March 23, as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s sixth-annual “Canadian Front” showcase. To read about the other films in the series, click here.
THE LATEST ADDITION to the meager array of DVDs devoted to American avant-garde film is as pleasurable as it is necessary. Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947–1986 is part of an initiative by the National Film Preservation Foundation. In a rare instance of cultural perspicacity, the US Congress, in 1996, created the NFPF to facilitate the preservation of our national film heritage—silent and sound, documentary and fiction, and the glorious moving-image work designated, for lack of a better term, “avant-garde.”
Chosen by the NFPF in consultation with five media organizations (AMPAS’s Academy Film Archives, Anthology Film Archives, MoMA, the Donnell Media Center of the New York Public Library, and Pacific Film Archive), the films in the two-DVD set represent just about every genre of avant-garde film and every trend and countertrend that emerged over a fertile forty-year period. Attention is paid to both East and West Coast filmmakers (hopefully laying to rest a bitter rivalry). There are one or two films that it might have been better to ignore, but the vast majority are eye-openers, literally and metaphorically.
Fabulous and formidable cross-gender performances are a staple of avant-garde film. Andy Warhol’s Mario Banana (No. 1) (1964), a lushly colored, four-minute, fixed-camera, slo-mo’d portrait of the drag-queen superstar Mario Montez, waxing orally expressive with a banana, marks the transition between the artist’s early silent, black-and-white screen tests and the color talkies to come. It is one of the truly transcendent films in the package, as is George Kuchar’s I, an Actress (1977) in which the filmmaker, frustrated by the Method acting of his female star, delivers a lesson in screen deportment by channeling a perfect Bette Davis—every gesture impeccably timed, every line reading precisely inflected. Anyone aware of the outrage that greeted Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963) when it was screened in a special session of the US Senate in 1968 will particularly enjoy the inclusion in the federally sponsored Treasures IV of two films in which Smith stars, Ken Jacobs’s ephemeral Little Stabs at Happiness (1959) and Ron Rice’s jewel-toned psychedelic reverie, Chumlum (1964). Smith is arresting in both films, although he presents himself more chastely than in Flaming Creatures, keeping his penis, limp or otherwise, hidden inside his pants or beneath his caftan. Flaming Creatures is not included on Treasures IV, nor are any of Smith’s other films, a significant omission due to the fact that at the time the package was put together, Smith’s work was once again at the center of a legal dispute, involving not its status as art or pornography, but its skyrocketing value on the market nearly two decades after its creator died in abject poverty.
Speed has been one of the most aggressive tactics of avant-garde filmmaking. Among the eye-popping works—just as potent on DVD as they are projected on the big screen—are Robert Breer’s exhilarating Eyewash (1959), Marie Menken’s dazzling New York City ode Go! Go! Go! (1962–64), Harry Smith’s Film No. 3: Interwoven (1947–49), with a Dizzy Gillespie score that makes it a prototypical music video, and Stan Brakhage’s Riddle of Lumen (1972), which depending on my mood I see as either a very fine Brakhage film or an overblown trailer for his biggest hits. A different mode of aggression, specifically verbal punning and riddling, drives Owen Land’s anxiously reflexive New Improved Institutional Quality: In the Environment of Liquids and Nasals a Parasitic Vowel Sometimes Develops (1976), the title itself as big a mouthful as Mario’s banana.
The diaristic, personal documentary is a flexible enough genre to cover half the avant-garde films ever made, including the aforementioned Brakhage and Menken works. The variations here also range from Jonas Mekas’s lyric Notes on the Circus (1966) to Saul Levine’s 8-mm missive from the artist wing of the New Left, Note to Pati (1969), to Bruce Baillie’s Here I Am (1962), a wistful, intimate portrait of a group of emotionally disturbed children, to nostalgia (1971), Hollis Frampton’s wry structuralist meditation on anticipation, memory, sound, and, most interestingly in the context of this DVD, how a work of art is transformed in the transfer from one medium to another. Larry Gottheim’s exquisite Fog Line (1970) is another meditation on the properties of still and moving photographic media. Its image of a landscape slowly disclosed as the morning fog dissolves evokes the seemingly magic process of developing photographic images.
The most haunting of the found-footage collages is Joseph Cornell’s enigmatic, profoundly surrealist By Night with Torch and Spear (ca. 1940s). Cornell employed the simple strategy of printing his images from filmstrips that were not only on the verge of disintegrating but also incorrectly wound, so that they appear on the screen upside down and backward. Incorrect wind was also employed by the all-but-forgotten Standish Lawder in his rapturous Necrology (1969–70), which for me is the greatest of these avant-garde treasures.
Anthology Film Archives in New York will screen sixteen of the twenty-six 16-mm restored prints featured in “Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947–1986” from March 18–19. For more details, click here.
Left: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Vampyr, 1932, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 75 minutes. Right: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Gertrud, 1964, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 119 minutes. Erland Jansson and Gertrud Kanning (Baard Owe and Nina Pens Rode).
ONE REASON WHY it never seems like an inappropriate time to have a Carl Theodor Dreyer retrospective is that most of his films haven’t dated, even though reactions to his works have fluctuated quite a bit over the years. Based on my own experiences in recently showing his 1943 Day of Wrath to students, I would venture that fewer spectators nowadays are likely to regard the film’s slow tempo as intolerable the way that the New York Times’s Bosley Crowther did over sixty years ago. (“Dreyer has kept his idea so obscure and the action so slow and monotonous that the general audience will find it a bore,” he claimed.)
One might go further and argue that unlike most other film masters who started out in the silent era, Dreyer’s major works were not only cinematically ahead of their own times; without ever becoming quite contemporary, they’ve even remained slightly ahead of ours. There are multiple reasons for this, including his penchant for making highly personal adaptations of preexisting works, most of them period films; his dialectical camera movements, in which he simultaneously pans and tracks in opposite directions; and, during the sound era (when he was generally able to make only one feature per decade), his unorthodox preference for using direct sound inside studio settings. Never trendy in terms of either style or theme, his films become only more mysteriously complex over time. And perhaps even more pertinent is what might be described as Dreyer’s spiritual freedom, according to which neither belief nor disbelief is allowed to dominate his narratives—though hatred for intolerance is a constant. Witchcraft in Day of Wrath and miracles in Ordet (1955) are simply there, like martyrdom in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and vampires in Vampyr (1932), waiting to be unpacked and interpreted in all their ambiguity.
But first we need to break free from decades of obfuscation about Dreyer’s life—some of it encouraged by Dreyer himself, who didn’t like to advertise that he was born out of wedlock or that his Swedish mother died by attempting to abort a second child when he was still an infant. Above all, he didn’t have a “strict Lutheran upbringing,” as many English-language sources still claim. Thanks to the groundbreaking 1982 biography by the late Maurice Drouzy, lamentably available only in Danish and French, we now know that neither Dreyer nor his adoptive parents—a freethinking leftist typesetter and a wife who had already had an illegitimate daughter by another man, and neither of whom set foot inside a church unless it was obligatory—were especially religious, and that when Dreyer occasionally visited a French Reformed church, it was chiefly in order to polish his grasp of the language. More profoundly, if we accept Drouzy’s plausible if overheated thesis, virtually all Dreyer’s work can be viewed as an obsessive defense of his idealized real mother, whom he never knew, and a troubled attitude toward his guilt-tripping and unloving adopted mother, whom he hated so much that he refused to attend her funeral. Thus good mothers as well as bad mothers abound in his films; only in Gertrud (1964), his final testament, do these two characters fuse inextricably into one person.
A retrospective of the films of Carl Theodor Dreyer is on view March 13–31 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. For more details, click here.