No Angels

12.31.16

Luis Bu˝uel, The Exterminating Angel, 1962, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 93 minutes.


IT’S HIGH TIME to take Luis Bu˝uel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and elevate it to its rightful place as a holiday—any holiday—classic. For one thing, its exquisitely paralyzed time-spatial continuum leads straight to Groundhog Day’s looping perpetual dÚjÓ vu machine. Bu˝uel’s inexplicably stranded, upper-encrusted partygoers—prisoners of their own karmic device—are doomed to snipe their looping, arrogant-respectable way through a mazy purgatory of socialized entropy, Catholic hypocrisy, and primal malevolence dressed as good manners. To rephrase a certain beloved yule-riptide airing-of-grievances episode of Seinfeld, “It’s a Festering Miracle!”

A film for all seasons in hell, it’s the secret Christmas movie to end all Capraesque, It’s a Wonderful Life–affirming uplift: Here the living nightmare of these bourgeois taxidermy subjects doesn’t dissolve into moral lessons and emotional relief, they finally just stagger free of their haute-domesticated hamster wheelhouse straight into the waiting maw of the cannibal Church. They are swathed in enough tinseled layers of superstition, magical non-thinking, and cultivated repression to drape either a Douglas fir tree or mahogany coffin.

Built around a swank gathering of the Mexican social elite after a night at the opera, The Exterminating Angel employs a pokerfaced disjunction of gathering omens and stark visitations against a backdrop of escalating anxiety. The party assembles like prime suspects in a mildewed parlor mystery—or decorated generals prematurely toasting victory in the class struggle. But these walking antiques are only dimly aware that the servants are hurriedly deserting them (how rude and frightfully annoying!), propelled by the same forces that soon lock the dandies and socialites, Scrooges and stooges inside an ever-shrinking habitat for inhumanity. They dither and panic, coupling in closets and defecating in the pantry, maintaining a mild pretense of sanity while going gradually out of their coifed, made-up heads.

Modeling claustrophobia as the price of refinement and pseudo-taste, the second most shocking thing about The Exterminating Angel is how aberrantly entertaining it is. Silvia Pinal, whom Bu˝uel catapulted to scandalous stardom a year before in Viridiana, manifests the puffed-up, neurotic entitlement of Diva-hood without upstaging Bu˝uel’s judiciously selected ensemble of sophisticated blowhards and reactionary-chic matrons. One of his most useful performers is Augusto Benedico, who plays the psychiatrist Dr. Conde here in much the same handwringing register he essayed Professor Orlof in the masked-wrestler saga Santo vs the Vampire Women that same year. If these concentrically circling doyennes are vampire women of a sort, smoking like crematoria and pacing in nylon place, they’re anemic ones, malnourished by weak-blooded men in mothball-scented eveningwear.

Exit reason, pursued by a bear: a feral straggler who shows up in this contracting setting like a circus exile. Sheep scuttle under tables like sacrificial livestock fleeing a battlefield. Bu˝uel was the master of establishing a randomized, every-man-and-woman-for-themselves dynamic within a cloistered, static environment, where it seems like war might break out among not only the characters but the ornate set decorations. Next to Hitchcock’s spotlessly choreographed, pulley-and-lever Psycho stratagems or Kubrick’s vice-hard grip on a pearl-handled Nabokov revolver, Bu˝uel achieves a mordancy rooted in the sensation that anything or nothing-in-perpetuity could happen in the next fifteen seconds of a given scene. Only the rococo pulpiness of Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) approaches the specialized, mulchy dread of The Exterminating Angel, though Welles doesn’t have Bu˝uel’s patient knack for hardnosed indeterminacy. Welles set different strains of overdetermination at each other, like a bull against a drunken matador, where Bu˝uel was more apt to feature a stiff-necked aristocrat shadowboxing the blank degeneration of their dusty subconscious.

“Loveable” may not be the first word you land on when conjuring up fond Exterminating Angel memories, but Bu˝uel had an amazing capacity for—what shall we call it?—negative empathy. It’s the sense of recognition a nihilist feels when he meets his match: The so-called discreet charm of the pitter-Úpater of little bourgeoisies amounts to a black cancerous heart lurking under all their shiny materialism and paternalism and deep-seated shallowness. The Exterminating Angel, in the fashion of an air-raid warden bullhorning instructions while finishing his crossword puzzle, adopts an amused attitude to incipient disintegration and ravening disorder. All in a day’s work. Those archetypes that were already archaic more than half a century ago, one foot in the mausoleum and the other in the wax museum—how could the director resist chuckling, watching them lay the groundwork for their own extinction?

The joke, Bu˝uel’s admirers always thought, was on somebody else. The trouble now is that those ridiculous, benighted, smug apostles of social superiority appear to have time-traveled from 1962 and brashly installed themselves in our finest institutions and positions, just in time to watch their servants make a reverse–Black Friday dash for the exits. The party is over but nobody can break the spell and leave. We’re all stranded with these visions of Johanna or Ivanka or Grushenka, as the room gets smaller and the chewed-over chicken wings pile up on top of a funeral mound of Sunday Times. Someone’s rumbling down the chimney: Is it El Santo the masked wrestler or his arch-nemesis the Grand Inquisitor? Assuming one is not the alter ego of the other: such is the afterlife and times of The Exterminating Angel. Happy Christmas, Merry New Year, and Mazel-Karamazov to all!

