Jeff Tremaine, Jackass: The Movie, 2002, 35 mm, color, sound, 98 minutes.


THE FILMS THAT WILL BE PLAYING at Anthology Film Archives in “This Is MiniDV (On 35mm)” are collected according to a simple principle, but for this viewer they conjure up a complicated welter of feelings. In keeping with recent (and welcome) developments following the DCP changeover catastrophe, which have raised awareness of projection format and brought us festivals and programs dedicated to nitrate film and 3D restorations, ultra-niche “This Is MiniDV” looks at a brief moment in the late 1990s and early aughts when the digital revolution was only partially complete: almost totally in postproduction, an outlier in production, and in distribution not at all. With 35 mm still the standard for theatrical projection, this meant that even films shot on the wave of consumer-grade standard-definition DV cameras would have to be printed on celluloid if they were to reach a wide audience, and the reels unspooling at AFA are the remaining artifacts of this bygone era.

The program comes courtesy of rep film-listing site Screen Slate, the only website that actually gives me pleasure in checking daily, and it has a particular poignancy for one of my vintage. This comes from the fact that their heyday happens to approximately correspond to my film school undergraduate years, when I was an Earnest Young Man fired with enthusiasm for the cinema—they are a Proustian madeleine of murky palette and digital artifacting. It was a moment where one might still be taught editing by cutting 16-mm stock of a Gunsmoke fistfight on a flatbed Steenbeck while being told in class that the future of the medium was a movie shot by a young Dane on a Sony DCR-PC3 Handycam: Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration (1998).

Vinterberg’s film, which makes flashy use of the Handycam’s lightweight mobility and ability to burrow into the smallest crevasses, is key for several reasons. Concerning an eldest son’s determination to torpedo his father’s sixtieth birthday by letting all those assembled know that the grand old man molested him, it was an early augury of the relationship between the “raw” aesthetic of early DV and touchy subject matter. The return of the (sexually) repressed was hot stuff at the time, hence Miguel Arteta’s Chuck & Buck (2000), which reunites two preadolescent fuckbuddies as very different adults. The movie’s bouncy, twee sound track cues, awkward-pause comedy, and “I’m okay, you’re okay” resolution set the stage for a thousand Sundance abominations to come. Digital was also meant to confer authenticity, something that Michael Winterbottom toys with in his glib Manchester music-scene panorama 24 Hour Party People (2002), intermixing stock footage with original DV material to recapture the immediacy of this period’s incredible creative ferment, as well as to convey the drab gray-brown cruddiness of northern England in the 1970s. (The film’s stations-of-the-cross treatment of Ian Curtis’s suicide is still leering and ghoulish, though this time through I did appreciate the subtle hints of Alan Partridge that star Steve Coogan brings to the character of Factory Records cofounder and Granada Television presenter Tony Wilson.)

The Celebration is also distinguished as the first film to earn “Dogme 95” classification. The term refers to a manifesto signed by Vinterberg and his countryman Lars von Trier that puts forth a list of “Vows of Chastity”—only location shooting, handheld camera, no special effects, and minimal lighting—which, if followed, would supposedly detoxify a film culture corrupted by artifice and filthy lucre. Von Trier is represented at AFA by his Dancer in the Dark (2000), a gallows musical starring Björk that wasn’t Dogme-certified but which did stage its seven production numbers live, capturing them warts-and-all with something like a hundred cameras running simultaneously. When the movie arrived in theaters, its star was coming off as good a three-album run (Debut, Post, Homogenic) as any solo artist has ever had, and Dancer in the Dark is of interest in the sense that any document of a once-in-a-generation talent at her prime must be. Though it should be said that while something like “Hyperballad” has given me insights with lifelong application, there’s little worth mulling over in this dour reworking of the Dennis Potter/Herbert Ross Pennies from Heavens (1978/81), which contains perhaps the silliest courtroom scene in film history and can barely conceal its snide superiority to showbiz razzle-dazzle. (It takes courage to enjoy it, Lars.)

Lars von Trier, Dancer in the Dark, 2000, 35 mm, color, sound, 140 minutes.


Like Protestantism and so many reformative movements, Dogme 95 mostly came down to an excuse to cut corners and not do tiresome things under the guise of purification. It was enormously influential for a spell among young men looking for a creed, as were the jeremiads of blowhard academic and John Cassavetes biographer Ray Carney, but vows of poverty look a little less appealing when the visual impoverishment of cinema is a rule rather than exception. Still, back then Dogme quickly went international, and its challenge was taken up by alleged wunderkind Harmony Korine in his Julien Donkey Boy (1999), an alarming combination of desperate, fraudulent performances and inspired ideas for what to do with a DV camera. Take, for instance, the scene in a thrift store with Chloë Sevigny––not for a moment believable as a working-class Queens girl––given a measure of veracity by the fact that it’s caught with a glasses camera.

