Lazar Stojanovic, Plastic Jesus, 1971, color, sound, 73 minutes.
IN 1971, before it had a first run in its native land, Plastic Jesus was confiscated by the Yugoslavian government of Josip Broz Tito, and its young director, Lazar Stojanovic, was thrown in the clink by a military court for “anti-state activities and propaganda.” His stay lasted several months or a few years, depending on the account, but at any rate it was plenty of time to think over what he’d done. Well, Tito died before the dawn of MTV, Yugoslavia began its anguished atomization not long after the fall of Communism, and now Stojanovic is presenting the New York premiere of his Belgrade Academy of Dramatic Arts thesis film at the Museum of Modern Art, which goes to show that if you can’t beat ’em, the least you can do is outlive ’em.
The sacrilegious title of Stojanovic’s debut feature comes from the American novelty song written by Ed Rush and George Cromarty—one of the folk ditties of all nations which the film’s soundtrack is papered with—but it’s the graven image of the secular God, Tito, that’s implicitly receiving the razzing in Stojanovic’s scattershot satire, which whip-pans between a mock-heroic past and a louche, loutish present, between found-footage documentary and a lightly fictionalized portrayal of the New Morality as it was functioning in contemporary Belgrade.
Things like this weren’t supposed to happen in Yugoslavia, where the ruling single party avoided alignment with either Moscow or Washington, progressively mixed aspects of free-market capitalism and socialism, and poured state money into avant-garde art. This was the country where communism swung, where the young people wore dungarees and laughed at socialist realism, the home of young Marina Abramović and the New Art Practice and the animations of the Zagreb Film Company and the Black Wave films of Dušan Makavejev, whose 1958 short Monuments Should Not Be Trusted recently lent its title to a recently wrapped survey of Yugoslav art at Nottingham Contemporary.
What did Plastic Jesus do to crack the veneer? At the center of the straight narrative is a picaro played by the Croatian performance artist and experimental filmmaker Tomislav “Tom” Gotovac, a hulking figure with a humongous beard and receding hairline who is first seen, wearing a peace button pinned to his denim jacket, reading the credits in a singsong voice. Tom, a native of Zagreb living in Belgrade, thirty-three years old like Christ at the time of his death, is a film director, though what we see of his work is mostly arty underground cheesecake stuff, and the narrative is driven more by his troubled relations with women than by his tortured aesthetic ambitions.
As the movie begins Tom is keeping company with an American girl—she’s the one who warbles the title tune, and most of their interactions seem to consist of batting around their respective national songbooks, though they also pay a visit to Saint George’s Church, where she’s eager to see the crypt containing the Karađorđević Kings. When his little Yank takes a powder, Tom takes up with his blonde landlady, whose husband is abroad, only to have her bounce him out onto the street when things go south. (The problems begin when he runs rushes of a softcore shoot while her young daughter is hanging around his room.) Tom hits rock bottom from here, slipped a mickey and stripped by some shady associates, after which he runs nude along Sremska Street in the city center and is picked up by the police, who forcefully shave his scalp and beard as punishment for his failure to resemble his ID. Despite the fact that he now looks like a Holbein, Tom manages to get in with his ex’s husband’s sister. She tries to set him up with a television producer for work, he repays her by playing grabass with her brother’s wife on a trip to the provinces, and she shoots him dead in a pond at the end of a rather gorgeous mock-pastoral long-take—as his corpse bobs on the water’s surface, the panicked siblings are trying to decide how to dispose of the body.
In addition to these narrative vignettes—mostly single-shot scenes in shadowless rooms filmed from a stationary camera, sometimes condensed with jump-cuts—there are interjections in which Gotovac direct-addresses the viewer, offering such bon mots as, “The only connection between politics and sex is under the bedsheets” or abruptly standing up to let his limp cock dangle into the frame. Throughout the film there is a glee in provocation for the provocation’s sake, which is fairly typical of art-school kids anywhere—when Tom announces his pleasure in filming homosexuals, Stojanovic cuts to his star smooching another man—though the difference here is, of course, there happened to be real-world repercussions for playing the game of épater les commissars.
