Sondra Perry, Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One, 2015, two-channel video, color, sound, 25 minutes 24 seconds.
MIGRATING FORMS IS NEW YORK’S WEIRD FILM FESTIVAL. I say this with the greatest of affection, for through the years it has, often well ahead of the curve, provided a theatrical showcase to up-and-comers working in all manner of moving-image mediums: Ed Atkins, Ian Cheng, Jacob Ciocci, Laida Lertxundi, James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Zhao Liang, and many more others than I can at this point remember.
Tradition holds that around this point one has to mention that Migrating Forms is the reincarnation of the New York Underground Film Festival, but by the time of its eighth edition it has very much taken on an identity of its own. That identity, however, is one that cannot be clearly defined, and is in constant flux. In its last outing, the fest changed from the previous pick-and-mix format, which meant grab bag thematic shorts blocks, and instead dedicated each program to a single artist. And in recent incarnations, Migrating Forms has distinguished itself as a point of intersection between avant-garde film and digital age new-media art, though this time around works that could be classed with the latter are somewhat thinner on the ground.
An exception is Sondra Perry’s Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One, 2015, a two-channel video which has previously been presented as an installation at venues including MoMA PS1, in which a wandering cursor leads the viewer across two conjoined computer screen desktops and through a personal history that begins with footage of what appears to be a black family’s get-together in which all of the participants are wearing neon-green ski masks, then continues to documentary interviews (though other footage reveals that everything we’re seeing has been staged for the camera) with a grandmother who later sings The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” a performance that shares space on the soundtrack with Roy Ayers, a club track repeating the refrain “Beautiful gorgeous golden girl,” and a YouTube video playing Soundgarden’s “Fourth of July” with Spanish subtitles. The setting is Perry’s hometown of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a pretty ordinary looking seaside ’burg, but the footage unfolds on multiple overlaid panels, a proliferation of individual windows skewing at queer angles or drifting against the green backdrop as though floating in space. There’s a lot going on amid the overlaid frames, and a lot of ideas to unpack about the construction of African-American identity here, but there’s no doubt that Perry, at thirty, has come onto the scene with a sensibility fully formed.
Though previous incarnations of Migrating Forms have never shied away from overtly political content—past editions have included a Glauber Rocha retrospective and The Irish Tapes, John Reilly and Stefan Moore’s 1974 video documentary of The Troubles, for example—this seems the most engaged version of the festival that I’ve seen. Amid the new work there are moments of levity, lightness, and play—Cauleen Smith’s Lessons in Semaphore (2015), a brief urban-bucolic reverie that screens before her straight narrative 1998 feature dryslongo, or Wilkins’s trailer for the fest, a flickering montage of faces that may seem eerily familiar, because in fact they are the stars of the ubiquitous “If You See Something, Say Something” subway ads—but elsewhere we find work that’s wounded, wary, combative. Arthur Jafa’s montage film APEX_scenario (2014), for instance, is an eight-minute sustained assault through image, with scenes of violence and assertive, theatrical confrontation, including performers from Black Flag to Miles Davis to the Geto Boys, and slam-bang art-historical juxtapositions (John Steuart Curry’s 1939 painting John Brown to Caspar David Friedrich’s nineteenth-century Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog), amid all of which the most distinct recurring image is that of bared fangs. It is a film that you might love or loathe, but which is impossible to watch with indifference, a thrown gauntlet.
Jafa is a cinematographer whose high-profile credits include ex-wife Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) and the second-unit work on Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and is also a combative essayist who in 1992 wrote in the pages of Artforum of the “proposition of an authentic black cinema, a cinema as rich in its power and alienation as black music.” If his name is unfamiliar then it’s because he has done a fine job in maintaining his truculent outsider status. In the mincing-no-words department, he’s given a run for his money by General Idea’s Shut the Fuck Up (1984), a response to media attempts to create a domestic pet of the “eccentric” bohemian that combines direct-address testimonies and excerpts from mainstreamed works that make the artist into a figure of fun: The razzing of Yves Klein in proto-shockumentary Mondo Cane (1963), or The Joker’s completion of his art-hoax “masterpiece,” a blank canvas which he titles Death of a Mauve Bat, taken from the Burt Ward and Adam West era of Batman (1966–68).
General Idea was a Canadian artists’ collective comprising AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal active from 1969 to 1994, when Partz and Zontal died of AIDS. The two-part General Idea retrospective continues an ongoing partnership between Migrating Forms and video-art archive and nonprofit Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)—they also represent Perry—as well as a running tradition of mini-revivals. Also in the retrospective section this go-around is a ramble through four decades of Leslie Thornton’s work, including her early films; her tributes to the late actor Ron Vawter, Strange Space (1993) and The Last Time I Saw Ron (1994), are at once phantasmagoric and terribly physical; and the unveiling of Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding (2016), Thornton’s latest (final?) iteration of her open-ended, ever-evolving signature work, which one can contrast with the 2004 edit Peggy and Fred in Hell: Beginning Middle End, also screening. Unfortunately, the archival item that I was most gassed for was unavailable to see before the beginning of the festival, so I will be watching Robert Kramer’s four-hours-and-change end-of-the-’80s Maine-to-Florida road-trip epic Route One/USA (1989) along with the paying public, and here can record only my anticipation.
