JUSTIFIABLY FETING IFC FILMS for the second year in a row, BAMcinématek salutes the bold US distributor (you can thank IFC for bringing The Duchess of Langeais, The Last Mistress, and Che to theaters last year) with a seven-movie series, including weeklong runs of Philippe Garrel’s Frontier of Dawn and Christophe Honoré’s La Belle Personne. The two films are wildly different: Garrel, the dreamiest and most melancholy of the post–New Wave masters, introduces a supernatural dea ex machina, while Honoré’s work, loosely based on the seventeenth-century novel La Princesse de Clèves, plays like a Gallic Gossip Girl. What unites them is their star, the tousle-haired beauty Louis Garrel. Louis is Philippe’s son; in his father’s 2005 film, Regular Lovers (a gorgeous rejoinder to Bertolucci’s facile May ’68 movie from 2003, The Dreamers, also starring Garrel fils), Louis is essentially his father’s surrogate. Garrel the younger has starred in four of Honoré’s five features, a relationship reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s collaboration with François Truffaut.
Frontier of Dawn, visually voluptuous in high-contrast black-and-white, follows the doomed love between François (Louis), a photographer, and Carole (Laura Smet), an unstable actress. Carole is institutionalized; François moves on. Carole kills herself and comes back to haunt her erstwhile lover, appearing as a menacing apparition in mirrors and instructing François to join her in the realm of the undead. One’s tolerance for the hocus-pocus depends on whether one finds the crazy-lady trope shamelessly lazy, especially coming from the director of 1991’s I Can No Longer Hear the Guitar, a far more graceful dissection of a tumultuous relationship (based on Garrel’s own with the self-destructive Teutonic icon Nico).
Honoré, a more earthbound romantic, has made his most cynical film with La Belle Personne—and given Louis Garrel one of his least sympathetic roles. As a popular Italian teacher at a Parisian high school, Garrel’s Nemours, sleeping with the religion teacher and at least one student, doggedly pursues his latest charge, Junie (Léa Seydoux). Yet Honoré’s pleasingly tart vision of lust, teenage or otherwise, never fails to be enraptured by the comeliness of its cast—and no one is filmed more lovingly than Garrel.
“Focus on IFC Films” runs at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn March 6–12. For more details, click here.
JAPANESE ARTIST TAKAHIKO IIMURA has been making experimental films for the past forty-seven years. Though often considered a member of the 1960s New York underground, Iimura was working in Japan during most of that time. Frequently, his only means of accessing the films from which he drew inspiration was to read about them. These include works by Stan Brakhage, Stan VanDerBeek, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, and Andy Warhol, the artists commemorated in Iimura’s 1966–68 Filmmakers, a unique take on portraiture and an homage to a particular slice of art history.
Though working in relative isolation from his artistic peers during the ’60s, Iimura’s films from this period are some of his most powerful and original. The ten-minute Ai (Love, 1962), with sound by Yoko Ono, examines a couple having sex through a tightly cropped frame reminiscent of a view through a microscope. It was shot in this way, Iimura explains, in response to his country’s rigid censorship laws, whereby nudity was often blocked out altogether with a black mark on the film. By focusing intently on small sections of the commingled bodies, Iimura circumvented the ban and in the process created a surreal, erotic blur of hands, toes, and nipples, skin, hair, and eyes. As in Brakhage’s work, the camera acts as a character in its own right; in the case of Ai, it is the third party in a ménage à trois.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, working alongside developments in Conceptual art, Iimura created several works that examine the construction of ideas and language. Observer/Observed (1975–1998), for example, is a sort of eight-minute primer in semiotics. Now an on-screen character, the camera is shown head-on and then repeatedly removed, replaced by a blank white light. Iimura intones in his Japanese-inflected English, “This is a camera. This is not a camera.” In more recent works, Iimura has returned to the subject of the body and has also begun to experiment with visual effects. In Aiueonn Six Features, 1993, his face stretches to comic proportions as he chants vowels. Set against bright, almost neon backgrounds, eyes swivel and bounce, noses stretch and twist, and ears nearly pop with the sound.
