JANUARY 25: I am sitting in the ClaimJumper, once a dive bar on Park City’s Main Street and now the headquarters of the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier section, which in 2016 is devoted almost entirely to virtual reality. Because I committed to writing about New Frontier, I scored VIP passes for the 11 AM to 1 PM slot on two mornings, when the wait-time for each piece is supposed to be short. Nothing doing. In the end, even with the help of New Frontier curator Shari Frilot and her staff, I managed to “experience” a mere ten pieces, most of them under five minutes long. Meaning there was a lot of downtime. Too much downtime, when nothing I saw answered the basic question of what VR is good for.
On the most obvious level, the pieces exist as demos for the gear. New Frontier wasn’t selling gear, although it was giving away a slightly upgraded version of those cardboard Google glasses that the New York Times recently delivered to subscribers, which, if you download the cranky app on your mobile phone, would “put you in the center of stories only we can tell: stories reported by a staff of award-winning journalists told through an immersive video experience.” (That’s how the NYT expects to make its readers feel cool—for example, by putting you on the road with Syrian refugees.) The NYT was a sponsor of New Frontier, so even if you didn’t make the trek to Park City, you could access some of the pieces on your phone, including one of the most sophisticated, Gabo Arora and Chris Milk’s Waves of Grace. Shot in a Liberian village where Ebola was rampant, Waves of Grace is narrated by Decontee Davis, who, having survived the disease, became immune, and therefore able to nurse the sick and care for orphaned children.
Milk is a pioneer of VR and one of the people who is pushing the medium forward while defining an aesthetic based on the technology’s current possibilities and limitations. His belief—that in VR it’s impossible to edit within sequences—governs discussions, particularly when the issue of “storytelling” is involved. Given that the grammar and expressivity of the language of movies and television is based in editing, some VR pioneers are working day and night to prove him wrong.
The absence of editing, however, in every piece I saw in New Frontier made them seem closer to theater than film. The viewer is placed at the center of a 360-degree space in which people, animals, and/or objects move, thereby cuing one to look right, left, up, down, or behind. (Sound design also provides visual cues.) In some pieces (categorized as Tethered VR), you walk a few steps here and there while remaining at the center of the action. But regardless of whether you are seated or moving, because the depicted space remains constant within a sequence, and sequences can only be strung together by using blackouts between them, the effect is of a theater-in-the-round where the audience is center-stage.
In the pieces I saw, the most effective use of movement is when someone or thing approaches the viewer. In Waves of Grace, I was surprised that my actual leg recoiled when a body was carried close enough to have brushed against the place where my unseen virtual leg would have been. My reaction recalled anecdotes about audiences fleeing Paris’s Grand Café, panicked that the train in one of the first movies ever screened, the Lumières’ 1896 L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, was about to mow them down. But in both cases, one’s reaction is not empathetic (the VR promotional buzzword) but rather an involuntary flight response—move away from danger. Empathy is a matter of heart and mind, neither of which was any more engaged by Waves of Grace than would have been by a simple news report. Worse, the sympathy and admiration one might have felt for Davis, who explains that she believes that God allowed her to survive so that she could help others, is nearly obliterated by the kitschy uplift music poured over the sound track.
During my two visits to New Frontier, I participated (is that a good verb?) in pieces that were basically documentary, basically fiction, or basically docudramas. Some were animations, some live-action. Among the most potentially interesting and disturbing was The Leviathan Project, Alex McDowell and Bradley Newman’s collaboration with the USC World Building Media Lab, in which your senses of touch and sight, for very brief moments, conflate the virtual and the actual. Presented as a workshop, Leviathan combines VR with AR (augmented reality) and is in part the result of an ongoing collaboration between USC’s narrative-oriented film department and its gaming department. The piece references a series of sci-fi novels by Scott Westerfeld that fantasizes a late-nineteenth-century merging of animals and machines to make war technology. (Never forget that the first big investor in new representational technology is the military, usually followed by the porn industry.)
The Leviathan of the novels is a whale mated with a flying battleship, or something like that. In the simple part of the piece, you walk around holding a tablet on which you see the Leviathan fly out of a virtual wall and circle the actual space above your head. (I think you can watch this in bad video on a big screen as well, but my sense of space was too deranged to remember exactly.) In the more complicated part, you wear touch-sensitive gloves along with your headgear so that when you enter (via your tablet) the virtual interior of the Leviathan, you can manipulate controls that allow you to create and finger small virtual sea creatures with your actual sensor-equipped hands. I find this extremely scary. People have enough trouble separating what’s real from reality TV. We certainly don’t need to add a kinesthetic element to the confusion.
Many pieces rely on basic kinesthetic disorientation to make you more vulnerable to virtual effects: placing you at the edge of a cliff or a balcony without railings. Either the effect loses its punch before the piece is over or you come away slightly nauseated. The most uncanny sensation was created by Félix Lajeunesse and Paul Raphaël in their Nomads: Maasai. Basically a short travelogue, thankfully without narration, it places you on solid ground in the middle of a Maasai village on an ordinary day. People go about their quotidian activities—eating, talking, dancing. But toward the end of the twelve-minute piece, a man walks from afar, right up to the [unseen] camera and stands looking straight into the lens. Meaning that it seems as if he is locking eyes with you, the viewer, reducing a spaciotemporal distance of half a planet and an incalculable number of years to a single, electrifying now.