Tomonari Nishikawa, Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon, 2016, 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes.
While Kramer, no less than Jafa, was an urgently contemporary filmmaker, the work of Tomonari Nishikawa seems almost out of time—you could imagine one of his Super 8 “Sketch Film” series being projected on a sheet at a ’60s loft party, though in fact they come from the mid-aughts, around when he would have graduated from SUNY Binghamton, the kingdom of professor emeritus Ken Jacobs, where Nishikawa now teaches. Each of his films is a game with rules of his own devising, usually revolving around finding what can be done with the physical film strip within imposed parameters. They’re short—the longest tops out at around ten minutes—in many cases by necessity; the “Sketch” films, for example, are diabolically complex, the first a flickering of single-frame street scenes edited in-camera, a whirl of constant change while carrying on a play of dancing diagonals from one frame to the next, discovering recurring patterns in the urban landscape.
Nishikawa’s practice is, in much the same manner, consistently inconsistent, with each film spring-boarding from the last, introducing a new element: whipping camera movement in Sketch Film #3 (2006), color in Sketch Film #4, a switch to bucolic settings in Sketch Film #5 (both 2007). After this cycle Nishikawa began to work with larger gauges of film, a development that opened up new possibilities, and for the past several years he has returned repeatedly to making works that divide up the frame, with each sector representing a different temporal and sometimes physical zone. 16-18-4 (2008) was shot, per the artist’s website, “through a toy camera with sixteen lenses” at the Tokyo Yushun horserace and cuts the 35-mm frame into quadrants, each showing a slightly temporally staggered scene. The 2010 companion films Tokyo – Ebisu and Shibuya – Tokyo go still further, shooting stations on the Yamanote line of the Japan Railway by exposing different sectors of the same film-strip individually to create ghostly effects—a commuter’s disembodied legs appear and then disappear as an approaching train evaporates into thin air. A similar effect is at work in Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon (2016), the most recent of Nishikawa’s films and perhaps the most lovely, with views of bridges over the Yahagi River, near where the artist grew up in Japan, which are vertically divided into six strips, half exposed at dawn and the other half exposed at dusk, with the overall effect suggesting a folding byōbu screen.
Nishikawa’s method inevitably opens the work to discussion in terms of “process,” but it’s also worth noting that they’re films concerned with results—some of them are exhilarating, some implacably sad in a way that’s hard to place, and each is an exquisite, precision-crafted object. For the opportunity to see Nishikawa’s works altogether, the introduction to Perry’s oeuvre, and many other challenges and inducements, mercurial Migrating Forms is to be cherished. There isn’t a Death of a Mauve Bat in the whole bunch.
Migrating Forms runs Friday, March 24–Thursday, March 30 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.
Malcolm Le Grice, Horror Film 2, 1972. Performance view, Raven Row, London, March 4, 2017. Photo: Mark Blower.
VISITORS DRIFTED IN AND OUT of London’s Raven Row all weekend, lying on the floor, sitting on the stairs, waiting out an unexpected power cut, chatting and mixing gin and tonics in the interval (with lemon, of course). The convivial occasion was a weekend devoted to restaging a selection of expanded cinema works by the Filmaktion group, widely recognized as central to the history of artists’ film practice in Britain yet rarely seen due to the difficulty of orchestrating their display.
Curated by Mark Webber, the program formed part of Raven Row’s ongoing episodic exhibition “This Way Out of England: Gallery House in Retrospect.” Open only on weekends from February 9 to March 26, in a different iteration each time, the show draws attention to and reactivates the ethos of Gallery House, an influential but short-lived venue for experimental, interdisciplinary art. In 1972, the German Institute in South Kensington (now the Goethe-Institut) took over the townhouse adjacent to its own with plans for expansion. Gallerist Sigi Krauss was recruited to organize an exhibition program in the empty space prior to the beginning of construction—an undertaking that lasted only until the summer of 1973. A decidedly risk-taking, noncommercial space, Gallery House provided support for emerging artists’ film practices, particularly those that pushed beyond the confines of the movie theater to interrogate the apparatus and its relation to the viewer in an expanded context.
In March 1973, the space hosted a group of filmmakers who would soon assume the name Filmaktion. Eager to move their 16-mm projectors out of soundproof booths and into the proximity of the audience, this loosely affiliated group consisted of core members Gill Eatherley, Malcolm Le Grice, Annabel Nicolson, and William Raban. At Raven Row, all but Nicholson were on hand to present their own works and, when needed, collaborate in the staging of others’. Using multiple projectors and often involving the presence of the filmmaker’s own body, the pieces on view tended to emphasize the liveness of the encounter between viewer and screen, extricating the moving image from an economy of the multiple to insist on its status as a performing art.