A mini-retrospective of Takahiko Iimura in Los Angeles, organized by Adam Hyman of Los Angeles Filmforum and supported by the Japan Foundation, will include screenings at multiple venues: UCLA Film & Television Archive on February 27, Filmforum on March 1 and 8, California Institute of the Arts on March 3, UC Irvine on March 4, USC Cinematheque on March 5, and REDCAT on March 9. For more details, click here.
THE PRESS RELEASE for Astra Taylor’s documentary Examined Life (2009) describes it as a film that “pulls philosophy out of academic journals and classrooms, and puts it back on the streets.” Most of the philosophers it features are beyond question among the brightest stars of the discipline, but the philosophy each professes belongs as much to the streets as to the classroom, which would not be true of what their colleagues for the most part teach—the technical canon of epistemology and logical analysis or the disciplines of metaphysics and philosophical psychology. The basis of their fame lies in their concern for what John Dewey designated “the problems of men,” by which he was being critical of how philosophy is practiced. “Philosophy recovers itself,” he wrote, “when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.” Putting philosophy “back on the streets” is a picturesque way of phrasing Dewey’s agenda.
It also serves one of the film’s cinematic aims, of situating its stellar thinkers in various sites in major American cities, each of which ideally serve to make visual commentaries on what they say. In one of the film’s most successful episodes, Judith Butler, who holds a chair in the Department of Rhetoric at Berkeley, is filmed walking with a colleague, Sunaura Taylor, identified as an activist and a specialist in disability studies. (Butler, of course, is famous for her contributions to gender theory and queer studies, via such watershed texts as Gender Trouble .) At a certain moment in their conversation, Butler speaks of a young man whose exaggerated style of walking had provoked some others to throw him off a bridge. That prompted her to think of styles of walking as a topic in gender theory, as well as in disability theory. The camera draws back, underscoring their vulnerability as they walk amid the automobiles transecting a busy intersection in San Francisco’s Mission District. The moment also connects with another scene, in which Martha Nussbaum, walking though a park in Chicago, discusses the “state of nature”—a concept central in the political philosophy of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume—against which humans construct social organizations that serve protective functions. The original literature mainly speaks of protection from one another—overlooking, Nussbaum reminds us, disabled persons, as well as women and children.
The film shows Cornel West taxiing through Manhattan, soliloquizing in raplike cadences, improvising on words that begin with d—death, domination, dogmatism, democracy—but working his way round to Beethoven’s great Opus no. 111. Peter Singer, responding to the luxury emporiums of Fifth Avenue, riffs on how we spend money and, ultimately, on his signature topic of animal rights. Avital Ronell’s giggling riff on a park path alludes to Heidegger’s image of thought as a path. Slavoj Žižek, in an orange vest, declaims, in a London dump, that ecology is garbage. Michael Hardt cannot help smirking in his skiff as he paddles about a Central Park lake, ringed by luxury condominiums, talking about revolution. The film is a series of plein air examinations of facets of life as we live it—a tribute to Socrates, from whom the title is appropriated, whose philosophizing mainly took place in the open.
Astra Taylor’s Examined Life will be released on DVD from Zeitgeist Films on February 23, 2010.
Deborah Stratman, O’er the Land, 2008, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 51 minutes.
DEBORAH STRATMAN’S FILMS feature multiple explosions and a jarring mix of noises and near-silent drones, so it is curious to also discover that an endearing innocence often prevails, a longing for some kind of miracle—a flying saucer or a goblin—just around the bend. This sense of wonder remains at the heart of Stratman’s O’er the Land (2009), featuring the true story of a man who fell through the sky and lived to tell about it. William H. Rankin’s 1960 book The Man Who Rode the Thunder chronicles his survival following a harrowing plane crash, when he tumbled through the frozen atmosphere and a live thunderstorm before hitting the ground, with only a tree to break his forty-minute fall.
Near the start of Stratman’s film, a polite recorded phone message from Rankin reflexively informs viewers that we will not be hearing directly from the lieutenant colonel as he is “eighty-seven years old and no longer [does] interviews.” Stratman uses an actor to read Rankin’s account midway through the film, pairing it with dramatic footage of stormy skies and a sound track fraught with high-pitched whines and rumbling murmurs, the aural dissonance emphasizing experiential and emotional depth, if stepping on the voice-over at times.
