Cyril Tuschi, Khodorkovsky, 2011, still from a color film, 111 minutes.
SOMEWHERE NEAR THE END of Cyril Tuschi’s engrossing documentary about Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the quintessential oligarch of the “new” Russia and at one point “the richest man in the world under forty,” Khodorkovsky’s onetime financial adviser Christian Michel wonders if his client acquiesced in his own arrest in 2003 to expiate the “sin” of being wealthy—a necessary sacrifice for one with possible political ambitions. Michel thinks Khodorkovsky quite capable of such a gambit. Whether this Dostoyevskian theme suits the temperament of this fascinating, enigmatic figure, the course of his life and the turn in its “plot”—when he displayed a concern for ethics at the peak of his success—might have appealed to the author of Demons, who had himself been imprisoned in Siberia where Khodorkovsky currently serves an extended sentence. The question hangs over Khodorkovsky, a provocative portrait of the man and a study of Russian business and politics during the transition from communism to capitalism. More than one person intuits that Khodorkovsky’s superior intelligence was an affront and a threat to Putin, and that confronting Putin with the question of corruption at an official, televised meeting attended by Russia’s richest businessmen was the last straw, leading to his being singled out for punishment for tax evasion.
Khodorkovsky, in a letter to the filmmaker, speculates on the theories: Maybe Putin feared he would sell a majority of his vastly successful oil company Yukos to an American company? Or that he had ambitions to be president? No, he says, it was probably because he supported the political opposition in 2003, after Putin had warned all businessmen to stay out of politics. Most figures interviewed in the film—former business partners, journalists, politicians, and heads of state—whatever else they think, share the view that Putin and politics were behind his trial and incarceration.
Tuschi’s film deftly interweaves interviews, newsreel footage, and a clever, computer-animated motif that runs throughout. The main line is Khodorkovsky’s rise from humble beginnings to capitalist extraordinaire: how he determined to rival Western tycoons while, Michel recalls, he didn’t know what a checkbook was; how his initial ventures were facilitated by the free market period of perestroika; how he founded the first private bank in the country thanks to privileged support from the government that viewed him as “a beacon of hope” for a new, prosperous Russia; and, finally, how he made a deal with Boris Yeltsin to purchase the oil company Yukos for three hundred million dollars when it was valued at six billion. Yeltsin did it to keep the company from foreign powers, Khodorkovsky became the richest man in the country, and Yukos Russia’s biggest taxpayer.
Yet the film hints at another Khodorkovsky, not far from the idealistic student of the Komsomol (the Communist Youth League), the one who modeled himself after a socialist hero fighting for people’s liberation and immortalized in the novel Pavel Korchagin, with whom Khodorkovsky still identifies. This man named his bank Menatep—an abbreviation for “Center for Scientific and Technical Creativity of Youth”—and made an unpredictable turnaround at the millennium, at the height of his success, by organizing “Open Russia,” through which he invested one hundred million dollars in universities, boarding schools, and training programs for youth. This is the man who allegedly despised the term oligarch and did not drive Ferraris or dress in Armani suits; the same one who confronted Putin in public by asserting that “since we [the wealthiest businessmen] started the corruption process, we should end it.” Was it this Khodorkovsky who dismissed his adviser’s warnings that the deal with Yeltsin would have a cancerous effect on business and government, by saying that he welcomed the fall of the old system that would make way for a new?
The glimpses we get of Khodorkovsky, including behind glass in prison, confirm the impressions he generated: intense, soulful, both impassioned and serene, a subtly suppressed hubris with a possible martyr complex. On his visit to New York, aware that his offices had been searched and his arrest was imminent, he dismissed pleas from his son Pavel and others, and returned to place his head in the wolf’s mouth. Later, in prison, he says it was to speak his own truth in court. As campaigns by liberals and human rights activists (and, early on, George Bush) questioned his sentence, Putin insisted that the original charge of tax evasion was compounded by new ones of murder. Disputing evidence for one of these charges seems to have disappeared when the man in custody of it was poisoned suspiciously. Dostoyevsky? The tale more closely resembles the sinister Boyar conspiracies against the Czar in Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible.
At the film’s beginning, the director asks some young people curious about his presence in Siberia if they ever heard of Khodorkovsky. A young woman shakes her head negatively, but her male companion says, “Yes, I know who he is. He stole a lot of money from Russia.” The film suggests that as new billionaires continue to emerge in Russia, Khodorkovsky may be forgotten, or remembered only as a thief. Indeed, at the end, as the slowly unmasked image of the Siberian landscape outside the prison with which this gorgeously photographed film begins returns in reverse, shrinking the vast, wide-screen vista to a slim letterbox strip, the sense of oblivion strikes an ominous note. Earlier, the ever-optimistic Khodorkovsky told those who fear that he will seek revenge when he is released “not to worry. I am not the Count of Monte Cristo.” Maybe so, but as the camera scans the handsome face and calm, resolute demeanor of this man behind bars, one cannot help but wonder which persona will emerge unchained.
Khodorkovsky opens Wednesday, November 30, at Film Forum in New York.