The hidden-camera aesthetic is also essential to the two legitimately great American films in the series. The first feature-film spinoff of the MTV show of the same name, Jackass: The Movie (2002) was the apotheosis of a decade-plus of suicidal backyard stunts and skate video culture, specifically the tapes produced by Big Brother Magazine and Bam Margera’s CKY contribution. The Jackass films, which move between pranking passersby and testicular trauma– or vomit-inducing stuntwork, have sometimes been classed up by comparisons to silent comedy, but they have no story lines to speak of, just a series of ingeniously idiotic vaudevillian blackout skits presided over by the deadpan emcee/punching bag Johnny Knoxville. The knockabout American tradition is likewise drawn on in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), which has Damon Wayans’s adenoidal Ivy League–educated television writer developing a wildly offensive minstrel show in anticipation of being released from his contract in the ensuing fracas, only to wind up with a massive hit on his hands. While weighed down by some rote dramatic passages in its latter half, the movie at its best is a volatile and highly inappropriate piece of gonzo filmmaking with something to offend everyone. Contemporary reviews were tepid—Roger Ebert found the film “perplexing”—but Bamboozled is alive precisely because it gives a sense of being at war with itself: Wayans’s character is persuasive and cuttingly articulate even as he argues against the film’s apparent thesis, while the scenes of the studio tapings of “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” express the depths of Lee’s misanthropy, an outright contempt for the gormless masses. And unlike the ham-handed satire of Lee’s Chi-Raq (2015), the movie is a sick comic riot, from Michael Rapaport’s blowhard wannabe ’hood network exec to Wayans’s over-enunciated voice-over reading, “Needless to say, the Mau Maus did not fit into our plans.”

DV gave access to young filmmakers—AFA’s program includes The Forest for the Trees (2003), the debut of twenty-six-year-old Toni Erdmann director Maren Ade. It also acted as an agent of rejuvenation for those not so young. When Agnès Varda made The Gleaners & I (2000), she had her career’s worst debacle just behind her, the woeful, cameo-studded cinephile nostalgia trip A Hundred and One Nights (1994), but the ability to operate as a one-woman crew seemed to refocus and rejuvenate her. Some will also claim Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002), a film consisting almost entirely of dashboard-mounted views of the driver (the excellent Mani Akbari) and passengers in a small coupe moving around urban Tehran, as among the Iranian filmmaker’s supreme accomplishments, though it seems to me, while occasionally quite moving, basically a formal experiment exploring DV’s capacity for long takes, particularly suited to shooting with nonprofessional performers without fear of burning through precious film stock.

David Lynch, Inland Empire, 2006, 35 mm, color, sound, 180 minutes.


Pedro Costa was working along not entirely dissimilar lines beginning with his 2000 In Vanda’s Room, shooting hundreds of hours of material on DV with the residents of Lisbon’s since-bulldozed Fountainhas slum. With Colossal Youth, Costa established himself as a trailblazer in digital cinematography, not mimicking the effect of film but exploring the new medium in its own right, while, somewhat atypically in this company, keeping his camera locked down on a tripod. Ventura, a retired Cape Verdean construction worker, is at the center of Colossal Youth and appears in every scene, whereas the sunlit sky appears in almost none—a sliver of blue here, a blown-out window there. Costa gets ravishing low-light images, deep blacks in his chiaroscuro compositions, and a remarkable sense of the patina of rooms which have seen so much hardship, contrasted to the immaculate walls of the new housing project, which have seen none, free of ghosts but also without a soul.

Colossal Youth was released in 2006, by which time digital had begun to make significant inroads in Hollywood productions—take Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, shot with the high-end high-def Thompson Viper FilmStream—and it forms an outlier in the series with David Lynch’s Inland Empire from the same year. Lynch had for years been an analog holdout, cutting films on a reel-to-reel Kern when the rest of Hollywood had long since gone Avid, but when he went digital he did so with the zeal of a true convert, and in a 2006 Wired interview, he can be found rhapsodizing about the computerized future with characteristic “gee whiz” wonderment. (“If we keep our thinking caps strapped on, we could find something beautiful out there in the ether.”) Always attuned to texture like the painter-cum-director that he is, Lynch used his SONY PD-150—formerly a professional-grade camera, which, by that time, had become affordable to consumers—to pursue the possibilities of pixelated impasto, while filtering the tropes of B-noir through an appropriately chintzy-looking twenty-first-century aesthetic. From this breakthrough a straight line can be drawn to Lynch’s ongoing Twin Peaks: The Return, a program that suggests the artist, like the rest of us, has seen something altogether more malevolent emerge from the digital ether in the past decade.