Bookending this unnerving scene are wavering shots of Americana, veering near the beginning toward cliché (in the form of marching bands, football games, trailer parks, and firefighters). These quietly unfold into another America—the border patrol scanning the desert, a theme park for gun enthusiasts, an animal-testing lab. A yellow sign reporting the current threat-level propels us squarely into post-9/11 America, the primary subject of Stratman’s wary gaze. It is fitting in this context that, by the close of the film, doubt has been cast on magic, too, heralded by a bright yellow mockingbird flitting wildly about in its laboratory cage, dazed by recorded birdcalls.
Gustav Deutsch, Film ist. a girl & a gun, 2009, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 93 minutes.
FILM/SPEAKS/MANY/LANGUAGES (1995), an early one-minute piece by Gustav Deutsch made from bits of a Bollywood musical, might at first seem to merely advertise a multicultural message typical to its era: that cinema has always been a global phenomenon. But its construction says more. Deutsch embeds the words of the title as near-subliminal flashes, and the original footage has been reprinted to display not only the entire frame, with dust and scratches intact, but the optical sound track and sprocket holes as well, reminiscent of George Landow’s structural loop Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1965–66). The physical material of the celluloid itself, Deutsch suggests, bears its own levels of significance, even as this sixty-second fragment evokes other narratives: not just the sugary love story that must have surrounded it but the low-budget industry implied by its very existence, as well as the place and time of its production, now visible as inadvertently documentary aspects of the image.
Working exclusively with appropriated footage for over a decade, Deutsch has become one of the major living practitioners of a tradition in avant-garde cinema stretching back to the works of Bruce Conner and Joseph Cornell. A major retrospective at the Austrian Film Museum properly situates Deutsch in the materialist vein of fellow Viennese filmmakers like Peter Kubelka, Kurt Kren, and Peter Tscherkassky. What distinguishes Deutsch from his forebears is his historical place at the tail end of celluloid’s reign: His practice thereby intersects with the increased role of archives in greater film culture, both conceptually and practically. This investigative aspect is most overtly allegorized in World Mirror Cinema (2005), which analyzes actualities shot outside of movie houses in early twentieth-century Austria, Indonesia, and Portugal, digitally zooming in on faces in each crowd, then linking them with fanciful doppelgängers discovered elsewhere in the archives. The cinema, Deutsch suggests, constitutes an uncannily preserved looking glass of the past, resiliently tangible yet inevitably slipping into the unreal.
Deutsch’s opus Film ist. 1–12, a symphonic meditation on the medium, was similarly produced out of footage acquired from a range of international archives. The first section, parts 1–6 (1998), looks at cinema as a scientific medium, reworking films from the technology’s beginnings to the 1970s, sussing out an unexpected poetry from various optical means of epistemological inquiry. In contrast, Film ist. 7–12 (2002) focuses exclusively on cinema’s first three decades, offering color-tinted sequences from ethnographic films and parlor fantasies chosen for their dreamlike, irrational qualities and set to staticky minimalist scores by Christian Fennesz, Martin Siewert, and others. His latest installment of the series, Film ist. a girl & a gun (2009), takes its title from a D. W. Griffith maxim (famously revived by Godard), stating that all a director needs are these two elements. Deutsch uses the concept as a jumping-off point for an exploration of Thanatos and Eros, infusing narrative, medical, and pornographic sources with mythic symbolism. As Deutsch reveals metonymic visual links between the genres—joining, for example, images of copulation, dancing, and knife fights—the boundaries between fiction and documentary grow both indiscernible and irrelevant.
SINCE ITS INCEPTION TEN YEARS AGO, “Film Comment Selects” has been an essential supplement to the New York Film Festival, the kind of program equally open to French splatterfests and the poetic musings of Philippe Garrel. This year’s edition may be the first whose revivals are more exciting than its new films; offered up are Robert Aldrich’s lesbian landmark The Killing of Sister George (1968), the complete cinematic oeuvre of Guy Debord, Lou Adler’s punk saga Ladies and Gentleman, the Fabulous Stains (1981), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s terrorism satire The Third Generation (1979), and two early-’80s documentaries by Joel DeMott.
