The Quay Brothers, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life, 1995, 35 mm, black-and-white, 104 minutes.
NATIVES OF SUBURBAN PHILADELPHIA who have lived for decades in England, the Quay Brothers are identical twins. Originally inspired by Polish poster art and animation, they emerged (not unlike David Lynch) from an ordinary American childhood to create a dreamlike, unclassifiable body of work that is proudly anachronistic and (dare I say) European. Their flummoxing, unforgettable animated shorts—infernal machines of staggering complexity and detail—are the products of visual artists who chose film as a medium, not of arty filmmakers. Indeed, that is what they were and are—gnomic illustration graduates of the Philadelphia and Royal Colleges of Art whose output, in its originality, inventiveness, conceptual depth, and visual impact, compares favorably to any gallery/museum-bound artist of the last thirty years. (They’ve recently been rewarded with a well-deserved five-month retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, up through January 7, 2013.) While they have stylistic antecedents in silent, expressionist, and experimental cinema, the Quays’ films follow musical rather than dramaturgical laws, resembling ballet more than theater.
Their surrealist, steampunk aesthetic defies easy description, though something similar might result if Andrei Tarkovsky, Terry Gilliam, David Cronenberg, and Tim Burton were charged with collaborating on puppet-play adaptations of Central European modernist texts (Walser, Kafka, Schulz, et al.). The Quays are masters of intricate stop-motion animation—a painstaking method often associated with manipulated Play-Doh-type colored clay (cf. Wallace & Gromit). While their facility with the technique results in an uncanny smoothness of motion, the materials of their miniature sets and puppets are brittle and generally dry, the polar opposite of the sand-drip sculpture liquidity of (that awful term) “claymation.” Wood, metal, wire, string, wallpaper, fabric, feathers, fur, and meat are the textural elements of a Quays short, all of it distressed to a late-Soviet, Stalker-set level of degradation (except for the meat, which is ickily fresh and raw).
The small yet elaborate sets—kinetic Wunderkammers—push analog to its limits. Where CGI can conjure giant, impossible objects that (even today) clearly lack mass, the Quays’ spindly dioramas are always unmistakably solid and real; you can almost hear the creaking pulleys that give their contraptions life. (The Quays often see to it that you literally do hear creaking pulleys; theirs is a creaking pulley sensibility.) The modular yet interconnected “architecture” of the sets is Escheresque, like Borges’s Library of Babel; the camera primarily moves along the X-Y axes with Steadicam fluidity, but the spaces themselves often dispense with compass points—up, down, left, right become obscured in these endlessly stacked favelas of the subconscious. This effect is underscored by the frequency with which the Quays have their puppets peer into other spaces through small holes or windows, each aperture a portal into another impossibly granular world.
Deep admirers of the early-twentieth-century Swiss writer Robert Walser, with whom they share an obsessive focus on all things miniature, trivial, and subordinate, the Quays chose Walser’s 1909 novella Jakob von Gunten as source material for their first live-action feature, Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life (1995), recently reissued in a remastered DVD from Zeitgeist Films. The story, a cross between Kafka and the Grimms, concerns an unassuming man who enrolls at a school for servants, the titular Institute, run by the incestuous Benjamenta siblings, Johannes and Lisa. The sadistic, monotonous classes, taught by Lisa with an embalmed deerhoof switch in hand, are intended to reduce men to machines (a theme with obvious attraction for the Quays). Jakob is a relatively unruly student, however, complaining about the robotic, limited nature of the instruction. This earns him the affections of both Benjamentas, who repeatedly (though separately) make passes at him, advances he doesn’t fully understand or reciprocate (a common situation in Kafka; something about the Central European sexual mores of the period).
To call the film “oneiric” would be an understatement. (At one point Jakob says, with genuine confusion, “Am I living in a fairy tale?”) As with the uncertain compass points of the animated shorts, it’s difficult to discern which scenes are dreams and which are “real.” This in-between consciousness is highlighted by the diffuse, sandy light of the soft, grayscale cinematography, as well as the many bits of material surrealism—the deerhoof switch, a generalized deployment of stag taxidermy, a trained monkey, a large chalk zero on the classroom blackboard that becomes a portal to a nether realm beneath the Institute, inexplicable searchlights that constantly pass through the skylights and windows, etc. Lisa eventually dies, but Jakob’s quietly destabilizing presence inspires Johannes to shut the school and leave with Jakob, the proverbial spanner in the works who brings this Dickensian manners factory to a halt, liberating headmaster and pupils alike.
Institute Benjamenta is an extraordinary work. Few films match its singularity of vision, though with its use of actors (however mannered in their movements), dialogue, and some semblance of a narrative, the feature brought the Quays a little closer to the rest of us. The shorts, which they have continued to make, remain dispatches from another dimension, issued by numinous beings of superior intelligence and perception. Call me inhuman, but I prefer the latter.
“Lip-Reading Puppets: The Curators’ Prescription for Deciphering the Quay Brothers” runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through January 7, 2013. Institute Benjamenta is now available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films.