There are precedents in the history of cinema for this breaking of the fourth wall: When Nicole Stéphane looks into the lens in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950), it was probably a mistake that no one realized until the negative was developed and it was too late to reshoot. But then Jean-Luc Godard borrowed the mistake and made it intentional at the end of Breathless (1960), with Jean Seberg’s enigmatic stare as she inquires as to the meaning of dégueulasse. And Warhol, in turn, glommed onto Seberg’s stare and built some four hundred “Screen Tests” from it (costuming Edie Sedgwick in Seberg’s Venetian boatman shirt as well). Perhaps it’s that history which made the Maasai villager’s quiet confrontation with the camera so powerful, but I think VR had something to do with it too.
Sundance is going all-out in its support of VR, adding to the existing Sundance laboratory programs one that gives grants to VR storytellers. Many of the big VR companies were in Park City, their publicists inviting interested press to try out the technology in the privacy of their condos. But whether you put on the Oculus Rift or the Samsung Gear VR glasses in public or private, they are too clumsy and heavy to make the VR experience be about anything except wanting to remove the gear after the first minute. Still, Sundance gets points for adventurousness. And in honor of New Frontier’s tenth anniversary, there are plans to tour selections from the program around the country. Put your name on the waiting list now.
The 38th Sundance Film Festival ran January 21–31 in Park City, Utah.
Carlos Hugo Christensen, No abras nunca esa puerta (Never Open That Door), 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 85 minutes.
IF YOU CALL IT FILM NOIR, they will come. At least this is the conventional wisdom in repertory film programming, where it has been proved time and again that postwar noir is money in the bank. This goes for the American films with the French names and the German Expressionist lighting, as well as various international equivalents in crime melodrama (the British “spiv” film, French movies by Becker and Melville). The Museum of Modern Art was turning them away at the doors for “Mexico at Midnight: Film Noir from Mexican Cinema’s Golden Age” in 2015, and now they’ve gone to the other powerhouse industry of Latin American cinema in the years after World War II with “Death is My Dance Partner: Film Noir in Postwar Argentina.”
Organized by Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller and Buenos Aires–based critic and programmer Fernando Martín Peña, “Death is My Dance Partner” is a sampling of six films produced during the Peronist period (1949–56), years marked by booming nationalism under a soft dictatorship. I haven’t seen half the films, including the world premiere of the Library of Congress–overseen restoration of a 1951 adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son, starring Wright himself as Bigger Thomas and directed by Pierre Chenal, a Belgian-born Jew and a noir specialist in prewar France who fled to South America in 1942. I was, however, privy to screenings of a few gorgeous black-and-white prints, on the basis of which I can make a few general observations, such as the fact that Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and the fiction of Cornell Woolrich were unusually influential in Argentina in the early 1950s—of which, more anon.
Inveterate New York rep-goers may recognize the name of Hugo Fregonese from a handful of tough, top-notch Hollywood productions that played around town last year: Apache Drums (1951) and Blowing Wild (1953). A brilliant and peripatetic figure—he made films in his native Argentina, the US, Italy, Spain, and Germany—who is ready for a retrospective of his own, Fregonese is represented here by his 1949 Apenas un delincuente (Hardly a Criminal), his last Argentine effort before returning to a second stint in Hollywood.
Hardly a Criminal begins with the death of a fugitive, José Moran (Jorge Salcedo, who bears enough resemblance to Salvador Dalí to keep things amusing), during a high-speed chase, then details the chain of circumstances leading to his seemingly predestined downfall. A sort of prologue introduces Buenos Aires in a succession of bustling, canted images, defined by the narrator as a “nervous city” whose citizens “run over each other in a nervous rush.” One of these citizens is twenty-eight-year-old, 250-peso-a-month bank clerk Moran, who decides to trade a few years of freedom for an embezzled fortune which he hides away in a ship graveyard to be enjoyed when he comes out of the slammer. From the semidocumentary opening to a central prison-break sequence, Fregonese freely mixes and matches styles, all the while building a central visual metaphor of Moran as a cog in a machine, from a working drone at the bank to a figure caught within the gears of the prison printing presses to yesterday’s news, filed in the cabinets of the metropolitan newspaper.
The image of the carousel, another nefarious mechanism, plays a key role in Hardly a Criminal, where we see Moran as a boy in flashback straining to grab the brass ring. And a carousel opens Carlos Hugo Christensen’s 1952 Si Muero antes de despertar (If I Should Die Before I Wake), like Hardly a Criminal begun with an extended prologue, this one announcing that “the forces of evil can only be vanquished by purity.” During a long and prolific career, Christensen more than once adapted works by countryman Jorge Luis Borges, though he is represented in “Death Is My Dance Partner” by two films adapted from Woolrich stories. (In both cases he is credited under the nom de plume William Irish.) Of these I have seen If I Should Die Before I Wake, which finds remarkable visual analogs to the child’s-eye POV that Woolrich frequently employed. (See also Ted Tetzlaff’s 1949 The Window, adapted from Woolrich’s “The Boy Cried Murder.”) The film is largely filtered through the perspective of Lucio (Néstor Zavarce), the adolescent son of a police inspector who, out of a misplaced sense of youthful loyalty, conceals crucial knowledge about a child murderer after the disappearance of a classmate, and years later must go into action before the killer strikes again. Christensen’s production is marked by touches of the uncanny, with indelible sets which include a jagged pathway leading past the carousel and into eternity, an actually disturbing dream sequence that ends with a murdered girl’s hand emerging from a rubbish pile, and a literal deus ex machina in the climax.