ONE ONTOLOGICAL QUESTION comes up with surprising regularity at CPH:DOX, the Copenhagen International Documentary Festival: What is a documentary? An apt rejoinder at this ambitious, admirably open-minded event might be: What isn’t? On the one hand, the programming at CPH:DOX, which ventures far beyond what many would consider documentary, is a response to the state of the art and the industry: It reflects the continuing rise of the so-called hybrid film and represents a provocative attempt to shake up a sector of the film world where matters of aesthetics are often actively ignored. On the other hand, it’s a return to first principles, a reminder of the attraction to the real that has been hard-wired into the medium from the very beginning. The earliest documentarians, like Robert Flaherty or Dziga Vertov, were in many ways also the form’s greatest innovators, and at its best, a festival like CPH:DOX reaffirms the long-standing connection between documentary and experimental film.
In keeping with that implicit mission, the top award at this year’s edition, the festival’s ninth, went to the increasingly prolific and distinctive Ben Rivers for his first feature-length film. Two Years at Sea is a gentle evocation—part document, part fantasy—of an off-the-grid, out-of-time existence in the Scottish forest, and a lovingly handmade work in every sense, from its hermit hero’s constructed world to the silvery, processed black-and-white images. (For three straight years now, the main prize has gone to a film that could just as easily be classified as fiction: last year to Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte, and in 2009 to Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers.) Other highlights from the competition included Ruben Östlund’s Play, a supremely controlled Michael Haneke–like fiction inspired by actual cases of juvenile delinquency in Göteborg, and the Portuguese director Gonçalo Tocha’s three-hour It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, the most quixotic and generous of ethnographic projects, raptly fascinated with all aspects of daily life on the tiny, remote mid-Atlantic island of Corvo.
Alongside the main competition, a section called New Vision—I served on its jury this year—encompasses disparate experiments from the visual art and film worlds. The works here ranged widely in formats and genres, from installation loop (Omer Fast, with the recent Venice Biennale entry 5,000 Feet Is the Best) to vérité (René Frölke’s Führung, a sly chronicle of German president Horst Köhler’s visit to a Karlsruhe art school), from retro science fiction (Romeo Grünfelder’s The Contingency Principle) to modern-day surrealism (João Rui Guerra da Mata and João Pedro Rodrigues’s visit to a Macao market, Red Dawn). Our prize went to the French filmmaker Philippe Grandrieux for It May Be That Beauty Has Strengthened Our Resolve, a sketch of the Japanese avant-gardist Masao Adachi that approaches a platonic ideal of biographical portraiture, affording the sense of one singular artist in communion with another.
Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea, 2011, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm blown up to 35 mm, 86 minutes.
Amid a packed program that strayed frequently from the screening room—a live YouTube battle, music and multimedia performances (by synth-pop avant-gardist John Maus, among others), a concurrent moving-image exhibition at the National Gallery of Denmark titled “Re:Constructed Landscapes”—the most resonant pleasures of the festival could be found in the carte blanche selections of guest curators. Nan Goldin, invited to reinterpret the title of her iconic I’ll Be Your Mirror, put together a superb collection of films—Derek Jarman’s monochrome elegy, Blue; Raymond Depardon’s unflinching portrait of a Venetian psychiatric hospital, San Clemente; an oddly complementary pair of road movies in Barbara Loden’s Wanda and Lisandro Alonso’s Los Muertos—that reflected myriad ways of seeing and being seen. (Goldin’s slide show The Ballad of Sexual Dependency was accompanied by live music from Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, the subject of Marie Losier’s poignant documentary The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye, which also screened here.)
In an intriguing confluence of curation, criticism, and practice, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell (himself a festival regular in recent years for the hallucinatory Trypps series and the neo-Rouchian Let Each One Go Where He May) offered an oblique sneak preview of their upcoming collaboration in the form of an elaborate annotated riff. Titled A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, their jointly directed film will depict the same character in different settings (Arctic isolation, a Scandinavian commune, the black-metal music scene), and for CPH:DOX, the filmmakers assembled multipart programs on the themes of “solitude,” “collectivity,” and “phenomenology.” As their much-anticipated film promises to do, their series revealed common ground between Rivers’s pastoral vision and Russell’s psychedelic one, emphasizing their shared interests in the terror and beauty of the natural world, alternate ways of living and being, and the possibility of transcendence.
It’s hard to think of another festival that could have so seamlessly accommodated the Ben & Ben program, a study in eclecticism and an impeccable display of fringe connoisseurship: cult horror (John Carpenter’s The Thing), cult documentary (Robert Kramer’s Milestones), avant-garde cult items (George Kuchar’s Weather Diary 3), cult oddities (Vladimir Tulkin’s Lord of the Flies, about the eccentric inventor of a gruesome fly-killing contraption). Hunter Hunt-Hendrix of the Brooklyn band Liturgy, black metal’s resident philosopher, delivered a lecture on nihilism and humanism. Midway through one program of shorts, the sisters who front Hare Krishna psychedelic band Prince Rama lit incense, waved wind chimes, and led an improbably energetic session of New Age aerobics. And in another, the print of Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising, of all films, actually caught fire, as if through some incantatory magic—a material manifestation of the bubbling lava pools on screen, an altogether fitting intrusion of the real, and of the sublime.
The ninth Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival took place November 3–13, 2011.
Bertrand Bonello, House of Pleasures, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 125 minutes.
“I’M SO TIRED I could sleep for a thousand years,” one of the prostitutes of the Apollonide, an upscale Parisian brothel, sighs in the beginning of writer-director Bertrand Bonello’s House of Pleasures, which traces the final months of the maison at the dawn of the twentieth century. The lamentation immediately establishes the film’s hypnotic mood: languor and sickly decadence, further expressed when another whore announces, “It reeks of sperm and champagne in here.” The initial complaint also calls to mind the refrain from the Velvet Underground’s 1967 song “Venus in Furs,” itself inspired by the 1870 s/m classic by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The VU era is a touchstone for Bonello, who unmoors us from the Belle Epoque by blasting soul rarities during the opening and closing credits and, after one of their own dies of syphilis, having the doxies dance with one another to the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.”