João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, The Last Time I Saw Macao, 2012, color, 82 minutes.
AS GARY INDIANA once observed, the best novels are essentially plotless, completely resistant to any effort one might undertake to submit them to the painful castration of synopsis: Indeed, maybe Borges got it right by implying that the best way to summarize a novel like Don Quixote would be to recopy it word for word. A majority of the filmmakers whose work populates this year’s program at DocLisboa would likely concur with these ideas. If you’re looking for a forum that’s going to interrogate the hell out of the notion that arises in your mind whenever you hear the term “documentary film,” then there’s frankly no better place in the world to be than Lisbon in late October, where one of Europe’s most daring festivals shakes up all the categories.
The quintessential example here would have to be the opening film, The Last Time I Saw Macao, by João Rui Guerra da Matta and his partner, local auteur João Pedro Rodrigues (O Fantasma , Odete , To Die like a Man ). The film follows Guerra da Matta’s return after thirty years to the former Portuguese colony where he grew up. Guerra da Matta is responding to calls for help from his friend Candy, a trans performer and sex worker who has fallen out of favor with the local mob. As the film proceeds, we begin to suspect that we are no longer watching a documentary, but a noir thriller: What is real and what is fabricated begin to bend and merge, until we are forced to confront the film—and the version of reality it presents—as a unique entity on its own terms. The Last Time I Saw Macao is indicative of a whole new trajectory for filmmaking to follow, where the supposed factuality offered by the documentary is stretched via fictional exposition—an antiformula that brings us far closer to the ever elusive nature of truth than the genre traditionally enables.
An even more abstract—read: non-narrative—approach is proposed in The Morning of St. Anthony’s Day, a second, shorter film that Rodrigues is also debuting in the festival. This invocation of Lisbon’s patron saint consists of young people wandering around the city in a zombielike stupor, puking, kicking cans, walking into traffic, seemingly oblivious to all signs of life around them. It begins with a simple textual introduction—“Tradition says that on June 13th, Saint Anthony’s Day […], lovers must offer small vases of basil with paper carnations and flags with popular quatrains as a token of their love”—and seems to evoke the saint’s veneration as the patron of loss. (One might surmise that love is defined by loss, and vice versa.) The young seekers in The Morning of St. Anthony’s Day are completely detached from one another; there is no collective agency enunciated here. No stars emerge, no love stories are told. This is a vision of love as an entity that dwells within; it is individual—just as the life of the city can be located not in its buildings or infrastructural networks, but in those who move through it each day in varied states of vitality and collapse.
A counterpoint to this motion can be found in the relative stasis of Mekong Hotel. Here, Apichatpong Weerasethakul employs an elemental collage technique to stage several stories in a hotel on the Mekong River that separates his native Thailand from Laos. There is his friend’s guitar practice, which we see in the beginning and which goes on to form the sound track of the film’s entire sixty-one minutes. There is the script of a movie Apichatpong wrote years ago and never filmed, but which a group of actors staying at the hotel quietly rehearse. There is the actors’ idle chitchat and disquisition on recent historical upheavals; every once in a while, one of them becomes possessed by the spirit of a cannibalistic demon and can be found eating human flesh—though one is not sure whether this is meant to be a part of the “fictional” film that is being rehearsed, or if it is meant to comprise the fiction of the film we are now watching.
What Apichatpong, Guerra da Mata, and Rodrigues all seem to intuit is that there is no greater aesthetic delight than that wrought by confusion. As the establishing shots of this year’s DocLisboa make clear, the “true story” of our time is necessarily multilinear. The art lies not in how it is told, but in the where and the way in which it is located.
The 10th DocLisboa festival runs through Sunday, October 28.
John Schlesinger, Sunday Bloody Sunday, 1971, color, 35 mm, 110 minutes. Alex Greville and Bob Elkin (Glenda Jackson and Murray Head).
RELEASED IN 1971, John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, a London-set story of a love triangle involving a gay physician, a straight female recruitment officer, and the bisexual artist who is sleeping with them both, endures not only as a breakthrough in on-screen same-sexing but also as one of the finest films about adult relationships of any Kinsey-scale matchup. Sunday Bloody Sunday opened one year after the self-loathing nelly histrionics of William Friedkin’s The Boys in the Band, and two after Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy. Featuring scenes of pathetic closet cases begging to orally service Jon Voight’s Joe Buck along the Deuce, Midnight Cowboy surely won no prizes from the Mattachine Society. It did, however, win three Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and Best Director, accolades that allowed Schlesinger the freedom to make a much more personal follow-up.