Pierre Chenal, Native Son, 1951, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 107 minutes.
With his film’s sinister fairy-tale touches, referring to Little Red Riding Hood and Hansel and Gretel, Christensen anticipates Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955) by some years, while in other moments he can be found borrowing loosely from Lang’s M, particularly in the use of a piece of chalk as a key clue to finding the killer. If the influence of M is abstract in If I Should Die Before I Wake, it’s quite overt in Román Viñoly Barreto’s 1953 El Vampiro negro (The Black Vampire), the story of a predator on the loose in Buenos Aires that lifts set pieces intact from Lang and Thea von Harbou’s script, remade in Hollywood by Joseph Losey only a couple of years earlier.
As with many remakes that closely follow the original, it is instructive to look at the departures from the model. The role of the child killer, played unforgettably for Lang by Peter Lorre, is ably filled here by Nathán Pinzón, whose hangdog visage is also visible in the prison section of Hardly a Criminal. Barreto introduces a new identification character in the person of Olga Zubarry, playing a chorus girl at a seedy cabaret who catches a glimpse of the murderer from a dressing-room window, but withholds information from the police at the behest of her boss. The question of whether there are political implications to the recurrence of destructive silence as a plot device, both here and in If I Should Die Before I Wake, is best left to someone with a better grounding in Argentine history, though I will note that, as in Hardly a Criminal, room has been cleared in the action of Barreto’s movie for an impressive nightclub scene. Zubarry’s cabaret is hardly a tourist enticement, its clientele a gallery of faces worthy of Otto Dix or Christian Schad, and Barreto likewise shows a gift for typage in assembling the bit players who comprise his ghoulish subterranean criminal class. Tellingly, most of the real ugliness is reserved for the officials charged with bringing in and punishing Pinzón’s murderer: Roberto Escalada’s sanctimonious scumbag lead investigator, or the jurors who show none of the leering kangaroo court’s ultimate mercy.
Six films may be too small a sample to make any sweeping generalizations about the distinguishing features of Argentine crime thrillers, but they are quite enough to testify to the national film industry’s high level of technical refinement, and to add another chapter to the story of the international postwar crime-film boom that all together comprises, to borrow from Borges, “A Universal History of Iniquity.”
“Death Is My Dance Partner: Film Noir in Postwar Argentina” runs Wednesday, February 10 through Tuesday, February 16 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
WAITING FOR MY FLIGHT to Rotterdam among the business travelers of London City Airport, I noticed the room was filled with men in suits. At my quick estimate, the male-to-female ratio stood at approximately nine to one. I began to cast mental aspersions on the sexism of the business world, smugly happy to be well outside it, but then remembered that the field of cinema is not so different. In press screenings the suits disappear but the gender balance remains about the same; ditto for film production. At this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam, only thirty-four of the 252 feature films exhibited were directed by women. Short and mid-length works fared better, with women responsible (either solely or in collaboration) for seventy-six of 225 films. But though the festival came nowhere near gender parity—clear evidence that more work remains—Rotterdam did showcase many outstanding films by women, ranging across geography, generation, and genre.
At Lantaren Venster, home to the artists’ film and video programs, works by Rosa Barba, Yto Barrada, Azadeh Navai, Miranda Pennell, and Leslie Thornton testified to the strength and diversity of contemporary women’s practice, offering a welcome antidote to the still-persistent masculinism of some strands of experimental cinema, perhaps most flagrantly exemplified at IFFR by Peter Tscherkassky’s technically astounding yet ultimately dubious skin flick The Exquisite Corpus (2015). Of particular interest were Shai Heredia and Shumona Goel’s An Old Dog’s Diary (2015) and Laida Lertxundi’s Vivir para vivir (2015), both of which appeared as part of the exceptionally strong shorts program “Notes on Film.”
