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.
“Ecstasy and Irony: Czech Cinema, 1927–1943” runs Tuesday, April 11, through Sunday, April 23, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
“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.
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-Lřve’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.
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.”)
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.
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.
“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!”
IN A STORM-TOSSED MODERN WORLD, Wesley Snipes’s Twitter feed is an island of calm. It’s heavy on nostalgia—with production photographs from the set of White Men Can’t Jump (1992), for example—and rather profound conversation prompts (“At what age did you realize the world you live in was not your friend?”), as well as ice-cold troll executions and sage declarations that merge the Afrocentric and humanist, a typical sampling being: “Every ethnicity is absolutely beautiful and worthy. I’m simply reminding my brothers and sisters WE ARE OF ROYALTY.” He seems like he’s in a good headspace, which is an odd thing to say about an actor who you’ve never met, but dammit, I’ve always wanted the best for Wesley Snipes, who embodies a rare combination of traits: an imperious and, yes, royal gravity, and an irresistible common-man likeability.
Snipes is the subject of an eleven-film career overview at BAMcinématek, for which no excuse is necessary, though it can be explained as a homecoming for the onetime resident of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, or as a birthday party, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of White Men Can’t Jump. Written and directed by Ron Shelton, the don of sports films, the film stars Snipes as gravity-defiant Los Angeles streetballer Sidney Deane, florid in his play and his trash talk, who sets up a lucrative pickup game hustle with Woody Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle, who opponents assume can’t ball because, well, he looks like Woody Harrelson. A peerless crowd-pleaser with a persistent downbeat undertone and a democratic spirit that doesn’t see fit to sidestep interracial jibing and ball-busting, it’s a beautiful bit of pop moviemaking. As the most across-the-board nightmarish presidential election in memory was getting well underway last summer, it took a rewatch to remind me that I usually dig this country.
Snipes wasn’t a hoopster as a kid, but a dojo rat. Born in Orlando, and raised mostly in the Bronx, he split his early years between Karate and acting. Most of the world got their first glimpse of him in one of the few moving-picture works of the past thirty years that most of the world actually saw, the eighteen-minute Martin Scorsese–directed short film/music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” where he barked the eternal question “Are you bad or what?” at MJ in a tenement lobby. He registers as pure ebony opposite the pale Jackson of 1987, a time that favored lighter-skinned black actors—but the calls started coming in. Morris Chestnut, in a 2013 interview, credited Snipes for “bust[ing] the mold open.” If “Bad” made Snipes a known face, he became a star by way of Major League (1989), something like the platonic ideal of a ragtag-bunch-of-losers sports movie, in which he played mouthy center-fielder Millie Mays Hayes, a speed demon on the base paths whose batting average malingers beneath the Mendoza Line. By the time a sequel came along in 1994, Snipes was out of their budget.
Snipes had turned down a part in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) to take the Hayes role, but would work with Lee on Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), and, most recently, the misbegotten Chi-Raq (2015), in which Snipes is easily the best thing. Watching Jungle Fever, which will play BAM, one is reminded how even in Lee’s early, hungry years, his style—expressionistic camerawork, caricaturist characterization, Brechtian breakthroughs—was always flirting with catastrophe. Revolving around a midtown tryst between a married black architect (Snipes) who lives in Harlem and his Bensonhurst-based Italian American secretary (Annabella Sciorra), the movie packs in a hallucinatory visit to “the Trump Towers of crack dens,” clunky depositions on colorism, the most alarming final shot in film history, and a whole lotta scenery-gnawing supporting performances, both bad (Anthony Quinn, as the father of Sideshow Bob–haired John Turturro) and good (Samuel L. Jackson’s sniveling addict Gator).