Like the clouds of opium smoke that waft through the Apollonide, House of Pleasures has a narcotic effect, unspooling as a hallucination, a dream, and, in one near-unforgivable moment, a ghastly nightmare. Some scenes and lines of dialogue are repeated right after they’ve ended, a time-stuttering effect that liberates this gorgeously photographed (by Josée Deshaies, Bonello’s wife) period piece from the hidebound qualities usually associated with the genre.
Time may open up, but space is constricted. Except for two scenes (and the coda), Bonello’s film takes place entirely within the walls of the bordello, divided between the luxe parlor, where the well-heeled clients discuss the Dreyfus affair and the opening of the Métro while stroking a black panther, and the rooms upstairs, where the “commerce,” as the prostitutes call their work, is transacted. The mise-en-scène may be sumptuous, but Bonello makes no attempts to glorify the profession; the employees of the Apollonide are all too aware of their enslavement. “If I ever get out of here, I’ll never make love again,” Léa (Adele Haenel) says to her coworkers as they await their mandated, humiliating gynecological inspections.
Even the Apollonide’s ledger-obsessed madam, Marie-France (Noémie Lvovsky, also a writer-director, as are Jacques Nolot and Xavier Beauvois, who play two of the bordello’s habitués), does not hesitate to inform a new employee of the subjugation that awaits her. When sixteen-year-old Pauline (Iliana Zabeth, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the central figure in Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère) explains to Marie-France that she wishes to pursue the world’s oldest profession “to be independent,” the proprietress scoffs, “Freedom’s outside—not here.”
In its focuses on what happens inside, both spatially and anatomically—“Men never look into the sex of women enough,” one labia minora–loving john attests—House of Pleasures details the downtime and pre-commerce rituals the Apollonide’s workers share. These relaxed scenes of bathing, dressing, sleeping, and eating crucially foreground the loose camaraderie among the cosseted, corseted prisoners. Bonello shows such compassion and respect for his characters that his decision to graphically—and unnecessarily—depict the gruesome disfigurement of Madeleine (Alice Barnole), who recounts to her client a bizarre dream before she is attacked, stings sharply. And yet even this momentary betrayal is ameliorated by Bonello’s outré special effects: Right before the Apollonide’s red light is extinguished for good, Madeleine, just as she did in her reverie, cries tears of cum.
House of Pleasures opens November 25 at the IFC Center in New York.
THE ARC OF DAVID CRONENBERG’S career as a director mirrors that of an idiosyncratic underground band that slowly finds mainstream acceptance, its skills improving as its aesthetics plane out to inoffensive craftsmanship. Formerly a true innovator in the disreputable genres of horror and science fiction, the Canadian filmmaker was for a quarter century perhaps the greatest living example of the auteur theory, his films exploring extreme physical and psychological mutation with the single-mindedness of an obsessive still-life painter, examining and reexamining the same source material from every possible angle. Some called his early style “venereal horror,” a subgenre made even more unusual by the fact that Cronenberg took the point of view of—and wanted his audience to sympathize with—the disease. Among directors who have managed to sell some popcorn, there are few, if any, whose filmographies can match the consistently twisted subjectivity on display in Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), Dead Ringers (1988), and Naked Lunch (1991).
Clearing his throat with M. Butterfly (1993), but truly starting with Spider (2002), Cronenberg left the twitching viscera behind and focused on more “mature” subjects; themes of psychological transformation and/or delusion were still present, but the films seemed designed for positive reviews in the New Yorker instead of Fangoria. He’d been celebrated for his auteurist movies by postmodern theorists and leather academics for years, and, of course, revered by fans of gore. He had highbrow and lowbrow covered. Since then, he’s been attempting to furrow the middlebrow. Not coincidentally, he also stopped writing his own screenplays.
What has been gained? For one, a Scorsese/De Niro–like symbiosis with actor Viggo Mortensen, who has starred in his last three films. For another, a subtler, more classical mise-en-scène. Always a competent technician with a strong visual sensibility, Cronenberg has developed a cool, almost clinical approach to composition, not unlike that of fellow Canadian Atom Egoyan. He can also deliver masterfully choreographed, human-based action sequences, as in the thwarted robbery scene that begins A History of Violence (2005) and the naked shower-room knife fight in Eastern Promises (2007). And he continues to wink at his more radical past with bits of “shocking” business—Ed Harris’s obscenely wandering eye in Violence; the barbershop throat slitting and brothel carousing in Promises.
In A Dangerous Method, his latest film, that bit of business is the ritualized spanking of Keira Knightley, delivered by an actor (Michael Fassbender) playing the young psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Based on the 2002 play The Talking Cure by Christopher Hampton (who also cowrote the screenplay), Method follows the true story of the complicated intellectual-emotional triangle of Jung; his patient, lover, and student Sabina Spielrein (Knightley); and his mentor and colleague Sigmund Freud (Mortensen in a very convincing prosthetic nose). Spielrein was admitted to the Zurich clinic where Jung worked, a hysteric fixated on (and aroused by) humiliation, a psychological echo of her father’s verbal abuse and beatings. As Jung “cures” her, he notices her intelligence and aptitude for psychoanalytic work, and starts using her as an assistant, eventually sponsoring her own graduate work in the field.