An Old Dog’s Diary reprises the fragmented portraiture of an artistic subject familiar from I Am Micro (2012), Heredia and Goel’s look at independent filmmaker Kamal Swaroop’s attempts to work outside the Indian film industry. Their latest maintains this interest in the relationship between cultural and economic value by engaging with F. N. Souza, one of the first Indian painters to achieve widespread recognition after Independence and currently one of the highest-valued Indian artists on the secondary market. It is not often that one has reason to speak of “surprise endings” in the world of experimental cinema, but An Old Dog’s Diary makes just such an abrupt pivot in its closing moments, and to tremendous effect. Much of its eleven-minute duration consists of gorgeous black-and-white images of mangroves, a reenactment of Christ carrying his cross (befitting Souza’s formation as a Roman Catholic), and Goan domestic interiors, all intercut with Souza’s drawings and accompanied by his first-person narration in the form of subtitles. The film avoids delivering biographical facts to instead atmospherically evoke the circumstances of Souza’s early life in Goa, before concluding with two shots of Souza’s stunning nude Stella Swift (1958) hanging in a domestic interior, accompanied by an auctioneer’s voice on the sound track. The hammer comes down at 1 crore 50 lakhs (roughly $220,000); prices for Souza’s work have since at least quintupled. This quantification stands in stark contrast to the semiotic economy of the rest of the film, which evades the delivery of information so as to insist on a different, less instrumentalized and measurable relation to the art object. In place of financial speculation, Heredia and Goel invite a different form of conjecture, one that joins the acts of seeing and thinking in a poetic encounter.
Laida Lertxundi, Vivir para vivir, 2015, color, sound, 11 minutes.
Quantification also looms large in Lertxundi’s Vivir para vivir, which approaches the vexed relationship between structure and sentiment, or put differently, between representation and experience. “If I want to remember what happened on this trip, what should I do?” This question, drawn from writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, is introduced at the beginning of the film in subtitles on a black screen, situated between shots of a southwestern mountain landscape. Within this frame of memory and desire, Vivir para vivir probes what happens to embodied experience when it becomes entangled with those techniques that seek to make it manageable and intelligible, filmic representation foremost among them. A color grid—the continuity of the chromatic spectrum disciplined into separate hues—cuts to the filmmaker’s own electrocardiogram, while a heartbeat fills the sound track. The West Coast Experimental Pop Band’s “I Won’t Hurt You” begins, marrying the physiological and emotional realms and opening a space between the measurable heart of the ECG and the unmeasurable heart of metaphor. Film, like an ECG, relies on an operation of quantization, sampling physical reality at twenty-four frames per second, but then reconstitutes movement in a qualitative way that denies and exceeds its preliminary rationalization. This tension between segmentation and synthesis is at the core of Vivir para vivir and surfaces with particular reference to cinema when Lertxundi stages a scenario of projection. She first reminds the viewer of the discrete basis of the apparatus before cutting to an extended series of shots of drifting clouds, precisely the motif that art historian Hubert Damisch saw as escaping the grid of linear perspective to revel in indeterminacy. Throughout the film, one gathers short glimpses of Lertxundi’s trip—a cactus, a cellist, a jar of pickles—that temper its conceptualism with diaristic sincerity.
Lertxundi concludes with a metonymical evocation of the ultimate challenge to representation posed by female desire: A sound recording of a female orgasm was visualized and the resulting images used to generate a synthesizer sound track and a pattern of solid color frames. The orgasm itself remains unheard. In their audiovisual abstraction, these closing frames suggest that private experience enters film only through a transformation beyond recognition—but seen in the context of Lertxundi’s practice, this transformation is not to be characterized negatively but understood as a site of distillation and creativity. As the notion of the quantified self becomes a neoliberal buzzword promising self-mastery and increased productivity, Lertxundi leads her viewers to a very different way of considering how life might be at once measured and unmeasurable, and how the cinema might be situated at the very intersection of the two. Never has Lertxundi’s tremendous ability to both continue and contest a predominantly male tradition of experimental filmmaking been as evident as in this intelligent and moving work, in which she continues to be fascinated by structure while casting doubt upon its ability to capture the flux of life.
Elisabeth Subrin, A Woman, A Part, 2016, color, sound, 98 minutes.
Several of Rotterdam’s high-visibility features by women were festival hits from last year, such as Chevalier (2015), Athina Rachel Tsangari’s darkly comic tale of male narcissism and competitiveness, and Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog (2015), a moving reflection on interspecies kinship, grief, and memory. The Tiger Award competition included world premieres of first features by two women with very established reputations as artists, Fiona Tan’s History’s Future and Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, A Part (both 2016). While Tan attempted to fuse an amnesia narrative with a wide-ranging quasi-documentary meditation on the future of Europe, resulting in an inability to do justice to either, Subrin’s A Woman, A Part testified to the expansive complexity that can be generated out of a restricted set of parameters when expertly executed. Subrin follows Anna Baskin (Maggie Siff), an exhausted actress on the brink who leaves Los Angeles to return to New York, reuniting with her old friends and artistic collaborators Isaac and Kate. If this sounds like Cassavetes redux, think again: With none of the penchant for hysterics characteristic of the misogynist/genius (to echo Le Tigre), Subrin communicates love for the strength and resilience of her characters despite—or because of—their deep flaws, following them as they navigate changing lives, changing technologies, and a changing city. At the premiere, Subrin described her film as being about “the search for authenticity and how it eludes us in an era of branding”; in this regard, she treads in territory not far from Lertxundi, though proceeds through radically different means. A Woman, A Part’s refreshing departures from the norm are to be found less in the film’s form, which remains rather conventional, and more in its treatment of human subjects, particularly its willingness to push back against hackneyed character types and insist on the need to represent diverse people and experiences onscreen. If only more American independent cinema was this poignant and compelling.