William Raban, Take Measure, 1972. Performance view, Raven Row, London, March 4, 2017. Photo: Mark Blower.
A statement on a leaflet produced for the June 1973 Filmaktion week at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool captures the group’s anti-illusionist interests: “From a broad base of using film as film, materially and formally, a concern has developed to treat the projection situation as an immediate reality in time and space.” Each artist’s practice explores this in its own way. Le Grice, for instance, shows a keen fascination with the nonnarrative attractions of early cinema: In Horror Film 2 (1972), shown publicly for the first time since the 1970s, he combines anaglyph 3-D, shadow play, and the rear projection of silent horror films in a spectacular dissection of cinema’s basic principles. Eatherley, meanwhile, often explores the relation between an object—chairs in Chair Installation (1972), the artist’s body as she holds a broom in Aperture Sweep (1973)—as it is at once represented on-screen and materially present in the room. Nicolson’s single-screen shorts Shapes (1970) and Frames (1973) testify to the centrality of contact printing to much of the Filmaktion work. And Raban, in now-legendary interventions such as 2'45'' (1973), as well as lesser-known works such as Diagonal (1973) and Surface Tension (1974–76), turns his attention to the limits of the frame, destabilizing the naturalness of the single rectangle.
The Filmaktion weekend was above all a tremendous opportunity to encounter hard-to-see classics—and for free, no less, as they were at Gallery House. But bringing the group of artists together and presenting their work within the context of an engagement with a historical exhibition space adds significantly to the importance of this event. The promise of a history of exhibitions is to move away from narratives of artistic production founded in the agency of the lone individual. Too often, this commitment is betrayed, as a history of artists gives way not to a network of affiliation but to a history of star curators. “This Way Out of England”—and in particular Webber’s Filmaktion weekend, with its emphasis on the liveness of artworks and friendships alike—offers a glimpse of what the history of exhibitions can be when it refuses to devolve into a history of curators. The event made a case for the importance of considering the networks of support, whether interpersonal or institutional, that undergird artistic practice. The return to Gallery House speaks to the special power of those off-kilter, idiosyncratic spaces that operate outside the norm, producing an impact out of proportion with their size. As Raven Row prepares to close its doors to the public for an unspecified period, it’s something worth remembering.
“Filmaktion: Expanded Cinema and Film Performance” ran March 4 and 5 at London’s Raven Row as part of the exhibition “This Way Out of England: Gallery House in Retrospect” (through March 26).
Donald Shebib, Goin’ Down the Road, 1970, 35 mm, 90 minutes.
IN HIS NEWLY PUBLISHED AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Director’s Cut, the filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, a son of Toronto’s Cabbagetown slums, recalls his response to reading his friend Mordecai Richler’s novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz for the first time, in the late 1950s, when the two Canadian expats were cohabiting in London. “‘Not only is this the best Canadian novel ever written,’ I declared, ‘but one day I am going back to Canada and make a film out of it.’ We then both laughed at the absurdity of the idea because, of course, there was no Canadian film industry whatsoever at this time.”
By the time that Kotcheff finally made his Duddy Kravitz movie in 1974, the Canadian film industry had well and truly burst into being, a process already underway when Richler was finishing his novel, as his hometown of Québec was becoming a hotbed of documentary activity in the “direct cinema” style. In fact, someone interested in these bumptious years of Canadian cinema’s adolescence and young adulthood could put together a pretty good curriculum from Anthology Film Archives programming over the past year. The 2016 survey “Québec Direct Cinema” was followed by a program of tax-shelter films produced under the auspices of the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA), and now following hot on its heels is “1970s Canadian Independents,” a four-film sidebar of outsider movies that wear the impoverished circumstances of their production on their sleeves.
Documentary has been the cornerstone of Canadian cinema from the days of the stern Scotsman John Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) through the blossoming of direct cinema, and the documentary impulse is a factor in all of AFA’s featured independents—both indulging it and defying the rules of the self-appointed guardians of nonfiction purity. Perhaps the best-known movie playing Anthology is Donald Shebib’s northern Neorealist work Goin’ Down the Road (1970), a simple story, simply, truthfully, and forcefully told. Pete and Joey (Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley), two guys from the rural Maritimes facing the far side of thirty who’ve never had a pot to piss in, jump in their junk-heap Impala and head to the land of opportunity that is Toronto. The city air briefly awakens Pete’s aspirations to gentility: He looks for white-collar work at first, and when his buddies are shoplifting Hank Snow LPs from the Country & Western section in the basement of an A&A’s record emporium, he’s upstairs ogling a high-class broad listening to Erik Satie. Joey, who doesn’t have any of Pete’s highfalutin hang-ups, knocks up a waitress, Beth (Jayne Eastwood), and marries her in a sodden, sloppy, and very touching wedding ceremony that feels fly-on-the-wall observed. As the boys move from the promise of spring to a winter of discontent, however, they find themselves in the same jam—ducking landlords, working the worst jobs in Ontario, and finally brawling with a beefy checkout boy in the parking lot of a Loblaws supermarket after an ill-conceived shoplifting heist.