In the meantime, he begins a mad love affair with his beautiful charge, spanking and deflowering her after an earnest debate about psychoanalytic theory. A straight-laced, personally conservative married man at the outset (despite an interest in mysticism and the supernatural), Jung succumbs to Spielrein’s charms after Freud sends him one of his own patients to mind: the louche, womanizing, drug-addicted psychoanalyst Otto Gross, who counsels Jung to “never repress anything.” Meanwhile, Jung and Freud correspond, meet, travel to conferences together, and generally invent and defend the discipline of psychoanalysis, the “dangerous method” of the title. Freud admonishes Jung to stop calling it “psychanalysis” because “ ‘psychoanalysis’ sounds better.”
As written by Hampton and portrayed by Mortensen, Freud is an anxious father figure, perennially worried about personal finances and the reputation of his fledgling field. He eventually breaks with Jung, his favored “son,” because the latter’s desire to study telepathy, ancient mythology, and UFOs might delegitimize psychoanalysis as a new type of science. Spielrein serves as a muse to both men, suggesting the seed idea for the animus/anima concept to Jung and the sex/death drive connection to Freud. These exchanges, radically condensed as they are for dramatic purposes, can be unintentionally comedic. You can almost see the proverbial lightbulb over Jung’s head turn on as Spielrein innocently says, “Don’t you think there’s a bit of woman in every man and man in every woman?”
And that’s the problem with A Dangerous Method: The historical material is inherently fascinating, but the screenplay is so full of shorthand that it threatens to trivialize both the characters and their ideas. It’s momentarily amusing to watch Freud stare quizzically at his cigar, but the joke is cheap in a Where’s Waldo?/spot-the-allusion kind of way. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar. Cronenberg’s direction is supremely tasteful and controlled, but almost airless. Even the spankings seem studied. From a man who once trafficked in truly dangerous methods—“gynecological tools for operating on mutant women,” say—this is hard to accept.
A Dangerous Method opens November 23.
Ming Wong, Persona Performa, 2011. Performance views, Museum of the Moving Image, New York, November 10, 2011. Photos: Paula Court.
EVEN PEOPLE who have never seen a frame of The Seventh Seal (1957) know that Ingmar Bergman is a humorless Swede obsessed with sex and death. It’s a reductive caricature, of course, but sometimes such popular shorthand can be a generative artistic device. This seems to be what Ming Wong was angling for with Persona Performa, his live dance/theater/film work inspired by Bergman’s 1966 masterpiece, Persona. Each element of Wong’s expansive project, developed and presented at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of New York’s ongoing Performa 11 biennial, riffed on received notions of the director and the film, occasionally building on Bergman’s ideas but more often merely pantomiming them.
During a multimedia preamble to the show’s live action, a wall of windows in the museum’s lobby became a screen upon which were projected beach scenes from Faro Island (the setting for Persona, and the director’s beloved home). In an upstairs gallery, a rotating gallery of faces were overlaid to become one mutating visage, mimicking the film’s iconic split-screen head shot of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson, the vintage black-and-white film stock cycling through a gloriously noisy EIKI projector. The performance portions of the evening built on the film’s dialogic binaries and theme of interchangeability. Twenty-four performers (the number corresponds to the standard frames per second in 35-mm film) of different races, genders, and sizes—each outfitted in matching Ullmann-esque blonde wigs and slips with one side black fabric and the other white—paraded down the museum’s staircase and past spectators before disappearing and then reappearing back atop the stairs, like a looped film reel. Each pass offered a different take on the film’s central psychological break.
The audience was then ushered inside the museum’s main theater. The stage became a film set, with two video cameras on tracks gliding past performers, who had all been coupled off; they mimed select moments from Persona, which were projected onto the screen above them. Despite Wong’s overdependence on racial and gender reorientations for dramatic frisson—didn’t Bergman’s ode to isolation and identification already have universal appeal?—and embarrassing stunt casting of a local teen as narrator Ingmar, the work finally took flight in the finale. Pairs of dancers, imprisoned together in single slips, suggested different ways for bodies and personas to blur. It almost made me forget Wong’s laughable inclusion of Death himself as a goofy specter, drifting in from The Seventh Seal as shorthand of the shallowest kind.
Left: Robert Gardner, Forest of Bliss, 1986, still from a color film, 90 minutes. Right: Hilary Harris and George Breidenbach, The Nuer, 1971, color film, 73 minutes. Production still.
ROBERT GARDNER, who is eighty-seven and the subject of a Film Forum retrospective that begins this week, is perhaps best described as an anthropologist who has made film his medium. Specializing in people and places that are at a remove from the modern world—and therefore endangered, if not lost altogether by now—he coaxes cultures into revealing themselves through their own sounds and images.
Gardner stays behind the camera, but as you watch his artful films about tribes of Ethiopia and New Guinea, the intelligence of this elite filmmaker is almost tangible, as is his curiosity, and perhaps a sense of security in his enterprise that insulates him from the impulse to entertain in conventional ways. The pleasures to be had from Gardner’s work are subtle, and while it’s unfortunate that his films spend more time shelved away in academic archives (at places like Harvard, where he founded the Film Study Center) than they do on screens, it’s not entirely unexpected.
Chief among those pleasures, particularly in two films Gardner made in India in the mid-1980s, is a bewitching sense of immanence. If profound meaning, and maybe even divinity, are right in front of us, Gardner’s liberated cinema verité makes a compelling argument that film, despite its preoccupation with surface, conveys this particular message better than other media.