Jean-Luc Godard once said, “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun.” Argentinean director Pablo Fendrik modifies that axiom in The Mugger (2007): All he needed was a sixty-year-old actor (Arturo Goetz), a gun, and a tireless cinematographer. With little by way of dialogue or other explanatory devices, The Mugger follows its title character on a robbery spree across Buenos Aires. The film is direct and immediate; its use of long takes is riveting, prompting suspense even when nothing much is happening. Unlike many films it recalls, from Benoît Jacquot’s A Single Girl (1995) to José Luis Guerín’s In the City of Sylvia (2007), it plays with cinematic traditions of voyeurism but is not driven by a heterosexual male gaze: Fendrik raptly follows a middle-aged man, not a beautiful young woman. Unfortunately, The Mugger ultimately collapses, settling for cheap irony over a satisfying conclusion. Still, it’s a very promising debut.
Another first feature, Na Hong-jin’s The Chaser (2008) has a premise that’s difficult to describe without making the film sound like a sordid wallow in misogyny. Its protagonist (Kim Yoon-suk) is a cop-turned-pimp investigating a serial killer who specializes in prostitutes. In look and tone, Na hews to American films like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Se7en (1995) more than he does to movies like Memories of Murder (2003), his compatriot Bong Joon-ho’s police-procedural masterpiece.
Michael Almereyda’s Paradise (2009) aims for the breadth of Chris Marker’s essay film Sans Soleil (1983) and achieves it. Matching that film’s depth, of course, is another matter entirely. Paradise comprises a montage of video footage taken by Almereyda on journeys around the world. Some of it is very striking: a boy swarmed by a flock of penguins, a photographer snapping pictures of bison in a frozen Yellowstone. Almereyda never points his camera at himself; in fact, his presence is subdued throughout the film. A somewhat random assemblage of images, it was undoubtedly more fun to make than it is to watch.
“Film Comment Selects” runs February 20–March 5 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. For more details, click here.
THE OPENING FRAMES OF TAKESHI MURATA’S Untitled (Pink Dot), 2007, alternate between a magenta circle on a black field and a cyan rectangle with a black hole, creating the effect of a single, flickering sign. A cool pulse by sound artist Robert Beatty punctuates the steadiness of the blinking colors throughout the subsequent quickening of action sequences ripped from First Blood (1982), which take turns erupting from fields of pure color. When Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) grabs a bad guy in a half nelson or a warehouse explodes in flame, Murata lets these bursts of violence leave digital footprints as the action moves messily across the screen. First Blood’s washy jungle colors melt into synthetic pink and blue until the screen reverts to its original flicker—the starting point for the next episode.
The artificial palette, flashing lights, abstract patterns, and coarsely pixelated texture of Pink Dot and other works by Murata locate him in the tradition of electronic animation pioneered by John Whitney and Lillian Schwartz. But while his predecessors were testing the computer’s ability to replicate the cinematic illusion of movement, Murata uses the tools of consumer-level film-editing software to undo that illusion, with trails of pixel dust tracking the changing positions of the image from frame to frame. Timewarp Experiments, 2007, takes a different approach to accomplish similar ends. A radical deceleration of the opening credits of the sitcom Three’s Company (1977–84) lets the viewer deliberate on the temporal construction of each gesture. It’s a clinical exercise, but Murata smartly leavens it by making John Ritter’s pratfall and the bimbo grin of Suzanne Somers his guinea pigs.
Takeshi Murata will present his works at Electronic Arts Intermix in New York on February 17.
Jane and Louise Wilson, Unfolding the Aryan Papers, 2009, stills from a color film in 16 mm transferred to HDCAM, 17 minutes 30 seconds.
IN 1993, STANLEY KUBRICK abandoned the extensive research he’d been conducting for Aryan Papers, a film about a young Jewish woman, Tania, who tries to save her family by pretending they are Catholic. The project’s ephemera remain in Kubrick’s London archive: photographs of Johanna ter Steege, the Dutch actress cast for the lead, in various costumes; Kubrick’s own notes; images of Warsaw during World War II; and photographs from 1939–40 of Ealing Studios in London. As a complement to the Kubrick retrospective currently screening at the British Film Institute, the artists Jane and Louise Wilson have made Unfolding the Aryan Papers (2009), a film about the transformation of still photographs into moving images, as well as a surprisingly touching portrait of ter Steege and her lost opportunity. The film comprises stills from the archive, which the present-day ter Steege reinhabits and animates for the viewer: In one shot, the young ter Steege appears in a photograph wearing a blousy pink dress; the next shows her swaying slightly in the same costume as the camera closes in to reveal a face fifteen years older. A rhetoric of love and loss prevails: Kubrick is the one who got away, the film is the envisioned house by the sea. Ter Steege, in a voice-over about her role and her preparation for the film, reminisces about how the director notices little gestures of hers and about her disappointment when the project was canceled. She lay in bed for two days, she says, and wept.