At the CineMart coproduction market, Yael Bartana posed the titular question of her fascinating project-in-development What If Women Ruled the World? in the conditional tense. But women did rule the screens of Rotterdam this year—even if they remained unsettlingly outnumbered.
The forty-fifth International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 27 to February 7, 2016.
JOEL AND ETHAN COEN’S HAIL, CAESAR! is the most deliriously enjoyable photoplay to open wide in what’s thus far been a pretty barren new year—and also a seriously funny comedy of ideas, a film of Das Kapital and Capitol Studios, of hermeneutics and the dialectic, all given the bickering story conference treatment.
An ensemble piece set in the twilight of the studio-system era, Hail, Caesar! concerns the goings-on in and around the lots of Capitol. The backbone of the story—and the foreman on Capitol’s production line—is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the studio’s head of physical production, a punctual, efficient taskmaster who keeps his drug-addled, promiscuous stars in line and out of the scandal sheets. While Eddie deals with his latest crisis, the kidnapping of star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of the eponymous film-within-a-film biblical epic, he’s stuck by a crisis of faith. Not religious faith—we see that devout Catholic Mannix, who lives by his wristwatch, is as punctilious in his taking of confession as in his business—but a crisis of faith in the future of the pictures. With a job offer from Lockheed on the table, Mannix suddenly has to ask himself what a level-headed guy like him is doing in a loopy business like this, anyhow.
The Lockheed exec who’s wooing Mannix lets slip about a secret hydrogen bomb test that, along with a line about incoming competition from television and veiled references to the tightening strictures of the Hollywood blacklist, sets the scene at the beginning of the 1950s. While considering his options for the years ahead and trying to suss out the identity of the group called “The Future” who’ve made off with Whitlock and demanded a $100,000 ransom, Mannix has other fires to put out, including finding a solution to the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of Esther Williams–esque water ballet starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), staving off identical twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton, costumed like exotic insects by Mary Zophres), and finessing a transition to drawing-room comedy by hayseed singing cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), under the tutelage of ascot-wearing sophisto director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).
As with their work on the screenplay to Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (2015), which showed an enormous pleasure in quibbling over fine points of contractual language, the Coens fill their latest with angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin disputation, as in an interfaith conference held over potential offenses in Hail, Caesar! at Capitol or a communist study group, meetings that respectively devolve into bickering over the natures of divinity and of man. (“We’re not talking about money,” goes a typical bit of doubletalk, “we’re talking about economics.”) In a film chockablock with diaphragm-wracking laughs, however, perhaps the most dangerous scene involves Laurentz trying, through endless repetition, to coach the hopelessly cracker barrel Doyle to “trippingly” enunciate a line, or to produce a “mirthless chuckle.” Later we see a rough assemblage of the scene, Doyle’s dialogue pared down to “It’s…complicated.” In such solutions to insoluble dilemmas, we see the fabled genius of the system.
The chain-smoking doyenne of the editing suite who plays back the scene, C. C. Calhoun (Frances McDormand), seems likely based on Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s Margaret Booth, one of a slew of the movie’s Golden Age Hollywood in-jokes. A Latin song-and-dance starlet (Veronica Osorio) shares the name of Vertigo’s Carlotta Valdez—significant, or just a red herring to tempt film nerds? A whispered rumor that’s dogged Whitlock from the set of an early film, On Wings as Eagles (the title is always accompanied by the cry of a distant bird), probably avers to a bit of lore involving George Cukor and Clark Gable, while Brolin’s Mannix is a clear reference to, well, Eddie Mannix, a Roman Catholic “fixer” who was in the employ of MGM until his death in 1963. (He reports to “Nick Skank” in New York, instead of the real Mannix’s boss, Loew’s chief Nicholas Schenck.) The Coens even reference themselves, for Capitol Studios also signed checks for John Turturro’s Barton Fink in the 1991 movie of the same name.
While cinephile critics will grant their favorite director artistic license when dealing with most any other corner of history, they’re less forgiving when license is taken with the movies. And it is true that the singing cowboy craze and the “continental” romantic dramas parodied in Hail, Caesar! were more typical of an earlier period in Hollywood, and of course the 1.85:1 aspect ratio used on these films-within-the-film wouldn’t have been in use before 1953. When issuing such quibbles, however, we should bear in mind that we are dealing with a movie that depicts a claque of Communist Party USA–affiliated screenwriters (and…Herbert Marcuse?) rowing out to meet a Soviet sub as it surfaces off the coast of Malibu, in a composition that parodies Washington Crossing the Delaware, accompanied by a solemn Russian choral dirge.
This nautical vignette, with its deliberate matte-paintings-and-miniatures artifice, echoes a soundstage song-and-dance number seen earlier in the movie, in which hoofer Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) leads a rowdy end-of-shore-leave showstopper that by its big finish has evoked Fassbinder/Genet’s Querelle as much as Gene Kelly’s Anchors Aweigh (1945). Though introduced from the perspective of Mannix, waiting in the wings, the set piece is presented as it might look as an assembled finished product, and from the very beginning of Hail, Caesar!, when the opening title of the sword-and-sandals megaproduction (subtitled The Story of the Christ) does double duty as the title card for the Coens’ movie, the relationship between the grandiloquently narrated goings-on on the Capitol Studios lot and what’s happening in their products are helplessly entangled. This is, in short, a historically inaccurate movie about an entertainment-industrial complex that specializes in reckless historical inaccuracy, a Hail, Caesar! that’s no more trustworthy as Hollywood history than The Story of the Christ is as a document of life in the Roman Empire during the reign of Tiberius.