Admittedly, it helps Gardner’s case that he’s often filming religious rituals—especially in as theatrically devotional a place as India. The twenty-two-minute film Sons of Shiva (1985) depicts a holy celebration in a desert in West Bengal. Gardner’s voice-over narration, here as elsewhere, certainly encourages the viewer to think of him as an ethnographer, and he is often called that, but the images contain as much poetry as information. Shooting at low angles, Gardner experiences this gathering of souls at ground level, and the pink dhotis to which his camera returns (clinging to wet bodies, or hanging in the breeze to dry) are like veils barely separating the material and spiritual worlds. The worshipers rub each other in turmeric and mustard oil; aided by hashish, some enter trances. During these rituals, Gardner explains, the usual social hierarchies disappear.
In the holy city of Benares, on the other hand, Hindu rites don’t offer temporary release—they are the fabric of daily life. Stan Brakhage has called Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986) “a series of wonderful metaphors” and has pointed out that, were it a fiction film, it would buckle under symbolic overload. The film’s subjects make devotional gestures the way most of his viewers turn on a microwave. Carrying a basket, lighting a candle, pounding a nail—Forest of Bliss portrays these simple acts as spokes in the wheel of human joy and suffering, and by eschewing music and leaving conversations unsubtitled, Gardner makes the moment king.
Forest of Bliss could have easily wrapped itself around the spectacle of cremation ceremonies along the Ganges, but Gardner steers the film gently toward ideas of death and rebirth in other ways. Feral dogs tear at corpses, floors are cleansed, wooden boats are repaired and launched, and the river keeps on flowing.
Gardner’s hypnotic tone poem begins at sunrise and ends at the same time a day later, yet somehow everything that passes in front of his camera seems to belong to the ages. The marigold garlands and shrines seen in Forest of Bliss belong to Hinduism, but the film also incorporates motifs (the silent boatman, dogs guarding the portals of the afterlife) from Western myth, and there’s universality in the interplay of fire and water, ashes that return to earth, and children flying kites in the air.
Gardner’s fine balance of reverence and roughness, manipulation and restraint, allows the small things of Benares to be seen for what they really are—things big enough to contain the world.
Christopher Munch, Letters from the Big Man, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes.
SHORTLY AFTER I stopped believing in the tooth fairy, I became obsessed with Bigfoot, writing a book report on the creature in fourth grade—an academic exercise that made it hard for me to fall asleep, spooked as I was by the infamous still of Sasquatch in midstride from the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film. Though one character in writer-director Christopher Munch’s fascinatingly sincere Letters from the Big Man is similarly traumatized by a childhood encounter with the hairy biped, the Sasquatch presented here is a gentle creature, a dream man of sorts for protagonist Sarah Smith (Lily Rabe).
A former employee of the Forest Service, Sarah, whose live-in relationship has just ended, takes a contract assignment in southwestern Oregon to test stream water in a burn zone. She delights in her solitude and in living off the grid, a self-sufficient nature worshipper who addresses the pesky insects biting into her flesh as her “mosquito brothers and sisters.” Strange, unidentifiable sounds in the woods that seem to follow her every move, though, are making her feel uneasy. Sarah soon realizes she has nothing to fear; Bigfoot (Isaac Singleton Jr. in a large, furry bodysuit) has been tracking her but offering messages of love. “Dear One, only with your open heart will you know us,” begins one epistle, read by an offscreen voice. “I wish I had a man like you,” Sarah calls out to the trees after taking to her cabin an origami bird left for her by Sasquatch.
Munch’s fifth film in twenty years, Letters from the Big Man, like its predecessors, has the courage of its own sweetly far-out convictions. The director has a particular interest in unconventional romances: His debut, The Hours and Times (1991), is a graceful imagining of a sex-charged night between Brian Epstein and John Lennon in a Barcelona hotel room. Harry and Max (2004), a less successful exploration of homophilic leanings among pop stars, traces the incestuous relationship between two brothers who were once boy-band idols (imagine an episode of Behind the Music scripted by Dennis Cooper).
Though it gets sidetracked by a conspiracy-theory plot thread, in which an environmental activist Sarah meets (and later sleeps with) becomes convinced that a nefarious military organization is going to capture and kill Bigfoot for infrasonic research, Letters from the Big Man sustains its deeply felt love of nature’s mystery—and majesty. Working with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Rob Sweeney, Munch captures extraordinary bursts of Pacific Northwest sun, shining down on the Edenic ecosystem. Sarah’s love of the apelike being in the woods is an expression of her humility, of her appreciation for the vastness enveloping her. “I can feel you nearby. Thank you for being here,” Sarah says to her not-quite-visible pen pal. Her gratitude is wholly believable, even touching, especially when we learn that Bigfoot and his friends want only to save us from ourselves. Munch has made a film that, in lesser hands, would have been little more than Old Joy meets Trog.
Letters from the Big Man opens November 11 at the IFC Center in New York.
Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm. J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio).
“WHAT IS A GUY ON A WHITE HORSE DOING THERE?” I wondered as I watched Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. Horse and rider are glimpsed on an urban street crowded with early-1930s cars as the FBI is about to apprehend a notorious bank robber. Though J. Edgar Hoover, for fifty years America’s “Top Cop,” took hands-on credit for nabbing the most-wanted criminals of the Depression era, his self-aggrandizing claims were refuted by eyewitnesses, who described Hoover and his sidekick Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) waiting until FBI underlings subdued or killed their quarry, before coming on the scene with dramatically drawn guns.