Released the same year as Jungle Fever, Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City offered more crackhead histrionics—these courtesy of Chris Rock—and more ruminations on African American/Italian American relations in New York City. “Fuck them scungilli-eatin’ motherfuckers. This is our thing. They don’t want to roll with it, we’ll roll over them,” declares Snipes’s drug kingpin Nino Brown after hearing something he doesn’t like from La Cosa Nostra while on his way to taking over the underworld, opposed by the erstwhile “Cop Killer” Ice-T, embarking on a long acting career in the police department. The part established Snipes as a heavy, while Passenger 57 (1992) was his leap to bona fide hero status, one of a long lineage of plane-hijacking action pictures from Cy Endfield’s Jet Storm (1959) to Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop (2014). If nothing else, Passenger 57 is remembered for Snipes’s delivery of the one-liner “Always bet on black,” delivered at the end of an emphatic dolly shot recalling the one that introduces John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939)—to be a fly on the wall when they were getting that one off!—but there’s some good close-quarters hand-to-hand and crisp roundhouses, and it goes down easy with a couple of beers. Demolition Man (1993), certainly one of the decade’s oddest blockbusters, returned Snipes to villainy—his dastardly Simon Phoenix and supercop nemesis John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) are tossed into “cryo-penitentiary” in 1996 and unthawed in the gelded, politically-correct dystopia of 2032. The feature-film debut of multihyphenate artist Marco Brambilla, it plays a bit like one of Paul Verhoeven’s stupid-smart satirical blockbusters if Verhoeven couldn’t direct his way out of a wet paper bag, but it deserves credit for locating the latent camp potential of Snipes, who’s in fine fettle. As Phoenix, Snipes wears the blond high-top fade decades before Odell Beckham Jr., and his sartorial daring transcends the rote comedy of the drag-queen road trip To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), whose entertainment value rests heavily on Snipes’s snaps and costume changes.
A couple of what I rate as Snipes’s best early films won’t be playing BAM—Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990) and James B. Harris’s Boiling Point (1993), which fall into that category of crime-thrillers that were usually called “neo-noir” in the 1980s and 1990s for lack of any better descriptor. The latter film, in particular, which has Snipes’s Treasury officer trailing trigger-happy young Viggo Mortensen and old-timer Dennis Hopper through a contemporary Los Angeles where the World War II–era dance emporiums are still open for business, shows how this actor better known for showboating was also more than capable of playing things close to the vest. (I make this aside about the absence of these titles knowing full well that these sort of peanut gallery “But what about . . .?” complaints are easy for journalists to make but don’t take into account the exigencies of getting projectable materials, and only to say that both titles are worth seeking out.)
Unbeknownst to all involved, midrange macho genre works like Ferrara’s and Harris’s films—or even Passenger 57—would become an endangered species in the twenty-first century, increasingly marginalized in favor of triangulating tentpoles based on preexisting properties, superhero characters above all. Snipes would suffer from this change in time, but not before he profited from it, starring in Blade (1998), the first commercially successful attempt to transfer a Marvel Comics creation to the big screen, with Snipes giving a gruff, grave performance as a “daywalker” half-human half-vampire who’s sworn to destroy the Nosferatu, a character who’d been around in comics since the early ’70s. I didn’t cotton much to Blade when I saw it as a teenager, but nearly twenty years and ten thousand overstuffed superhero movies later, it’s harder to resist the genuine eccentricity of a picture that begins with a bloodbath rave and features Kris Kristofferson, Traci Lords, and Udo Kier, whose explosion is a highlight in the bonanza of cheapjack CGI.
Blade, which plays BAMcinématek along with the inferior Guillermo del Toro–directed sequel, gave Snipes a franchise, a steady paycheck, and a “martial-arts choreographer” credit, but he saved his best shots for Walter Hill’s combination prison/boxing picture Undisputed (2002). Snipes is Monroe Hutchens, an undefeated fighter who has held on to his title for an astonishing ten years—the ten years he’s been locked up at Sweetwater prison on a life-sentence homicide rap. His stiffest challenge arrives when big, bad George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames), the champion of the outside world, arrives in Sweetwater to serve time on a rape charge—the Mike Tyson parallels are not coincidental. Chambers gets more screen time than Hutchens in the lead-up to the inevitable bout, but Snipes makes every minute count, playing a tight-lipped, Spartan protagonist of the sort that Hill had been specializing in since his Charles Bronson–starring directorial debut, Hard Times (1975). Hill’s preoccupations dovetail perfectly with Snipes’s meditative philosopher-warrior persona—in both Passenger 57 and Blade he burns incense; here, he builds a pagoda of toothpicks and offers pearls such as, “In the end, everybody gets beaten. The most you can hope for is that you stay on top a while.”
Despite meager box-office takings, Undisputed became a minor cult item, followed by three-and-counting direct-to-DVD features with significant charms of their own, two from the master of the discount bins, Isaac Florentine. Snipes himself was increasingly relegated to work in nontheatrical films in the years ahead, which was really the least of his problems, as Undisputed began to look like a harbinger of things to come. Beginning in 2006, he was the subject of a very public tax fraud investigation, which ended in a stay at the McKean Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania from December 2010 to April of 2013. Since coming out, the work has been lean, though The Expendables 3 (2014)—the only fully satisfying entry in that series—gave him a great prison-breakout set piece as a kind of welcome back, and found him still spry and dead game. Now he’s got a new movie coming along in the summer and is apparently working on something called “Project Action Star,” which looks like either the semiretirement of reality TV or a pyramid scheme. Hopefully, there’s still more to come, but like the man says, “The most you can hope for is that you stay on top a while”—and his has been a fine, benevolent reign.