Shebib had made documentaries for both the NFB and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and his cameraman Richard Leiterman, shooting handheld on 16-mm reversal, likewise had a nonfiction background. A great deal of the film’s enduring power lies in the sense of veracity they give it—in the unpolished performances by actors whose faces bespeak the city miles of working-class wear and tear, and in the presentation of crap bowling-alley, car-wash, and bottling-plant gigs. Goin’ Down the Road was influential in style and, if the films in “Canadian Independents” are to be taken as a representative sample, subject matter, for each film in the series is concerned, to varying degrees, with male friendships and with not making it Pierre Trudeau’s Canada.
Frank Vitale, Montreal Main, 1974, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.
Larry Kent had been known for some years before the release of The Apprentice / Fleur Bleue (1971), identified in AFA’s catalogue notes as “arguably the first fully bilingual film to see commercial release in Canada.” I haven’t seen Kent’s student feature The Bitter Ash (1963) or High (1967), both apparently held to be groundbreaking efforts, but this story of Québécois layabout Jean-Pierre (Steve Fiset) lured into a life of larceny by his friend Dock (Jean-Pierre Cartier) while torn between a flighty Anglo model (Susan Sarandon) and his French separatist girlfriend (Céline Bernier) was a little too heavy on counterculture quirk to go down smooth. Fiset has the dark, horse-mouthed handsomeness of a young John Travolta, and Sarandon, in only her second screen role, makes an impression in a transparent, backlit peasant dress, but throughout Kent is over-reliant on low-hanging comic fruit like a priest smacking his lips while hearing of free-love escapades in confession. The seriocomic tone is more wobbly and uncertain than complex, right up to a miscalibrated tragic ending, and the political content seems decidedly glib and from an outsider’s perspective compared to something like Gilles Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac (The Cat Out of the Bag, 1964).
The series does contain real revelation, however, in the little-screened collaborations of Frank Vitale, Allan Moyle, and Stephen Lack. Vitale will be at AFA presenting both his Montreal Main (1974) and Moyle’s The Rubber Gun (1977) alongside motormouthed muse and performer Lack, who appears in both films. Vitale, born in Jacksonville, Florida, first came to Montreal in the 1960s to study at McGill University, where he met collaborator Moyle. Today, Vitale is an instructor at New York’s School for the Visual Arts, while Moyle has tasted respectable mainstream success with the superlative Pump Up the Volume (1990), but in the ’70s they were both regulars of the wide-open, skeevy scene on Montreal’s Boulevard Saint Laurent. This is the backdrop of Montreal Main, written by Vitale, Moyle, and Lack, and starring all three. Frank (Vitale), a bearded introvert described early on as “the noisy silent type,” is a photographer who’s spent time in New York but who now follows his tow-headed partner in crime, Bozo (Moyle), around French Canada. Given that the boys hang out in an almost-entirely homosexual milieu, they begin to suspect the nature of their friendship, but a desultory experiment in mutual masturbation in the VW bus that they cruise around in puts any question to rest. After this, the deceptively cherubic Bozo returns to playing sick-fuck misogynistic head games with teenage hippies, and Frank’s attention turns to the beautiful long-haired twelve-year-old son (John Sutherland) of some friends, with whom he begins a disconcertingly close relationship whose true nature he seems afraid to guess, though there’s a long, telling glance at the nape of the boy’s neck during a daytrip up the Colline de la Croix—the cult of unbounded introspective self-exploration leading to a frightening precipice.
Frank Vitale, Montreal Main, 1974, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes. John Sutherland.
Vitale collaborated again with Moyle on his 1976 East End Hustle—unrepresented at AFA, but certainly worth tracking down—before leaving Montreal and returning to shoot The Rubber Gun (1977), in which Moyle stars and narrates as a McGill sociology student drawn, for ostensibly studious reasons, into the orbit of an amateur artist and professional drug dealer who exemplifies the gift of gab and has a stockpile of amphetamines to keep the gifts coming. The drug dealer is played by Lack, later the (much more sedate) star of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), who made his screen debut in Montreal Main, shooing an old chicken-hawk away from a young Sutherland at a penny arcade before proceeding to rat-a-tat off stream-of-consciousness poetry about “decadent street janitorial paranoia, standin’ here on the tiled urinal of Babylon.”
