After Darko

04.25.17

Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 134 minutes. Donnie Darko and Gretchen Ross (Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone).


RICHARD KELLY’S now-legendary debut, Donnie Darko (2001), forged a bittersweet, nutty-poignant idiom from the pop-culture overload of the writer-director’s late 1980s suburban Virginia youth. (It feels as if Kelly was possessed by Donnie instead of merely being his creator.) Most impudently, the film juxtaposes the grinning title teen (Jake Gyllenhaal, exhibiting a quirky Travis Bickle–as–Boy Scout air) below a movie marquee featuring the dream Halloween team of The Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ.

That combination sums up Donnie Darko as well as anything: a comic-book Passion Play haunted by malevolent supernatural forces. (And that jet engine dropping out of the sky.) Donnie receives otherworldly instructions from Frank, a holy ghost in a gnarly rabbit costume (picture the Easter Bunny with a Heavy Metal makeover), through a rent in the space-time continuum. When Donnie meets his troubled soul mate, Gretchen (Jena Malone), she teases that his goofy name makes him sound like a superhero. “What makes you think I’m not?”

Kelly’s film is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma inside a valentine. Out of long-lost weekend Blockbuster Video rentals (E.T., Blue Velvet, Poltergeist, Heathers, Time Bandits, Watership Down), Stephen King novels, shimmery post–New Wave records (Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, INXS), Escher prints, motivational infomercials, The Smurfs, and Stephen Hawking came a lyric, mid-Halloween night’s world all its own. It’s the cult film as supercollider physics experiment: What would happen if, for example, particles of the Buffyverse would be “smushed” up with the gravitational tangents of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia? Darko’s “Mad World” montage is a partial answer.

On its most immediate level, the film’s a shrewdly absurd exploration of waking dream states—or teenage schizophrenia. Donnie isn’t the only character who appears to follow strange, preordained paths: The people he encounters all seem to double as messengers, prompting him, provoking him. They’re semisentient pieces on a cosmic chessboard, and the sense of dual, or dueling, realities being communicated is entertaining and suggestive. But it’s grounded in something more acute about adolescence: those moments of discovery when something deeper, more dangerous, and more insightful breaks through the routines and clichés of cloistered life.

When his troublemaking young English teacher, Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), assigns the Graham Greene story “The Destructors,” it’s a roadmap. The clock is ticking down to the end of the world, according to Frank: Donnie will have to perform a series of disruptive acts and decipher ambiguous clues to save it. First, by flooding his high school and somehow embedding an axe in the bronze head of its giant mascot statue, the Mongrel. (Which itself has the wonderfully bulbous look of a comic-book character: It could be the Incredible Hulk’s pet.)

Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 134 minutes.


Later, Donnie is directed to burn down the mansion of the self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who has gotten too deeply involved with the school curriculum. That this already creepy, gung-ho motivational speaker (pitching a program halfway between Tony Robbins and Scientology) turns out to be a secret pedophile doubles the implications of his campus recruitment efforts. Most telling in the film’s narrative terms is that when Donnie and Gretchen walk past the as-yet-unidentified Cunningham house, a couple schoolgirls run by and, in the background, go into it. Another Alice in Jeopardy motif is the school’s serenely exploitive Sparkle Motion dance troupe, which includes Donnie’s sister: They’re all prepubescent, so even if it were a joint middle and high school, they’re awfully young to be thrown in with horny older boys (including Seth Rogen!) for whom harassment and hazing are sport.

Donnie Darko is all about the blending of head-on blatancy with a raft of undertones, sense-making non sequiturs, and lysergic aperçus. Raw sincerity meets ironic self-awareness, with these different levels of sophistication coexisting and ricocheting off one another. If art doesn’t encroach on life and alter it, as Kelly implies with Darko, why bother? The movie’s an elaboration of how personal and artistic associations can bleed together and cross-fertilize inside your consciousness. The casting of iconic actors Barrymore, Swayze, and Katherine Ross (as Dr. Thurman, Donnie’s therapist) also blurs the lines: Their recognition factor feeds into the film’s convoluted sense of the familiar wrenched out of shape.

Both Ms. Pomeroy and Dr. Thurman have extremely curious relationships with Donnie—not overtly inappropriate, but Pomeroy verges on taunting him when she says in class, “Maybe your friend Frank can help you.” And Dr. Thurman, who hypnotizes Donnie, seems to helicopter between sternly professional, openly maternal, and embarrassingly overexposed. Gyllenhaal’s acting is a fascinating medley of registers and approaches—under hypnosis, doing a broad, childlike shtick, dialing it back in various boyish degrees, shifting from Method angst to repeating Minimalist notes, none more effective than his Darko smile, one of those gnostic flashes that capture a movie’s essence in a single shot.

“They made me do it” announces the graffiti he leaves after vandalizing the school. But while Donnie’s the center of contention, “they”—in this case, the tremendous ensemble of not only actors but the production’s crew and craftspeople—are what allow the center to hold. For all the distinctiveness of Kelly’s vision, exploring the making of the film through the prism of the newly and beautifully remastered limited-edition box set (with its multiple commentaries and a highly instructive making-of documentary), you realize it was openness to collaboration that made Donnie Darko what it is.

The box set includes the theatrical cut of the movie (which initially bombed), the director’s cut released in 2004 (after the film caught on in Great Britain), and the new ninety-minute documentary, The Philosophy of Donnie Darko. This, along with the commentary tracks, walks you step by step through the film’s making. There’s also a ninety-page book that includes a very detailed (albeit old) interview with Kelly, some solid features on the movie, and a particularly helpful piece by Anton Bitel on Kelly’s star-crossed post-Darko career. For the truly fanatical, the set includes the hilarious “Cunning Vision” infomercial, and a commentary on it as well—I can’t pin down the hinky male voice on the track, but I am pretty sure the punctilious female’s belongs to Kristen Wiig.

Getting back to the film itself: It looks wonderful in both versions. Especially gratifying is the preservation of gradations and alterations in Steven Poster’s cinematography, which doesn’t aim for a cookie-cutter look but lights and frames each scene as a specific, individual milieu. The theatrical cut remains more abrupt and more jarringly weird—its elisions invite a more cultish response, with less ordinary, humane life intruding on the uncanny and bizarre. The director’s cut restores twenty minutes and original song cues, plus adding some intertitles and special effects to lend the time-travel ploy a patina of plausibility.

Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 134 minutes. Donnie Darko and Gretchen Ross (Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone).


Crucially, it has a more intricate family dynamic, more range and counterintuitive texture and sheer empathy. The Darkos make for an extraordinary tight, prickly screen family: Holmes Osborne as the “wiseacre” dad (like father, like son), big sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), little Samantha (Daveigh Chase), and the mother of all moms, Rose (Mary McDonnell). Even though the roles are small and mostly underwritten, the actors flesh them out so well you can vividly see them living out their own parallel movies. Especially Rose. McDonnell’s performance is a wonder of conflicted emotions bubbling just below a slightly soused surface, eyes like scalpels and her smiles laced with an ever-changing assortment of anger, amusement, contempt, sadness, resignation, and love.

Everyone on set seems to have caught that commitment bug—they bought into the premise even if they didn’t understand it and collectively hopped on Kelly’s wavelength. (Unlike in his follow-up, Southland Tales, where nobody seems to be on the same page or frequency or drugs.) His approach here wasn’t to autocratically impose himself on the frame, but to draw everybody in as coconspirators who felt they were all meant to contribute something—everyone was there for a purpose.

Which sounds like Donnie stuttering, but something about the production surely was charmed, lucky, fated, or whatever you want to call it. Like Barrymore stepping in as a guardian angel to coproduce and act in the film for scale, instantly doubling the budget and bringing a lot of other people on board. With Poster’s contribution, not only as an ace cinematographer but as the facilitator who got Panavision to let them use Anamorphic lenses and who procured a fabulous new high-speed film stock. With Michael Andrews’s serendipitous score. Getting the rights to use Evil Dead was a stroke of luck rather than design, making the portal scene in the theater perhaps the trippiest movie-within-a-movie coup in film history. Like that jet engine, in the end everything just fell into place.