THE PROBLEM WITH BEING SEMINAL IS THE SHRINKAGE. In 1995, Mamoru Oshii adapted Masamune Shirow’s late 1980s manga Mobile Armored Riot Police, subtitled Ghost in the Shell in tribute to Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine, into an anime film that for many years functioned as a subcultural gateway drug, hiding out in the more unclassifiable sections of American video stores. Its VHS cover design threw it under the cartoon category, but the prominent display of heroine Motoko Kusanagi’s enormous tits and her gun hovering over the title gave pause as to its suitability for children, or even YAs. While the internet was still catching on in the United States, GITS was often the sole exposure one had—unless you stumbled across the horrific, original English dub of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988)—to a small, distant island nation’s powerhouse animation industry, or it was a brief taste of something that you took to Geocities to search for more. And, indeed, there is a lot out there. GITS is a blockbuster franchise in Japan, with several subsequent films in addition to Oshii’s original, an early 2000s TV anime, four video games across multiple systems, and more action figures residing in the rooms of Japanese hikikomori and Western weeaboo than you could count. The specter of the Major—hardware designed to give rise to and sell anything at all—keeps slipping through the multiple mediums of her empire.
Ghost in the Shell did not change my life; that would be Sailor Moon. If one seems to strike you as more serious than another, please know that most anime is just trauma in a cute outfit. But, somehow, I got it home from that rental-store shelf because I knew, from chatrooms where masculine usernames typed as if they knew things while I was sure of nothing at all, that I was supposed to. For years, all I remembered of GITS was the Major falling from a great height: This woman—who is not a woman, though her body goes through a multistep assembling operation during the opening credits that will hit femme-identifieds as close to home—falling into a futuristic city of no place, toward canonicity.
It starts ominously enough, white kanji text on a black screen informs us that “despite great advances in computerization, countries and races are not yet obsolete.” Sci-fi is so prescient! Our heroine is effaced from the start. Known as “the Major” to her colleagues, due to her rank in the federal Public Security Section 9 of an unnamed country, she is a cyborg, or, as Donna Haraway would put it in her 1985 manifesto, “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” whose “main trouble . . . is that [she is] the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” but I suppose that’s extratextual. What is definitely canon is that her number one hobby is diving: The most beautiful scenes in GITS involve water, both the depiction of and the Major’s movement through it, most memorably when she KOs a two-bit criminal with her thermoptic camouflage turned on, rendering her invisible and becoming visually nothing more than the pressure on his bones or a ripple in the air as the shallow waters around their feet gracefully confirm the martial choreography.
The story is ostensibly about international cybersecurity, involving the pursuit of a bodiless American hacker known as the Puppet Master. It shapes up into a case that may have been assigned to the Major’s unit as a smoke screen to destroy her along with him. As to why another government unit would want to destroy her remains unpacked. But that’s where multipart franchises come in handy.
Motoko Kusanagi may not be human, but she seems to know the limits of making things personal. After a dip in the depths around New Port City, she tells Batou, her partner in stopping crime, of her concern for “things needed to make an individual what they are,” including “the expanse of the data-net my cyber-brain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am, giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me.’ And simultaneously confining ‘me’ within set limits.” (Ray Kurzweil immortalists, take note.) She listens to the “whisper from my ghost,” as souls are colloquially referred to, and can make intuitive decisions, such as in the film’s climax, when she dives into the Puppet Master’s consciousness via what appears to be a USB cable connection, which has taken up residence in a broken blonde female’s bust.
The Puppet Master has already requested political asylum in this purportedly Asian country, proclaiming, somewhat generically: “I am a lifeform in the sea of information.” Aren’t we all, even if some can swim better than others? And yet the creators have insisted that these characters should appear in femme forms, fan service with a thesis. Motoko was built to look not merely female, but bodacious—her shell made by a shop called Megatech Body—and viewers are supposed to accept that this is the model best suited to transmitting nagging, ghostly whispers about the indelible momentum of identity, to say nothing of participating in stealth combat missions. (Heidi Montag is another figure in this tradition.) “I’ve heard celluloid dolls can have a soul,” Batou says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a soul.”
Spoiler alert: Women are made, not born. The female figure carries an imperative for maintenance, conservation, and regular upgrades while also serving as gendered proof of Hortense Spillers’s thought that flesh is empathy. But female flesh is also material, weaponized for affect across genre. Same shit, different canon: Creative men like to gather up their most radical—at least to them—ideas and test-drive them on a form not their own.