On the third day, ter Steege arose and thought, “Just go on.” The Wilsons’ prior work has tended to employ installations and nonnarrative structures (this is only their second film using dialogue); the immediacy of an atmosphere of sounds and images is a hallmark of their work. Despite its technique and subject matter, the Wilsons’ latest film conjures a similar sense of presentness. Many films whose subject is the archive are tethered to a notion of the past as repository; the still image provides a treacherous, but privileged, mode of access to the memory bank. But the Wilsons frame Unfolding the Aryan Papers in terms of transformation; the (often conspicuous) movement of the camera and the actor’s performance take precedence over the static photograph. Ter Steege takes on a triple role, playing Tania, her younger self, and the woman she is now. In one sequence, she turns to face the camera five times, a succession that culminates in an image of the young ter Steege holding the same pose, looking wide-eyed in a fancy hat. She explains how Kubrick filmed her talking about her childhood and how he made her repeat her story, teaching her to act even when speaking as herself. In the dramatization of this moment, ter Steege is again called on to play both herself and the potential Tania, whom the film partially actualizes. Though overburdened in places with the moral weight of its projected Warsaw Ghetto context, Unfolding the Aryan Papers is never much about Kubrick himself, his theatrical style (which the film occasionally mimes), or the archive, but about the slow drift of the past into the present, despite what might be left behind.
An installation of Jane and Louise Wilson’s Unfolding the Aryan Papers will be on view at the British Film Institute February 13–April 26. A shortened version of the film will be available to view online for the duration of the exhibition at Animate Projects.
AROUND THE TIME that the KKK rode to victory in The Birth of a Nation (1915), Al Jolson applied burned cork to his face in The Jazz Singer (1927), and scores of African-American actors bowed, scraped, shucked, and jived in Hollywood productions, an alternative cinema was thriving. Walter Reade’s thirty-five-film series “Faded Glory: Oscar Micheaux and Black Pre-War Cinema” pays overdue tribute not just to Micheaux, the pioneering African-American director, but also to his lesser-known contemporaries like Spencer Williams (who starred as Andy on The Amos ’n Andy Show) and Richard Maurice. All are auteurs of “race films”: low-budget, independently produced movies with black casts created exclusively for exhibition in racially segregated theaters. (The Walter Reade series also includes movies by white directors such as King Vidor and Vincente Minnelli, who oversaw studio productions that capitalized on race films.)
The level of melodrama in “Faded Glory,” in both the silents and sound pictures, frequently reaches sublime craziness, despite (or perhaps because of) occasional narrative incoherence and technical gaffes. Long stretches of plot are quickly revealed to be dream sequences, as in The Blood of Jesus (Williams, 1941), Body and Soul (Micheaux, 1925), Cabin in the Sky (Minnelli, 1943), and Eleven P.M. (Maurice, 1928). Maurice’s movie is the most technically ambitious in the series—and the one with the most fantastic conceit: A man (played by Maurice) becomes a dog to avenge the lowlife who ruined his family. Sometimes performers do double duty: In his blistering screen debut in Body and Soul, Paul Robeson plays both a wicked preacher man and his noble inventor brother; Orine Johnson stars as both a fallen mother and her tremulous daughter in Eleven P.M.
Christian themes dominate. Errant men fall prey to she-devils (Vidor’s 1929 Hallelujah!, the first sound film with an all-black cast released by a major studio), and good, God-fearing women have their faith tested on the road to Zion (The Blood of Jesus). Many movies are set in country hamlets, though the thrill—and danger—of the big city often lurks, evident in titles like Miracle in Harlem (Jack Kemp, 1948), Moon over Harlem (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1939), Murder in Harlem (Micheaux, 1935), and Dirty Gertie from Harlem U.S.A. (Williams, 1946). The most provocative director in the series, Micheaux bluntly addresses the deep anxieties among African-Americans surrounding interracial romance and passing (The Symbol of the Unconquered, 1920).