Lack is a snapping live-wire presence, and the Lack-Moyle-Vitale movies represent a nervous, tweaked-out energy absent from the comparatively lugubrious Goin’ Down the Road—a beer-drinkers’ downer cinema versus a pill-poppers’ uppers cinema, you might say. Studiously reporting on his drug buddies in The Rubber Gun, Moyle’s character describes them as “vitalized by drug use,” but the potential danger of that volatile vitality figures throughout these films, which altogether make up a portrait of Montreal in a moment of deceptively jittery “post-’60s stagnation,” which Vitale described in a 2009 interview: “The Main was populated with Greek and Portuguese immigrants. The shops were owned by former immigrants, the Jews, who had moved to the suburbs. To the east the predominate French culture insulated us from the real world. For a group of us Anglophone artists, who lived on practically no income, the Main was a timeless backwater of communal dinners, art openings and parties.” To this potent brew we can add the intersection of the underground art and criminal communities, as united in Lack’s Rubber Gun character. As a body of work, these Montreal street sketches are among the most dangerous, fearless Canadian films that I’ve seen––proof that stagnation can be remarkably fertile.
“1970s Canadian Independents” runs Thursday, March 9 through Sunday, March 12, at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Eduardo Williams, The Human Surge, 2016, 16 mm, Super 16, and HD video, color, sound, 97 minutes. Chai Fonacier.
AS THE CULTURAL CONVERSATION breaks down into spasms of splenetic indignation, the fear of being misunderstood runs to epidemic levels. In such an atmosphere, it is an increasing rarity to encounter artworks that come packaged without an instruction manual meant to clear up any potential confusion. And if you, like me, are bored to the point of catalepsy by the resulting parade of self-defining artwork that stretches limitlessly toward the horizon, perhaps you’ll make the ideal viewer for Argentinian director Eduardo Williams’s crackling The Human Surge, a dense snarl of a movie that only gets more spectacularly tangled as you try to unravel it.
Williams, who turns thirty this year, had already made a name for himself on the festival circuit with a series of distinctive, globe-trotting shorts when this, his feature debut, took the main prize in the Filmmakers of the Present competition at the Locarno International Film Festival. (The jury included Dario Argento, who knows a thing or two about formal bravura.) The Human Surge is a maverick work, the most obvious of its distinguishing traits being its triptych form, which individuates each section through location and visual texture. The first part, set in a flooded neighborhood in Buenos Aires, is shot on 16 mm. The second, in Maputo, Mozambique, achieves a unique palette with footage originally captured with a Blackmagic pocket camera that has been filmed off of a computer screen onto Super 16. In the final section, Williams takes a RED Scarlet digital camera to the Philippine province of Bohol.
None of these abrupt location changes are announced by signposting, and Williams takes no pains to keep a sluggish viewer abreast of what’s going on. Each section trots out new “protagonists”—I use scare quotes because it took me a second viewing to get a handle on the narrative elements, in no small part because I was gobsmacked by the total audacity of the thing the first time around. Even Williams’s cameraman doesn’t always seem to be clear on whom he’s supposed to be following, as subjects are picked up and dropped as if by caprice. A bit of dialogue that occurs late in the film—“Have you tried following a beautiful girl when you’re lost?”—seems close to the logic of the camerawork, which feels responsive, alive, unmoored, quixotic, erratic, obedient to whim. The film’s signature move is a wavering handheld sequence shot trailing behind or alongside a character or characters—not the intimate shoulder-perch shot familiar from the Dardenne brothers or a hundred Hubert Bals Fund movies, but one that instead keeps the camera carefully at an uncomfortable distance, where facial features, if visible at all, are just on the cusp of legibility, a distance that stirs a certain tension in the viewer, makes you feel like if you just squint and lean in a little you might get it. This is frequently combined with murky, grainy low-light or even pitch-dark settings, reducing the subjects to disembodied voices, as in a scene where the Argentinian kids pile into the hollow of a tree trunk.
Eduardo Williams, The Human Surge, 2016, 16 mm, Super 16, and HD video, color, sound, 97 minutes. Luca Julián Lopez, Ezequiel Cirigliano, Sergio Morosini, and Emanuele Serra.
Williams and his dual DPs, Joaquin Neira and Julien Guillery, have found their style and tone in part by pulling from the lexicon of amateur videography, from cell-phone video to pornographic webcam—as early as his 2011 short Could See a Puma, Williams can be found experimenting with similar free-floating cinematographic peregrinations. It’s an aesthetic appropriate to the film’s subjects: roving bands of twentysomethings, mostly male, mostly seen at leisure, on their way to nowhere in particular at a rambling, ambling pace, talking about nothing much at all. The dialogue is of tossed-off observations, frequently overdubbed, which occasionally veer into the territory of the poetic-philosophical. “Did you know the future’s silence is going to sound just like a crowded food court?” asks one boy. “I dreamt the sky was covered in advertisements,” muses another. The Argentine section revolves around Exe, one of the film’s more clearly delineated characters, living in his cramped family home, fired from a job as a supermarket stock boy, and keeping up a sideline in webcam exhibitionism with friends—there is an unstimulated sex act, startling precisely for how casually it occurs, for the sheer banality of the thing. In Mozambique, we pick up with another group of boys seen doing the same burlesque with less commitment, a way to make a quick buck between odd jobs—desultory office work, migrant labor, hanging out behind the counter at some kind of arcade. Finally, we surface on the other side of the world, in Bohol, where a cache of characters whose previous acquaintance is difficult to gauge wander through jungle undergrowth, congregating around a swimming hole, where they splash about while discussing, among other things, the possible location of a cyber café.