Howard Hampton

A new four-disk set of Donnie Darko is now available from Arrow Video.

Ernie Gehr, Autumn, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 32 minutes.


HOWEVER GRUDGINGLY film-lovers have accepted the hegemony of digital, there is no denying that avant-garde artists have spun gold from newer media. The indomitable, self-taught Ernie Gehr, whose film career began in the late 1960s and whose thirty-odd ventures in 16-mm include such gems as Still (1969–71), Serene Velocity (1970), Eureka! (1974), and Side/Walk Shuttle (1991), has more than doubled that output with digital works, the latest of which will be shown Monday at Redcat in Los Angeles.

A master interrogator of space and gravity-defying cinema, Gehr has plumbed the possibilities of digital since Cotton Candy (2001), discovering—and at times stumbling upon—unexpectedly creative ways to stimulate the eye and challenge cognition beyond what film can do. Sensations of Light #7 (2016), one in a series of purely digitally generated works that nonetheless resonate within film history, takes the flicker films of Tony Conrad and Peter Kubelka to new extremes while recalling such earlier graphic-minded film ventures as Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale (1924) and Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1923).

But while a shot seized from one of those works might give a sense of the whole, the power of Sensations of Light #7 can only be experienced when projected. Freezing one frame discloses one or two colors or geometric shapes, none of which hints at the conflation and optical illusions induced by the faster alternation of frames allowed by digital: Red, green, yellow, violet, blue, black, and white rectangles flicker before us within the larger different-colored rectangles of the full frame, their displacements and illusory superimpositions, as well as the impression of advancing and receding movements, entirely a result of projection’s unwritten bond with the habits and limitations of vision. A similar illusion of movement occurs in Serene Velocity, though it is produced by editing in rapid succession different exposures of the camera at various distances. SOL, here an abbreviation of Sensations of Light, is the Latin word for sun—not an inapt allusion, since the effects of this series are akin to the intense, vertigo-inducing feeling one has when looking into that body’s flares, when we also “see” many colors surrounded by a halo of others. It’s no surprise that Gehr has decided that only one work in this series should be seen at any one screening.

While Sensations of Light #7 could not be less like Gehr’s dazzling new Autumn (2017), the optical aftereffects induced by the former, along with those of the quivering lines of Brooklyn Series (2013), the second work to be screened, linger over and heighten our perceptions of color and light in Autumn. Brooklyn Series could even pass as a paradigm for what digital images can do: Horizontal bars fill the screen top to bottom, shimmering ceaselessly, most likely as indices of a hidden reality compressed into strips of color and light. If we’re tempted to read the blurred streams as rapidly passing vehicles shot at close range, this is largely thanks to the moving traffic heard on the sound track, but also because cars and trucks have a privileged place in Gehr’s work, often—and this is also true of Autumn—because they introduce a rainbow of colors, brightening and enlivening each frame as they articulate the space as they pass through.

How Gehr configured the squeezed horizontal bars in Brooklyn Series remains a mystery, even to him—or perhaps it’s one of his professional secrets. Nevertheless, as a potential technical feature of the system, it follows that everything digital can be reduced to that condition—which is to say that the human figures, construction sites, busy streets, moving vehicles, storefronts, and objects of Autumn are simply expanses of shimmering color and light, slowed down to a natural speed to resume their original corporeal form.

Ernie Gehr, Transport, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 22 minutes.


Autumn reminds us of that other Gehr—the phenomenologist as sociologist. Ten years hence, we might think of it as an elegy for a neighborhood—a few blocks around Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—whose identity is undergoing vast structural and demographic changes, a reality Gehr registers without sentimentality or judgment. Nor could overheard dialogue leaning toward those sentiments match Autumn’s final image—a long shot of a boarded-up building at the corner of Broome and Ludlow Streets, awaiting demolition. Seen today, however, it is the “nowness” that resonates—whether in the looming presence of steel-and-glass high-rises and the bright red cranes that reach into the sky, or in the two- and three-story tenements, storefronts, and teeming humanity below. A sleek new structure flanked by two weathered apartment buildings grounds the moment while foreshadowing the future.

In the work’s most complex and telltale shots, bodies, human and otherwise, technically on-screen and off, bleed into and fuse with one another, willingly or not, as the initial frame, doubled or tripled by windows and reflecting surfaces, yields multiple planes of action, layered images, and spatial disorientations. Every reflection is also a projection: A young man retrieving his bicycle parked outside a fast-food restaurant, technically offscreen, is dangerously close to colliding with the woman eating a hefty sandwich inside, thus falling into an on-screen space as dense as it is porous. In another shot, no sooner do we think we’ve seen all there is than a white truck passing from left to right serves as a fleeting backdrop against which two figures, mere shadows seconds earlier, suddenly come into focus. A pair of men sitting in a café, eclipsed throughout by the street life beyond, suddenly looms in the center of that same frame, where they’ve been all along. No change of focus, exposure, angle, or depth of field creates these successive apperceptions any more than materials in a painting or a shift in viewing conditions affect our gradual, accumulative recognition of details in the work.

The analogy is not insignificant. The social and historical resonances of Gehr’s work are palpable in the density of his living compositions, in the sense that people, however decentered or marginalized, define space––not the other way around. This is clear in shots of individual figures and actions, the equivalent of the singular details of those who populate large canvases. Here, they merge with the greater world, there they stand apart from it, now grounded, now floating as ghostlike doubles shadowing their neighbors—each shift a beat composing the very pulse that defines life in a great city. Autumn strikes me as Gehr’s best work in years, as startling to the eye as it is stimulating to the brain and inexplicably soothing to the heart.

If it leaves us with the conviction that soon the very basis of its iconography will be a thing of the past, such awareness of the eventual erasure of history and a people is all too evident in Transport (2015). Shot in Berlin, Gehr pits indoor images of old train compartments, luggage, and a cattle car marked by its days of carrying Jews to the camps—all taken inside the Museum of Technology—against the ruins of earlier bridges and structures and the sleek look of the city’s present commuter stations. It’s a sobering document, suffused with a mournful air at odds with Autumn’s life-giving exuberance.

Tony Pipolo

“Phantoms of Light and Darkness: New Digital Films by Ernie Gehr” will play Monday, April 24, at the Redcat Theater in Los Angeles.

Laurie Simmons, My Art, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes. Ellie (Laurie Simmons).


WHEN LAURIE SIMMONS’S new film My Art was screened at the Whitney Museum last fall, the artist and now movie director accompanied it with a talk in which she remarked on how few films had gotten the business of being an artist right. Indeed, so many films which have gotten it wrong come to mind—we probably all have our own cheesy favorites—that the prospect of a movie on artmaking by a feminist artist of Simmons’s standing, and one that she not only directed but wrote and stars in, seems likely to draw murmurs of “At last.” Certainly when the film finds a distributor—it plays at the Tribeca Film Festival starting April 22—New York art audiences will find much to reward their viewing, but they will also, I think, be surprised: This is not the revealing look behind the scenes one might have imagined, but instead a kind of romance.

The film is about Ellie, an artist of a certain age—her sixties, she tells us at one point—who we first see roaming the Whitney’s new downtown building, looking at the large and canonized artworks on the walls, including a painting by Simmons’s real-life husband, Carroll Dunham. She soon bumps into a former student, played by Simmons’s real-life daughter Lena Dunham, who gives one of her usual bravely unsympathetic performances as a young artist whose career has surpassed her old teacher’s and whose every word masks condescension under false camaraderie. These opening scenes, which continue with Ellie’s end-of-semester pizza party for her students and with a visit to a more successful friend, Mickey (Blair Brown), are subtly dystopian, infused with gentle but cold observations of the life of a woman artist at a plateau of age and career. The mood changes dramatically, though, when Ellie leaves town for the summer, heading upstate to house-sit for another more successful friend. The mansion where she ends up (which I’m told is Simmons and Carroll Dunham’s own home in Connecticut) comes equipped with a studio, where she will produce her next body of work. Equally to the point, it has a beautiful garden.