Howard Hampton

The Exterminating Angel is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Jim Jarmusch, Paterson, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Paterson (Adam Driver). Photo: Mary Cybulski.


“THAT A MAN IN HIMSELF IS A CITY” is the high theme of William Carlos Williams’s modern epic Paterson (1946–58). Jim Jarmusch’s latest film, identically titled, is also about a man who is identified, at least by name, with his city, though the tone of the film is considerably lower-key than that of Williams’s poem. Jarmusch’s Paterson—we never learn the rest of his name—is a bus driver (played by Adam Driver—is there some Oulipian doubling going on here?) who lives with his wife, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), and their dog, Marvin, in a cottagey little house on a scruffy street. But Paterson has a second life: In his basement writing cave, chockablock with books ranging from Frank O’Hara to David Foster Wallace and beyond, and with a framed photo of Doctor Williams himself on the wall, Paterson painstakingly composes his poems (actually the work of Ron Padgett, the esteemed poet and translator whose many honors include, natch, winning the William Carlos Williams Prize from the Poetry Society of America two years ago).

Laura—not exactly an artist but possessed of a “unique visual style” (her words) that manifests itself mainly by painting black-and-white patterns on everything in the house, though the colorful portraits of Marvin that also adorn the place are presumably her work as well—assures Paterson that he is a great poet and begs him to share his work with the world, or at least to Xerox his writings so that the notebook in which he inscribes them won’t be the only copy. (Chekhov’s rifle is being loaded.) Like many of Jarmusch’s films, Paterson has a manifest temporal structure: It begins with Paterson waking up on Monday morning to head to work at the bus depot, and wanders its way through the week, day by day, until the following Monday morning. It’s the structure of ordinariness, and Paterson might be dailiness personified. Poetry is part of his routine, and he’s averse to making more of it than that.

A persistent question hangs over the film: How plausible is it that the very ordinary guy, detached from anything like a literary community, could write the slyly deadpan-quizzical poems we see Paterson scribbling? The film conveys no sense of “process” in writing; for instance, he never seems to revise, though the poems are not messy and effusive in the “first thought, best thought” tradition of another Patersonian poet, Allen Ginsberg. What makes Paterson convincing as a poet is not the way he writes but the way he listens. The best of Driver’s performance comes in the look of attentiveness that plays across his face as we watch him listening to his passengers’ conversations as he drives. Those snatches of talk never find their way into the poems we see him produce, but somehow it makes sense that someone attending with such pleasure to unknown others would find something similar to hear in his own passing thoughts. And it’s not only talk he listens to; the sound track suggests that he hears random sounds in a particularly acute way. (I’m not the kind of guy who normally scans a movie’s closing credits to find out who the sound designer was, but in this case, I’m sure Robert Hein, a longtime Jarmusch collaborator, deserves special mention.)

Paterson takes in much more than he ever expresses outside of his secret notebook. I thought of Williams’s lines, “Eternally asleep, / his dreams walk about the city where he persists / incognito.” In his reserve, he is pointedly unlike his acquaintance Everett (William Jackson Harper), a fellow patron, described as an actor, of the bar at which Paterson sips his nightly after-work beer. (The easy mixing of races at the bar does not reflect the Paterson I grew up in, unfortunately; maybe things have changed for the better, but probably this just reflects the understated idealism that is part of Paterson’s charm.) When Everett’s girlfriend, Marie (Chasten Harmon), breaks up with him, he pulls a gun and threatens to shoot first her, then himself. Paterson impulsively lunges at Everett and knocks the gun from his hand. It turns out to be a toy. Everett’s feelings are genuine but his theatrical expression of them, false, ridiculous. The event nonetheless leaves Paterson shaking.

This scene seems to point to the anti-histrionic ethic Jarmusch wants to endorse for the everyman poet who might be any of us. But to be a poet, it helps to find yourself in encouraging circumstances. The very fact that Paterson (the city) has already produced poetry might help propagate it there again. Paterson (the character) works under the sainted Williams’s guardianship. High school students on the bus talk about Gaetano Bresci, the Italian-born Patersonian anarchist who assassinated King Umberto I of Italy in 1900; the bartender, Doc (Barry Shabaka Henley), says that Sam Moore of Sam & Dave once lived in town. The numerous historical references can feel a bit stilted, though I was sorry that there was no mention of Larry Doby, who followed Jackie Robinson to become the second black player in major-league baseball. But the movie is sweetly aware of the difference it makes to know one belongs to a place that’s been touched by extraordinary being—it somehow makes you see yourself differently.

But is it true? Can growing up in a city that’s been grounds for poetry make a poet? I can’t say for sure, but I know that when, as a high school student on Paterson’s east side, I heard or read that someone had written a book-length poem about my own cruddy hometown, I was flummoxed enough to want to go to the library and see what in the world that book was. It changed my life. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to learn, years from now, that this Paterson might have changed someone’s life too.

Barry Schwabsky

Paterson opens in select theaters on Wednesday, December 28.

Marien Ades, Toni Erdmann, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 162 minutes.


HENRY JAMES’S DESCRIPTION of certain doorstop-size nineteenth-century novels—the “large, loose, baggy monster”—applies pretty well to Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, a downbeat comic study of a dysfunctional father-daughter relationship that comes in a bit short of the three-hour mark, and which has as its keystone gag an actual large, loose, baggy monster.