Nick Pinkerton

“This Is MiniDV (on 35mm)” runs through August 22 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Philippe Garrel, Le révélateur, 1968, 35 mm, black and white, 67 minutes.


SELF-MYTHOLOGIZATION WAS BUILT into the story of the Zanzibar Group from the beginning. A loose confederation of young amateur filmmakers joined together in the late 1960s around shared radical politics and the patronage of twenty-five-year-old heiress Sylvina Boissonnas, they were named retrospectively for a voyage undertaken by one of their number, Serge Bard. Bard was a dropout from the ethnology department at the university of Nanterre who had crossed the African continent to reach the revolutionary Maoist government of Zanzibar, making a film along the way.

Bard never completed his proposed movie—somewhere en route he converted to Islam, took the name Abdullah Siradj, forswore representative art, and moved to Mecca—but a passion for the idea of flight from capitalist society, as well as violent revolutionary fervor expressed through oblique means, is among the features that unify the Zanzibar films, several of which will play through the month of August at Los Angeles’s Cinefamily theater. Most of the movies were shot in 1968 and 1969, when Boissonnas was willing to spring for 35-mm film stock. Though the dream didn’t last long, going to pieces as revolutions have a tendency to do, including the bloodbath in Zanzibar, it left behind a rich, combative body of work.

Presenting the program will be the multihyphenate Jackie Raynal, former programmer of New York’s Bleecker Street and Carnegie Hall cinemas. She will also be introducing her Barcelona-shot film Deux fois (1969), which opens with the director tucking into a lunch spread before announcing the subjects of vignettes to come, like a table of contents, and proclaiming, “Tonight will be the end of meaning.” The meaning-making interplay between spoken word and image, and a desire to disrupt their accepted relationships, runs through the Zanzibar corpus, such as in Bard’s Détruisez-vous: le fusil silencieux (Destroy Yourself: The Silent Gun, 1969) and Patrick Deval’s Acéphale (1968), a document of youth picking through the post-1968 rubble—the title translates roughly as “headless,” and it contains the exhortation, “It’s time to abandon the bright lights of the civilized world.” Shot on Bard’s old campus shortly before its May ’68 riots spread across France, Détruisez-vous stars Caroline de Bendern as a young woman haltingly discussing the prospect of revolutionary activity with a girlfriend (Juliet Berto), a sullen, quiet young man (Thierry Garrel), or an unseen interlocutor. If the stammering de Bendern is sometimes a less than convincing revolutionary firebrand, we discover this may have something to do with the fact that she is paraphrasing the speeches of a professor, played by Alain Jouffroy, a figure who Zanzibar historian Sally Shafto has identified as “a crucial mentor for these young people.” (De Bendern, an English aristocrat, was disinherited by her grandfather after a photograph of her holding a Vietcong flag on the Boulevard Saint-Michel became an iconic image of 1968.)

Jackie Raynal, Deux Fois, 1968, 16 mm, black and white, sound, 75 minutes.


Détruisez-vous isn’t the proverbial undiscovered masterpiece, but it is of interest as an exploration of the feminine struggle with the macho mode of revolutionary discourse and as an illustration of the impact that Warholian primitivism, then newly introduced to France, would have on the Zanzibar films. The film is also of interest for its communication unhampered by language and the possible influence it would have on Thierry’s brother, Philippe Garrel, whose filmography is marked by a preoccupation with capturing thought in motion.

Garrel was the central figure of the group, and the one who went on to a long and historic career. He’d begun making films before his coevals—his first was completed in 1964, when he was sixteen. Garrel fell in with Bard, Jouffroy, and Raynal at the festival of young cinema at Hyères, where his first feature, Marie pour mémoire (1968), had taken a prize, which he accepted while announcing he was leaving cinema to pursue the business of prophecy. Like most of the Zanzibar gang, he was good-looking, on the periphery of the fashion world, and could’ve been described as a dandy—he wore an Edwardian ruffle and his hair down over his collar. He helped to spread the gospel of rock ’n’ roll while working on the television show Bouton rouge (1967–68) and took to the barricades like a good Cavalier. It was in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the ’68 uprising that he shot Le révélateur (1968) in Germany’s Black Forest with actors Bernadette Lafont and Laurent Terzieff, two parents dragging their young child across a nocturnal rural landscape mostly devoid of habitation. The child seems mostly oblivious to the distress of his parents, though it can’t be said that he is oblivious to the presence of the camera—indeed, he is seen at times to actually direct it, gleefully breaking the fourth wall. (The film is silent, though Cinefamily’s projection will feature live music by Mary Lattimore and Jeff Ziegler, a harpist and multi-instrumentalist who record for the Thrill Jockey label.)