While the Coens enjoy brand name popularity today, there are many who’ve pegged them as glib closet revanchists, and Hail, Caesar! is unlikely to change any minds, with plenty to offend both auteurists (a burlesqued John Ford fill-in) and committed materialists. (Per an old Francophone joke, the anarchistic brothers are best categorized politically as “Marxiste, tendance Groucho.”) Variously frowsy, joyless, and superannuated, the Communist screenwriters are a grotesquerie of fanaticism, closer to the nihilists in The Big Lebowski (1998) than to their actual historical analogues. While Capitol and capitalist Hollywood retell their own story of Christ, the Commies are enacting their modern-dress tale of “sticking up for the little guy,” everyone a lead in the movie in their own mind. Far from being contemptuous of the Dream Factory product, however, the Coens have tried their hand at every genre referred to here: The Western (No Country for Old Men, True Grit), the musical (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with its Busby Berkeley KKK rally), even, after a fashion, the religious epic (A Serious Man). The knock on the brothers has traditionally been that they don’t love their characters—but how they cherish their actors! They’ve given Tatum the best old-fashioned musical number in an American movie this side of Christopher Walken’s dirty boogie in Pennies from Heaven (1981)—a film with which Hail, Caesar! shares more than a few thematic concerns. Brolin, crisp, pressed, and self-contained, is the platonic ideal of a straight man, while Clooney’s clownish, easily indoctrinated dupe is a riotous send-up of political faddishness in the movie colony—all the funnier given the fact that Clooney, mercifully free of Sean Penn self-seriousness, is playing the part. The Coens have also abetted more than a few breakout performances in their day, from Michael Stuhlbarg to Oscar Isaac, and here the discovery is Ehrenreich, perfect when turning on a dime to hard heroism when brought into Mannix’s confidence, or when entertaining a studio-appointed date with lasso tricks on a nightclub outing that could come straight from a period romance.
Doyle and his date are coming from the premiere of his latest, Lazy Ol’ Moon, which we see a snippet of: Doyle croons during a bit of knockabout comic relief in which a drunken cowpoke, chasing the moon and mistaking its reflection for the real thing, belly flops into a watering trough. This dumb pratfall encapsulates the organizing motif of Hail, Caesar!—the conflation of representation and reality—and exemplifies the Coens’ knack for smuggling big ideas in inconsequential-looking packages, the direct inverse of the more usually praised equation of dinky ideas and ponderous style. Hail, Caesar! takes place in a kingdom of illusion, where a cowboy can become a gentleman, an arranged romance or a marriage of convenience can turn into the real deal, and a single actress can be split into twins. The opposed doctrines of the age aren’t solved here, but dissolved: Kingdom of Heaven is the End of History, the light of the Lord is the beam of the projector (“a truth told not in words but in light,” per Whitlock’s climactic monologue), the succor of religion is the succor of the cinema, and the Imitation of Christ is the Second Coming, captured once and for all in glorious Technicolor.
Hail, Caesar! opens in theaters Friday, February 5.
Pablo Larraín, The Club, 2015, color, sound, 97 minutes. Father Silva, Father Vidal, Father Ortega, and Father Ramírez (Jaime Vadell, Alfredo Castro, Alejandro Goic, and Alejandro Sieveking).
PABLO LARRAÍN’S THE CLUB is a purgatorial piece of work—I say this as a recommendation. It begins with an image that combines paradisal peace and deferred satisfaction. A man stands on the beach with his dog. The man describes circles in the air with a furry object attached to a pole by way of a string, and the dog, a greyhound, gives chase, back and forth, leaping and snapping, round and round and round.
The dog is in training for the regular local races that are the sole entertainment outlet for a group of four older men, including the trainer, Vidal (Alfredo Castro, a frequent Larraín collaborator), and one woman who live together in a group home in an ass-end-of-nowhere seaside town somewhere in Chile. We learn in due time that these men are defrocked priests, the woman, Sister Mónica (Antonia Zegers), a former nun placed there to look after them. In this little house in this quiet little coastal town they take their meals and their prescribed constitutionals and deliver their exaltations in the chapel, round and round and round—until one day a new housemate shows up. His name is Father Lazcano (José Soza); he has a mournful, bearded countenance faintly recognizable from El Greco, and like his companions, he’s been excommunicated for indiscretions, his of a sexual nature.