Politics and sex are the two items that Plastic Jesus seems most to have on its mind. Shuffled into Tom’s story is a sort of history of Yugoslavia during World War II, as told through the cinematic detritus left behind by all involved parties—a combination of documentary footage with original material similar to that which was almost simultaneously undertaken by Dušan Makavejev in his far-better-known examination of politics in the boudoir, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). Most of the films from which Stojanovic is lifting material are straightforward propaganda, in which we hear calls for courageous sacrifice from Tito’s Communist Partisans, the nationalist Chetniks, Ustaše fascists, German conquerors, Soviet saviors, and so forth, often in full-throated marching songs using lyrics that seem to have been bought from the same wholesale anthem dealer. (That these factions seem indistinguishable when so viewed is very much the point.) In some cases, the archival and original footage interface playfully, as when Nazi motorcade victory laps through flattened landscapes are intercut with a joy ride through the outskirts of Belgrade, which look as though they are in the midst of being excavated or razed. There are also several pieces of found footage that pertain to the German worship of physique and Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture), opening into wider reflections on the relationship of the state and the sovereign body which end with a fatal assertion of ownership.
A censor might have taken issue with any number of items in here, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was a seemingly innocuous scene depicting the wedding of two of Stojanovic’s friends, Ljubiša Ristić and Višnja Poštić, who happened to be related to Generals in the Yugoslav People’s Army. The inclusion of pseudo-surreptitious footage of high revolutionary officials milling about at a bourgeois ceremony under the benevolent gaze of a bas relief Tito was one piss-take too many, and Stojanovic was caught up in what would be a quiet crackdown. Gotovac, who would reproduce his streak down Sremska Street ten years later for a performance in Zagreb, had his art school matriculation delayed for years. Aleksandar Petrović, the professor who had been instrumental in completing Plastic Jesus, found his latest film, an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, suddenly withdrawn from distribution, around the time that a “Letter” issued by Tito in September 1972 recommended a rollback on liberalism in the wake of the Croatian Spring.
I haven’t seen Stojanovic’s later film work, which apparently includes a 2008 documentary incorporating footage of the war crimes of a Serbian paramilitary group during the Bosnian War. It’s certainly true that nothing would achieve the notoriety of Plastic Jesus—the communist nations, like the capitalist ones, produced their share of filmmakers too insubordinate to thrive within the system. But freed of its original, oppositional “use-value,” Plastic Jesus is more than a time-capsule, a counterpropaganda equivalent to the newsreels from which Stojanovic freely clips. Brimming with youthful bellicosity, it’s a live-wire with some crackle in it yet.
Roberto Minervini, The Other Side, 2015, color, sound, 92 minutes.
THROUGH THE YEARS so many films have been said in reviews and calendar copy to “blur the boundaries” between documentary and fiction filmmaking that we might reasonably expect that the work is done by now, and that those lines—never a legally well-defined border to begin with—are well and truly blurred, there’s no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, and that a handful of tropes of representation that were once given to constitute documentary realism were a fluke in the history of the medium rather than its essence.
If there’s still some purpose for boundaries, it must be to determine what films go in what festivals. To wit, the Art of the Real, which began its existence as a regular documentary showcase at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is now in its third year as an annual festival, and forever redefining the limitations of its mandate. It was ushered into being by the absence of a dedicated showcase for formally ambitious films employing elements of documentary practice in New York City, and a hole in FSLC’s already festival-packed calendar.
At the center of the program this year is a celluloid-heavy retrospective, “All My Life: The Films of Bruce Baillie,” an extensive exhibition of the work of the eighty-four-year-old filmmaker who is perhaps not usually considered as a documentarian, and whose importance also extends to his role as the founder of both Canyon Cinema and the San Francisco Cinematheque. While the program takes some care to emphasize the nonfiction aspects of Baillie’s filmography, including several of his docs made under the rubric of The News and intended to be played at Canyon Cinema venues, it is a little more difficult to comprehend how Daïchi Saïto’s Engram of Returning, included in one of two shorts programs, qualifies. Not that I’m complaining, mind you—it’s an opportunity to see the film projected in anamorphic 35 mm, which I have been told is quite the experience, and even viewed with laptop hardware the combination of glimpsed landscapes splashing out of darkness and Jason Sharp’s worrying saxophone score makes quite an impression.
Sergio Oksman, O Futebol, 2015, color, sound, 70 minutes.
