Real Love

Nick Pinkerton on “Art of the Real” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Thom Andersen, Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, 1975, color, sound, 56 minutes.

“THE MACHINE CANNOT LIE,” the businessman and former California governor Leland Stanford said, explaining his hire of an experimental photographer named Eadweard Muybridge to create a study of a horse in motion. It was to be made of stills shot in rapid succession which, seen all together, would capture every aspect of the horse’s trot, and so settle the question of whether or not all four of a trotting horse’s feet ever left the ground. Stanford claimed they did. Muybridge’s plates proved him right. This happened in 1872, more than two decades before the Lumière brothers or Edison’s inventions, making Muybridge the grandfather of the motion picture and—in his using photographic process to study matter in motion toward the pursuit of pinning down an essential truth—the first documentarian.

The above Stanford quote comes from Thom Andersen’s 1975 essay film Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, which Andersen will be presenting—along with his 1996 Red Hollywood and catchily titled new short Hey, Asshole!—at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, as part of the inaugural edition of a new annual series called “Art of the Real.” The program is made up of thirty-four features—for our purposes, this means films exceeding or around the hour mark—and numerous shorts, many new, some a few years old, and about a third, like Zoopraxographer, made before the turn of the millennium and the digital-video revolution. The bill of fare, co-programmed by Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes, is “founded on the most expansive possible view of documentary film,” providing “a platform for filmmakers and artists who have given us a wider view of nonfiction cinema.”

This “wider view” annexes a great deal of filmmaking that might not traditionally be thought of as the property of nonfiction, by merit of self-conscious collaboration or formal boundary busting. By establishing a beachhead for such works in New York City, “Art of the Real” isn’t sparking off a revolution but rather continuing a process that’s been underway for years. While “animated” films—another increasingly problematic designation—take up an ever-larger percentage of the fiction market share, and much live-action fiction has been stuck in the cul-de-sac of “based on a true story” BS and sham immediacy, an unexpected bastion for photographic beauty and disciplined craftsmanship has emerged in dowdy old documentary, where a search for poetic truth has begun to eclipse the bureaucratic hang-up on facts. (If docs seem to be “where it’s at” right now, it doesn’t hurt that the low-overhead circumstances of production allow for the participation of parties—women, people who aren’t scions of wealth—often excluded from fiction filmmaking.)

“Art of the Real” builds on the groundwork laid by “hybrid” documentary fests like France’s FIDMarseille, whose scope has become particularly far-reaching under the directorship of Jean-Pierre Rehm; CPH:DOX in Copenhagen; and True/ False in Columbia, Missouri, whose closing night film this year was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, hardly untutored amateurs. But then, it’s worth noting that two of the most talked-about films in “Art of the Real,” which have already made some of the abovementioned rounds, are Mati Diop’s Mille Soleils and Robert Greene’s Actress, documentaries in which performers are seen living their real lives, so-called, made in collaboration with their star-subjects.

Robert Greene, Actress, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes. Brandy Burre.

Once the barriers of what constitutes documentary have been breached, the application of the “documentary” tag becomes increasingly discretionary. After all: The machine cannot lie! To paraphrase Animal Farm, all movies are nonfiction, but some movies are more nonfiction than others. Even the burden of photographic proof isn’t a requirement at “Art of the Real.” Derek Jarman’s 1993 Blue abjures the image altogether—made when AIDS-related complications had destroyed the filmmaker’s sight, Blue is a bittersweet sickbed rhapsody, an aural collage delivered over a field of blue which does not waver or change in seventy-nine minutes. On one hand, Jarman is dealing with the ultimate veracity of death, a truth from which no one escapes—yet while speaking of “a sense of reality lost in theater,” he is consciously playing the Dying Artist, making us very aware of the performance, and from this curtain-call quality the film derives much of its power.

The suppression of the visual in order to bring out the intimacy of the aural is key to Blue, and is also at work in Jane Gilloly’s devastating Suitcase of Love and Shame, which premiered at last year’s Ann Arbor Film Festival. Gilloly’s basic materials are a collection of reel-to-reel tape recordings, purchased via eBay, that a couple having an extramarital affair created as a sort of automemorialization of their stolen time together. (Or, perhaps, as a documentation of their private performance of a coauthored two-person fantasy-play called “Forbidden Love.”) The couple, Tom and Jeanne, are “seen” only through their pillow-talk voices, sometimes personified as his-and-hers vintage tape players. (Elsewhere, Gilloly’s invented images don’t quite come up to the level of her discovered material.) The affair carries on through the mid-1960s, skirting the sexual revolution, though the voices of Tom and Jeanne—both not in first youth, he seemingly middle-aged—identify them as residents of the southern Midwest, where the social taboo of divorce still very much remains in place. It’s sordid and sad in a way you might not like to recognize yourself in, but if you do, it’ll break your heart.