Working from a complicated, emotionally resonant script by Dustin Lance Black, Eastwood has couched J. Edgar almost entirely in the first person, with Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a most unreliable narrator. Although Hoover’s version of the truth is occasionally contested in dialogue and, more subtly, in visual clues that might escape one’s notice on first viewing, it is not until we’ve nearly come to the end of this strange journey that Tolson, Hoover’s yes-man at work and his constant companion in private life, challenges the version of FBI history that Hoover has committed to print. Included in the short list of exaggerations and lies that Tolson sorrowfully enumerates is the fact that there was no white horse in the vicinity when Hoover made that fabled arrest. More than any other false claim that Hoover has made, it is the white horse which we suddenly realize was a fabrication of Hoover’s imagination—no matter how alive it appears on the screen—that undermines the reality, or rather the truth, of everything we’ve seen, as deliriously as does the final image of Naomi Watts in bed in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). Rather than the terse J. Edgar (which Hoover used as a personal signature), the film might have been more aptly titled “The Fever Dreams of J. Edgar Hoover.”
The movie takes some getting used to. It begins conventionally, with the elderly Hoover dictating the story of how he single-handedly transformed the FBI from an ineffectual government agency into the most powerful police force in the world and, in so doing, saved the US from subversives and terrorists within and without. Since Hoover’s paranoia did not distinguish between the Bolshevists of the ’20s and the civil rights activists of the ’60s, this official history of the FBI makes associative leaps back and forth through six decades. Complicating the narrative, the achronological history that Hoover dictates to his scribes opens onto subjective memories of both his private life and the material amassed in his infamous “secret files.” Hoover realized early in his career that knowledge is power; his initial desire to fingerprint every person in the US developed into massive surveillance via telephone taps and bugs of seven presidents, their families, and the people in their administrations. Anyone who held public office, anyone who was a celebrity of any kind, was fair game. Hoover used this “knowledge,” much of it secrets of the bedroom, as fodder for blackmail. It enabled him to keep his job through seven presidential administrations, and also to “persuade” whoever was running the Justice Department to authorize what should have been completely illegal surveillance.
Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm. Helen Gandy and J. Edgar Hoover (Naomi Watts and Leonardo DiCaprio).
J. Edgar hop, skips, and jumps through this history. It spends almost no time on Hoover’s relation to Joseph McCarthy or his role in the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations, but leaves no doubt about his hatred of Martin Luther King Jr. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is of the top cop, who in the last years of his life was mainlining as much amphetamine as any Warhol superstar, dictating a letter smearing King, miming the voice of an imaginary African American. (The smears had to come from the inside, Hoover opined.) While the film never claims that Hoover or the FBI were complicit in King’s assassination—or in those of JFK and RFK, whom Hoover loathed almost as much—his rage against all three men certainly provokes speculation.
The man who used sexual secrets as commodities had without a doubt something to hide from the world and probably from himself. J. Edgar plays like a combination of Citizen Kane, Psycho, and an amateur Tennessee Williams production in which the actors are playing characters twenty years older than themselves but nevertheless rise to confrontations of great emotional power. Everything in Eastwood’s visual concept for the film—in particular the gleaming, yet heavily shadowed, desaturated color cinematography, and the obvious layers of latex on DiCaprio’s and Hammer’s faces when their characters age—speaks to the secrets and perversions of the closet. Wildly ambitious for her son, Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench) instills in him a terror of becoming a “daffodil.” After she dies, Eastwood gives us a Psycho-like tour of her bedroom that climaxes with Hoover putting on her beads and her dress, and, while regarding his reflection in her dressing table mirror, mimicking her voice to warn himself against exactly the temptation to which he has yielded.
There are few films to which the much-overused slogan “The personal is political” is better applied. Or that give a more mind-boggling spin to the imperative to “print the legend.” As Hoover’s private memories snowball in the film’s second hour, J. Edgar becomes a love story, whose poignancy is all the more powerful because it does not excuse the evil Hoover did as director of the FBI. Eastwood is a superb director of actors, and DiCaprio has not given a performance this rich and riveting since he became an adult. Like the film itself, the actor seems slightly wooden until we understand it is the character and his vision of the world that is stiff and stultified, made grotesque through repression. When I left the theater heading for the subway, the people in the street looked as mad and desperate as the people on the screen. More important than any detailing of the “anti-American” deeds of the FBI that the movie might provide is the overwhelming sense with which it leaves us—that we are engulfed by paranoia and corruption from the top down. J. Edgar is one crazy, wise, late masterpiece.
J. Edgar opens in select theaters on Wednesday, November 9, and in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 11.
Alexei Jankowski and Alexander Sokurov, We Need Happiness, 2010, still from a color film, 50 minutes.
OUT OF BASIC PRACTICALITY, most festivals are content to build their programs on a “best of” format based on works submitted. This year’s DocLisboa, however, took a more ambitious curatorial approach: Any path one took through the hundred-plus films on offer guaranteed the opportunity to graduate with a new thesis on both the history and the current state of documentary film. While this will undoubtedly cement the festival’s reputation as an affair designed for fetishists of the genre, beyond merely filmic concerns, its framing by retrospectives of Harun Farocki and Jean Rouch—representing sociological and anthropological stances, respectively—allow for a probing of the great uncertainties of the present.