Up until a tripod-stabilized postscript inside an antiseptic Philippine factory that manufactures tablet devices, the film’s abiding aesthetic is ramshackle, slipshod, and willfully off-key, though Williams is very capable of creating very precise coup de cinema effects, reserved for the transitions between sections. Passing from Argentina to Mozambique, we seem to travel seamlessly through a computer screen to arrive on the other side, while the leap from Mozambique to the Philippines follows a stream of urine falling on an anthill to plunge into the underground tunnels, mingling in close quarters with the shiny black bodies of the teeming insects. (There are shades here of the dive beneath the manicured lawn in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet .)
Eduardo Williams, The Human Surge, 2016, 16 mm, Super 16, and HD video, color, sound, 97 minutes.
Williams endeavors to pass through the wiring of intricate networks in the case of both the internet and the anthill. The casual air disguises The Human Surge’s thematic coherency, beginning with the title’s invocation of organic-technological hybridity, as echoed in the analog-to-digital progression of its format shift, or in a moment where a child is heard measuring the human genome in gigabytes. While precious few filmmakers have seriously attempted to address the enormous cognitive earthquake represented by the internet’s colonization of daily life, Williams dares and is actually up for the challenge. From an interview last year:
“My brain and practice have been transformed by technology. For example, by the video games that I played when I was young. In video games, you have these different levels that you advance to, moving through multiple spaces. And then the chats—at many points in my life, it seemed like online chatting was my only means of communication. It is a different way of speaking, of connecting. I didn’t think of it at first, but this is why I structure my films the way I do. It’s about how I see and relate to the world.”
Inasmuch as his film’s subjects have a single unifying purpose, it is to get themselves online—cadging working cell phones from friends or ranging around in search of a wifi signal. Binaries are invoked only to be busted wide open. Williams shows us ways of life at once state of the art and primitive, borderless and highly parochial, under the sway of both science and superstition. In a discursive conversation about “Black Magic,” two of the Mozambique youths muse over “people controlling one another from afar”—which, of course, is exactly what happens on the Chaturbate site they log onto. And while a sense of threatening environmental cataclysm hangs over the movie from the early images of streets flooded by an unspoken catastrophe, the film is also suffused with moments of bucolic natural beauty, of unspoiled beaches and forests and open fields in what seems like a perpetual gloaming. The mood of The Human Surge is mostly one of repose, but repose haunted by the prospect of work, the threat of which is felt throughout the film—shirking it, submitting to it, dreading waking up to it, getting fired, walking off of the job. (And yes, those are worker ants.) It makes for an exhilarating, boldly paradoxical experience—a headlong dive into the rich, knotty, sticky undergrowth amid a proliferation of tidy, well-lit paths.
Fernando Pérez, Últimos días en la Habana (Last Days in Havana), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes. Diego (Jorge Martínez).
DIEGO (JORGE MARTÍNEZ) has been reduced to the status of permanent patient. Dying of AIDS, he lies in bed in the apartment he shares with Miguel (Patricio Wood), a friend with whom he has little in common other than that Miguel once defended him from bullies when they were adolescents. In the depressed environs of contemporary Havana, Miguel has gone into a sort of internal exile. By day, he scrapes by as a dishwasher at a restaurant; at night, he gazes at a map of the United States in the kitchen, dreaming of escape, while in the bedroom, Diego holds court with his ferocious wit in gossip sessions with neighbors, hustlers, and distant relatives.
Through this concentrated, rather minimal storyline, Últimos días en la Habana (Last Days in Havana), the latest from Fernando Pérez, evokes the essence of life in the Cuban capital today—the street-level feel of abject desperation mixed with riotous humor and a wealth of creativity in managing the challenges of quotidian life. These rich emotions specific to the Cuban experience reach their apotheosis at the film’s end, when, in an intimate and moving monologue, one of the characters confides, “My greatest fear isn’t change—it’s that nothing will change. That everything will remain the same.”
It was a cinematic force field such as this example for which the Berlin International Film Festival was built, and as its sixty-seventh edition wound to a close last week, I recklessly wandered through without submitting to any one particular program. There were too many discoveries to be made outside the feature competition: Últimos días, for instance, was in the noncompeting Berlinale Special program, while Bruce LaBruce’s latest, The Misandrists, made a splash in the Panorama section. Here, LaBruce returns to his enduring obsession with radical leftist clans, bringing back The Raspberry Reich’s (2004) Susanne Sachsse as the leader of an underground lesbian-separatist enclave in the rural outskirts of Berlin. With its international mix of professional actors and beautiful scenesters, The Misandrists is LaBruce’s radical feminist hijacking of the “women-in-prison” and “girls’ school” B-movie genres, demonstrating how humor as a political weapon is infinitely more tactical than didacticism . . . especially when it’s combined with didacticism! It is one of his best films in years.