Art of the Real is a summary of recent work rather than a showcase for premieres, and there are a few no-brainer recommendations in this batch. The Thoughts That Once We Had, the most recent essay film by one of the form’s acknowledged curmudgeon-masters, Thom Anderson, has its New York premiere here. Born from decades of Anderson’s teaching cinema through the writings of Deleuze and vice versa, the film—his most sprawling work since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)—sets out to illustrate key concepts from Deleuze’s Cinéma 1. L’Image-Mouvement (The Movement Image, 1983) and Cinéma 2. L’Image-temps (The Time-Image, 1985) via film clips and text excerpts, while also holding court on such varied yet interrelated topics as the perfidy of Chubby Checker, the genius of character actor Timothy Carey, and Anderson’s adulation of Debra Paget. Anderson is prone to reinventing himself from project to project, and his latest is no exception, surprising in that it finds a filmmaker best known for his skepticism toward Hollywood product here openly in thrall to the power of the screen’s seduction.
São Paolo–born, Madrid-based Sergio Oksman isn’t an established name on Anderson’s level, but if there’s any justice his O Futebol will go some ways toward correcting that fact. The film is a deliberately distanced experiment in father-son bonding between the filmmaker and his long-estranged dad shot during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, played out within a rigid framework which doesn’t buckle even with the appearance of unexpected tragedy. O Futebol has been kicking around the festival circuit for the better part of a year now; I saw it in August 2015, and I don’t think I’ve had a more viscerally emotional moviegoing experience since. Also of special note is the opening-night film, The Other Side, the fourth feature by Italian-American director Roberto Minervini, already acquired for domestic release by Film Movement, and his first collaborative ethnography exercise shot outside of his home state of Texas. Minervini here works with two different and not-so-different sets of citizens in West Monroe, Louisiana—ex-con methamphetamine addicts and a paramilitary militia drilling in preparation for the day that Obama and FEMA come down to try to disarm them—offering a window into their worlds that has been assiduously rubbed clean of the filmmakers’ telltale fingerprints.
Bracketing the series on the other end is closer A Magical Substance Flows into Me, Jumana Manna’s first feature, which uses as its stepping-off point the writings and recordings of the German-Jewish ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann, a figure who has been likened to Alan Lomax for his work in documenting the indigenous musics of the varied ethnic groups that he found living in Palestine upon his arrival in 1935: Moroccan Jews, Bedouins, Kurds, Copts, Samaritans, and so forth. Manna uses Lachmann’s recordings as a way to infiltrate the homes of descendants of these groups, catching glimpses of quotidian activity as she invites her subjects to hear the voices of their ancestors through the speakers of a cracked iPhone, and incidentally assembling a panoramic portrait of contemporary Jerusalem and its environs as she shoots her own contemporary vignettes of musicians at play.
In the game of “spot the dominating lineup theme,” a few possibilities stand out: Self-sufficient solitude can be tracked through in Ben Rivers’s What Means Something, revival pick The Moon and the Sledgehammer (1971), or Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis’s Il Solengo, in which elderly local boar hunters advance their theories about what led a somewhat-legendary recently-deceased hermit, Mario de Marcella, to break from civilization and spend more than six decades of his life holed up in a cave on a game reserve in Pratolongo, not far from Rome. In telling the story of de Marcella, the subjects reveal a great deal about local and national history, the vagaries of collective village memory, the tenacity of (possibly misremembered) childhood fear, and, inadvertently, themselves.
José Luis Guerín, Academy of the Muses, 2015, color, sound, 92 minutes.
Along with A Magical Substance, two other films, taking their own highly individual approaches, look into the folkloric origins of lyrical traditions. Ju Anqi’s Poet on a Business Trip is a sordid road movie epic which itself took a roundabout route to the screen, shot in fall of 2002 and edited twelve and a half years later, just in time to win the Grand Prize at the Jeonju International Film Festival last year. Done on cruddy, consumer-quality black-and-white digital video, the film follows Xianbo Hou, a thirty-year-old poet from Shanghai, on a journey through the Gobi Desert and to the wild northwest and the rugged Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, schlepping on buses and hitching rides from drunk-driving long-haul truckers. Hou’s misadventures, deadpan exchanges involving cab drivers, working girls, and country shepherds, are punctuated with instances of the work produced on his “business trip,” sixteen poems, mostly suffused with melancholia, which more or less obliquely may be connected to what we have seen happening to him.