Repurposed artifacts also figure in the strong program of shorts, including Benjamin Pearson’s 2011 Former Models, a cheeky video-essay on pop authenticity which incorporates footage of Milli Vanilli at peak fame and testimony from Auto-Tune creator Andy Hildebrand, and Eric Baudelaire’s 2009 The Makes, in which film critic Philippe Azouzy, using a pile of production stills from Japanese films, imagines an alternate-universe career for Michelangelo Antonioni. Baudelaire is particularly well represented, with his 2013 The Ugly One and its sort-of prequel, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images (2011), a patchwork of landscapes shot in Tokyo and Beirut, accompanied by the testimonies of two speakers whose lives and identities have been divided between both places. May Sigenobu, the daughter of on-the-lam Japanese Red Army founder Fusaku and a Palestinian guerrilla, was raised in Lebanon; Masao Adachi is a former associate of Nagisa Oshima and Kōji Wakamatsu whose revolutionary zeal took him to the Middle East in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Adachi, who also figures in The Ugly One, compares filmmaking to military tactics—“Observing your environment before carrying out operations”—and clearly inspires Baudelaire’s own landscape-sensitive tactics.

Eric Baudelaire, The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images, 2011, color, sound, 66 minutes.

The counterpoising of landscape and human elements is at the center of Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s all-transit-no-destination Manakamana (2013), which accompanies pilgrims on the gondola lift ride to and from the eponymous mountaintop temple in Nepal, a film which uses a monotonous setup to create vignettes of startling individuality. Spray’s 2009 video work As Long as There’s Breath is also on the schedule, part of “Art of the Real’s” “Focus on the Sensory Ethnography Lab” sidebar, presented in collaboration with the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Now in its eighth year, the SEL, a liaison between Harvard University’s anthropology and visual and environmental studies departments devoted to “innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography” whose greatest hit to date is 2012’s Leviathan, has established itself at the forefront of the very loose confederation of documentarian-aesthetes whose growing numbers support a showcase like “Art of the Real.”

One of the most winning aspects of this current documentary movement—if anything so diffuse, defined by a rejection of the hegemony of doctivist didacticism rather than united by any common cause, can indeed be called a movement—is the scrupulous attention to its own history. Like Renaissance artists, these filmmakers are eager to establish themselves as part of a lineage which, taken altogether, forms an alternate history of documentary cinema. So the “Focus on the Sensory Ethnographic Lab” sidebar offers Forest of Bliss (1986), in which Robert Gardner, longtime director of Harvard’s Film Study Center, recorded death rites in the sacred city of Benares, India, along the ghats of the Ganges, all when most of the SEL directors were still in short pants. As in Manakamana, there is a focus on ritual, though unconstrained Gardner emphasizes the extravagantly wasteful, the florid and fetid. His film is the ravishing record of an American observer abroad, in its eye for atmospheric detail, the cinematic equivalent of one of Whistler’s Venetian notebooks. (This comparison is more than apt, for Gardner is the grandson of the Gilded Age art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner and would’ve grown up steeped in the stuff.)

From Gardner, one can draw a straight line to Jean Rouch. One of the great ethnographic filmmakers of all time, Rouch commuted easily between the realms of anthropology and art. (Literally, that is—his office in the Musée de l’Homme was in the same building as the Cinémathèque française.) Rouch is represented here by his Jaguar, completed in 1967 but shot in 1954–55, when he filmed three friends, Lam, Illo, and Damouré, as they traveled in search of fortune from their native village in Niger to the Gold Coast, then a British holding. Years later, Lam and Damouré returned to record sound for the film, a combination of lip-synch and wisecracking home-movie commentary.

The recording-booth improvisations give Jaguar an insouciant bounce as Damouré, a full-of-himself cutup, narrates his transformation into a big-city swell. Both men are openly flabbergasted by the diversity of humanity and terrain to be found in one corner of their native continent, a rebuke to the ignorance that consigns “Africa” to be thought of as one monolithic, monotonous mass. As, indeed, “documentary” is still too often thought to be—though in “Art of the Real,” one can see landmarks which indicate a vast, undiscovered country.

“Art of the Real” runs April 11–26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.