Ines (Sandra HŘller) is a thirtysomething German professional adrift in professional stasis despite her monomaniacal focus on climbing the corporate ladder at the backwater Romanian branch of a consultancy firm. Her father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), is a divorced former children’s music teacher who upends Ines’s minutely scheduled existence when he shambles into the immaculate, impersonal extended-stay apartment she occupies in Bucharest, a set-up for rootless corporate cosmopolitans that’s much the same from San Diego to Singapore—where she is hoping to be transferred, though a promotion alone hardly seems likely to clear up the pall of low-level depression hanging over her.

When Winfried first appears, an incorrigible prankster who shows up to a family gathering in zombie makeup and plastic novelty teeth, it’s no stretch to imagine how his pupils must have adored him, and how he must have been an impossible husband. HŘller’s finely shaded performance reflects a bit of both attitudes—the residual tenderness of the once doted-over little girl for whom this shameless oaf was once the center of the world, and the wariness of the career woman who has had to put aside childish things (and most everything else) to serve her company. Brushing off her father, however, proves a challenge. After Ines sends him packing back to Germany, Winfried reemerges wearing the hillbilly chompers and a frazzled fright wig, now posing as a character named Toni Erdmann—either a life coach or an ambassador, depending on who he’s talking to—so that he can penetrate the largely expatriate white-collar circle in which his daughter travels, with the ostensible aim of putting a little mirth back into her chartered, tight-assed life.

Since competing for the Palme d’Or at Cannes this May, Toni Erdmann, the forty-year-old Ade’s third feature and first since 2009’s Everyone Else, has seen its reputation steadily snowball, finally topping year-end polls at Cahiers du cinema, Film Comment, and this publication, and earning a gushing review in today’s New York Times. Without wishing to suggest that Toni Erdmann’s many admirers are being disingenuous in their enthusiasm, any such perfect confluence of opinion must benefit from extenuating factors. For starters, Ade’s film, which emerged from a reportedly anarchic, improv-heavy production process with well-balanced proportions of the familiar and the strange, has inspired excitement as one whose appeal might breach the borders of the foreign-language art-house ghetto.

Marien Ades, Toni Erdmann, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 162 minutes.


The basic plot formula—a shaggy-dog outsider lets some air into a stale bourgeois life—is a familiar staple from Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932) to Paul Mazursky’s yuppie Los Angelino remake Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), though the film that I thought of most during Ade’s was the (significantly funnier) 2012 Adam Sandler vehicle That’s My Boy. Toni Erdmann does have a couple of scenes that are designed to be showstoppers: One in which “Toni” goads Ines into performing a gut-wrenching, emotional rendition of “The Greatest Love of All” for an audience of strangers; another where Ines, driven to the brink of breakdown, answers the door to coworkers stark naked. At the same time, there is much about Toni Erdmann that would be out of place at the multiplex: the generous runtime, say, or Patrick Orth’s cinematography, which offers an unprettified vision of the corporate-park world and the pallid men and women who inhabit it. (The movie also contains an in-your-face feel-bad sex scene, but given the degree to which Judd Apatow and associates have made this their provenance, I’m hesitant to admit it as evidence of “otherness.”)

Finally, Ade’s film ends on a note of painful ambivalence—Ines is reconciled to her identity as her father’s daughter, but the last glimpse of her face reflects a weary understanding that this alone is not enough, that rapprochement across generation and gender can only go so far, that to imitate her father’s carefree approach is not really an option any more than it would be possible for her to drop out of the business world and relaunch herself as a professional torch singer. The best of intentions is at best palliative: Winfried/Toni gamely tries to mix with the common Bucharesters, with mixed results, while the impersonal “downsizing” practiced by Ines and her company continues undeterred. Here again Toni Erdmann achieves maximum topicality. The world in which the film is set—of borderless business and quibbles over outsourcing where layoffs are just a number with no inconvenient human analog—feeds into a very of-the-moment conversation about the seven-day, 168-hour work week and so-called neoliberal globalism whose unpopularity has been used for political capital by both right and left.

It is in its depiction of this milieu, however, Toni Erdmann shows a tendency to oversimplify that marks it as a more hidebound work than it first appears. Cinema classically has at least been interested in the process of blue-collar work, but has too often been indifferent to representing the business world in any manner other than how someone of the “creative class” imagines that they would respond to it—that is, as a terrible imposition and smothering restriction, an image that comes across most clearly in the film’s climactic scene, where Ines struggles to free herself from the straightjacket of a vacuum-sealed dress. (That representatives of the art film, like any arts economy largely reliant on title inheritance, chattel labor, and other suspect sources of financing, regularly condescend to the spiritual impoverishment of the cubicle caste is a piquant irony.) Even if you happen to sympathize with the grim feeling that Toni Erdmann appears to have about twenty-first century life, there’s a real paucity of empathetic imagination in the gaggle of caricatures, divided between white-collar grotesques and Decent Common Folk, that Ade provides for Ines and Winfried to interface with—and there’s something suspect about a 162-minute movie that only finds time to develop two characters in the round.

“At least three good scenes and no bad ones” goes the bromide attributed to Howard Hawks––a director who had a penchant for long, rambling comedies––as his recipe for success. My scorecard for Toni Erdmann reads a couple memorable bits and a vast, undifferentiated middle. That Ade’s film doesn’t seem to be working for horselaughs most of the time isn’t a problem in itself. There are plenty of great screen comedies that I’ve watched stone-faced: Elaine May’s A New Leaf (1971) or Jerry Lewis’s Cracking Up (1983). (As Jean-Luc Godard said of Lewis, “Even when he’s not funny, he’s funny.”) But Toni Erdmann, pitting a lovable sad clown ex-hippie against straw-man capitalists, forestalls the invitation to audience reflection that creates real queasy stick-in-your-throat laughter. Lacking anything to disturb its basic binary or to put a complacent viewer momentarily on their back foot, there’s little here that lifts the ongoing game of farcical imposture and father-daughter sparring above briskly repetitive actors’ exercises. When it’s not funny, it’s not much.