L’Accademia delle Muse (Academy of the Muses) likewise looks at the source of poetic inspiration, in this case literally returning to Arcadian pastures to roam with Sardinian shepherds. (Another theme in this year’s slate: lots of sheep.) The latest from the eclectic José Luis Guerín is a dialogue-dizzy dispositif which, like Guerín’s flâneur/voyeur piece In the City of Sylvia (2007), is concerned with desire as a driving force. Neapolitan philology professor Raffaele Pinto stars as Neapolitan philology professor Raffaele Pinto, teaching a seminar on the art of acting the muse to a largely female class at the University of Barcelona. At one and the same time Guerín and Pinto’s film is an earnest inquiry into the genesis of artistic production and a wickedly sharp comedy about male vanity cloaked in the mantle of pedantic orotundity, with Pinto fighting on multiple fronts to defend his ethical breaches and compulsive philandering. “I’m possessive,” he confesses at one point, “but on the methodological level,” while elsewhere he’s found tut-tutting that “What you call my double life is simply my research.” Even the progressive idea of an “active” muse that Pinto puts forth may strike some viewers as retrograde, but Academy of the Muses, among several works in the Art of the Real lineup, is a testament to the symbiotic synergy between filmmakers and their muse-subjects.
The 3rd Art of the Real runs April 8–21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.
IN 1964, the great playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett began his only venture into cinema. The twenty-two-minute Film, as it was eventually titled, was a collaborative effort of formidable talents. Directed by Alan Schneider, the premiere American interpreter of Beckett’s plays, it starred silent comedian Buster Keaton, was photographed by On the Waterfront (1954) cinematographer Boris Kaufman, and produced by Barney Rosset, legendary founder of Grove Press, the first US publisher of Beckett and such other figures of the European avant-garde as Genet and Ionesco. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1965, was screened at the New York Film Festival that same year, and subsequently opened commercially.
Judged a dismal failure by critics, audiences, and Beckett himself, Film appears to be a minimalist take on existential dread, in which a lone figure (Keaton) is pursued by a first-person camera down city streets and empty lots and into his apartment, shunning all possible gazes. At the last moment he is forced to confront his pursuer, only to see that it is himself. Though the idea seems compatible with Beckett’s theater work, Film lacks both the uncanny lyricism and comic bite of his plays. Critics of the time seemed puzzled about whether it was a serious but failed effort at “art” cinema, or whether it aimed to mock the pretensions of the latter, failing at that too. A third option seems closer to the truth: that it did aim to be taken seriously and, falling flat on its face, inadvertently came across as lame satire.
Having seen Film several times before its recent restoration, I’m convinced that its failure has nothing to do with its being deep or over people’s heads, but something far more basic—a misunderstanding of the ontological bluntness of the medium, so naive that the “shock” of recognition to which its final moment aspires is merely a pathetic, even theatrical cliché that we see coming a mile away, and that is preceded by a reckless imbalance between the alleged seriousness of its theme and Keaton’s vaudevillian routine with domestic pets. Problems with conception and execution aside, the great comic himself is utterly out of his element—and I don’t mean that philosophically. The world of Film, its restless moving camera and play with point-of-view notwithstanding, is curiously static—in fact, not filmic, the only realm in which Keaton’s poker face and physical dynamics work.
But if Film’s reputation has not improved with time, its artistic pedigree justifies its recent restoration by film restorer par excellence Ross Lipman and Milestone films, as well as the expansive attention Lipman gives its making in his first feature-length documentary, aptly titled Notfilm. Presenting or alluding to more geniuses or wannabe geniuses per square foot than any doc in recent memory, Notfilm includes behind-the-scenes material, rare audio tapes of Beckett and Schneider speaking, photographs, and contemporary interviews with several figures relevant to the project. All have wonderful memories to share, including Rosset himself; the amiable and invaluable film historian Kevin Brownlow; Alan Schneider’s widow Jean; cinematographer and filmmaker Haskell Wexler; the wonderful James Karen, one of the only other actors in Film; and, perhaps most memorably and movingly, the late British actress Billie Whitelaw, known for her riveting incarnations of Beckett protagonists in such works as Happy Days and Rockaby. To understand her intuitive grasp of Beckett’s world and the unpretentiousness with which she embodied it is to know exactly what is missing from Film.
Curiously, the credits for Notfilm list Lipman as writer, photographer, editor, and narrator, but not as director. Does this imply that a director is merely the sum of the other skills? Or is it an attempt at modesty? If the latter, it is belied by the ambition, scope, research, and exhilarating sweep of his project, by his decision to call it a “kino essay”—a calculated nod to Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov—and by his sallies into textual interpretation of Film. These are hardly nondirectorial postures, even if Lipman’s thematic readings do little more than reiterate what many others had to say about Film.