Where Europe is concerned, this was poetically undertaken by Ivette Löcker and Nikolaus Geyrhalter, whose films Nachtschichten (Night Shifts, 2010) and Abendland (Nightfall, 2010) perform the Joycean task of employing nightscapes to explore the problems that haunt us in daylight—whether we wish to remain blind to them or not. Löcker’s Nachtschichten follows a selection of individuals who—by choice or necessity, their activities illicit or vocational—live as nighthawks in Central Europe’s largest city, Berlin. Geyrhalter’s Abendland takes a similar approach, only widening the scenic focus onto the entire European continent over a patchwork of scenes that move gracefully from the institutional (an EU parliamentary session) to the ecclesiastical (a conference at the Vatican) to careless revelry (a stadium megarave.) Where Nachtschichten is more character-based, with its revolving cast of shadows speaking freely to the camera, Abendland adapts a metonymic approach: While no one scene is returned to, each feeds the next, forming a rich inner narrative logic.
We Need Happiness (2010), Aleksandr Sokurov’s recent collaboration with Alexei Jankowski, was a highlight of the festival. The fifty-four-minute documentary brings us into the homes of families residing in the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq and centers on the struggles they have endured throughout the past half century. Sokurov recites diaristic reflections on his trip, a tactic that illustrates how impossible it is to separate yourself from the world’s great problems when you are immediately confronted by them—We Need Happiness establishes the filmmaker as the most engaging literary voice-over artist working in documentary film. (Sorry, Mr. Herzog!) Elsewise, 20 Cigarettes (2011) by James Benning, the great West Coast structuralist, marks a transition from his landscape films (13 Lakes  and 10 Skies ) to cinematic portraiture: Inspired by Warhol’s screen tests, Benning has twenty individuals each smoke a single cigarette over the course of his film. Agnes Varda’s latest work, Agnès de ci de lá Varda (2011), little more than a “what I did on my summer vacation” presentation with embarrassing iCamera effects, was less compelling—especially when one considers that the late George Kuchar mined similar territory with lesser technology for the last thirty or so years of his life, bringing the material beyond reportage and into the realm of the immortal, a feat Varda’s film does not manage. Finally, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011) was given the benefit of a miss, as this critic can no longer stomach the prospect of witnessing Martin Scorsese’s devolution into mediocrity, and frankly, it’s hard to see how anyone could be persuaded to sit through a three-hour-long biopic of the former Beatle, regardless of the director. Anyway, given the great urgency and range of issues the festival otherwise delved into, the celebrity-culture tripe felt like precisely the kind of diversion it was otherwise aiming to avoid.
Our current Occupy Wall Street era is as fitting a time as ever to take a second look at Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992). Composed wholly of footage shot by bystanders—mainly amateurs with camcorders—the film documents the popular overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s murderous regime in 1989. Videograms of a Revolution reminds us that, in order to be effective, change needs to be total and systemic. Watching the film as a citizen of the United States, a country whose constitution stipulates the right of the people to overthrow their government if necessary, one can’t help but draw inspiration from this coup d’état by the citizenry of a totalitarian regime that denied them the right to any expression of political dissent. Chaotic as the Romanian coup was, it led to the sort of real change that can’t be bought or voted for. In light of the comparatively vaster resources Americans have at their disposal, viewing Farocki’s work today leaves one with hope that the present street protests will explode into full-on revolution, permanently ridding us of the capitalist slave economy that continues to destroy countless lives.
The ninth international DocLisboa ran October 20–30.
“I WAS PUT INTO MOVIES because I was beautiful,” says the titular sixty-five-year-old legend in the slight hagiography Charlotte Rampling: The Look. It’s one of many self-evident declarations (another: “Demons are what haunts you”) in the first documentary by German director Angelina Maccarone, whose earlier films include Unveiled (2005) and Vivere (2007), both of which had limited runs in the US. Billed as “a self-portrait through others,” The Look consists mostly of the sounds of one desultory, vapid conversation after another. Rampling kibitzes politely with Juergen Teller and Paul Auster, among others, vaguely discussing the nine opaque topics around which the film’s chapters are organized: exposure, age, beauty, resonance, taboo, desire, demons, death, love. Each limp disquisition is illustrated with clips from the actress’s best-known works, including her breakthrough film Georgy Girl (1966), the chimp–diplomat’s wife romance Max mon amour (1986), and her first two collaborations with François Ozon, the career-revitalizing Under the Sand (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003). Every excerpt undermines Maccarone’s project, highlighting the gap between Rampling the daring, transfixing performer and Rampling the muted documentary subject—between the movies we’d rather be watching and the one we must patiently endure.
Maccarone, also credited as The Look’s writer, may have initially envisioned a more penetrating portrait. But, as reported in The Guardian in May, Rampling had final cut. The actress told journalist Catherine Shoard, “It was simply a condition of my involvement. If this film is about me, then I have to accept it, and if I can’t accept it, then I have to know it can be destroyed.” Compared with Maximilian Schell’s Marlene (1984), a documentary about the Blue Angel herself, in which Dietrich refused to be filmed but spoke candidly (and contradictorily and outrageously), The Look, which features Rampling in every frame, seems even more restricted—and unenlightening.
Rampling’s tetchy need for control spills out on occasion, the most satisfying moments in an exceptionally anodyne project. Early in The Look, the actress regally tells the crew, first in English (“Hey, boys . . . ”) before switching to French, where they should sit. After speaking for a few minutes to an offscreen Maccarone about death, including her older sister’s suicide, Rampling’s steely composure cracks and she becomes visibly irritated—or maybe just bored with the line of questioning: “Why are we talking about death? This wasn’t what we were supposed to talk about, was it?” she asks her director, who can respond only with a meek, “Yeah, it was.” “Not really the place here,” the subject frostily retorts.