Laurie Simmons, My Art, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes.


There is a literary genre, the pastoral comedy, exemplified by Shakespeare plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, that follows a general pattern: a beginning full of tension and stress in the city; an escape to the country (“Well, this is the forest of Arden,” as Rosalind helpfully tells us in As You Like It); a period of delirious confusion, with much theatrical play, gender-switching, posing and pretending, and trying on and taking off the social roles on offer; and finally a return to the city, whose order, having been upended and put back together again, is now more beneficial and accommodating to its human inhabitants. Rather to my surprise, as I watched the rural scenes in My Art, I kept thinking of those plays, and perhaps a little more to my surprise, when I asked Simmons about this, she confirmed that she’d been thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as modern cinematic pastorals including Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and the musical and film Steven Sondheim based on it, A Little Night Music (1973/1977). The pastoral link arises through the nature of Ellie’s work, which she describes as “stuff about memory and longing, nostalgia,” and which turns out to involve dress-up and the re-creation and filming of iconic scenes from well-known movies. Ellie begins alone in her borrowed studio, mimicking the tuxedo-wearing Marlene Dietrich of Morocco (1930), but before long she enlists people she meets locally, including Frank (Robert Clohessy), the gardener on the estate; John (John Rothman), the father of one of her students back in New York; and Tom and Angie (Josh Safdie and Parker Posey), characters recalling Puck’s “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under Ellie’s direction, in various combinations, the crew starts to reenact scenes from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), among other films. They have a wonderful time—Ellie records it all—and what do you know, a dealer offers her a show.

Yet Ellie’s return to New York—despite the success of her project, and despite her clear solidarity with other women artists—feels somehow sad and depleted. The scenes upstate, on the other hand, are magical, full of music and a liberating fluidity of identity, though not without a little danger and risk to give the proceedings weight. (A wonderful touch involves Ellie’s aging dog Bing, who one night vanishes down the dark lawn toward the sound of what Ellie calls a “coyote party”; we are enormously relieved when he comes teetering back.) In this way, My Art frames itself as an examination of an artist’s social condition, its tensions and contradictions and dissatisfactions—all of which are redeemed, though, in a statement of an artist’s love affair with making art.

David Frankel

My Art plays April 22, 23, 27, 29, and 30 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

Katell Quillévéré, Heal the Living, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 103 minutes.


IN KATELL QUILLÉVÉRÉ’S FILMS, characters’ lives are shaped by chance meetings and random events. Quillévéré’s third feature, Heal the Living, is narratively her simplest and subtlest.

A young man is killed in a car accident. His heart is donated to a woman who would have died in early middle age without it. Their connection, without doubt, is profound, but it is also perplexing, despite the detailed depiction of the medical procedures involved in this scientific “miracle.” Our sense that something otherworldly has taken place before our eyes reflects on the conundrum that pulses within Quillévéré’s three films, beginning with Love Like Poison (2010), her fictionalized memoir of a Catholic girlhood. What is the relationship between spirit and flesh?

Heal the Living opens with Simon (Gabin Verdet) in bed with his girlfriend Juliette (Galatéa Bellugi). They are probably no more than seventeen years old, and they are lovely because they are teenagers with perfect skin who are in love. Simon wakes up, pulls on his clothes, snaps a photo of Juliette, sits on the windowsill, and disappears. For a moment your heart stops. So young, so beautiful, so suicidal. But no, Simon is wondrously alive, running across the lawn, jumping on his bike, and speeding in the predawn light along the roads of a seaside town in the north of France. He exchanges the bike for a skateboard, does flips on the roofs of buildings, and finally ends up with two other boys on the beach. After zipping up their wetsuits and hoisting their surfboards, they plunge into the sea. If the previous land-based movement sequence was rapturous, it is nothing compared to the long surfing scene, the boys fragile for all their athleticism, riding the waves, submerging and surfacing over and over. The radiant exterior cinematography is by Tom Harari, who shot Quillévéré’s two previous features, and his eye for composition and detail is just as strong in the antiseptic confines of hospital rooms and operating theaters.

The cinematic bliss (the camera loves bodies in motion) of this nearly wordless prelude ends abruptly with the sound of a car crash. On the way home from the beach, Simon falls asleep in the backseat, his head on his friend’s shoulder. The next time we see him is in the ICU on life support, the damage to his brain too devastating for surgery. “This is a special hospital,” a doctor says to his grieving parents (Emmanuelle Seigneur and Kool Shen), who are told about the organ-donation program. At first resistant to violating their son’s body, the parents eventually agree, at which point the story shifts to Paris, where Claire (Anne Dorval) is in the late stages of heart failure. Her adult sons encourage her to have a transplant, but she is reluctant. It is the discovery that a former lover (Alice Taglioni) still believes they can have a life together that makes her agree to accept the donor match that has just been found.

The film is based on a novel of the same title by Maylis de Kerangal, and while much of the plot and some of the details are similar, it is the way the quietly generous ensemble cast inhabits their characters that makes the film both immediate and memorable. No actor carries Heal the Living as the teenage Clara Augarde did in Love Like Poison or Sara Forestier and Adele Haenel did as the sisters in Suzanne (2013). But Tahar Rahim as Thomas—the dedicated chief of the organ-donation division who finds peace watching a video of a rare songbird, the African goldfinch—is remarkable. When Simon is about to be disconnected from life support, Thomas stops the procedure so that he can fulfill the wishes of the boy’s parents—that he play for Simon a tape of the sound of waves that his girlfriend made for him, and tell him that this parents love him and are with him. And then Thomas gets down to the work of opening Simon’s chest and extracting his heart. The scene could easily have been ridiculously sentimental, but in Rahim’s portrayal, respect for the mystery of life and for the rituals that celebrate it are inseparable from the procedures of modern medical science.

The two surgeries performed in Heal the Living take place in actual operating rooms. I could be wrong, but I don’t think CGI is involved. We see an actual heart extracted from an actual body and an actual heart placed inside another body. Thanks to the seamless editing of fact and fiction by Thomas Marchand, who also has a deft hand with flashbacks, we can suspend our disbelief. Heal the Living makes the melodramatics of shows like Grey’s Anatomy even more laughable than they already are. But it is not realism that makes the film compelling, moving, and just plain out of the ordinary. When the heart that belonged to Simon is flown by helicopter across France, carefully tended by two young interns, the metaphors that give the physical organ meaning fly with it. The sequence is as visually stunning as the opening—the dark sky above, the lights of cities below—but its effect is meditative rather than kinetic. It’s poetry—straight from the heart.

Amy Taubin

Katell Quillévéré’s Heal the Living is now playing at Quad Cinema in New York.

Anocha Suwichakornpong, By the Time It Gets Dark, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 105 minutes.


IF, LIKE SOME OF US, you have grown comatose through repeat exposure to the cluster of festival fodder clichés often grouped under the unsexy sobriquet “slow cinema,” there’s reason to feel antsy at the opening of By the Time It Gets Dark, the second feature by director Anocha Suwichakornpong.

Stick with it. After rolling out a few fragmentary, ambiguously related scenes, the movie settles into something like a straightforward narrative: Two women arrive at a rental home in the Thai countryside to rusticate. They are age-appropriate to be mother and daughter, but in due time it’s revealed that the younger, Ann (filmmaker Visra Vichit-Vadakan), is a writer-director interviewing the elder, Taew (Rassami Paoluengton), a former student activist who lived through the turbulent 1970s, to make a film about her life.