In Le révélateur, one sees Garrel developing the mythopoetic style that reaches full fruition with his La cicatrice intérieure (The Inner Scar, 1972). Both films concern themselves with figures in vast, open landscapes captured in mostly long shots, following their own obscure trajectories that put them on a course of recurring departure and reunion. In La cicatrice intérieure this is combined with cryptic acts of gift-giving: a bowl of fire, a baby goat, a sword. Shot in the most wasted, lifeless locales in Iceland, Egypt, and Death Valley, the film stars Garrel himself; his muse, Nico, who he had met in Rome while he was editing the Boissonnas-financed Le lit de la vierge (1969); and Pierre Clémenti, a pale figure who arrives in a black sailboat wearing nothing but a bow and arrow, his naked form luminous against a backdrop of volcanic rock. Made up of more than twenty sequence shots scored by selections from Nico’s Desertshore album, it is a movie of magnificent desolation, transposing disappointed idealism into a cryptic vernacular of symbols, and in its frigid, distant circumspection, exemplifying Henry James’s dictum: “Morality is hot—but art is icy!” (New Yorkers will soon have a chance to see the titles discussed at a Garrel retrospective at the Metrograph, the most complete ever launched in North America.)

Clementi, whose curious résumé includes Visconti’s The Leopard (1960), Buñuel’s Belle de jour (1967), and an eighteenth-month sentence for drug charges in Rome’s Regina Coeli prison in the early 1970s, was also an avant-garde filmmaker of sporadic but superb output, represented at Cinefamily by his Visa de censure n° X, filmed in 1968 but not completed until 1975. With his glass-cutting cheekbones, Clementi could’ve been a superstar, but he’d become radicalized in the 1960s and would wave off a big offer from Fellini to instead work with Garrel and the Zanzibar crew. Featuring footage shot during Zanzibar’s brief, globe-trotting heyday, the film is a dense, pulsing collage of double- and triple-exposures set to a careening psych-rock sound track by Delired Cameleon Family, whose howls of “Give me more grass . . . Give me more coke . . . Give me more LSD” are well-suited to a work that feels like a yearlong binge compressed into less than an hour.

Etienne O’Leary, Chromo Sud, 1968, 16 mm, color, sound, 21 minutes.


Clementi was working under the influence of many, many illicit substances as well as the Montreal-born filmmaker Étienne O’Leary, who appears briefly in Visa de censure n° X and whose twenty-one-minute imagist avalanche Chromo sud (1968) plays with La cicatrice intérieure. Chromo sud is neon-drenched, occult-obsessed, and unbelievably lurid, lurching from tarot tables to Clovis Trouille canvases to Pigalle sex shops, accompanied along the way by a grating and somewhat nauseating seesaw sound track, which at times gives the impression of heavy breathing. O’Leary composed and performed his scores largely by himself, using prepared piano, tape distortions, and contributions from Nico on harmonium. (Among other distinctions, Chromo sud is the first film to give me tinnitus during home viewing.) Clementi’s and O’Leary’s works, maximalist outliers in largely minimalist company, can be seen as allied to contemporary psych/prog/jazz freak-out music and liquid light-show visuals, and in some ways as counterculture analogs to the proto–music video Scopitones made to accompany yé-yé pop tunes earlier in the decade.

Given how brightly Chromo sud burns for its brief duration, it’s not entirely surprising that O’Leary managed to complete only three films. Daniel Pommereulle’s life as a director wasn’t much longer. Most of his film credits are as an actor—he has a small part as a shepherd in La cicatrice intérieure and appears in Éric Rohmer’s La collectionneuse and Jean-Luc Godard’s Week-End (both 1967), in which he announces “the beginning of flamboyance in all domains, especially the cinema.” He worked principally as a painter and sculptor until his death in 2003. (Les amants réguliers, Garrel’s 2005 reminiscence of the May ’68 moment, is dedicated to him.) He owns a small piece of film history, however, thanks to Vite (1969), which brings to the fore the cosmic imagery threaded through a number of Zanzibar productions. Earthbound scenes—of crossing rocky terrain and wading through mud—shot in Morocco and scored with hectic drumbeats are contrasted with crystalline views of the moon’s surface and the rings of Saturn, filmed through the lens of the Questar telescope. In a body of films united by discontented wanderlust, here is the most far-flung destination of all—a new home, perhaps, far from the bright lights of the civilized world.