All but ignored by critics and the jury, newcomer Liu Jian’s animated feature Hao Ji Le (Have a Nice Day) is a memorable black comedy–slash–violent thriller that centers on the theft of a bag containing a million yuan. The film’s colorful palette is a spot-on evocation of China’s neon-sleaze cityscapes, the voice-over acting is superb, and the sharp script offers a fresh take on materialistic obsession in today’s not-so-red China. Another genre mash-up, Japanese director Sabu’s Mr. Long begins as a blood-soaked martial-arts film before morphing into social drama, then melting into a tender romance, and then switching back to an edge-of-your-seat thriller culminating in tear-drenched drama. It could’ve been a mess, but Sabu’s expert direction, together with an understated performance by lead actor Chang Chen, made for a masterful piece of storytelling.
German filmmaking has never quite recovered from the storm of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Watching a restored version of Fassbinder’s 1973 science-fiction miniseries Welt am Draht (World on a Wire) in a 205-minute-long marathon screening at the Berlinale pointed toward a gnawing lack: It all comes down to style. Fassbinder’s great accomplishment was to make films as though he had never seen a film before, as though he were both a cine-naïf and someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic art. Style is a heightening of affect that is unique to each practitioner, and Fassbinder’s position as a stylist is unparalleled. You can watch a work as masterfully and complexly scripted as Welt am Draht for pure style, following the magnificent Fassbinderian flow of affect: the 360-degree revolving shots, the sudden and inexplicable crescendo in a character’s spiel, the casting of exclusively smoky-voiced male baritones, the bizarre gesticulations of a supporting character in the distant background. Watching Fassbinder in the context of the contemporary filmmaking showcased by the Berlinale highlights the relative flatness—or affectlessness—that passes for style today, but which is actually a lack of style. In the end, the very presence of Fassbinder at this year’s Berlinale made the absence of any disrupting force acutely felt.
The Sixty-Seventh International Filmfestspiele Berlin ran February 9 through 19.
Mark Lester, Class of 1984, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes.
AFTER THE EMERGENCE of alluring Canadian production subsidies in the late 1990s, moviegoers of the aughts became inured to watching downtown Vancouver fill in for AnyCity, USA, in a parade of multiplex productions that managed to extract bland back-lot anonymity from location shooting. But Anthology Film Archives’ twelve-film series “Gimme Shelter: Hollywood North” pays tribute to a very different, pioneering era of runaway production, part of an ongoing sesquicentennial celebration of our neighbors above to be followed by “1970s Canadian Independents,” beginning at Anthology on March 9.
The story of Canadian cinema, like that of the Canadian confederation’s birth, is told in no small part through heroic acts of legislation. It was the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC—now TeleFilm Canada) that gave the heretofore underdeveloped Canadian fiction feature industry a shot in the arm, while the golden age of “tax shelter” movies began with the 1974 institution of the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA), offering a 100 percent tax deferment for investments in productions deemed sufficiently Canadian in cast and crew. It’s the offspring of the CCA—the so-called Canuxploitation films whose history is lovingly detailed at the website Canuxploitation.com—that “Gimme Shelter” makes its focus.
Many of the auteurs of Canuxploitation were, in fact, adventuring Americans, such as Mark Lester, whose Class of 1984 (1982) is one of the industry’s sacred texts. An unholy marriage of Up the Down Staircase (1967) and Death Wish (1974), it stars Mandingo’s Perry King as a band teacher with a chinstrap beard trying to make a difference in the postapocalyptic environment of Abraham Lincoln High School, whose walls are covered with surreal graffiti. Lincoln flies the stars and stripes out front, though little details give away the game—the pronunciation of “sorry” like it’s a county in England, a drug deal involving a young Canadian actor billed as Michael Fox that goes down in the “washroom,” a blueprint for a “summer cottage” hanging in the drafting class, and Roddy McDowall—who gives a disconcertingly committed performance—flipping his car and dying in a fireball in front of Barberian’s Steak House at the intersection of Elm and Yonge in downtown Toronto. In fairness, Lester does keep the CN Tower out of frame.
David Cronenberg, The Brood, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 92 minutes.