Alrighty then. Looks like all the makings are in place for a lugubrious study in soured revolutionary dreams and mutual intergenerational incomprehension against a gently whispering pastoral backdrop, fit to be greeted by faint praise with hastily Wiki’d references to the 1976 Thammasat University massacre. (I had to look it up.) But then something funny happens. There’s a flashback that might also be a flash-forward to a completed version of the planned movie, showing us a young Taew (Penpak Sirikul) just as her political consciousness is developing, papering campus grounds with flyers by night, a scene which concludes a defiant gesture of solidarity—and then a hard cut to the elder Taew, walking the aisles of an overbright, well-stocked grocery store.

In this moment it’s clear that Suwichakornpong knows how to cut provocatively, with real intention. Here, the juxtaposition is relatively cut-and-dried—the contrast between plucky, before-the-revolution youth and late middle age amid the sterile bounty of global capitalism—but as the film proceeds, she moves toward harder lateral leaps and stranger, more complicated collisions of imagery. The decisive rupture comes shortly after Ann appears to have a breakdown, a crisis of creative conscience and competence capped by an encounter with local mushrooms which may or may not have some hallucinogenic properties. Ann and Taew are abruptly left behind, and the film abandons its arthouse-realist mode to become, seemingly, a straight documentary about tobacco farming in rural Thailand. From watching laborers bundle tobacco leaves and pack them into curing chambers, we break away to follow one laborer in particular who, his day’s work finished, hops on a plane and goes back to a posh apartment offering a breathtaking view of Bangkok. This honest laborer, it transpires, is in fact a famous actor, Peter (Arak Amornsupasiri), and once back from his never-explained holiday among the proletariat he cracks open a script newly arrived in the mail and hits the studio to record a saccharine pop song with the crooned chorus “Please don’t lie to me”—an honest-to-God musical number in a movie which, for its first hour, seemed no more likely to contain a CGI monster.

Many more zigs and zags remain ahead, but by this point Suwichakornpong’s methodology has become clear. By the Time It Gets Dark, a repeatedly self-immolating work, is a browbeating interrogation of the constant and necessary deceits of the filmmaking apparatus, particularly when applied to the challenge of filming history—it elicits the viewer’s confidence and credulity time and again, even seeming to dupe itself, but in the end it just has to lie to you. That the initial straight narrative is unsatisfactory is very much part of the point; the viewer’s frustration is echoed by that of Suwichakornpong and her on-screen alter ego, Ann, and from here the film strikes out repeatedly in different directions only to reach the same dead end. It has the feeling of successive drafts, of sketches balled up and thrown away, an engine struggling to turn over. This shape-shifting, skin-shedding form dramatizes the struggle of an artist to find a means to understand a historical trauma to which she has no direct connection. And, of course, that sense of witnessing a struggle in real time is a lie too, for a film is always the result of deliberation and can never be the direct record of an act of artistic hesitation in the way that, say, a late Cézanne may be.

Anocha Suwichakornpong, By the Time It Gets Dark, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 105 minutes.


Suwichakornpong confesses to this imposture, as she confesses to her deceits compulsively throughout the film: We’ll return to Ann and Taew, seen arriving again in the same house, though now played by Inthira Charoenpura and Penpak Sirikul, hitting the same marks and going through much the same lines, though this time the actresses are a little more made up, the lighting a little brighter, the shooting providing more angles on the action—it’s the pop movie version, not the one for festival export, the sort of thing regularly financed by the Hubert Bals Fund. (Which, in fact, By the Time It Gets Dark was.) Each layer of artifice that is peeled back reveals another underneath. From Peter’s penthouse we move to the cockpit of a Boeing 737NG, which is actually a flight simulator, and the proximity of these scenes calls into question the very reality of the view from his window. Later, while watching a candid moment between Peter and his lover, we suddenly find ourselves in a postproduction suite where that same scene is going through the digital color-grading process wherein its palette is tampered with, usually to make the colors truer to life, which is nearly complete when a phone call comes in to inform the filmmaker (Soraya Nakasuwan, identified in the press notes as yet another Ann) that Peter has been killed in a car accident.

After the news sinks in, the work continues, and Peter is again alive on the screen. The moving image is capable of resurrecting the dead, turning pop crooners into day laborers, or making an amateur into a starlet. The outlier in a cast with varying degrees of experience in the film industry is Achtara Suwan, who recurs on the fringes of the different narrative strands, playing a variety of young women working banal odd jobs: a coffee-shop barista; an employee at the rooftop gym where Peter swims laps; and a waitress on a cruise ship that glides through Bangkok along the Chao Phraya River, seen gazing off at the passing spires of the Wat Pho temple while taking a break topside. (Cinematographer Ming-Kai Leung, asked to work in several distinct registers, distinguishes himself in each.)

Encapsulated in this moment is something that draws together the disparate characters (in their disparate incarnations): a sense of longing to connect to an authentic experience outside the limitations imposed by their individual identities, whether in Peter’s descent among the laborers or Ann’s attempt to find a point of access to Taew’s lived memory of tragedy. While issues of representation—gender, race, sexual preference, nationality, class—command an increasingly large portion of the discourse, in the story of Ann and Taew, Suwichakornpong rifles around one aspect of representation that tends to get short shrift: the hurdle of presentism, and the difficulty (or impossibility) of stepping out of one’s own timeline.

Ann and Taew are, like Suwichakornpong, both educated Thai women, but this doesn’t make the transfer of an experienced past from one to the other any easier. Facts, and the illusion of mastery that comes with them, have never been so readily accessible—how easy would it be for me to masquerade as a historian of the Thammasat University massacre?—and with this comes an illusory sense that history can be held in one’s hand, condescended to, as so many films do. Suwichakornpong achingly recognizes the gulf between pseudo-knowledge and lived wisdom, and it is in this liminal zone that she has chosen to work.

By the Time It Gets Dark is, sporadically, a brilliant work, and also an unrepeatable performance, a dead-end of sorts, something that the film’s finale seems aware of. The movie doesn’t end so much as self-destruct in a hail of digital noise that bridges a final, bravura leap from a packed dance floor to a bucolic landscape whose purple sky gradually shades from pink to blue, a last reminder of the contrivance of the cinematic apparatus, for even the self-evident truth that the sky is blue is only true if the technicians conspire for it to be so. Where does a young filmmaker go after trying on and discarding every prevalent mode of narrative filmmaking? I have no idea, but a thorough teardown is always a good place to start.

Nick Pinkerton

Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark opens Friday, April 14, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

It Takes Two

04.13.17

Makoto Shinkai, Your Name, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 112 minutes.


AND NOW FOR SOMETHING MORE POPULAR.

Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name (2016) is the highest-grossing anime film, ever. Bulldozing through Hayao Miyazaki’s previous box-office record for Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away, 2001), it’s a perfect introduction for the anime newbie, cannily weaving together so many of the genre’s tropes—an apocalyptic event with a high school innocently built into the middle of its path, teenagers who are the only ones willing to accept that everything can be swept away in an instant, a love that defies the rules of time and space, and, of course, a few shots up skirts.

Shinkai’s first effort was a five-minute short in 1999, She and Her Cat, which looked at how a feline might see its life with its human owner. But he really made his name with Hoshi no Koe (Voices of a Distant Star, 2002), which follows a young girl—don’t they always?—fighting a war in outer space as she desperately tries to maintain a texting-based relationship with her earthbound boyfriend. Hoshi no Koe was remarkable not only for its ability to take you from zero to tears in twenty-five minutes, but also for the fact that Shinkai made it entirely by himself: He even voiced the main male character in the film’s first version; his girlfriend at the time played the lovelorn military contractor. For all its subcultural appeal overseas, anime is not, for the most part, a niche or DIY affair, and Shinkai emerged as a curious auteur.

But people—as in the masses—love what Makoto Shinkai does, so no lightless infamy for him. His films display an endearing desire to dazzle. No child is left behind. His tales begin personal and insular but strive to cast the widest emotional net.