Nick Pinkerton

Toni Erdmann opens Sunday, December 25, at Film Forum in New York.

Nine Lives

12.16.16

Katy Grannan, The Nine, 2016, color, sound, 98 minutes.


KATY GRANNAN’S debut feature-length film, The Nine, is bisected by an off-screen murder. Police find a body floating beneath the South Ninth Street Bridge in Modesto, California, a hardscrabble Central Valley town about ninety minutes east of San Francisco. The news spooks the film’s central characters, who live in and around the area known as the Nine, and whose vulnerability is sharpened by the prospect of a predator. Grannan and her sound editor, Gus Koven, create a wash of overlapping chatter after the news breaks. Eventually, a woman intones, “They say everybody dies in threes, but this year they died in nines.”

The violence remains out of the frame, but it haunts Wanda, Robert, Tony, Inessa, Jordan, and others Grannan follows as they struggle to patch together decent lives on the American fringes. Often we see them literally at the edge: They stand street-side, loiter on riverbanks, and mosey along railroad tracks, observing and commenting on what passes them by. Our primary guide is Kiki, with whom Grannan spent hundreds of hours over several years. Kiki is simultaneously clear-eyed and delusional, the victim of assaults both personal and societal. Her compelling story creates a tense codependency with Grannan. She needs Grannan to listen to her, to believe her, when few others will. Grannan needs Kiki to give The Nine the narrative propulsion and focus its impressionistic set pieces would otherwise lack. Like the film itself, Kiki’s story is an artful construction that weaves together fact and fiction.

Fans of Grannan’s remarkable photographic portraits will already be familiar with Kiki and others in The Nine. It can be uncanny to see, for example, the interactions between Ginger and her daughter Chastity that inspired a particularly affecting 2012 photograph of them embracing. Yet unlike those portraits, often busts or three-quarter-length views, The Nine features many close-in shots of hands and feet, underscoring the fact that Grannan’s subjects lose the bigger picture by focusing in on details. They also reveal how the world has inscribed itself on her subjects’ bodies. The bright, clear California light of Grannan’s pictures likewise characterizes the film, though daytime is paired with nighttime scenes illuminated by jittery headlights and storefront neon.

Grannan was first intrigued by the Central Valley because of its stark contrast to the Bay Area, where she has lived for the past decade. Modesto and its neighboring towns are strung along US 99, a north–south highway that photographer Dorothea Lange traversed during the Great Depression. Like Lange’s pictures, The Nine’s rough beauty and humane approach are affecting; I found myself thinking about Kiki for days afterward. I had hope for Grannan’s cast, who sought redemption in God, in drugs, in the words of parents, in the dream of opening a business, in the music coming out of tinny speakers.

Watching it again recently, after the US presidential election, I was struck by a different, somewhat bleaker thought: that The Nine is a crucial document of the kinds of people who will be left behind completely by American callousness. In the film, after everyone processes the news of the murder, Grannan’s camera glances up at a bright half-moon hanging in an empty black sky. That sky goes blue and the camera suddenly plunges into the river’s water: a baptism to purify what has come before. In the next four years, during which time the weak will be made more vulnerable by the dismantling of vital institutions, I fear such redemptions will not be forthcoming.

Brian Sholis

The Nine plays December 16 and 18 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Mike Judge, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 81 minutes.


SPOILER ALERT: At the end of Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996), Mike Judge’s animated film featuring the unholy fools he unleashed via MTV in 1993, President Bill Clinton invites the titular boys into the Oval Office, makes them honorary ATF agents, and tells them that they will one day become “leaders of America.” Well.

On November 9, 2016, this joke, not particularly funny to begin with by B&B standards, suddenly became dire prophecy. Judge made the point more explicitly in his later live-action film Idiocracy (2006), about a dystopian future society populated by mentally and culturally devolved Americans whose moronic president, Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, a former wrestler, bears a striking resemblance to one Donald Trump.

Roger Ebert, an early B&B fan and defender, wrote in response to their critics, “To study B&B is to learn about a culture of narcissism, alienation, functional illiteracy, instant gratification, and television zombiehood. Those who deplore Beavis and Butt-Head are confusing the messengers with the message.” Ebert’s response was necessary, given that the boys had been blamed for various real-life acts of adolescent mayhem, some fatal, and an aging Democratic senator, Fritz Hollings, had railed against the pernicious influence of “Buffcoat and Beaver” on the Senate floor.

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America is currently enjoying a theatrical rerelease in honor of its twentieth anniversary. As the critic who first brought B&B to the pages of Artforum when the TV show was new, I can report that, two decades on, the message has been delivered, and the messengers are real (they were chanting “Lock her up” at campaign rallies last fall, and they really are deplorable). A Trump voter asked by a CNN reporter why she thought Trump was qualified for the presidency responded with words seemingly lifted from Butt-Head’s perpetually open mouth, “He has his own TV show?” Huh huh, TV. Cool.