And now, another man (Rupert Sanders) in another country (USA! USA!) has made a new Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson), kitted up in updated technology and ham-fisted ideological poses to meet contemporary action-movie standards. For instance, the Major is now a refugee, a victim of terrorism, salvaged by a certain Hanka Robotics company, whose CEO—named “Cutter” (Peter Ferdinando)—takes a zealous interest in his investment. In place of a personality or any particular motivations, he has the unenviable task of swaggering around as a caricature of capitalism, declaring, “I think of her as a weapon,” or, all but smacking his lips, lauding her as “the future of our company,” or, most confusingly, since it comes right before the climax and seems neither literal nor metaphorical, saying, “The virus has spread!” All he’s missing is a moustache to twirl, but I guess dissolving into a pile of silver cubes at will is the future’s version. “The Major” is also apparently now her name, rather than her job title. (The blurring of work and life!) Her identity is cleaved in two, with tragically misguided results.
Johansson never struck me as a bad fit for the role, despite the whitewashing casting controversy that has dogged this live-action adaptation for months. Given her previous work in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013)—a great film—and Spike Jonze’s more regrettable Her (2013), I had faith that she could pull it off. The film just had to leap far enough away from the source material and avoid pretensions of cultural authenticity. Instead, the writers lean into the cross-cultural tensions and try to have it all ways: The story is a radical departure, but it brings race along for the ride as a loaded caboose that runs off the rails and comes back around to smash right into the film’s beautifully made-up face. This is on a fan-fiction level, and it only resembles the anime insofar as it also has a tiresome habit of throwing a barrage of beautiful images and sequences at a viewer without any context to understand the connections between them. But the grace to let a picture hold without an explosion or a clever aside is wholly, predictably absent in the translation from animation to live-action. Rupert’s ghosts are anxious, dashing things desperate to prove their conviction; Oshii’s could at least stay still long enough for us to have a thought to ourselves.
The first movement in the symphony of tone-deafness begins when the Major, in a sulky mood—her emotional range has been greatly expanded; women without a vivid diversity of feelings just aren’t very likable—comes across a black girl on the street. She asks her whether she is “human.” Somehow, this comes off as a proposition. And yes, it gets worse: The girl (indeed human) peels off her makeup, and ScarJo paws her calm face and caresses her lip, asking her how it “feels.” End scene.
But wait, there’s more. With a quick stop for a tranny joke in a men’s bathroom, the movie canters through a confrontation between the Major and the vengeful Kuze—played by a wheezy Michael Pitt, who’s revealed to be a discarded Hanka prototype—and speeds toward the revelation that the white Major was once an Asian teenager who, as her mother explains in broken English in a ramshackle Frank Lloyd Wright x Guggenheim–inspired apartment building, ran away to the town’s “lawless zone” long ago to write “manifestos” about the evils of modern technology.
The Major’s doctor (Juliette Binoche) calls her “the best of us,” which I find hard to believe, since she tears out without even finishing tea with her new mom—no manners at all! Earlier, the Major had a vision of a small hut; it turns out this was where the girl Motoko and boy Hideo—who became sad-cyborg Kuze—had their own DIY jamboree, which was violently broken up by authorities, and the young leftist radicals were separated and turned into sexy cybernetic white people. To wrap insult tightly around injury, the film closes with the Major and her newfound mom hugging, a multicultural feel-good touch. Even if this could be mildly entertained as a critique of dystopian, authoritarian regimes cracking down on dissidence, or an allegory about resistance and rebellion, it quickly sinks into a hopelessly, unbelievably, hysterically, maddeningly silly plot frothing over a foundation of careless racist nonsense, to say nothing of its continual usage of “consent” as a buzzword.
Kenji Kawai’s entrancing, sparkling score for the 1995 film is allowed one meek chime in the intro to Sanders’s first action sequence, and is then given rein to keen throughout the final credits, like a sloppy high-five to the origins of this sloshy travesty. Perhaps our only comfort, and it’s a stretch, is to remember Haraway: “Illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” Yes, the body of the seminal work has now been resuscitated with a foreign breath, and yes, it is a bastard. The 1995 film ends with a diminutized Motoko looking out over a city, saying, “The net is limitless.” In 2017, the takeaway is that she is “built for justice,” and I wonder what happened to net neutrality in the interim.
Ghost in the Shell (1995) is now available with limited SteelBook packaging in Blu-ray. Ghost in the Shell (2017) opens Friday, March 31, in theaters nationwide.