Shots from Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera (1929), a film of dazzling formal and technical ingenuity, are the first ones we see in Notfilm, ironically accompanied by Lipman telling us how skeptical he used to be of films about filmmaking. Judging from the role Vertov’s film continues to play in Notfilm, he’s clearly changed his mind. No film could be said to embody more emphatically than Vertov’s the nature and substance of reflexive cinema. Lipman, no doubt inspired by his mentors, dares to intercut imagery from Vertov’s film with the daredevil pyrotechnics of Keaton’s best works. Exhilarating as they are, such gestures, intentionally or not, simply underline the complete absence of filmic genius in Beckett’s Film.
In fact, this aspect of Notfilm is both informative and saddening. Keaton, we learn, was not anyone’s first choice. Several actors were consulted but unavailable, including Charlie Chaplin, who was apparently indifferent to the project. Lipman implies, not without justification, that though Keaton was a kind of last resort, Beckett’s hitting upon his name had a fortuitous ring. Indeed, there is an effort here to portray Beckett and Keaton as artistic souls under the skin, doppelgängers with kindred views of the world. But their first meeting did nothing to confirm any such rapport, and from most accounts Keaton remained aloof, seemed adrift, and simply followed orders without a clue as to what Film was “about”—something he continued to voice on television after its release.
Yet in what might be called a magical six-degrees-of-separation method of research, Lipman finds a number of happenstances that point to an inevitable convergence of the two artists. Consider, for example, that Beckett may have gotten the name of his most famous, nonexistent character from a comic play of Balzac’s titled Mercadet, the Napoleon of Finance, which also has a character absent throughout the play whom everyone is waiting for, and whose name is Godeau. Consider further that a minor film version of Mercadet, The Loveable Cheat (1949), starred Buster Keaton. Hardly one to expect us to trust him at his word, Lipman provides us with a clip from the latter, with Keaton and the climactic scene in which two actors enthusiastically announce the return of Godot—naturally offscreen.
Given the range of Lipman’s restorations—films by Kenneth Anger, Bruce Conner, Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, and Charles Burnett among them—it is hard not to read the skepticism he voices at the outset of Notfilm as simply a ploy to grab the viewer’s attention. Since this would hardly be necessary for film-savvy viewers, it may be that he has in mind another audience—students of film history, for example. Not that there isn’t plenty here to engage theatrical spectators, even at a two-hour-plus running time. When Notfilm is not embarking on a lengthy excursion into Beckett’s biography, with information and brief clips from stage versions of his plays, it provides artistic contexts and biographical data on its other luminaries: Keaton, Rosset, and Schneider, in particular. But Lipman’s kino-essay has legs beyond its immediate theatrical appeal, and enough merit and seriousness to maintain its place as a continued resource for film students and Beckett scholars.
Sam Peckinpah, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, 1973, 35 mm, color, sound, 122 minutes.
THERE ARE THE ARTISTS that you admire, and then those who you feel, right in the solar plexus, right between the eyes. When it comes to filmmakers, I couldn’t count every name in the former category, but the tally of the latter probably comes in at less than a dozen. It’s here that a tendency to gush comes in, and as someone who has been known to state when in my cups that the scene of Slim Pickens’s gutshot death in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) is enough to justify the whole of the American experiment, it is perhaps irresponsible for me to try to write about Sam Peckinpah.
The complete retrospective of Peckinpah’s theatrical features, which begins this Friday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and originated at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, is the first since a 1999 series by the Austin Film Society. Without falsely building brand-name “Bloody Sam” into some kind of disdained outsider, I do have a sense that his filmography falls rather awkwardly at the moment—there are aspects of his perceived philosophy, received at its most reductive, that may be odious to the progressive wing of film culture, and perhaps his style is too baroque for the classicists who rally around Clint Eastwood as the last standard-bearer of the Western tradition. And never underestimate the lasting stigma of an endorsement from Pauline Kael, who offered beautiful remarks about Peckinpah toward the end of her life, on the occasion of the series in Texas, dubbing him “the greatest martyr/ham in Hollywood history.”