So here we have Mitsuha and Taki. One lives in a rural Japanese town called Itomori, the other in Tokyo, but both dream of a comet—and each other. You don’t need to know someone to dream about them, and they each see “nothing less than a beautiful view.”

Makoto Shinkai, Your Name, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 112 minutes.


They both wake up and are confused by their bodies. Their friends and family say that they were acting strangely the other day, while in the background TVs provide a cheerfully narrated commentary on the comet, dubbed Tiamat, due to soon make impact. Mitsuha and Taki don’t understand the queries about their inconsistent behavior, and both start displaying curiously cross-gender affectations. On the first day after we see Taki wake up, he appears horrified by his junk and sits properly, feet folded under him, with his friends. Instead of saying ore for “I”—the more masculine form—he says watashi, or worse, watakushi. He may as well have applied glitter to his cheekbones and pulled out a feather quill. Meanwhile, Mitsuha scandalizes her little sister by fondling her own chest in amazement and intimidates her classmates by thrusting her leg onto a desk. This send-up of gender roles is charming, to be sure, but what’s beautiful is how un-unique the film’s attitude is—anime often plays fast and loose with transgender imagery and sexual identities, so much so that that any American “coming-out” episode seems laughably lagging.

The reason for our heroine and hero’s schizophrenic, slapstick personality crises is soon revealed: They are switching bodies every other day, a discovery they address efficiently by leaving accounts of what each did with the other’s life on a diary app on the other’s phone. Mitsuha sets Taki up with his longtime work crush—which he would never have had the guts to go for himself—and Taki helps Mitsuha carry her grandmother, the only surviving proprietor of their family’s Shinto shrine, up steep roads into a clearing that locals believe is a portal to the underworld. There they deliver a jug of sake, made by Mitsuha chewing rice and then spitting it out and letting it ferment, as a tribute. On the way, the old woman describes the Shinto concept of musubi—the power of creation, or the ability to become—and its knotting as time itself. These are spoken of as myths, but by the film’s end they become the very warp and weft of reality.

Mitsuha’s story is fated to end on the night of an autumn festival at her family’s shrine, as the comet splits in two, with a piece landing right on her world. But this is no action movie—there are no mushroom clouds or people tearfully searching for each other in the wreckage. We see the light fall in her eye, then an unnerving clang, and she stops appearing in, and as, Taki’s life. He tries to show his friends her diary entries on his phone, emojis and all, to prove she exists, but they delete themselves before his eyes.

Makoto Shinkai, Your Name, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 112 minutes.


He draws detailed sketches of her town from memory, from when he inhabited her body, and, using them as a guide, he sets off to find her. Recognizing the places in his pictures, a man tells him that Mitsuha’s town was destroyed by the comet three years ago, with few survivors. Taki finds the cave, and there drinks her homemade sake—when two become one. Over and over Mitsuha and Taki find, document, and try to hold on to each other, but they don’t always know it. They can’t remember their names, they keep asking each other, “Who are you?” Their world comes alive when they know but falls apart as the memory slips away into something impossible.

Taki stands on a precipice and remembers her name, and then forgets it. Each is helplessly moved about by fate, time, death, or musubi. They quickly try to write each other’s names on their hands before they forget again, but Mitsuha disappears before she can get through more than a single line on his palm, and the music cuts.

Taki wanders around Tokyo eight years after the comet fell, doubting: “I’m not sure if I’m searching for a person or a place.” All he knows is something is missing. The title of the film in Japanese, Kimi no Na wa, is more a question than a declarative statement. It’s a phrase that trails off, a request: It can’t finish itself on its own. It wonders where, and what, might be its answer.

Paige K. Bradley

Your Name is now playing in select theaters nationwide.

Czech Please

04.10.17

Gustav Machatý, Extase (Ecstasy), 1932, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 83 minutes.


THE ENORMITY OF INTERNATIONAL FILM HISTORY is daunting; you might devote a decade to seeing everything from 1932 alone and never, ever get to the bottom of it. In the face of such bounty, the response is often inexcusable apathy—see, for example, the almost total absence of pre-1950 cinema from Netflix, which, having driven the video store into extinction, now uses its market dominance to push its mediocre-to-awful original programming. With such epidemic cultural amnesia running amok, the work of repertory programmers provides a valuable corrective: Witness the Museum of Modern Art’s fourteen-film “Ecstasy and Irony: Czech Cinema, 1927–1943,” a precious reminder of just how vast and inexhaustible the treasury of world cinema is.

In recent years MoMA has made a specialty of throwing light on the product of national cinemas dating to pre-television boom times, displaying a high level of craftsmanship, narrative proficiency, and technical polish: Argentine film noir, the fruits of the Mexican Golden Age, the postwar Swedish studio pictures of Hasse Ekman. Here, the treatment is given to Czechoslovak film—not the brief, niche-famous 1960s New Wave efflorescence that ended with the rumble of Soviet tanks in 1968, but the industry that flourished there between the Great Wars.

The period covered by MoMA’s survey straddles the silent-to-sound conversion, which in Czechoslovakia, as everywhere, didn’t happen all at once. Indeed, many of the films here are silent-sound hybrids—for example, Jindřich Honzl’s musical comedy caper Peníze nebo život (Your Money or Your Life, 1932), the second outing of the popular duo of Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich, alternates between scenes of verbal banter (including some surreal sound-track gags) and wordless chase scenes. The twosome, former law students who’d made an unexpected success performing satirical sketches in their Liberated Theatre of Voskovec and Werich, can also be seen in Martin Frič’s Svět patří nám (The World Belongs to Us, 1937), the last film they made before fleeing Czechoslovakia—Voskovec became a naturalized American and gigged regularly in Hollywood, and Werich returned to Communist Prague. Prints of the film, which features a former flimflam man and carnival barker elevated to the level of populist demagogue, were rounded up and destroyed when the Germans completed their occupation of Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, apparently detecting some unflattering parallels with their infallible Führer.

Director Frič stayed on in the subjugated “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” pivoting from political burlesque to light comedy in Kristián, a suave farce combining elements of Jekyll and Hyde and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring Oldřich Nový as a meek, married travel agency clerk who once a month takes up the alter ego of a studied Casanova swanning through Prague’s swankest nightclubs. Only one film wholly produced during the Nazi occupation will play at MoMA, Otakar Vávra’s Šťastnou cestu (Happy Journey, 1943), as the series largely focuses on the fervid inventiveness of the 1930s—as in Hong Kong before the Handover, political panic can be a catalyst for creative overdrive.

Among the verifiable discoveries here is Karl Anton’s Tonka of the Gallows (1930), another semi-silent picture that cues up the synch sound to give a couple of musical numbers to starlet Ita Rina. In the part of the eponymous Tonka, Rina is introduced on a homeward-bound train chugging through the countryside, surrounded by very authentic-looking peasantry with open, weathered, affable faces. The city girl’s joyous reunion with her mother and a bucolic romance with a friend from girlhood follow, but it’s a short-lived stopover in paradise. Tonka’s face clouds over whenever her mother mentions her daughter’s success in Prague, indicating a dark secret that anyone with a basic acquaintance with melodrama can guess at—that she is, in fact, a cabaret girl, a life which she returns to in shame. This may sound like the usual ground-to-bits-by-the-gears-of-fate setup, but together Rina and Anton lend the material a harrowing conviction, and the last reel is a real running of the gauntlet, as those friendly peasant faces turn ghoulish and jeering, and Tonka swings between doss house and snow-swept streets, finally granted the happy ending that’s evaded her in an extended, shimmering death’s-doorstep hallucination.

Martin Frič, Kristián, 1939, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes.