Very soon after Father Lazcano’s arrival, his transgressions will be described in the most graphic of terms by Sandokan (Roberto Farías), a drifter with a swaggering, piratical bearing who, when a boy, was the recipient of the Father’s attentions, and who shows up bellowing accusations outside of the spruce, quiet little house, where usually the only sound is the lapping of the waves and the crackle of the fireplace. Lazcano replies to these accusations by putting a bullet into his brain with a revolver provided by his housemates. Mónica will dutifully sweep his spilled blood from the front steps—a process which, like much that is unpleasant here, is treated with a scrupulous amount of detail—but the incident isn’t so easily swept under the rug. The threat of scandal results in the sudden appearance of Father García (Marcelo Alonso), a kind of troubleshooter from the Archdiocese of Santiago de Chile with a resume full of fancy advanced degrees and a history of shutting down these very sort of “safe house” retreats, part of an ongoing effort to rehab the image of the Church.
The housemates attempt to conceal the circumstances surrounding Lazcano’s death from Father García, who cross-examines them in a series of interviews that recur in the same locked-in two-shot setups, but this becomes impossible when Sandokan, not sated with the blood of one priest, decides to stay in town and continue his persecution of his former clerical persecutors. As the ex-priests, pursued by both García and Sandokan, struggle to cling to their denial of self-knowledge and their comfortable seclusion, The Club takes on elements of a thriller, assigning and subverting audience identification in devious ways. When Vidal, walking on the seashore, catches sight of Sandokan, we for a moment share what appears to be the pedophile’s subjective perspective, and during García’s inquisitions of the priests—who have been banished for reasons including pederasty, kidnapping, and the possession of dangerous political secrets—it is tempting to sympathize with their anguish, rather than with his hard, unblinking sense of justice. Sandokan, for his part, is a gushing font of anguish that just won’t turn off, and the scenes in which Vidal and García try in turn to placate him are among the film’s most unnerving. Here is a victim, one of many, but this one so defined and consumed by his victimhood that it spills out of him uncontrollably, so that nothing can staunch his logorrhea of profanity—not since The Exorcist’s little Regan has the Church had to silence a mouth like this. He is so ugly and relentless in reasserting the fact of his damage, and breaking the meditative silence that hangs over this ragged, sleepy little village, that you might find yourself wanting him to please just shut up. And it’s at this moment that the movie has got you.
Pablo Larraín, The Club, 2015, color, sound, 97 minutes. Sandokan (Roberto Farías).
There are doubtless those who will prefer the smoldering indignity of Spotlight, ever so slightly tinctured for flavor with self-recrimination, to the moral murkiness of The Club, just as there are those who believe The Big Short, by offering the viewer a fixed ethical vantage point, provides a better view and more trenchant commentary than The Wolf of Wall Street on the men who play craps with the world economy. And this matter of preference doesn’t need to be an either/or proposition—though for my money the movie that doesn’t neatly define itself before it closes, that leads the viewer into a blind alley and leaves them there, is almost always the movie that lives longer in the mind, gnawing and scratching away. Larraín has made a such a film, a work steeped in Catholicism’s processes of penance and mysterious images that internalizes the tormented coexistence of Church-sanctioned values of tolerance, compassion, and forgiveness with the unforgivable sins that have occurred under its watch and within its walls. From early on, the possibility of violence suffuses the charged atmosphere, and though the film is least convincing at moments of climactic release, there are a handful of scenes that balance agonizingly on the razor’s edge, as in the exchange where Sandokan, lingering over the grave of Father Lazcano, asks García if the abuser whom he loves and hates is now in heaven, and García replies that he is perhaps somewhere in between, paying for his sins.
This liminal space, this spiritual waiting room, is in a sense the location of the group home. Shot by Larraín’s regular cinematographer Sergio Armstrong, The Club is overlaid with a milky haze, as though seen through cheesecloth. Larraín and Armstrong’s last outing, No (2012), also used a visual “hook,” shooting on three-quarter-inch Sony U-matic magnetic tape to reproduce the quality of 1980s television broadcast footage, and the digital blanching of the footage in The Club is no more a mere gimmick than the “flashing” used on Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971). It defines the movie’s tone, at once vaporous and physically graphic. It gives the impression of an all-permeating damp fog, a dramatis personae who are half-ghost, and a setting that is somewhere between the Chilean seaside and Purgatory, where tens of thousands of years of penance will continue long after the film closes, round and round and round.
Pablo Larraín’s The Club opens in New York on Friday, February 5.
TO THOSE UNFAMILIAR with the name Jack Cole, he is probably best introduced through some names that should be known by even the casual student of Hollywood razzle-dazzle. Cole was a performer and choreographer, today considered the father of American jazz dance, and a direct line can be drawn from him to Bob Fosse, who would marry Cole’s onetime assistant and collaborator, Gwen Verdon. In Hollywood, Cole established himself as a go-to for star-making routines for actresses, even or especially those who were untested as dancers. He was the architect of Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” number in Gilda (1946) and Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the film that initiated a six-movie collaboration with Monroe, whose iconic proportions and wiggling walk Cole helped her to harness the power of. Writing on Cole in Vanity Fair in 1984, Jerome Robbins put the point quite plainly: “Jack Cole’s contributions were so far-reaching that without him present day theatrical dancing would not be the same… All commercial video dance reflects Cole’s work.”