In a career littered with scuttled projects and chaotic shoots, Peckinpah managed at least a handful of undeniable landmarks: His 1969 The Wild Bunch didn’t reinvent action filmmaking so much as demolish it and make something new out of the debris, and even those who don’t buy into Peckinpah tend to give a pass to his sophomore breakthrough Ride the High Country (1962), a self-conscious eulogy for the classical western—and its sense of justice—starring genre veterans Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, enormously moving when describing his personal credo: “All I want is to enter my house justified.”
Peckinpah felt such sentiments deeply. He was raised in an atmosphere thick with highfalutin ideas about justice and personal integrity, born in 1925, the end of a long line of frontier judges based in California’s High Sierras. The runt of the family litter, he grew up surrounded by strapping brothers—years later, on the set of The Getaway (1972), the writer Grover Lewis described him as a “short, wiry man with metallic blue eyes and iron-gray hair bound up in a blue bandana… [his] physical bearing indicates some clue as to why he’s spent so much of his career working in TV, not working at all, or piss-fighting with producers—he moves like he’s stalking an animal bigger than he is.” Serving in China with the Marines in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Peckinpah did his manly duty, then entered into the somewhat effeminate field of drama, staging The Glass Menagerie at California State University, Fresno. (Tennessee Williams remained a great favorite of Peckinpah’s, and anyone who thinks there is nothing more to his filmography than macho death drive is advised to see 1972’s Junior Bonner, a devastating family drama containing Ida Lupino’s last great performance, and a trove of beautifully sculpted scenes.) Like Eastwood, he was an understudy of the incomparable Don Siegel, and from assisting Siegel went to cut his teeth as a writer and director of television westerns, developing both The Rifleman and The Westerner.
Sam Peckinpah, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 1974, 35 mm, color, sound, 112 minutes.
Unfortunately, Peckinpah’s TV work isn’t represented in FSLC’s “Bring Me the Head of Sam Peckinpah” series—his 1966 TV movie of Katherine Anne Porter’s Noon Wine, included on Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray release of The Killer Elite (1975), is a crucial work—but those who know Peckinpah only as the director of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs (1971) have many revelations awaiting them. Major Dundee (1965), one of Peckinpah’s several mutilated projects to be reconstructed over the years, is a sprawling, desperate, ragtag epic with a shrewd grasp of military psychology, and features Charlton Heston ordering “I want every man in this command drunker than a fiddler’s bitch by nightfall.” The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) is a cranky-tender cracker-barrel fable starring Jason Robards at the peak of his powers, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) is simply one of the greatest American films, a protracted, pained scream directed at a society where all values have been supplanted by price tags, in which Warren Oates’s increasingly unhinged cantina piano man, rendered seemingly God-mode invulnerable by his reckless suicidal grief, tries repeatedly to ascertain the cost of a human life from behind the barrel of a blazing pistol. Cross of Iron (1977), an artillery-hammered WWII combat drama from the perspective of the German enlisted man at the end of the hopeless war, pushes Peckinpah’s style of filming action—parallel editing, slo-mo punctuation, unblinking brutality—to the very limits of intelligibility, with regally disdainful James Coburn leading the excellent ensemble cast. Even Convoy (1978), a project that Peckinpah himself was said to disown when finished, based on a novelty song by C. W. McCall and Chip Davis, is a moving utopian fantasy of a trucker-led grassroots revolution. Scattered throughout the filmography we find an ensemble of recurring players that has never been bettered: Robards and Oates and Pickens and Kris Kristofferson and Strother Martin and Ben Johnson and L. Q. Jones and R. G. Armstrong and Emilio Fernández and David Warner, who memorably exits Cross of Iron with a wan salute that looks as though he’s contemptuously tossing something in the garbage. (Behind the camera, the contributions of frequent DP Lucien Ballard can’t be overestimated.) As for The Killer Elite—well, nobody’s perfect.
Peckinpah’s own unraveling is central to his legend. His preferred working method was a kind of controlled chaos, but his ingestion of booze and coke increased as he arrived at middle age, and as he kept snorting rails, his career subsequently went off them. Worsening substance-abuse issues hindered his employability, and he was only able to complete one more feature in his life, The Osterman Weekend (1982). He did finally clean himself up, but sobriety proved a greater shock to the system than accustomed debauchery, and he died of heart failure two months shy of his sixtieth birthday, having just completed two music videos for Julian Lennon. (There is something at least slightly apt in this, for when critics used to complain about “MTV-style editing,” they were often talking about something that Peckinpah helped to create.)