“Now tell me if you feel anything at all,” says Dr. Daniel Hirsh (Peter Finch) as he palpates a doughy belly in Sunday Bloody Sunday’s opening scene. Hirsh, like Schlesinger, is gay and Jewish. His query to his patient points to one of the film’s major themes: the toll of emotional surfeit—whether expressed as jealousy, dissatisfaction, or despair—when in the throes of romantic deficit. Daniel suffers, though perhaps not as acutely as Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), from not having enough of Bob Elkin (the felicitously named Murray Head), the younger free spirit with keys to both their flats, who pops in whenever he wishes. Daniel and Alex are aware of the other’s existence; the latter especially can’t help but refer to her rival—often only as him—during her precious time with the Prince Valiant–haired, turtlenecked kinetic sculptor. Bob reassures each of his love, greeting Daniel with a long, passionate kiss, and spending a weekend house-sitting with Alex.
Man-on-man love is never presented as a “problem” to be cured or apologized for in SBS, nor is unconventional coupling. More anxiety-provoking is a transitory trait: youth. Schlesinger and screenwriter Penelope Gilliatt—a film critic and fiction writer whose first novel, One by One (1965), concerned a ménage à trois—were born in London before World War II; significantly, both Daniel and Alex have flashbacks to life during wartime—an era of fear and deprivation that never touched Bob, an Age of Aquarian. (Head, in fact, left the cast of Hair in London to start work on SBS.) Throughout the film, newspaper headlines and radio broadcasts alarmingly note “the most serious economic crisis since the war”; the collapse just might have something to do with the fact that the English capital seems to be filled with strung-out longhairs waiting for methadone at the chemist’s, gangs of menacing teens on quad skates, and pubescent hooligans (including an uncredited Daniel Day-Lewis) keying cars parked next to a cemetery. Bob is a vandal of another kind, damaging his lovers further with talk of going to New York with no specific return date in mind.
Accustomed to sacrifice, both as children and adults, Daniel and Alex will nonetheless arrive at vastly different conclusions about compromise. “Always fitting in and making do and shutting up,” Alex hisses, her vitriol directed at herself as much as the culture she was raised in. Daniel prefers a different kind of address, one at a gentler register delivered straight to the camera. She vows that “nothing has to be better than anything”; he’s okay making do with “something.” Whether proclamations or concessions, they are spoken by characters in a movie that gives us everything.
Sunday Bloody Sunday is available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning October 23 from the Criterion Collection.
ONE OF THE MOST SURPRISING, engaging, and psychologically complex documentaries of recent years, Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat is a Holocaust movie like no other. It is also a mystery story, in which the moviemaker is a detective who follows clues, camera in hand, traveling back and forth between Israel and Germany, tracing the mind-boggling connection between his German-Jewish maternal grandparents and a high-level SS officer and his wife, a friendship that began before the Holocaust and continued long after.
The film opens just after the death of the moviemaker’s ninety-eight-year-old grandmother, Gerda Tuchler. Three generations of relatives informally assemble at the Tel Aviv flat where she and her husband lived for decades. The Tuchlers moved to Palestine in 1936 but they never identified as Israeli. Goldfinger remarks that visiting his grandparents’ apartment was like going to Berlin. At first The Flat seems as casual as a home movie, the family going through Gerda’s closets as they never would have dared when she was alive, wondering aloud how one woman could accumulate hundreds of pairs of gloves and handbags, anguishing about bundling a lifetime’s possessions into garbage bags and hurling them into dumpsters or selling the furniture and household goods for pennies. And then, while going through some papers, Goldfinger finds a copy of a Nazi newspaper from the mid-1930s; on the cover is a story about an SS officer and his wife touring Palestine with a German-Jewish couple. Why did his grandparents keep such a loathsome object? It is here that his nearly five-year investigation begins.
The film is couched almost entirely in the present tense. We are with Goldfinger as he, accompanied by a singularly unobtrusive camera operator, visits family members and people he has never met in an attempt to unravel the mystery of a relationship that obsesses him because it is all but unthinkable, and which was never discussed by those who knew something about it but pretended, even to themselves, that they didn’t. This is a movie about many shades of repression and denial, in which the movement of eyes and lips reveals as much as words do. Goldfinger is a superb interviewer. He gives his subjects all the time they want to respond to his questions, and, however reluctantly, they always give something away. His need to know motors every encounter and the movie in its entirety. Eventually, The Flat focuses emotionally on the conflict between Goldfinger and his mother, between his desire to ferret out family secrets and her reluctance to engage with her own history. Personal truth and historical truth become one and the same. The Flat is a great detective story, not only because it brings what has been hidden into the light, but also because the moral issues involved in Goldfinger’s pursuit can never be completely resolved.
The Flat opens Friday, October 19th in New York at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinema.
IN 1962, animator Robert Breer observed that “there’s more to cinema than creating the illusion of psychologically anthropomorphic movements.” It may seem a bit nutty these days to suggest that animation could be anything other than anthropomorphic. As long as they can be cute, sassy, humanlike, and cross-promoted with McDonald’s Happy Meals, cartoon cats, donkeys, cars, and toys are all box-office gold. What a relief, then, that the Museum of Arts and Design’s Jake Yuzna has curated a program of adult avant-garde animation, reminding us that cartoons can be compelling without being firmly anchored to the anthropomorphic. Indeed, what animation often does best is enable experiences that the eye could otherwise never behold. This notion differs sharply from the ethos driving the cartoon storybooks dominating today’s theatrical marketplace.