Whether chronicling the sacred or the profane, the films in “Faded Glory” abound with show-stopping numbers; Cabin in the Sky features both Louis Armstrong’s trumpet tooting as one of Satan’s minions and Duke Ellington’s ivory tickling at Jim Henry’s Paradise. Beyond Robeson’s scorching bow in Body and Soul, Walter Reade’s invaluable series boasts other indelible performers whose careers tragically stalled or faded away due to the intractable racism in the movie business. Lena Horne, who sizzles as the temptress Georgia Brown in Cabin in the Sky, acted in only five films after Minnelli’s musical, growing so frustrated with Hollywood by the mid-’50s that she decided to focus on her nightclub and singing career. Stardom largely eluded Nina Mae McKinney, who as a teenager tears up the screen in her debut as the no-good hootchie-cootchie dancer Chick in Hallelujah! In many ways Horne’s precursor as the sexy siren of black cinema, McKinney signed a five-year contract with MGM, but the studio never found substantial work for her. Though McKinney’s glory—and that of most of the directors and stars of race movies—may have faded, for a few weeks at Walter Reade, at least, it can be restored.
I WATCHED CHIARA CLEMENTE’S Our City Dreams (2008) in fits and starts, as the DVD screener battled my computer. During this graceless do-si-do of breaking down and starting up again, the ensuing allover abstract images captured on screen––pixelated views of artists Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, and Nancy Spero, amid contemplative shots of New York City––seemed to dovetail, in moments nearing cliché, with Clemente’s dreamy and meandering first feature documentary.
An intimate series of portraits, the film trades in contemplative voice-overs and languid views of the artists at work in their studios and homes, installing exhibitions, and traveling. Clemente’s scattered black-and-white, Super-8, 16-mm, and HD footage seemed antithetical at first, more patchwork quilt than urban collage. Yet the dense arrangement works, complementing the differences of the artists and their relationships to their art, families, and, in some cases, gender.
Spero, the beacon of the film, speaks candidly about feminism, invoking her involvement as a founder of AIR gallery in 1972 while providing a political model that is strangely absent otherwise. “I was dying for people to ask what I was working on, and not too many people did . . . but now they do,” she notes. Whether she's shown celebrating her eightieth birthday or attending an exhibition opening of works by her late husband, Leon Golub, one desires throughout her segment for the camera to linger, to absorb; her musings are among the most resonant and profound moments in the film.
Although it lightly scratches the surface of the historical binds between feminism and art, Our City Dreams more thoroughly, if unconsciously, examines fatherhood (perhaps fitting, as it comes in the wake of Clemente’s last short about her artist father, Francesco). Kiki Smith reminisces about her early career, her father, Tony, and her apprehensions about becoming an artist. “My mother died, I had my retrospective, and my bird disappeared after fifteen years,” she recounts in her home, following a montage of pictures from her youth. Smith also discusses the several odd but compelling jobs she worked until the death of her father, in 1980, and its impact on her practice.
Other striking moments include Amer’s father speaking about her work, Swoon bodysurfing in the crowd during her 2005 opening at Deitch Projects, and footage of Abramovic’s weeklong performance, Seven Easy Pieces, that same year at the Guggenheim. Seemingly less about New York City than it is about forging identities as women, artists, mothers, daughters, and wives, Clemente’s film compellingly depicts the underlying, rather undreamy mores that propelled these individual careers in the bright lights of the big city––veracity, dedication, and commitment, to name a few.
Our City Dreams runs February 4–17 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Left and Right: Josh Fox, Memorial Day, 2008, stills from a color film, 91 minutes.
JOSH FOX IS A CREATURE of the theater world, but his Memorial Day (2008) is startlingly nontheatrical, employing a claustrophobic point of view, a jagged editing scheme, and a tendency to favor disjointed, grainy visuals over narrative cues. There are moments the central story comes to a screeching halt and the film pauses midstride, splintering into a collage of musical scores and out-of-focus color swirls. Clearly, Fox has been waiting for the opportunity to pick up a camera––he not only wore the hats of writer, director, and editor but also that of principal cinematographer for his debut.