Cole is now the subject of a two-week retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Eighteen films featuring Cole numbers will be screened, and various guests, including choreographer Wayne Cilento, drag artist John “Lypsinka” Epperson, and dance critic (and Cole expert) Debra Levine, will hold forth on the artist’s legacy. That this recognition comes from MoMA is appropriate, for Cole’s style, with its machine-tooled edges, combustible energy, bursts of skittering motion, jagged geometry, jackknife flash, precision stamp, and wiseacre attitude, embodied the very spirit of hard-and-fast modernity. In certain numbers, Cole even seems to blow a kiss-off to the Old World: “Diamonds” turns to big beat and shimmy-shake after a staid waltz overture, while in “What Does an English Girl Think of a Yank?” from Tonight and Every Night (1945), a placid park in Albion is invaded by a blast of brass and jazzbo US sailors, including Cole himself.
Cole was born John Ewing Richter in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1911. His divorced parents abandoned him to boarding school, and along his determined climb to the top of the showbiz heap during the Depression years he abandoned the family name, rechristening himself with a curt, hard new moniker. In Fosse, Sam Wasson’s superb recent biography, the author describes Cole, and Verdon’s first sight of him dancing at Slapsie Maxie’s. Per Wasson, Cole was “a terrible genius, witty, bitchy, crazy, a mean man who worked out of deep pockets of brilliance and anger—and it showed in his dancers… He gleamed like a piece of golden technology, and when he moved, he cut the air like a rain of knives. Erotic and exotic, Cole’s style drew from all aspects of world movement. When he danced, he spared no part of himself, slicing the air with the grace and precision of a ballet dancer, a beast in a gentleman’s body.”
Initially trained in ballet, Cole’s signature style developed through his study of folk dance from around the world—South America, Spain, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia—all of which he integrated with American vernacular jazz moves. He took notes on the dance floors of Harlem, studied Indian bharata nātyam dance with Ravi Shankar’s older brother, and a contemporary vogue for all things exotic vaulted him to the top of the heap of nightclub headliners with his so-called “Hindu Swing.” After conquering New York’s Rainbow Room and Chicago’s Gay Paree, Cole was invited to Los Angeles in 1941 by 20th Century Fox, who hired him to choreograph a Seminole ritual for a Technicolor Betty Grable vehicle called Moon over Miami, and he continued to work in the movie colony, often contentiously, until shortly before Monroe’s death in 1962. (In a signal of things to come, the Seminole number for Moon over Miami landed on the cutting-room floor.)
Richard Sale, Meet Me After the Show, 1951, 35 mm, color, sound, 87 minutes. Delilah Lee (Betty Grable).
MoMA’s retro includes films by distinguished auteurs like Hawks, Vincente Minnelli, and George Cukor, as well as work by largely unremembered journeymen, but when the band strikes up and the music hits, Cole’s imprint is unmistakable, not only in dance style but in every aesthetic element, from camerawork to stark, minimal, often monochrome sets marked with details of particularly Californian midcentury-modern design. When Cole takes the wheel, he enlivens even the most basic programmer, as surely as Lau Kar-leung elevated assembly line Shaw Bros. films. MoMA’s program includes several of Cole’s variations on ethnic dance, like the Hindu jazz numbers in nonentity Walter Lang’s On the Riviera (1951) or “Not Since Niveneh” in Minelli’s Kismet, with sparkplug Reiko Sato setting the tempo of the cobra-head sway. Tonight and Every Night’s “You Excite Me” is a savage flamenco that returns Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino and trained in classical Spanish dance, to her Latin roots, stomping the stage with deadly authority. Time and again one finds Cole delivering images of radiant, imperial femininity, from Monroe’s declaration of principles in “Diamonds” to Hayworth’s simply and elegantly shot “Amare Mio” seduction in Gilda to Mitzi Gaynor headbanging her cockatoo plumage and massacring her backup dancers in “I Don’t Care” in The I Don’t Care Girl (1953). The archetypal Cole soloist performance may be Grable’s “Better Off Betting On a Horse” in Meet Me After the Show (1951), which finds the actress fairly aglow with contempt, pounding the top of the piano like a podium as she decries the “masculine gender” while a shadowplay war of the sexes plays out over her shoulder.
Cole, an openly gay man, also inserted some rather racy paeans to beefcake into his work, including Jane Russell’s “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” number in Gentlemen and Meet Me After the Show’s “No Talent Joe,” in which Grable freely fondles barrel-chested hunks in ancient Roman togs. An iron-willed hardass who spurned sissy stereotypes, Cole plays a significant role in Minelli’s Designing Woman (1957) as Randy Owen, an effeminate choreographer who saves the day when he uses his repertoire of moves to wipe up the floor with a gaggle of mob toughs. Cole was a bit of a tyrant, often clashing with the studio’s front offices, and his set pieces sometimes became collateral damage, with some of what might have been his greatest creations—the “New York number” from Down to Earth (1947) and the “Four French Dances” scene from Gentlemen—only existing today as production stills. What has survived, however, is more than enough confirmation of a potent, original talent whose influence is too ubiquitous to be reduced to a single signature piece.
“All that Jack (Cole)” runs January 20–February 4 at the Museum of Modern Art.