In The Moschops (1999), for example, Jim Trainor animates his dinosaurs using paper and a Sharpie, and there is little attempt at three-dimensionality. A series of voice-overs explain in the first person what the animals do—fight, defecate, fornicate—the formal language at odds with the simple representations before us. If we end up feeling for the animals, it is not because the voices represent the true interiority of the beasts. The “I” is patently retrospective, a human imagining itself as an animal millions of years after its extinction. The visually simple film ends on a disconcertingly poignant note, as a creature slowly dies while the voice-over intones, “Nothing on earth has a right to live, only a chance. A chance.”
Breer’s work is even less “realistic” in its representational strategies. In Fuji (1974), he roughly rotoscopes a train trip past Mt. Fuji. Rotoscoping is a method of hand tracing (later, computer-enabled) live-action footage; it was famously innovated by the Fleischer brothers (creators of Betty Boop) to make KoKo the Klown look funny by appearing “too real” for a cartoon. But Breer undercuts the whole principle of the process by not striving for verisimilitude. Instead, he aims to express rhythm and kinetic energy.
While Breer began as a painter emulating Mondrian and Kandinsky, Sally Cruikshank emerges from a wholly different tradition, that of underground comics. Her wild, effusive characters sport breasts and beaks, wear miniskirts, and use cakes as bait to lure victims into holes in time. In Quasi at the Quackadero (1975), characters undergo a series of surreal experiences at a sideshow; when they peer into a mirror that depicts what they will look like in one hundred years, the reflection is of skeletons. One is reminded of the surrealism of Fleischer cartoons such as Bimbo’s Initiation (1931), and indeed, the episode is suffused with wild and eclectic dance music reminiscent of the 1930s.
Sally Cruikshank, Quasi at the Quackadero, 1975.
John and Faith Hubley also make unconventional musical choices. The Hat (1964) is set to an improvised sound track by Dizzy Gillespie, and The Tender Game (1958) features music by the Oscar Peterson Trio and Ella Fitzgerald, with an image track that may seem too “soft” to viewers accustomed to the hard edges and colors of so much contemporary animation. Cockaboody (1973), by contrast, looks like a conventional children’s book, but its radical impact lies in the fact that the audio consists of actual recordings of the Hubley’s children. Cartoons without tightly scripted “cartoon voices” were then—and remain today—rather unusual, even jarring.
Ralph Bakshi, too, is an innovator in the use of “real voices.” He is famous (or infamous) for directing Fritz the Cat (1972), the first X-rated theatrically released animated feature film. Among the best moments of that movie are the scenes that use real audio recordings of African Americans in a bar, challenging an entire tradition of whites supplying racist black voices for cartoons (Disney being a prime offender). Bakshi once again takes on racial taboos in Heavy Traffic (1973). Setting aside the film’s politics (feminist it is not), the visuals combine animation and live-action, often in wildly creative ways. Its aesthetics are patently avant-garde, and, notwithstanding the hefty dosage of sex and violence, it is rather astounding that such a strange film could receive a mass theatrical release. This perhaps speaks more to the radical climate in American filmmaking of the early ’70s than to any particular popular taste for radical animation per se.
Taken together, the widely varying program curated by the museum offers mostly hits amid a few misses. Birch Cooper’s I Was a Teacher and Peter Burr’s Alone with the Moon (2012) might be read by viewers as “computer art” rather than animation (though the distinction is admittedly a bit phony), and the wildly flashing images of these films seem designed less to encourage thought than to provoke throbbing eyeballs. David O’Reilly’s The External World (2010) features a weirdly flat yet mesmerizing aesthetic, at times evocative of a video game, but the characters are repeatedly sliced, diced, and exploded, and at one point a walking pile of shit gives birth to a pile of shit. The images, in other words, are designed to disturb, yet we are told several times that it is only a cartoon, which means that if we are offended we don't get the irony, or are just plain squares. I’d rather be offended by Bakshi; at least he has a clear point of view and no interest in ironic detachment. In any case, it seems that even the most abstract of avant-garde animated films have an implicit point of view: Don’t worry about the plot or characters—just let your eyes and ears do the work.
Individual programs from “Adults in the Dark: Avant-Garde Animation” run through Friday, November 16 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.
Armel Hostiou, Day (Rives), 2011, color, 78 minutes.