Slovenian Rina, a sloe-eyed, dark-haired beauty and an actress of considerable resources when invoking pathos, was apparently a go-to for depictions of innocence despoiled by the metropolis’s insalubrious influence. In Gustav Machatý’s Erotikon (1929), she’s the daughter of a country stationmaster, seduced and abandoned by a well-heeled lothario (Olaf Fjord) looking for shelter from the rain—an affair later resumed in the city, where Rina’s character has set up with her husband, an unassuming middle-aged gentleman. It’s Machatý, without question, who is the star of MoMA’s series, represented with three films that are strikingly modern not only in their deployment of film grammar but also in their treatment of sexuality—I can find no hard evidence that Czech author Milan Kundera encountered Machatý’s films as a young man, but the temptation to draw a parallel is overwhelming. Ernst Lubitsch was made famous by his “touch,” while Machatý is possessed of a full-on caress, an extraordinary ability to delineate relationships by following the electric currents of sexual attraction as carried through a desirous gaze, and to anchor a scene on a small, perfect detail, like the petals of a wilted flower being ruffled by the exhalations from the nose of a sleeping drunk in From Saturday to Sunday (1931).

A marvel of scale and narrative compression, that sixty-nine-minute wonder follows Magda Maderova’s shy stenographer through one very eventful weekend that takes her from a posh nightclub to a rough-and-tumble dive and into the arms of a handsome stranger (Ladislav H. Struna). As a document of the allures and perils of prewar urban life as experienced by young lower-middle-class people, it can stand up alongside Pál Fejös’s Lonesome (1928) or People on Sunday (1930), and it fairly vibrates with Machatý’s feeling for muted longing: There’s one shot that follows Maderova leaning back to languidly exhale from a cigarette which feels both effortless and shamefully voluptuous. A tireless experimenter, Machatý took to sound on film like a kid with a new toy and found expressive dramatic uses for the novel technology—the dinning drip of a leaky faucet acting as a goad to growing despair, or the music of a marching band, audible loud and clear from the street after a window is broken, suddenly creating a joyous, life-affirming fanfare.

Extase (Ecstasy, 1932), an Austrian-Czech coproduction, is Machatý’s most famous film, counting Henry Miller among its admirers—its international infamy spread because Hedy Lamarr, who rocketed to Hollywood stardom at MGM in the years after its initial release, is briefly seen in it romping au naturel. The film opens with the eighteen-year-old Lamarr on a honeymoon with a new husband near dotage who dozes off before the marriage is consummated, leaving the young bride to make her own fun with a strapping young engineer (Aribert Mog). Machatý’s gift for visual synecdoche has never been sharper than it is here in his symphonies of trembling bosom and parted lips, and if there is a 1932 film more single-mindedly fascinated with the female orgasm, I sure haven’t seen it.

Extase’s storyline had curious echoes in Lamarr’s own personal life—she was trapped in a miserable marriage with munitions manufacturer and Fascist sympathizer Friedrich Mandl, fifteen years her senior, who threw a hissy fit when he was subjected to the sight of his wife getting hot and bothered on screen. Lamarr packed her bags and headed to Paris soon enough, and many of the leading lights of the Czechoslovak film industry would also be on the move by the end of the 1930s—Voskovec as well as Machatý himself, whose mostly fits-and-starts American career includes a noir effort for Republic Pictures, Jealousy (1945), with the cast featuring his fellow expat, Hugo Haas, whose antifascist Bílá nemoc (The White Disease, 1937) plays at MoMA.

With its brightest talents spread to the four winds and the cement shoes of Eastern Bloc socialist realism stifling any remaining free artists, it would take a generation for Czechoslovak cinema to (temporarily) recover its vitality, while the new governing powers’ scrupulous efforts to erase history have assured that the prewar blossoming became nothing more than a distant memory. But now, thanks in no small part to the extraordinary efforts of the Czech National Film Archive, these films live and breathe and even, in the case of Machatý’s sensorial delights, heave again. They’ve done the heavy lifting; all that remains is for the viewer to come and surrender.

Nick Pinkerton

“Ecstasy and Irony: Czech Cinema, 1927–1943” runs Tuesday, April 11, through Sunday, April 23, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Young Love

04.07.17

Michal Marczak, All These Sleepless Nights, 2016, HD video, color, sound 100 minutes.


“A WHILE BACK, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing.” This is how the nineteen-year-old Arthur Rimbaud bade adieu to his carefree salad days at the opening of A Season in Hell (1873)—for none are quite so attuned to the evanescence of youth as the truly young, who can actually feel the stuff slipping through their fingers.

It is on such a note of sober contemplation that Michal Marczak’s docufiction All These Sleepless Nights, a film that is most of the time very far from sobriety, begins. Krzysztof Baginski, a pale kid around twenty who favors a white T-shirt, jeans, and a pompadour, and who resembles an Egon Schiele drawing of James Dean, looks out at (imagined?) fireworks over Warsaw from a lofty apartment with an admirable skyline view, and in voice-over runs through some suspicious figures which refer to collating a lifetime’s experiences: seven months of sex, two years of boredom, seventeen hours of breakups.

Krzysztof is the nearest thing that All These Sleepless Nights has to a protagonist, and like the rest of the cast—mostly young Poles or transplants from around Europe and the US—he uses his own name in the film. He is seen floating from a house party to an after-hours bar to a basement club to an outdoor rave, through endless sessions of shit-faced palaver during what appears to be approximately twelve months in his social life following his breakup with a girlfriend of five years and what he terms the collapse of his “sense of stability.” The preamble gives a key to understanding Marczak’s approach to showing Krzysztof’s life—this isn’t the whole story, but rather the collection of a year’s worth of all-nighters, a memoir made of the stuff that no one can really remember the following day, a remembrance of blackouts past. The voice-over’s wistful tone also points to at least one of Marczak’s possible inspirations, Wong Kar-wai, whose whirligig presence is detectable here alongside something of the late style of Terrence Malick and Larry Clark’s abiding interest in the casual cruelty of the raw and green.

Among those for whom “likeability” is a concern, the movie may pose certain problems—I first heard tell of its existence from friends who’d seen it during its festival run and had disdainfully dubbed it All These Useless People. The elliptical structure leaves much out—we never discover, for example, how Krzysztof damaged the wrist that suddenly appears bandaged. Likewise, if Krzysztof has any abiding interests other than listening to music, dancing, chasing women, and getting fucked up, we see very little evidence of this, nor is there any indication that he has a job to report to over the course of a year, or how exactly he pays the rent on that apartment with its fantastic view. (At one point, a young woman asks him what he does, and he gives the cryptic-pretentious answer, “I look for what I am missing.”)

At first Krzysztof is sharing the pad with his friend and cackling partner-in-crime Michal (Michal Huszcza), with whom he is often found huddled up and talking about girls until it’s much too late to find any actual girls to talk to. They have a falling out not long after he hooks up with Michal’s ex, Eva (Eva Lebuef), an event that Michal pretends to take in stride. Youth, as shown here, does not consider consequences. Youth is also a kind of affront to those for whom youth is just an ever-more-distant memory, like the ratty middle-aged tipplers at a divey bar who heckle Krzysztof and Michal as “posh,” until the boys take the challenge and then effortlessly pin their antagonists to the wall, because they are younger and stronger and because they can.

Michal Marczak, All These Sleepless Nights, 2016, HD video, color, sound 100 minutes.


All this, not necessarily flattering, the film discovers and so recollects of youth. But it also remembers the potential for euphoria contained in the too-brief period when your metabolism holds fast, and when an excess of alcohol somehow makes you less rather than more tired—the enveloping sound track, which includes EDM, hip-hop, and a cameo from Françoise Hardy, is an irresistible inducement to head-nodders. The film remembers this moment of meeting between a child’s wonderment and a developing adult intelligence, when the still-fresh exploration of physical intimacy can encounter a new capacity for self-analysis, as when Krzysztof marvels, “When you sleep next to someone you alter the rhythm of your breath to that person.” It remembers the arrogance that allows for the straight-faced usage of phrases like “Gods of the City” or “Prince of the After Party,” and the sheer clumsiness too—there is a marvelous scene in which Krzysztof malingers around a rave waiting for a female acquaintance to say her goodbyes and come home with him as she’s agreed, only to discover her attention has drifted elsewhere, leaving him to wander off alone.