The songwriter Townes Van Zandt once said “I think my life will run out before my work does; I’ve designed it that way”—and for all of Peckinpah’s efforts to put himself back together in his last years, it is hard to imagine a peaceful ending for this artist whose worldview usually offered two options: self-loathing “adult” compromise or fatal, adolescent integrity, Deke Thornton or Pike Bishop, Pat Garrett or Billy the Kid. “He was determined to be doomed,” said Kael. “Toward the end, on a Saturday morning before the screening of a restored Wild Bunch, he drank straight booze for breakfast and, grinning like an imp, snapped the heart device that was on the surface of his chest.” A while back I sat over drinks with a friend whose love for Peckinpah’s movies might even exceed my own, and we wondered over the troubling implications of this love, for isn’t part of loving these movies buying into a romance of failure, believing that one’s own failure is almost preordained? Like Van Zandt’s music, Peckinpah’s films belong to an alternative American folk tradition that runs counter to the far better-publicized affirmative tradition. He is one of our great poets of deterioration, breakdown, and bankruptcy, and taken altogether his films constitute a most glorious catastrophe.
IF YOU WERE TO DEVISE the platonic ideal of a pre-Code movie it would probably look quite a bit like Tay Garnett’s 1930 barrelhouse melodrama Her Man, which transposes the Frankie and Johnnie story—then recently recorded to great acclaim by musician Jimmie Rodgers—to a blind tiger in Havana, where the dregs of all nations congregate and copulate.
While Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein has made pre-Code his bailiwick for years, the Museum of Modern Art gets to plant its flag on Her Man, which will be playing at Fifty-Third Street along with four other Garnett films and Chester Erskine and John H. Auer’s 1936 Frankie and Johnnie, one of the last screen appearances of the troubled, wrenchingly emotive torch singer Helen Morgan.
Her Man establishes itself as something special from the opening credits—written in wet sand on the beach, with each “card” washed away by the surf—and within the first reel vaults into the sublime. After being turned away from US soil and hopes for a new life, tattered and used-up b-girl Annie (Marjorie Rambeau, in a performance that anticipates Susan Tyrell’s Fat City souse) heads back to Havana. Her walk to her accustomed haunt, the Thalia, is recorded in a tracking shot which follows her down the teeming main drag of the pleasure district, ducking heedless horse carts and familiarly making her way through the rowdy, brawling polyglot masses literally tumbling out of every saloon door. The concert of casual gestural precision and individual detail that Garnett gets from his crowd scenes, here as throughout, is electrifying, while the fluidity of the camera movement and dense tapestry of sound give the lie to the persistent idea that cinema’s transformation into an audiovisual art sent it back to the drawing board.
The real focus of the story isn’t Annie, who soon settles back into a fog of blue ruin and self-pity, but one of her younger coworkers, Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees), who is handled by slickster pimp Johnnie (Ricardo Cortez) and has somehow retained a glimmer of goodness despite making her living picking pockets while batting her doll eyes at suckers and spoon-feeding them sob stories. The trouble begins when she levels her eyes at Dan Keefe (Phillips Holmes), an angelically handsome sailor on a stopover whose only possessions are a medal attesting to uncommon valor, a striped sweater that gradually disintegrates through the course of the movie, and a dream of clean living.
Moviegoers acquainted with the period will undoubtedly find some key elements of Her Man familiar. The setting and setup are reminiscent of Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928); Dan and Frankie’s rebirth before a church altar might very well have been cadged by Leo McCarey for his Love Affair nine years later; and the raucous, reckless shore-leave atmosphere is akin to that of Raoul Walsh’s Sailor’s Luck (1933)—though it should be said that Her Man deserves extra marks for sozzled sordidness, and the climactic barroom brawl contains backbreaking suicidal stuntwork of a sort rarely seen outside of 1980s Golden Harvest productions. And gourmands of period argot would be hard-pressed to find a more sumptuous spread, starting with Frankie’s sisterly admonition “You got the heebies bad, grab yourself a coupla snorts.”