ARMEL HOSTIOU’S first feature-length film envisions Paris as a contemplative landscape of haze and flux. Screening as part of a series of debut works by young French filmmakers, Day (Rives) follows three characters as they navigate the city on a single, autumn day. Pierre, the truant, traverses Paris’s beaux quartiers in an affectless daydream, his somber mien a pointed contrast to the euphoric escapes of Truffaut’s adolescent Antoine Doinel. Bianca, a Czech Erasmus student, drifts distractedly from lecture to her job at a call center, then back to an empty apartment, passing indefinite hours transferring between metro lines. Thalat, a Pakistani emigrant, scrapes by as a delivery boy, his afternoon an iterated encounter with Parisians whose language he cannot comprehend. Portrayed with sensitive, understated naturalism by amateur actors, the three never meet, save for in an undefined dream space—that of the film’s titular cognate, rêves—which features in three brief sequences. Structured as a succession of elliptical, undramatic moments, their days unfold through indirection. Dialogue is largely absent—Pierre, for his part, never speaks—the city’s ambient hum periodically bracketed by electro-pop from Bianca’s iPod, which we hear only when she does.
In Hostiou’s Paris, bodies aggregate but fail to interact. Rhythmic series of facial close-ups in shallow focus stress the penetrating, almost surreal, isolation of each protagonist. Pierre stares at the back of a classmate’s head, then averts his gaze when she attempts to meet it; Bianca makes repeated calls to the voicemail of an absent friend; Thalat struggles to communicate with an insensitive boss. Their connections with others thwarted, the three fold inward on themselves, choosing to dwell in interior worlds. Each finds pleasure in fleeting aesthetic details: the contoured wisps of smoke from a found cigarette, the daubed flitting of light across darkened water, or the dilation of warm breath atop cool glass. Their attentive look at the world around them seems a metaphor for Hostiou’s directorial project, which eschews ordered narratives for evocative, lingering glimpses.
IN CRONENBERG ON CRONENBERG, the Canadian director said that his adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983) was, for him, primarily about Christopher Walken’s face. Similarly, Holy Motors (2012), French writer-director Léos Carax’s bold return to feature filmmaking after more than a decade, is largely a multivalent study of Denis Lavant’s body. It is also a brilliantly metatextual, multigenre meditation on what Jean Baudrillard called “the disappearance of the real” in the face of the encroaching digitization of everything, as well as a fictional realization of Erving Goffman’s 1959 classic of sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.
Clever but affecting, endlessly referential (to cinema history, old Paris, itself) without feeling hollow and overintellectualized, Holy Motors was an upstart entry at this year’s Cannes festival. There it won the Prix de la Jeunesse (the Youth Prize—an award decided by a small group of cineasts aged eighteen to twenty-five), though the film was notably snubbed by the official jury. Managing to be visually sumptuous, engagingly kinetic, and thumpingly entertaining while flouting most laws of narrative (lacking even the internal “consistency” of dream logic), it is also something of a throwdown to contemporary (particularly American) filmmakers to get off their script-doctored, focus-grouped asses and use their imaginations.
Beginning with a man (Carax) waking up in a hotel room and finding a secret door into a grand, old-fashioned movie house, where a film plays to a motionless, seemingly dead audience, Holy Motors quickly shifts its focus to Lavant, who will play nine different characters in widely divergent contexts over the course of the story, which takes place in one day. The rough-hewn, physically versatile actor, who has starred in most of Carax’s movies, does not merely play nine different roles in films-within-a-film; he is playing a character who plays nine different roles for nine different “appointments” at various Parisian locations, driven (to the end of the night) by a female chauffeur named Céline, portrayed by Edith Scob, best known as the masked young woman in Georges Franju’s supremely creepy Eyes Without a Face (1960). For those who still rue the postmodern turn, Holy Motors may already sound annoying; you’ll have to trust me that it isn’t.
Because Lavant first appears as a paranoid businessman being driven from his suburban mansion into the city, where he emerges to panhandle after disguising himself as an old gypsy woman, viewers may initially expect a hackneyed class-inversion narrative, a kind of arty Trading Places (1983). Several “appointments” later, however, we realize we’re on uncharted ground, both behind the scenes (in the limo) and in the scenes (at the “appointments”) as Lavant moves from role to role, an acting telegram making his daily rounds. The first three scenarios do not require other people to know the characters Lavant impersonates, so the impression is of a jaded rich man getting his kicks by assuming other identities and putting himself in odd situations. As the film progresses, though, Lavant interacts with people who behave as if they recognize and accept him as their father, their ex-lover, etc. There are intimations, in the mode of Philip K. Dick, that he may not be the only person honoring “appointments” all day in various guises, that indeed, maybe we all are.
At another level, Holy Motors is a film about film. Beyond the presence of Scob (who—spoiler alert—dons the mask from her signature role at one point), the movie also includes a cameo from veteran French star Michel Piccoli and a musical sequence featuring Kylie Minogue in Jean Seberg’s Breathless haircut; it reprises an earlier Lavant character from Carax’s Merde, a segment of the 2008 anthology film Tokyo!; and it implicitly links Lavant’s peripatetic, Buster Keaton–like physicality to Étienne-Jules Marey’s late-nineteenth-century chronophotographs of atheletes, which are intercut throughout the film, thereby encompassing the prehistory of cinema. Each “appointment” references a different genre—comedy, noir, melodrama, romance, musical, horror, science fiction, fantasy, magic realism—in a manner at once nostalgic and refreshing. The overarching implication is that as non-video-game-based movies and celluloid itself become obsolete, so too do all things physical—machines, animals, people. From the title on down, the film expresses Carax’s melancholy reverence for the engines—mechanical, emotional, narrative—that drive us from one place to another, to addresses that don’t begin with “www.