The better part of the film, shot in corybantic widescreen by a tandem of Marczak and Maciej Twardowski, takes place in a half light, somewhere between dusk and dawn, with few noteworthy exceptions—for example, when Krzysztof and Eva horse around at some museum display, sipping from a flask and gaping at an ancient Polish computer, a relic of a Communist past that predates their births. For the first hour or so, contemporary technology, outside of DJ equipment, is largely absent—these aren’t the millennials of thinkpiece lore, in constant thrall to smartphone screens and existing only to selfie, but kids like those of any generation, living in a constant breathless present—though eventually there are some intimate, candid boudoir shots seen in the cell-phone ratio, which seems appropriate, for perhaps only sex videos will remain to provide poignant testimony to extinguished love affairs in the twenty-first century, as packets of lavender-scented letters attest to those of the nineteenth.

Krzysztof and Eva go their separate ways, but the beat goes on and on and on, and Krzysztof keeps on dancing, often without a partner. It isn’t entirely inaccurate to say, as a few critics have, that All These Sleepless Nights grows repetitious as it carries on—but this shouldn’t necessarily be considered a pejorative in a movie that consists of a Dionysian revel slowly devolving into a desperation-tinged dance of death. Krzysztof doggedly follows the party as only a true believer could, and the film understands that there’s an essentially utopian impulse in partying, for the what-if-we-could-stay-like-this-forever, perfect-from-now-on feeling, once encountered, is very hard to let go of. The title of Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden (2014), a study in what happens when the heady cocktail of Peter Pan syndrome, EDM, and designer drugs is steadily imbibed up to the edge of forty, gets at exactly this. Judging from what I’ve seen of Marczak’s work to date, he has a special interest in what happens when utopians smack into the retaining wall of reality; his very funny Fuck for Forest (2012), likewise made in docufiction fashion, follows members of the eponymous Berlin-based environmental collective dedicated to using the proceeds of homemade porn to save the rainforests as they relocate to Brazil to encounter an indigenous population who has neither time nor patience for their freaky-deaky Eurotrash nonsense.

Krzysztof’s comeuppance, if you can call it that, is rather less dramatic. Toward the film’s close he’s picked up some dark circles around his eyes, looking noticeably older than when first introduced, and his ragers have gotten a little sadder too—at an after party at his place with some pushing-forty hipster in a Comme des Garçons tee, who doesn’t know Krzysztof’s name, lays out a line of coke as long as a party hoagie—though we’ve watched him become a much more expressive and uninhibited dancer through the course of his sentimental education. In perhaps the most jarring elliptical jump in a film full of them, the penultimate scene discovers Krzysztof sitting in a public park in a pink bunny suit with a microphone and portable amp, showering passing couples—many of them middle-aged or older—with compliments, nakedly envious of their grown-up stasis and security. But if adulthood, as I remember once hearing it defined, is the point where what you have to do the following day is more important than what you’re doing that night, we never see Krzysztof get there. Depending on the viewer, this may seem a condemnation or a reprieve.

Nick Pinkerton

Michal Marczak’s All These Sleepless Nights is now playing in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It opens Friday, April 14, at the IFC Center in New York.

Tyler Hubby, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 96 minutes. Tony Conrad.


JOYOUS, EXHILARATING, AND TRANSFORMATIVE, Tyler Hubby’s documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present is essential viewing for anyone involved in the history of music and visual art—and their interpenetration throughout the second half of the twentieth century right up to today’s web-based “goings on,” to borrow the phrase Conrad uses early in the film to describe how his $25.04 a month, Ludlow Street apartment saw the beginnings of the most subversive art of the first half of the 1960s.

It was there that Conrad collaborated with Jack Smith on the soundtrack for Flaming Creatures (1963) and began his experiments with pulsating frequencies of light that would result in The Flicker (1966), experientially the most maximalist of minimalist films. Ludlow Street was also where Conrad and John Cale explored the amplified violin and viola drones, which transformed La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s “Theater of Eternal Music aka the Dream Syndicate.” And it was there that Conrad, Cale, and Walter De Maria met a two-bit record promoter who was looking for a backup band for a young singer/guitarist named Lou Reed. Presuming that these long-haired guys couldn’t play rock, he tuned all the strings on their guitars to the same note. This proto-punk group was called the Primitives, and the ten-second clip of them playing is one of the film’s most delirious moments.

Conrad died at age seventy-six in April 2016, before Hubby had finished his feature-length portrait, but his antic presence and quicksilver intelligence enlivens almost every sequence. Hubby began filming Conrad’s performances and interviewing him on camera in 1994. In 2010, he proposed turning this archive into a feature. A collaborator by temperament, Conrad threw himself into the project, not only providing the narrative thread but also a couple of on-camera performances that speak to his aesthetic maxim: “History is like music: completely in the present.” Tony Conrad concludes with the artist improvising a sound work specifically for film, standing in the middle of a Manhattan intersection, arms raised like an orchestra conductor, cueing cars and trucks by anticipating the noise they will make as they pass, even though none of the drivers notice him at all. Cause and effect are intertwined to mindboggling and hilarious effect.

In 1960, Conrad quit Harvard, where he was studying math and computer science and playing violin in the orchestra, to work with Young in New York. As Cale explains in the film, Conrad transformed the Dream Syndicate, which had been an avant-garde free-jazz group with strong Indian music influences, when he amplified the instruments and voices with contact mikes. As a mathematician, Conrad thought of sound as frequencies, and he encouraged the group—which also included another Ludlow Street resident, the percussionist Angus MacLise, and occasionally the Fluxus artist James Tenney—to explore only a few true pitches in each performance. He wanted to hear what was happening inside the sound. Young had already been working with sustained tones, but electronics made all the difference, especially since Conrad’s quest for precise pitches and reductive harmonies—how about an entire evening of a single open fifth?—was complicated by his affection for damaged amps and instruments. (I attended many Dream Syndicate concerts between 1962 and 1965, and they remain among the most memorable art experiences of my life. After Conrad and Cale split from the group, I lost interest in what I continued to refer to as “La Monte’s music.”)

Tyler Hubby, Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 96 minutes. Tony Conrad.


One of the exciting aspects of Hubby’s film is that it shows how Conrad’s antiauthoritarianism and opposition to traditional art and music hierarchies made him one of the most radical and generative artists of the 1960s, but also, given the scope and rigor of his accomplishments, the most overlooked. Young had recorded many of the Dream Syndicate’s performances, but he refused to allow Conrad and the other members of the group to make copies or even to listen to them. Citing the imperfect quality of the recordings, he suppressed them for decades. Young’s actions were not only deeply frustrating for Conrad, they were aesthetically offensive in that they contradicted everything he believed the Dream Syndicate was about. As he explains in the film, he was totally against composition or the idea of the composer. “I wanted that to die out.”

Cale left the Dream Syndicate for the Velvet Underground; Conrad found a community in avant-garde film. But after Reed fired Cale from the VU and he was at loose ends, he and Conrad revived their string-drone collaborations. Some of these works can be found on the box set John Cale: New York in the 1960s, released in 2000 on Jeff Hunt’s Table of the Elements label. Hunt, who played a big part in Conrad’s return to music in the early 1990s, is one of the film’s most articulate expert witnesses to Conrad’s artistic achievements. Among the others are Branden W. Joseph, author of the 2008 Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage; Los Angeles MoCA director Philippe Vergne, who recounts how he tried to convince a group of collectors that they couldn’t understand American avant-garde art without knowing Conrad’s work, only to be told, “If he’s so important, then why is his work so cheap?”; and the filmmaker/archivist Andrew Lampert, who laments the shelves of many hundreds of Conrad’s films, videotapes, and audio recordings that are decaying faster than funds can be found to preserve them. In 2000, Table of the Elements finally released digital remasters of three early-’60s Dream Syndicate recordings, which Hunt says appeared mysteriously in the mail one day, as well as the boxed set Tony Conrad: Early Minimalism, which includes one work that is actually “early,” Conrad’s divine Four Violins (1964), as well as other disks by Conrad, MacLise, and Jack Smith.