The result is a waking nightmare—a thoroughly disturbing case study of man’s desire to prove he can destroy another. Seeing this world through the jerky, low-definition lens of a handheld movie camera (more of an urban Blair Witch Project than Cloverfield), Memorial Day opens to the drunken chaos of a holiday kegger in Ocean City, New Jersey. It’s a mosaic of nihilism, as men chug, women flirt, and carefree drunken banter devolves into sexual assaults and savage violence.
There’s a simple—and rather obvious—irony here, between the neon signs touting America’s greatness and the immature debauchery. But things grow far more complex (and thoughtful) when this same crew of Ocean City partiers (some played by members of Fox’s theater troupe, others brought into the project via Craigslist) transforms into a platoon of American troops operating a prison in Iraq that recalls Abu Ghraib.
As boorish men and women humiliate prisoners—putting bags over their heads, strapping them into excruciating positions, building human pyramids—Fox seems to rehearse the hackneyed point that Abu Ghraib said more about America than it did about the war in Iraq. And while one is tempted to dismiss it all as reductive, comparing out-of-control soldiers to sex offenders on spring break, there’s no mistaking the unease that sets in as we watch this pattern of giddy neglect, abuse, and disregard repeat.
There is something grating about the meandering, real-time structure of Memorial Day. It comes across as random, unfocused, at times drawn out—but perhaps that’s precisely the point. There’s no rhyme or reason to the actions of these young men and women, no preset evil agenda. Fox demands that we consider the uncomfortable possibility that these torturers have not simply taken things too far but are utterly disconnected from their dehumanizing acts, unaware that they’ve done anything wrong. That’s why, midrape and midtorture, they give the camera an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
Memorial Day screens at the IFC Center in New York beginning February 4. For more details click here.
ALTHOUGH THE FILMS of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi are frequently labeled as “documentary,” their work indisputably transcends—even undermines—the righteous propriety of that rubric. As studied, often-lyric montages of extant documentary footage, their films constitute, instead, a meta-practice: at once instances of witnessing and attendant meditations on the pleasures, terrors, and failures of witnessing. In the first major US retrospective dedicated to the Milan-based duo, MoMA presents the entire range of their oeuvre—from an early work on Cesare Lombroso’s macabre museum, to their landmark From the Pole to the Equator (1986), to more recent and previously unscreened films. Unifying that corpus is the pair’s peerless mixture of archival diligence and aesthetic nuance, with which they have unearthed, rephotographed, and subtly altered original footage since the 1970s. Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi manipulate their montages with periodic slow-motion and accelerated sequences, tinted hues, and inverted negatives, drawing out unlikely and often unsettling rapports between seemingly disparate events. Their varied outtakes and montages hew closely to a core of consistent themes: war, fascism, colonialism, spectacle, and the insidious interconnections among them.
More often than not, those interconnections take corporeal form. History in these works is not simply a question of grainy striations or the quaint patina of faded celluloid, but rather one of the body: as a revenant in flesh and blood. Bodies maimed and mangled by bombs (Oh! Uomo [Oh! Man, 2004]), corralled and choreographed for political and military ceremony (Archivi Italiani no. 1 [Italian Archives No. 1, 1991] and Su tutte le vette é pace [On the Heights All Is Peace, 1998]), scrutinized and fetishized by the camera’s prying eye (Images d'Orient, tourisme vandale [Images of the East, Barbaric Tourism, 2001]). Oh! Uomo’s close-up montage of anonymous, mutilated World War I veterans reveals faces so disfigured they struggle fruitlessly to contort into smiles. Here is the history of the twentieth century distilled, for an instant, into an image: humility and savagery, science and its Frankenstein monster, a smile without a chin.
Even when the body is absent from the frame, Gianikian and Ricci Lucchi evoke a world wrought (and ruined) by human design. In its evocations of World War II and the aftermath of Fascism, their recent work Ghiro ghiro tondo (2007) singles out stray abandoned toys and other inanimate objects as metonyms of a singularly human catastrophe. Many frames—as well as the ellipses between them—conjure up something of Siegfried Kracauer’s conception of the filmmaker as ragpicker, homing in on otherwise ignored or overlooked fragments of reality that illuminate larger historical developments. We might think of the camera in these sequences as an unwitting metaphor for the filmmakers’ larger practice: a sorting of the remains of (film) history into a new narrative, somewhere between a dogged attempt to make sense of the world and an acceptance of its cruel senselessness.