The reappearance of Her Man was precipitated by the discovery of the original camera negative in the Library of Congress’s Columbia Pictures collection—the 4K DCP playing MoMA is the result of a collaboration between Sony Pictures and the Film Foundation. To see the film in its original format in New York you’d have to have been around in 1967. In Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, published the following year, the author, still fresh from seeing Cinémathèque Français loan prints of Her Man and The Spieler (1928), defined Garnett’s personality as that of “a rowdy vaudevillian.” To this I might add that he shows significant control in the midst of knockabout chaos, and that Her Man exhibits several resourceful examples of visual synecdoche, such as representing Annie’s return to Havana entirely with shots of her legs and worn-down pumps, swabbed out of the way on the ship’s deck like so much refuse.
Garnett was a former gag man for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, and that pedigree is certainly more evident here than in what is his best-known work, the 1946 film of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. MoMA’s program offers a selection of rare, lesser-known Garnett titles. Most of these come from the late 1920s and early ’30s—including a single screening of The Spieler in the late afternoon on Thursday—with 1953’s Main Street to Broadway an outlier. Outside of Her Man, the rest of the program is 35 mm: the Main Street print from the MoMA archive; The Spieler in what adjunct curator Dave Kehr describes as a “gorgeous” print from the Eastman Museum; and Celebrity (1928), “an on-the-fly ‘restoration’ composed of reels from two incomplete prints, one from MoMA and one from the Library of Congress.” It’s more Garnett than has been seen in one place in many moons, and if it’s even still a thin slice to evaluate a fifty-year career on, there’s no denying that Her Man is a rolling, heaving, helluva a good time—and that’s on the level.
“Her Man: A Forgotten Masterwork in Context” runs March 29 to April 4 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Johnnie To, Office 3D, 2015, color, sound, 119 minutes.
A 3-D MUSICAL BY JOHNNIE TO, Hong Kong master of balletic gun battles to the death: Who could ask for anything more? To’s Office (2015) is certainly the most kinetically entertaining, ingeniously staged spectacle in town, and the splendid projection at the new Metrograph theater is bound to do it justice. But as a movie about the capitalist greed and corruption that has replaced communist greed and corruption in China, it lacks the satiric bite and inspired insanity, not to mention the moral complexity, of The Big Short’s vision of greed and corruption, American style. Nor does it have the energy and noir elegance of To’s signature movies, PTU (2003) and Triad Election (2006). I’m sure there are nuances which I lack the cultural background to parse, but for me Office is less than the promise of its parts.
Adapted by Sylvia Chang from her stage play Design for Living, the film is set in 2008 just before the unraveling of Lehman Brothers. A mainland Chinese trading company, Jones & Sunn (the name suggests the film’s mix of cute and ham-fisted) is preparing for its IPO. Not only is the company’s timing a disaster in terms of the approaching financial tsunami, Jones & Sunn itself is collapsing, the result of exploitative relationships and mendacious financial practices.
Office opens not in Jones & Sunn headquarters but in a hospital room, where the company’s chairman, Ho Chung-ping (Yun-Fat Chow), is at the bedside of his comatose wife, clipping her fingernails. This show of tenderness is the only emotion manifested by the character in the entire film, and it soon becomes evident that To’s great star is either too tired or bored to turn in a performance, and one can’t really blame him. Ho is a thankless role. The chairman owes his position to his wife’s family fortune, but far from a faithful husband, he’s carried on a twenty-year affair with his CEO, Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang), who is now desperate to hold onto her status in the face of her lover’s waning affections. To complicate matters, Ho has hired his Harvard MBA daughter Kat (charming ingénue Lang Yueting) for a plum entry-level job but stipulates that she keep her identity secret lest he be accused of nepotism.
But enough of the plot. Although Office is a musical, the less said about the vaguely Brechtian score the better. What makes the film dazzling to watch is the combination of To’s camera movement, Yun Ng’s choreography (the office workers’ routines suggest Busby Berkeley combined with Maoist Red Army film musicals, which, ideologically speaking, is precisely the point of the entire enterprise), and, the biggest surprise, William Chang’s production design. Celebrated for his sensuous, tactile sets for Wong Kar-wai, Chang has created a steely, spikey opposite. The multilevel Jones & Sunn Tower looks as if it is made entirely of oversize pick-up sticks. The double metaphor: The new Chinese capitalism is anything but solid, and its secrets and lies take place in plain sight of everyone on the take and also those left out in the cold. It’s nice that the set has meaning as well as style. What counts however, is that when the moving camera sets those struts and fluorescent sticks awhirl, the pleasure is purely cinematic, and 3-D seals the deal.