Left: Raoul Walsh, Wild Girl, 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, 80 minutes. Right: John Francis Dillon, Call Her Savage, 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, 88 minutes.
FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW, one of Manhattan’s highest temples of culture pays tribute to the actress once known as the Brooklyn Bonfire. Celebrating its tenth edition, MoMA’s film-preservation series “To Save and Project,” which in 2011 presented Clara Bow’s final movie, Hoop-la (1933), this year screens her penultimate, Call Her Savage (1932), a standout among the seventy-five titles on view.
Racy even by pre-Code standards—and more lurid than anything Lee Daniels could ever dream up—Call Her Savage has whips, booze, dope, v.d., attempted rape and child molestation, intimations of bestiality, girl fights, gay bars, streetwalking, and a dead baby. It was, in short, the perfect comeback vehicle for Bow, who had been dropped by Paramount in 1931 after she suffered a nervous breakdown, brought on by a grueling work schedule, a protracted legal battle with her personal secretary, and a three-week libelous assault by a tabloid called the Coast Reporter. (Studio head B. P. Schulberg, according to Bow biographer David Stenn, referred to his cash cow as “Crisis-a-Day Clara.”)
After a yearlong convalescence on a ranch along the California-Nevada border with her husband-to-be, Bow signed a lucrative two-picture deal with Fox, a contract that gave her enormous creative control. It’s a good thing she rested up, for Call Her Savage, based on a 1931 novel by Tiffany Thayer and directed by John Francis Dillon, demanded quite a workout from its star. In her first scene, Bow, playing an unruly Texas heiress named Nasa, repeatedly shouts Yippee! on her galloping horse. Stopping in the woods, Nasa whips a rattlesnake and then her “half-breed” friend Moonglow (Gilbert Roland), who doesn’t seem to mind the lashing one bit. “Why I am I like this? I hate to get angry but I just can’t help it,” Nasa admits, though it’s hard to concentrate on what Bow says when her nipples are noticeably at attention under her thin organdy blouse.
Yet the boobs and flogging are Merchant-Ivory decorous compared with what follows. Dragged back home by her tycoon father, who grows increasingly beleaguered by his only child (“I can run a railroad, but I’ll be danged if I can run a daughter”), Nasa begins to wrestle with her dog as soon as she enters the front door. This lusty interspecies tussle, Stenn suggests, is “a blatant, tasteless reference” to calumny printed earlier in the Coast Reporter about the actress’s relationship with her dog Duke; the rag avowed that Bow was “as well satisfied with the Great Dane, her frequent boudoir companion, as with creatures of her own kind.” Stars: They’re just like us.
Eloping with a cretin she meets at her debutante ball, Nasa will endure a series of degradations followed by revenge schemes, stopping occasionally to wonder, “Why is there always a fight going on inside me?” before socking some dame in the jaw. After one final brawl, in which she chases away a swish millionaire who could have become her second husband (she divorced the first one after he tried to rape her, his mind ravaged by syphilis and drugs), a weary Nasa returns home to Texas to hear her mother gasp the name of her real father on her deathbed. The “reason” for her horrible impulse control now revealed, Nasa presages other bedeviled mestizas, such as Jennifer Jones (slathered in bronzer) in 1946’s Duel in the Sun, and Cher in her 1973 hit “Half-Breed.” But unlike those tragic heroines, Nasa utters, upon learning the truth, what can only be understood—at least in the context of this crazy movie—as a declaration of racial pride: “I’m glad.”
Andrea Arnold, Wuthering Heights, 2011, 35 mm, color, 128 minutes. Young Heathcliff and Young Catherine (Solomon Glave and Shannon Beer).
THERE IS A QUAINT DEVICE in old Hollywood adaptations of, say, the Brontë sisters, or Charles Dickens, or Walter Scott, where a leatherbound volume creaks open on-screen, and its pages flutter to the title page under their own power. The printed page then dissolves into the scene itself while the narrator intones the opening lines. Latter-day prestige adaptations no longer belabor the point. Indeed, such an announcement of the literary reference or a reminder of the audible act of reading could only embarrass us as a flashing of credentials. Films such as Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility (1995) or Cary Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre (2011) are independent works of art, we are assured, not full-dress audiobooks.
But if adaptations today, in their high Oscar-worthiness, distance themselves from reading (turning pages, moving one’s lips, skipping ahead), they have also exempted themselves from any interpretative charge—from giving a reading. They are as interpretively neutral as the cinematic conversion of the Bourne novels.
Andrea Arnold’s new film of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, on the other hand, is unapologetically tendentious, arguing a definite perspective on the novel. If a lazy college student might watch a BBC version of the film to avoid having to read the book, Arnold’s version could be a substitute for the professor’s lecture and secondary reading.