Wondering why two nihilistic sociopaths with a Neanderthal’s grasp of gender relations were curiously no longer funny in the age of Trump, I remembered that they emerged amid a parade of mentally challenged and/or willfully ignorant fictional avatars that mysteriously followed our culture’s last great seizure over Trump’s favorite bugbear, “political correctness.” In the wake of Andrea Dworkin’s and Catharine MacKinnon’s radical critiques of pornography in the 1980s (culminating in MacKinnon’s controversial, widely discussed Only Words [1993], which attacked the language of sexual assault and harassment, essentially arguing against the First Amendment), conservative intellectuals and ideologues responded with crossover books blasting PC in the academy and elsewhere: Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (1987), Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson (1990), and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (1991), among others.

Mike Judge, Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, 1996, 35 mm, color, sound, 81 minutes.


Representing the newly minted “sex-positive feminism” (which at this point is the primary mode of celebrity feminism; see BeyoncÚ), Madonna pushed back with her pornographic coffee-table book, Sex (1992), and hung out with Wayne and Garth on Saturday Night Live, tittering but flattered whenever they acknowledged her attractiveness by blurting out “schwing!,” their preferred word for zero-to-sixty male arousal. For dudes depressed that “major league yabbos” was no longer a socially acceptable term for mammary glands, Hollywood served up Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), Wayne’s World (1992), Dumb & Dumber (1994), and Beavis and Butt-Head Do America.

These benighted bros functioned as licensed fools and jesters often do: as steam valves and truth-tellers, freely saying and doing things for which others would be harshly punished. Fundamentally, the jester’s entire authority—his capacity for delivering enlightening outrage—derives from the widespread disapproval of his speech and behavior from the culture at large and powers that be. When this disapproval turns to approval, and the king becomes the fool, the jester’s role is vacated and rendered irrelevant, a redundant nonentity.

At a time when we can listen to a tape of our President-elect bragging to the nephew of a former president about grabbing strange women “by the pussy,” women who, apparently, “let you do anything” if you’re famous, the spectacle of Butt-Head getting on the US Senate PA system, as he does late in the film, his voice booming through the halls, “Uh, we are looking for the chick with big boobs. We are ready to do you,” no longer functions as humor on its face or satire in its subtext.

Those looking for B&B-related lulz would be better served by visiting IMDB.com’s Parents Guide for Beavis and Butt-Head Do America, which lays out, in a poorly drafted, peerlessly po-faced style, all instances of potentially offensive or child-corrupting content. While the film’s MPAA rating was PG-13, “for continuous crude sexual humor, some mayhem, and a drug-related scene,” the IMDB Parents Guide reports that, among other violations, “Tom tells his wife that he caught Beavis ‘jerking off in his caravan’” (“whacking off,” actually, if we’re being pedantic); “Butt-Head falls in love with a woman on the plane and tells Beavis to look at ‘her butt’”; “Some of the pictures depicted in Beavis’s acid trip [including “deformed monsters”] might be frightening to some young children”; “Butt-Head is seen drinking beer once”; and, in addition to a few other curse words, “‘damn’ and ‘ass’ are also used.” The sound track is worth seeking out for Engelbert Humperdinck’s mellifluous rendering of the Tom Wilson song “Lesbian Seagull,” usually sung by B&B’s cloying, sanctimonious hippie teacher (he of “Mmm-kay”). Otherwise, the nightly news will provide more offensive idiocy than you’ll ever need.

Andrew Hultkrans

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America plays Thursday, December 15 and Tuesday, December 20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Sin City

12.12.16

View of “Martin Scorsese,” 2016, Museum of the Moving Image, Astoria, New York. Photo: Thanassi Karageorgiou.


GEORGE LUCAS IS BUSY DESIGNING his Museum of Narrative Art, a Xanadu for his legacy. Francis Ford Coppola is now a gray gentleman vintner with a sideline in independent films. William Friedkin pungently adapts Tracy Letts stage plays when he’s making anything new at all. Paul Schrader has gone back underground, working fast, cheap, and dirty, venting spleen on Facebook in his downtime. And Peter Bogdanovich is . . . well, you know. Of the leading lights of the so-called New Hollywood who came to prominence in the late 1960s and 1970s, only Steven Spielberg, Terrence Malick, and Martin Scorsese have shown the desire and ability to continue to command big budgets and to put challenging—or, to some minds, taxing—film art in front of the widest possible public.

It is strange to think of a filmmaker like Scorsese, his work still so violent, vital, and totally capable of getting up the nose of the holier-than-thou cultural commentariat, as making sense within the hush of a museum, but here we are. On the eve of the release of his twenty-fourth fiction feature, Silence, Scorsese is being honored with a complete career retrospective and standing gallery exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, in Queens, about twenty minutes on the Grand Central Parkway from Corona, where he lived until the age of eight. Passing into the upstairs galleries through a screening space where four projectors throw coordinated clips from Scorsese’s films onto the wall, you may be greeted by a fusillade of brain-spraying headshots, a staccato of profanity. Scorsese may have been museumified, but he has not been domesticated.

The show, which originated at the Museum fŘr Film und Fernsehen in Berlin and has traveled extensively since, brings together objects relating to the entire span of Scorsese’s half-century-plus career—from correspondences around securing the financing for his gruesome early short The Big Shave (1967), which is seen on loop as you enter the third-floor galleries, to a vitrine filled with storyboards, annotated script pages, and props from the Silence shoot. The film––based on Catholic author Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel about Portuguese Jesuit missionaries on a clandestine mission in seventeenth-century Japan during a period when the Shogunate was zealously persecuting the significant population of foreign proselytizers and native Christian converts––is among Scorsese’s most scourging and emotional, never more poignant than when evoking the preciousness of scarce sacred images in a land where they’ve been forbidden.