Conrad’s life fits perfectly into a three-act form and Hubby runs with it: Act Two encompasses the late ’70s to the mid-’90s, when Conrad taught at various colleges, settling finally at SUNY-Buffalo, where he got involved with public-access cable, encouraging people not only to talk back to the camera but to pick it up themselves. At the University of California, San Diego, he began collaborations with Tony Oursler and Mike Kelley, who then came to Buffalo to perform in a film, which exists only as four hours of unfinished footage. Conrad built a convincing replica of a line of prison cells at one end of his Buffalo loft. When he ran out of money for the film, he left them intact and continued renting the loft, finally, according to Lampert, buying the building. Plans to return to the project twenty years later (the fictional prisoners were lifers) came to an end when Kelley committed suicide. The jail-film project harks back to the long durations of Conrad’s ’60s music and could be seen as the underbelly of De Maria’s immaculate permanent installations New York Earth Room, 1977, and The Broken Kilometer, 1979.

In Act Three, Conrad returns full blast to making music and gains recognition in the gallery and museum sphere. For “WiP,” his 2013 show at Greene Naftali, he built a version of the set for the jail film, replete with colored strobe lights and excerpts from the sound track of the now permanently unfinished work. Hubby chose not to mention Conrad’s death on April 7, 2016. It’s the right choice: If they are well cared for, films, like music, live forever “in the present”; corporeal bodies, sadly, do not.

Amy Taubin

Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present plays tonight, April 6, at 7:15 and 9 PM at Anthology Film Archives and streams on Mubi beginning Saturday, April 8. Anthology screens Conrad’s The Flicker and his rarely shown Straight and Narrow (1970) and Film Feedback (1974) on Sunday, April 9 at 3 PM, followed at 4:30 PM by a selection of his almost unknown video and performance documents.

From Friday, April 7, to Sunday, April 9, Conrad’s life will be celebrated at various venues in New York. On April 7 and 8, Tony Conrad’s Waterworks, 1972–2012, will be showing at Greene Naftali Gallery, and from April 7 through 9, Invented Acoustical Tools: Instruments, 1966–2012 will show at Galerie Buchholz. On April 8 at 3 PM there will be a memorial for Conrad at the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center in Manhattan, and at 10 PM a performance at the Knockdown Center in Queens. And on April 9 at 7:30 PM there will be performances by Charlemagne Palestine and Rhys Chatham duo / C. Spencer Yeh / HEVM (MV Carbon, Hunter Hunt-Hendrix, Eve Essex) at (Le) Poisson Rouge.

John Waters, Multiple Maniacs, 1970, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 96 minutes. Lady Divine and Mink (Divine and Mink Stole). Photo: Lawrence Irvine.


“YES, FOLKS, THIS ISN’T ANY CHEAP X-RATED MOVIE OR ANY FIFTH-RATE PORNO PLAY. THIS IS THE SHOW YOU WANT: LADY DIVINE’S CAVALCADE OF PERVERSIONS—REAL ACTUAL FILTH!”

Welcome to the deranged world of John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs (1970): Drag terrorist Divine will be ravished by an enormous lobster and Cookie Mueller (downtown minx, belletrist, and Fassbinder’s disco-snow connection) will play her daughter, frolicking through the movie half-nude like a nymph on the run from the Factory. Out of his alter ego’s claws almost two decades later, Glenn Milstead (aka Divine) claimed that the Dreamlanders created their early “celluloid atrocities” with all the verve of Mickey Rooney, purring, “Let’s go down to the barn and put on a show.”

But the Mickster never costarred with the kids seen in Multiple Maniacs, an ensemble halfway between a vaudeville troupe and a band of anarchists who hymn the joys of huffing refrigerator coolant or “blastin’ pigs.” Confabbing with Artforum in 1982, Waters claimed the movie was “made to offend hippies.” Now that it’s returning to raise hell in this outrageously tasteful restoration by the Criterion Collection, his first talkie can be celebrated as a vital part of the mixed-media funhouse that is the Pope of Trash’s oeuvre. Cookie’s mother nicknamed him “Beelzebub,” and forty-seven years later, Multiple Maniacs remains one of his most devilish lessons on the joy of misfit camaraderie.

David Lochary channels Edward Van Sloan in the goose-pimple prologue to Frankenstein (1931)—“We warned you!”—with an opening burst of carnival barking: This production is no ordinary mutant. Waters stitches together rancid parts of monster movies, exploitation flicks (Divine chews on a cow’s heart, ecstatic), sacrilegious fantasy, and something resembling . . . realism. The plot is a scrapbook of deviant acts, from puke-eating to Divine’s bloodthirsty rampage through downtown Baltimore. The Wanda-ish verité of certain scenes only makes things more discombobulating. Diane Arbus would crack up at the Cavalcade of Perversions and, yup, there’s even a shout-out to the fairground where she shot Hermaphrodite and Dog in a Carnival Trailer, MD., 1971. That magical scene where Divine reimagines Christ’s bloody progress along the Stations of the Cross while getting a “rosary job” from Mink Stole (“It’s like fucking Jesus!”) proves Waters can match any European auteur for tableaux coupling the holy and profane—it could be a moment from Godard’s Hail Mary (1985)! He also pulls off the cunning perversions of good taste that remain his trademark, with Divine unveiled to the audience as an ample odalisque on a couch attended by stoned waifs. If you’re feeling fancy, tag this belief that being “bad” is good to Victorian psychiatry’s descriptions of homosexuality as “inversion”—or just note the impish gall required to cheer for that philosophy under Nixon.

When Multiple Maniacs was shot, Waters was a prodigious twenty-three-year-old scuzzball nuts about Jean Genet who depended on an audience of drug fiends, bikers, and gay weirdos. He spent a few days the summer before making a stoner romp called Dorothy the Kansas City Pothead (1968), two minutes of which survive, coated in a bong-hit haze. “Punk” was nothing but a slur and homosexuality was still a disease in the DSM-II. The Baltimore Board of Film Censors called Multiple Maniacs “pernicious,” which turned out to be totally apt. Few other filmmakers have infected the mainstream with the same beautiful wickedness as Waters: He was supposed to marry Johnny and Winona, and aimed a ray gun at a whole generation of queer children on The Simpsons (“zap!”), and Justin Bieber told him, “Your ’stache is the jam,” on TV. Waters’s past might seem far away, but Multiple Maniacs is also a snapshot of a moment when fabulous misfits were battling the state and political conventions were disintegrating— the contemporary pertinence doesn’t need to be stressed.

Time-warping to the horrors of the present, Waters’s characters couldn’t be “cured” by even the most extreme bout of conversion therapy. They revel in whatever makes them evil with a flair that’s at once heroic and heartwarming. LSD inspired the lobster attack, but the greatest high comes when Divine beholds herself in the mirror and snarls, “I love your sickness!” From Kiddie Flamingos (2015) to Mondo Trasho (1969) or Desperate Living (1977)—which, with its backwoods fairyland of Mortville could be retrospectively dubbed My Own Private Oz—Waters’s casts offer a queer vision of family life, where childhood’s innocent weirdness can be merrily explored. Sometimes the family in Multiple Maniacs seems to be playing dress-up in different dimensions: Mink Stole looks proto-goth; David Lochary still vibes like a homesick Martian mixed with Vincent Price, his unicorn’s tail coiffeur peroxided to the radiance of heat-wave sunshine; Edith Massey, that gap-toothed vixen, plays the Virgin Mary; and Divine is, as Waters crows in his commentary, “Godzilla!”

John Waters’s Multiple Maniacs is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Charlie Fox is a writer based in London. His book of essays, This Young Monster, is out now from Fitzcarraldo Editions.