This movie will probably be talked about and remembered for casting black actors (Solomon Glave and James Howson) to play Heathcliff. Everything falls into place if you see the character in this way, and in this sense it is utterly faithful to the book. Not that Heathcliff “is” black in the novel, whatever that would mean. But as a reading, it simply works. When I first heard about this casting, I almost slapped my forehead—Of course!—at its obvious brilliance. It’s the most successful thing in the film, so much so that previous adaptations must now appear to us like Orson Welles casting Charlton Heston as a Mexican in Touch of Evil (1958) or Welles’s own performance as Othello (1952).
When Heathcliff first arrives at Wuthering Heights, a child rescued from the streets and brought into a less-than-welcoming family, he can hardly form English words. Instead of speaking or interacting, he is an observer. Almost every scene in the movie involves his looking through a window, through a door left ajar, through the trellis work of his fingers—he is a spectator forever hunched into some hiding space. It’s not a world that he is shut off from, but one that he is shut up within. The key image here is the Earnshaws’ cabinet-like bed, which splits the difference between private refuge and punitive confinement. Sexuality is like this, too: Heathcliff and Cathy aren’t star-crossed lovers mourning the impossibility of being together; they rather take a perverse pleasure in inflicting themselves on each other. Far from an insurmountable separation, their relationship looks more like claustrophobia.
If Heathcliff looks much more than he speaks, there is actually very little dialogue between any of the characters—if dialogue means people talking to each other. Speech here is always giving orders, or demanding apologies, or dictating what someone else should feel, or powerlessly flailing out: “Fuck you all, you cunts!” or “Nigger.” Talk is at others. When Heathcliff tells Catherine, “My life has been bitter since I last heard your voice. I kept going only for you,” this is a disarming cri de coeur, yes, but it is also a threat. He is outlining just what he plans to exact from her, almost in revenge.
There’s a scene in Arnold’s previous film, Fish Tank, where a distressed teenage girl comes across a horse tethered to a trailer in a vacant lot. She tries to free the horse, but she can’t cut through the padlock. We, who are not distressed teenage girls, can only ask what good it would do to free the horse. Enfeebled by captivity, let loose among council flats, the horse could only starve to death, or get hit by a car, or injure itself, or worse. This is not a world to be set free in. Heathcliff’s fate is like this. Early in the story, when he is virtually enslaved by Hindley Earnshaw, repeatedly beaten, and treated like an animal, all we wish for is for him to escape. But when he gains his freedom, and even some measure of revenge on Hindley, everything still remains closed off for him except to listlessly roam the premises of Thrushcross Grange until he is battered and starved and crawls off somewhere to die.
Arnold focuses almost entirely on Heathcliff, excising the novel’s frame narrative along with much of the labyrinthine Victorian inheritance plot, and about twenty years of the story. By cutting away what is chatty and intricate, Arnold believes that she is directly grasping what is immediate and strongly felt at the core of Brontë’s novel. But the readerly task of clearing away the brush, of trying to catch a glimpse, of sorting out competing narratives—is itself what is meaningful. Longing, in its naked being-there, is less interesting than when sighted awry. The result is that Arnold’s movie essentially stalls after the halfway mark. This could be read generously, as a comment on how the characters remain rooted in their childhood selves, as stunted in their growth as the contorted trees bent over by the upland winds. But it is simply tedious. Lyrical expressivity and unmuted feeling are in fact childish, juvenile.
And while all of this incommunicable hurt and longing remains true, deeply true to Brontë’s vision, what ought to have been haunting images about the wringing-dry of the human soul instead comes across as a very smart, well-researched lecture about discursivity, fixation, and the racial other. To dwell too long on the profound and unutterable, of course, ends by conjuring up a fantasy of access. Arnold’s “no filter” aesthetic, which owes much to the unflinching directness of the Dardenne brothers, works best when she is disclosing how emotional life exists not directly but only through its obfuscations and framings. So, in clearing away everything but the agonized yearning of Heathcliff for his own self within Cathy, Arnold has only rediscovered an even drearier tome than the literary classic: academia’s conventional wisdom.
Wuthering Heights opens Friday, October 5 at Film Forum in New York.
LIKE THE FIFTIETH New York Film Festival of which it is a part, this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde includes both old and new works. With twenty-three programs, it’s the most ambitious Views slate to date. Films by such giants as Chris Marker (Sans Soleil, 1982) and Raúl Ruiz (The Blind Owl, 1987) stand alongside new feature-length works by Stephen Dwoskin, David Gatten, Mike Gibisser, Phil Solomon, James Benning, Luke Fowler, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jeff Preiss, Peter Bo Rappmund, and Nicolas Rey. Programs devoted to individual artists (e.g., Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler) alternate with anthology programs featuring Views stalwarts like Peggy Ahwesh, Lewis Klahr, Ben Russell, Ben Rivers, Joe Gibbons, Erin Espelie, Paolo Gioli, Janie Geiser, Vincent Grenier, Luther Price, and Daichi Saito, among others. Legendary filmmakers Ernie Gehr and Peter Kubelka are also on hand, the latter with a double-screen projection and installation incorporating his seminal Arnulf Rainer (1958–60) and Antiphon, a new work.