Similarly, many of the most touching objects on display at MoMI relate to Scorsese’s childhood, these adding up to the portrait of a frail, asthmatic young blue-collar aesthete living in straightened circumstances in the apartment of his garment district–worker parents on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy, snatching his glimpses of horror and beauty wherever he could. There is the wood cabinet television set that showed the Million Dollar Movie; the teenage Scorsese’s carefully indexed box of 45s, including the Cellos’s “Rang Tang Ding Dong (I Am the Japanese Sandman),” used some forty years later on the sound track of Bringing Out the Dead (1999); a child’s crayon storyboard for “A Marsco Production” in “Marsco Color” and “Cinemascope 75MM” of sword-and-sandals epic “The Eternal City,” with Marlon Brando leading an imagined all-star cast; and the dining room set and scattered wall decorations (family photos, the Mona Lisa, Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington portrait) familiar from Italianamerican (1974), Scorsese’s intimate, good-humored documentary about his parents.

The gallery exhibition is broken into sections highlighting different aspects of Scorsese’s creative practice—“Editing,” “Cinematography,” and a significant amount of material relating to his tireless work as public advocate for film preservation and restoration—and includes shrines dedicated to recurrent themes in his work. You’ll probably hear “Lonely Heroes” coming some time before you encounter it—the projected clip reel includes Robert De Niro’s Jake La Motta at the end of Raging Bull (1980), self-flagellating by pummeling the wall of his cell in the Dade County Stockade and bellowing “Fuck you! Fuck you! Fuck yer muthah!” From here you can wend through “Men and Women,” “Brothers,” and “New York City.” There was, however, one section that seemed conspicuously absent, especially with Silence coming to theaters: “God.”

Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 180 minutes. Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).


The cell breakdown in Raging Bull, you may recall, is followed not long after by a quotation from the Book of John, and Scorsese’s “Lonely Heroes” are very often alone with a God who either refuses to speak to them (“God’s lonely man,” Travis Bickle in 1976’s Taxi Driver) or, more terrifying still, does (the sermonizing Pentecostal psycho Max Cady in 1991’s Cape Fear, who announces that “every man carries a circle of hell around his head like a halo”). Scorsese’s own Italian-Catholic upbringing is important not only to understanding his personal loyalties and thematic preoccupations, but also to understanding the role he plays in American popular culture—revered, to be sure, but still very much able to play the irritant, as testified to by the brouhaha incited by the release of his Rabelaisian knee-slapper The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

Scorsese’s work bears all the marks of someone raised in thrall to mysterious images—those of the church and those of the cinema—and mysterious images can still pose a threat in a country that, some four hundred years removed from its Puritan origins, often seems much more comfortable with narrow definitions provided by the written word than tricky, deceitful, transfixing pictures. With the 1988 release of his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel The Last Temptation of Christ, in which Willem Dafoe’s Christ is seen to imagine himself living and lusting as a family man, Scorsese found himself smack in the middle of the 1980s Culture Wars—the MoMI walls feature a reproduction of a flyer billing Scorsese as “WANTED: For Sacrilege,” as well as a letter of support from someone at the First Baptist Church in Evanston, Illinois. (“I must say that I believe this is a film Jesus would have liked.”) More than just a director, he became something like the public spokesman for film as art in America, and as so many young movie-lovers have, I suppose that as a young man I must have hero-worshipped Scorsese. When the police department in my hometown, Cincinnati, charged a gay bookstore for pandering obscenity by renting a copy of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s _Sal˛, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) to an undercover officer in 1994, Scorsese was in the thick of putting together a case for the defense, and you don’t soon forget a thing like that.

These days there’s a cinephile Pope sitting in Saint Peter’s and the protestant American religious right scarcely seems to bestir itself over something so marginal as art, but a new generation of liberal scolds has emerged to police work that commits the grave error of not clearly and cautiously defining itself for the viewer. And with online virtue signaling embedded in the very heart of contemporary political discourse, a filmography which may largely be understood through the Harvey Keitel voice-over that begins Mean Streets (1973)—“You don’t make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.”—looks increasingly like it comes from another planet. (The tone of hellfire-stoked urgency is punched through by that film’s unlikely stylistic collision of Vincente Minnelli and John Cassavetes, which still grabs you tight by the collar.)

Notions of sin (both of commission and omission), seduction, and final East of Eden exile are inextricable from Scorsese’s cinematic crucibles, which time and again strap you into the hot seat, forcing you to squirmingly identify with profoundly damaged men. (Yes, they are usually men, which befits a body of work that is an extended study in machismo as a grotesque, disfiguring disease.) Like Andrew Garfield’s would-be Jesuit martyr in Silence, his sense of mission renewed by contact with the backbreaking poverty of the Japanese peasantry, Scorsese loves to go down among the shunned and despised—to mix with the moral lepers, to wash their sores, to chance contagion. A straight line can be drawn from Yōsuke Kubozuka’s Kichijiro, the serial-apostatizing backslider in Silence, to De Niro’s Johnny Boy in Mean Streets. Peopled with such irredeemables and full of beckoning lures and snares, Scorsese’s films don’t provide the audience a buffer of safe pity or contempt—in watching Silence, you are tested and implicated along with the priest, a mutely rubbernecking witness to a terrible Theater of Cruelty spectacle. It’s a gorgeous, troubling addition to Scorsese’s corpus, which is nothing if not a monument to visual allurement and moral turpitude. And with popular culture glutted by smug know-it-alls, self-styled Nice Guys, and patient explicators, a premium must be put on artists like Scorsese who are still willing to get lost—to venture into a forest dark, away from the straightforward pathway.