Despite its circumscribed structure, Maccarone’s documentary does capture a few odd, spontaneous moments, including the richly incongruous sight of soigné Rampling playing foosball or the actress in a Paris park chatting up a bunch of old coots, one of whom she agrees to smooch. It’s a surprising instance of compliance from a performer whose key to self-preservation has been to “find a way that you are not invaded all the time.” And nowhere are her defenses against psychic trespass more evident than in the soft autobiographical sketch she agreed to participate in.
Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 106 minutes. Michael Perry.
MORTALITY IS A FACT AND A MYSTERY in Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, Werner Herzog’s best documentary in many years. Herzog’s subject is state-mandated execution, which he addresses via a case of triple homicide that took place in Conroe, Texas. Michael Perry, on death row at the time the movie was shot, was executed eight days after Herzog interviewed him. His accomplice, Jason Burkett, received a prison sentence that would not make him eligible for parole until he was nearly sixty years old. Their story began in 2001 when, seemingly on impulse, the two young men stole a red Camaro and killed its owner while she was in her kitchen baking cookies; slightly later, in a botched attempt to cover the crime, they killed her teenage son and one of his friends.
The movie is all the more haunting for being so straightforward in its narrative organization, visual composition, and method of address. It’s hardly news that Herzog is not a conventional documentarian; so-called objective journalism is never an option for him. He opens this depiction of a death penalty case by stating openly that he is against the death penalty. While the release of Into the Abyss follows hard on the execution of the likely innocent Troy Davis, Herzog’s position is not founded on the possibility that the criminal justice system can make mistakes. “A state should not be allowed—under any circumstance—to execute anyone for any reason,” he says, adding that, as a German, he is acutely conscious of the barbaric extermination of six million Jews by the Nazi state.
Herzog chose Texas as his location because it is the largest execution mill in the US, and this particular case because the date of Perry’s death had been set and perhaps because (as Herzog said in an interview) out of all the convicts with whom he had spoken, Perry seemed the most dangerous and the most likely to kill again if he could. Despite his baby face and soft, eager voice, Perry’s pathology—his overwhelming narcissism—is evident from his first seconds on screen. Herzog begins by cleaning the glass window that separates him from the prisoner. As in all the interviews, the director never appears in front of the camera, but his voice—in part because of the clarity and intelligence of his questions—equals in presence the voice and image of his subjects. Herzog is a superb interviewer, never bludgeoning the interviewees with his power as filmmaker nor shying away out of discretion or discouragement. He’s expert with the follow-up question, which he employs not merely as a basic journalism technique (sadly fallen into disuse) but because he wants, above all, to put the truth of his subject’s experience on the screen.
Into the Abyss consists almost entirely of interviews with eleven people, each of them framed alone as they respond to Herzog’s offscreen questions. There are also brief tours of the execution chamber and of the crime scene. (If the latter footage is archival police video, the camera operator was an artist; if it’s a re-creation, it’s the only misstep in the movie.) The picture that emerges of Conroe, Texas, is bleak and despairing, and although there are economic class differences among the interviewees, no one’s family life is untouched by problems of drug and alcohol abuse or incarceration or poor health care or violent death (sometimes accidental, sometimes intentional). In addition to Perry, the interviewees include Burkett; his father, Delbert Burkett, who has spent over half of his life in prison and whose testimony about the horrors of his son’s childhood convinced the jury to spare him from the death penalty; and Lisa Stotler-Balloun, whose mother and brother were killed by Perry and Burkett. Stotler-Balloun, who says that she felt “relief” after she saw Perry executed, offers through that description the movie’s only support of the death penalty.
The clearest anti–death penalty arguments are made near the beginning of the movie by Richard Lopez, a death row chaplain, who says he would have stopped certain executions if he could, and late in the movie, much more compellingly, by Fred Allen, a prison officer who was the leader of the team that strapped people to be executed to their gurneys. Allen performed this job for 120 executions, sometimes, he says, working two a week. (Texas Governor Rick Perry has signed off on over two hundred executions. But of course his involvement isn’t hands-on, which is perhaps why, unlike Allen, he seems never to have given the death penalty a second thought.) Allen describes how he went from believing that if execution was the law, he was going to see that “it was done with integrity” to realizing that “no one has the right to take another life even if it is the law.” It is the movie’s most revelatory sequence. Acting on his belief, Allen quit his job just a year or so short of being eligible for his pension.
Herzog’s penchant for over-the-moon characters is more than satisfied here by Melyssa Thompson-Burkett (a dead ringer for Phoebe Cates). She goes schoolgirl giddy describing her relationship to Burkett, whom she married after connecting through a prisoner letter exchange program. Although their physical contact is limited to supervised hand holding and kissing, she is nevertheless pregnant with his child. Herzog seems to regard this as a manifestation of the life force, but he still presses Thompson-Burkett for an explanation of her conception. She plays it coy (perhaps saving the details for a tabloid payout), forcing Herzog to come up with his own version of the origin of life, a combination of fact and metaphor that, like the entirety of Into the Abyss, jostled my thoughts for days.
Into the Abyss plays Wednesday, November 2, at 7:30 PM at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts as part of DOC NYC. The DOC NYC festival runs in New York November 2–10, 2011. Into the Abyss opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 11.