The range of thematic concerns is as varied as that of the directors’ audio/video interests and media formats. Rappmund’s mesmerizing Tectonics is driven by sheer sonic and pictorial virtuosity, while Rey’s anders, Molussien plays with the temporal structure of a narrative read over disparate images. Traditional literary texts loom large in David Gatten’s The Extravagant Shadows, but for the first time the artist works with digital. In The Creation As We Saw It, Rivers continues his fervent investigations of unusual but natural phenomena. And Preiss’s Stop, which includes material from 1995 to 2012, proves the diary film an enduring form.
Both Dwoskin’s Age Is… and Gibisser’s The Day of Two Noons are stirring documents, altogether different in approach and tone. The former is an unblinking meditation on its titular subject, as seen through the beautiful faces on which the effects of long life are eloquently etched. It begins with an extreme close-up of half a face, as the fingers of one hand move involuntarily at the bottom of the frame. Dwoskin, who died earlier this year and whose work is overdue for reappraisal, believed in the revelatory powers of the camera, a quality celebrated in his book, Film Is… (1975), and one espoused by film theorists from the 1930s to André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer. The key point of that belief was that if a camera looks hard and long enough at any segment of the world, it can disclose otherwise imperceptible aspects of reality. Like Dwoskin’s earlier work, the body consciousness in Age Is… is inseparable from its style. Avoiding the lachrymose and the maudlin, the camera all but grazes the faces and hands of the aged—what the filmmaker calls their “parchment”—framing them bluntly and dwelling on them at length. One woman looks into an off-screen mirror while tracing the lines of her brow and cheeks with a blue pencil, highlighting every impression left by time. Another woman’s heavily veined, be-ringed hands strive to conceal trembling signs of debilitating disease. Some portraits are animated by minimal scans made by Dwoskin from his wheelchair. Occasionally, he appears, head tilting back to catch his breath—no less a testament to time and the object of the camera’s gaze than those he photographs. In contrast to these affecting “still lifes,” several elders are seen at home still caring for themselves. A final shot tracks a man negotiating a forest path, his slow progress both invigorated and belied by the green lushness around him. Though an eschewal of dialogue and narration enforces the work’s sober concentration, it is also, at times, enhanced by Alexander Balanescu’s limpid score, its elastic strings delicately tuned to the tentative gestures of Dwoskin’s human subjects.
Left and right: Mike Gibisser, The Day of Two Noons, 2012, color, 67 minutes.
Mike Gibisser’s The Day of Two Noons, on the other hand, pits the aging process against the efforts of an encroaching modernism to standardize, and thereby distort, “real” time. Gibisser prefaces the work with a quote from Giorgio Agamben’s 1978 “Time and History: Critique of the Instant and the Continuum,” the tensions and connotations of the latter terms resonating throughout the film. From its first image of an elegant clock, its inner mechanisms working away, timepieces abound, just as initial shots of—we presume—the filmmaker’s grandmother introduce the theme of aging and illness repeated throughout. The ailing woman’s poignant complaint about the unrelieved boredom of her inactive life in itself embodies a continuum comprising uneventful instants. As she speaks, the sound of a locomotive intrudes, bridging her world to the past: a black-and-white re-creation of the historic meeting of two locomotives at a site now a national landmark. This counterpoint of home truths with reflections on the nineteenth-century developments that transformed modern life constitutes the film’s unique structure.
Time and travel, the instant and the continuum, are linked to the relationship of still photography to experiments with motion pictures. A photo of railroad tycoon Leland Stanford is followed by a passage from Hollis Frampton’s 1973 Artforum essay on Eadweard Muybridge, who conducted locomotion studies at Stanford’s farm in Palo Alto. As we read of Muybridge’s “last major work of still photography”—an immense 360-degree panorama of San Francisco composed of thirteen panels—we watch Gibisser’s stunning 360-degree panoramic shot of a vast landscape. The film documents how the railroad’s linking of America’s coasts led to efforts in 1883 to establish a uniform system of standard time. While acknowledging the inevitability of this necessity, Gibisser cannot resist spoofing its existential falsehood by printing the formalities for establishing time zones over an image of his grandfather impishly mugging at the camera.
Gibisser plays wittily with the laws of physics which the invention of cinema made possible, reversing the movement of smoke emitted from a steam engine, or sending the majestic flow of a waterfall back to its source. He links these Méliès-like moments with Muybridge, whose own paradoxically still photographs of waterfalls revealed a pre-historic fascination with the as yet unrealized fact of motion pictures.
The sixteenth Views from the Avant-Garde runs Thursday, October 4–Monday, October 8. A select portion of these films will be made available online beginning October 9. Views is part of the fiftieth New York Film Festival, which runs through Sunday, October 14 at Lincoln Center.