Class of 1984 pushes its clichés until they pop with a kind of delirious pleasure, though here there are also films that take a more traditional path toward greatness. Toronto’s own David Cronenberg is represented by The Brood (1979), his third and most totally successful venture into body-horror exploitation, in which emotional repression—that shared specialty of cold-climate countries—breeds actual children, with Samantha Eggar as the proud mother of a litter of homicidal rage babies. (It should be mentioned that almost all of the series will be projected on film, and if this is the same print of The Brood that I saw when freshly struck a couple of years ago, its traumatic images have never looked better.) We also have Bob Clark’s Black Christmas (1974), today acknowledged as one of the progenitors (and exemplars) of the slasher movie cycle, which employed an earlier version of the stalker-point-of-view shot that John Carpenter would reproduce in his Halloween (1978), here accomplished without benefit of Steadicam technology. Camera operator Bert Dunk wore a rig mounted on his head while crawling through the windows and shimmying down from the attic of the menaced sorority house on the University of Toronto campus, where the film lays its scene. Just as impressive as Clark’s technical acumen are the performances he gets from an excellent ensemble cast, including SCTV’s Andrea Martin and, as the house’s sybaritic, much-sloshed sister, an extremely charming Margot Kidder in a choker-and-chambray combo, fresh off Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and in full flower of scream queendom.
Among these exploitation efforts there are also art-house productions like Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980), offering one of the last great roles of Burt Lancaster’s extended Grand Old Man phase, as well as, for those so inclined, a sidebar of “adult” animation features—a category that in the early 1980s was made to refer to films owing a heavy debt to Ralph Bakshi and which devoted a tremendous amount of attention to realistically capturing the motion of pendulous, braless mammaries. Heavy Metal (1981), produced by Ivan “the Terrible” Reitman, is here, an omnibus created by recruiting contributions from animation studios around the world. Canadian company Nelvana received an invite but passed in order to concentrate on its own debut feature Rock & Rule (1983), a multimillion-dollar rock opera set in a dystopian future where anthropomorphic humanoid rodents, including our heroes, striving young band members who bear a striking resemblance to the Cheap Trick lineup, are ruled over by an aristocratic, sepulchral glam rocker who sings with the voice of Lou Reed. The movie was something of a staple at the video store I used to work at; on revisiting, it turns out that it plays quite a bit better when you’re working a cash register half the time.
Zale Dalen’s Skip Tracer (aka Deadly Business ) rewards closer scrutiny, following the misadventures of debt chasers doing their business in the grittier precincts of Vancouver. A sense of the quiet desperation of clinging to middle-class respectability comes across vividly, though the film’s pervasive drabness threatens monotony, as the relentlessly downbeat tone even infests scenes of initial seduction and exhilaration with the repo lifestyle. And while David Petersen usually exudes just the right kind of bland malice in the lead role, he doesn’t quite have the chops to pull off the 180-degree atonement that the script demands. No schnook’s redemption is forthcoming in Sudden Fury (1975), a resourceful zilch-budget thriller set in rural Ontario in which a simmering domestic dispute and a road-rage incident snowball into multiple murders, with Dan Hennessey, an innocent motorist and John Oates stand-in, having to outsmart Dan Hogan, a scheming uxoricidal maniac in a repugnant plaid blazer. Director Brian Damude has an eye for landscape and gets nice suspense effects from simple but well-deployed crosscutting exercises, allowing the movie to work up a real cornered-animal frenzy in the last reel, though the final exchange between befuddled detectives examining the carnage (“It sure is a helluva mess.” “I know, I already said that.”) isn’t exactly one for the books.
Sudden Fury is the lone feature-length directorial outing of Brian Damude, who now teaches at Ryerson University, while Blood Relatives (1978) was Claude Chabrol’s thirtieth credited long-player since debuting 1958’s Le Beau Serge. Blood Relatives is an adaptation of one of Ed McBain Eighty-Seventh Precinct novels with Maritime provinces native Donald Sutherland giving a becalmed read of McBain’s detective Steve Carella, with the action here transposed from Manhattan to Old Montreal. Donald Pleasence, supremely unpleasant in playing a pederast suspect in a teenage girl’s stabbing death, makes a manful attempt at a Québécois accent. However, Blood Relatives suffers from having the French-speakers among its bilingual cast, including Chabrol’s collaborator and wife, Stéphane Audran, poorly dubbed into English. The film does, though, come at the end of the peak period of collaboration between Chabrol and cinematographer Jean Rabier, who died last year, so if the dialogue sometimes falters the film never lacks for visual elegance, particularly in an extended flashback sequence narrated from the victim’s diary, all confectionary pastels laced with strychnine.
The revelations of incest and hidden resentments contained in this key piece of evidence make for yet another of Chabrol’s portraits of the bourgeois family as a kind of lockdown hell, a sentiment that emerges in a very different form in Hungarian-born Nicolas Gessner’s deeply icky The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976). Set in the remote wilds of Maine but shot in the lakeside Victorian village of Knowlton, this southern Quebec Gothic features a Taxi Driver–vintage Jodie Foster left alone to fend off local creeps, including floppy-haired local pedo Martin Sheen, who gets an indelible scene involving a lit cigarette and a pet hamster. As we reach yet another juncture when right- (or left-) thinking Americans threaten to move to Canada in droves, Anthology provides an essential scared-straight session for the potential émigré. Don’t be fooled—these people are terrifying.
“Gimme Shelter: Hollywood North” runs February 24 through March 8 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.