Nick Pinkerton

“Martin Scorsese” is on view through April 23, 2017, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. A related film program, “Martin Scorsese in the 21st Century,” runs December 16 through 30.

Arthur Jafa, Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, 2016, video, color and black-and-white, sound, 7 minutes 30 seconds. Martin Luther King, Jr.


“MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” is the rhetorical equivalent of tear gas—a bit of blinding toxin to spray at the livid crowd. But behind the flash and menace of Trump himself, his advisors have begun to undertake other, subtler operations on our shared language, delivering, in their interviews and slogans, more insidious tweaks to speech. Steve Bannon, chief strategist and cofounder of alt-right Breitbart News, has proclaimed that he’s no racist, but an “economic nationalist” whose princely sympathies reach beyond the white working class to the minority poor. So his rapacious political project has in fact been a holy mission—a chance to lift up the savages. “I was the one who said we are going to Flint, Michigan, we are going to black churches in Cleveland,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “because the thrust of this movement is that we are going to bring capitalism to the inner cities.” Yes, of course, because Black poverty lies at some pitiful remove from the capitalist system—not at its clogged, spastic heart.

Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death, a giant single-channel video installation by Arthur Jafa, supplies Bannon’s idiocy with a smart counter. (No matter that it was made before the elections of November 8th.) A collage film, it relishes the textures and patterns of Black music, and it exposes—with cleverness, poignancy, and slicing, vicious puncta—the brutal bond of Blackness to the commodity form. That bond dooms and arouses. Everyone but Bannon knows that Black people in America were captured, whipped, murdered, raped—and had their families fractured, psyches throttled, and culture blasted and suppressed—all for the noble purpose of making someone rich. Fred Moten’s name for Black radical aesthetics is “the resistance of the object.” So freedom might mean marching through, not flinching from, precisely the process of commodification that formed and punished a people—the swelling dreams and curling deceits of exploitation and profit, “progress” and surplus, value and lack.

But freedom is taking it a bit far—let’s say agency. Jafa’s video flirts with a sleek form, the music video, which he cuts and distorts. Kanye West’s rap-gospel “Ultralight Beam” is the basis, and the song’s fusion of two distinct musical styles tempts us to name what might be common to all forms of Black expression—how they swing through suffering, drawing from every political insult a melancholy principle in trial and refusal. Like Chris Marker and Harun Farocki before him, Jafa is a master of the repeated gesture. (Jafa was also the cinematographer for Solange Knowles’s two most recent videos and, famously, Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughters of the Dust, currently playing at New York’s Film Forum.) But his archive is different: viral videos of crowds swaying in basketball stadiums; triumphant footage of Bayard Rustin, MLK, and Malcolm X; and low-res clips of police abuse and the protests it prompts. What emerges is not some stonily virtuous monument to Black history but instead a staccato commentary on the power of capital to link the pleasures of the spectacle to the terror of race.

There’s a small difference, though, between what we’re watching and what we see. Jafa’s images are of varying “quality.” Cop-car dash-cam footage is diced into bleary pixels, only to be followed by Bobby Seale’s still, solemn face, speckled by film grain. A handful of clips are stamped with the gettyimages« watermark, which floats with glassy indifference over Dr. King, or fire-hosed demonstrators, or a shot of a burning house. Source matters here—origins, less so. The degradation of the image is an index for its circulation, its exchange, and ultimately its part in constructing—nay, performing—a collective identity whose historical struggle is bound, in some part, to the function of the eye. Hito Steyerl, lover of glitches and .MOV files, has written a whole manifesto in defense of the “poor image.” Here, that poverty is Black.

But I’ve made the video sound too bustling, too teasing, too pleased with itself for the wittiness of its effects. It is also a forceful work. “This is a God dream, this is a God dream,” West sings over the shifting collage, shoving redemption into the sad parts. Jafa’s juxtapositions rise above cleverness but shrink from sentimentalism, constructing a picture of Blackness that manages to fold a whole emotional galaxy—glory, disappointment, buffoonery, lust, poise—into seven minutes of mass-market pop. Music orders the piece; but that music is itself disordered, tripping gracefully through its syncopations and eccentricities, all the while doing its pretty embroidery on the beat. Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death seems to conjure Langston Hughes’s gruesome joke: that Bop music got its name from the sound of a cop bashing his billy club into a Negro’s skull. What is the relation, really, between history and aesthetics, trauma and form? Thirty seconds into Jafa’s piece, West’s voice dips over footage of a fleeing Walter Scott as he takes a police bullet in the back. This week we learned that the officer in question will walk free—to the surprise of nobody I know. By now it’s a tradition, an inevitability, a promise, a pattern, a curse—which is to say, a rhythm.

Arthur Jafa’s Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death plays through January 28, 2017, at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, 429 West 127th Street, New York.

Tobi Haslett

Film Cool

12.06.16

Da´chi Sa´to, Engram of Returning, 2015, 35 mm, color, sound, 19 minutes.


FILM IS DEAD. Or so we’ve heard. The news must not have reached Canada, where Japanese-born filmmaker Da´chi Sa´to has been working diligently in Super 8 and 16- and 35-mm since 2003. In 2012 he extended this focus with the dual 16-mm Never a Foot Too Far, Even; and his most recent film, Engram of Returning (2016) is in 35 mm and CinemaScope. Both films, along with earlier work, will be screened at Anthology Film Archives—for one evening only, alas. I can’t think of a better fit of artist and venue: Although Sa´to’s body of work is small, it’s an exciting testament to the vibrancy of film in the digital age.

Compared to most rapidly edited collages of film and video over the past twenty years, Sa´to’s films seem shockingly fresh, closer to how a poet crafts each line or a composer shapes a musical phrase. This is not surprising, since Sa´to—in his short prose work “Moving the Sleeping Images of Things Towards the Light”—admits he is less a cinephile than a lover of literature and poetry. Nevertheless, his feeling for celluloid suffuses every frame, and his composition, cutting, and rhythm bear the distinct imprint of a filmmaker. There is also an uncanny isomorphic quality in these films, a feeling that Sa´to’s internal clock and instinct for balancing legibility and textual density are in sync with his own—and by extension, our—optical behavior, the human eye’s rhythmic response to stimulation and rest. One thinks of what Stan Brakhage called the art of vision, in which both the external and internal eye bypass the intellect to incorporate and process stimuli. Sa´to does not so much appeal to the eye as enlist its collaboration.

While the raw material of the films is concentrated, each work moves toward embracing a vicinity of images with increasing intensity. Sa´to speaks of his Super 8 work as “sketches,” but Blind Alley Augury (2006) strikes me as a flawless endorsement of the grade and look of that gauge. Perhaps his modesty is reflected in the paradox of the title—the last word implying prognostication but its predecessors connoting an inability to see the future. A real alley does appear, mostly in zoom shots, which, however fleeting, arrest the pace of the image clusters, all shot in Sa´to’s neighborhood: telephone poles and cables against the sky, flowers, sunlight, grass, small buildings, graffiti, fences, clotheslines, an address plate on a house, and at least one person seen twice. Even on an initial viewing, this assemblage seems far from random. Shot frame by frame and edited in camera, each image carries a distinct point of view that registers—with the help of that inner eye—the angle and distance of the lens to achieve an affecting, utterly convincing personal order.

Black leader facilitates the perceptual process in all Sa´to’s films and is prominent in Green Fuse (2008), also in Super 8. A tree, center frame, is crosscut with sustained pulses of black, the speed of which increases as surrounding trees edge in. Even the occasional decentering of a tree allows its trunk to function like leader, masking the left or right side of the frame in a wonderful fusion of art and nature.

Da´chi Sa´to, Green Fuse, 2008, Super 8, color, silent, 3 minutes.


Both Chiasmus (2003) and Chasmic Dance (2004) are in 16 mm and black and white. The former, Sa´to’s first film, begins auspiciously with a small white screen viewed at a distance, accompanied by what sounds like amplified hiccups of a broken record but in fact are sounds made by a human figure we do not yet see. A short passage of scratched filmstrip gives way to the screen proper, in which an ingeniously framed and edited dance ensues between the blacks and whites of each exposure. The shifting shapes of black are produced, we soon learn, by the sinuous contours of a female body as it writhes in silhouette against the glaring white of an undefined background. Glimpses of her flesh, figure, and flailing hair come into view to the sounds of breathy moans. But that she herself may be dancing seems less the point than the way her movements shape and reshape the screen into a peekaboo theater of erotic delight. While figure and ground are less defined in Chasmic Dance, the changing patterns of wavering lines, resembling the visual static of radio waves, are charged with a filmic velocity that eventually dissolves into unruly splotches of black and white. One recalls such pioneers of the flicker film as Tony Conrad and Peter Kubelka.

The dazzling Trees of Syntax, Leaves of Axis (2009), Sa´to’s first effort in 35 mm and entirely hand-processed by the filmmaker, was, like Green Fuse, filmed in Montreal’s Mount-Royal Park. As its title denotes, it’s a more ambitious work, pursuing an increasingly dense and layered visual texture stressed by an insistent, jagged violin arrangement by Malcolm Goldstein (who also scored Sa´to’s All That Rises [2007]), the plucks and slides of which emulate the repetition and variation of the editing. Throughout this furiously condensed lesson in the passage from naturalism to modernism, the central tree is as much subject as ground, fixing our gaze at an axis to accommodate the hundreds (thousands?) of cuts, overlaps, and rest stops that reconfigure the forest of colors and foliage that seems to spring from and bear upon it as so many permutations of phrases in a poem. I cannot help but link the film’s celebration of trees with recent research confirming how they communicate via an “arboreal internet—nothing less than a vast underground network, called a mycorrhiza,” through which they pass chemical and electrical signals among their roots and warn neighboring trees of natural threats.

The wider canvas of Engram of Returning is well suited to the film’s landscape and mountain vistas, but Sa´to even fabricates landscapes here, juxtaposing or superimposing one above or below another. Black leader again is critical and omnipresent, and the whole is accompanied by an original, jarring soundtrack by Jason Sharp. As the film nears its end, we hear the musician catching his breath—an apt expression not only of his labor-intensive work but also that of the hands-on filmmaker whose collection of gems is rare indeed.

Tony Pipolo

“Show & Tell: Da´chi Sa´to” plays Saturday, December 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.