Nick Pinkerton

“The Zanzibar Films” runs August 10 through 31 at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.

Saving Face

08.06.17

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 12. Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie).


CORRECTION: I SAID “WE CAN GUESS” that Miriam’s letter, bearing witness to Richard Horne’s (Eamon Farren) manslaughter of a boy, would make its way to the sheriff and would be believed. But she is not dead—yet. Emerging on all fours from the woods, she is found and taken to the emergency room, where she, uninsured, requires a life-saving operation. Sheriff Frank Truman (Robert Forster) delivers the update to Ben Horne (Richard Beymer), who says he will pay for it. A bad thought arrives: He could pull a Leland Palmer and suffocate the witness at her bedside. But from now on, “we” will refrain from guessing.

Coma and exposition are two of the several tricks that David Lynch (and Mark Frost, inspired by the ’60s show Peyton Place) borrows from soap operas, where comas provide suspense without camerawork, and sending a messenger to advance the plot is cheap. The borrowing is purposeful, but unnecessary: Twin Peaks: The Return has a budget to dwarf that of the 1990–91 Twin Peaks, and it has shelved the soap we saw there, a show within a show, Invitation to Love. Replacing its communal pulse is Dr. Jacoby’s alt-reality webcast, which keeps time for us: Two or three of its hours equals one day on Twin Peaks. “It’s seven o’clock,” the show begins. “Do you know where your freedom is?” This week’s monologue gets repetitious:

And the fucks are at it again! These giant multinational corporations are filled with monstrous vermin, poisonous, vile murderers, and they eat, drink, and shit money. They buy our politicians for a song. Then these fucking politicians sing as we gag and cough, sold down the river to die. Fuck you who betray the people you were elected to help, elected to work to help to make life better for.

Once a Reaganite, Lynch is changing the tune, in keeping—uncharacteristically—with the current-affairs beat. Tricky to say where his heart lies, but his hearing aid is tuned to the outcry at a new, buzzy pitch. He’s never been this attentive to the miserabilist vagaries of dead-end life, like at the Fat Trout Trailer Park where Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton) is not only the manager but also the show’s moral compass. He hands cash to a resident who, troubled with rent, has been selling his blood plasma to the hospital. (Being Canadian, I did not know this was something you could do.) “I don’t like people selling their blood to eat,” Rodd says in the show’s most affecting and tweetable line since Agent Gordon Cole (Lynch) told “those clown comics” to “fix their hearts or die.” The handsome doctor, a melodramaturgical fixture whose role is partly to cure boredom, is no more present than the handsome Agent Cooper, or maybe he too is replaced by Dr. Jacoby. “He’s beautiful,” sighs Nadine with the eyepatch, watching on her desktop from Run Silent, Run Drapes, her too-silent drape store.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 12. Nadine Hurley (Wendy Robie).


Irna Phillips, the “single mother” of American soap operas, began as a daytime dramatist on the radio, with Today’s Children (1933–50), and her resounding success came because she read listeners’ letters. Robert LaGuardia wrote in Soap World (1983) of Phillips’s belief in “time and character, rather than story,” her sense that “people want to become involved with the lives of other people; that viewers follow soaps not just to see what happens next, but to experience—drink in, as it were—the characters, almost as if they lived in the viewers’ homes.” Characters on the shows she wrote for television, including As the World Turns, lived by “moment-to-moment emotions, expressed to each other in quiet scenes.”

Drink in, drink full. Time and character, in their enormous codependency, drive The Return. At last, at the start of the twelfth episode, it’s stated clearly—clearly for Lynch; I assume Frost wrote the scene—that the roads we are traveling bend back, like Laura Palmer’s arms. Limning the origin of the Blue Rose Task Force, Agent Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrer) says it’s possible that “these answers” (unpreceded, often, by actual questions) “could not be reached except by an alternate path we’ve been traveling ever since.” He seems to mean “alternative,” but what he says is “alternate.” Another soap-opera trick is having a single actor play a good and an evil twin, but here the splitting occurs in a single character, too: Cooper, obviously. Laura, less so.

And Audrey? Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), so singular as a precocious teenager, makes her hotly awaited return not in the eleventh hour, where I expected her, but three-quarters through the twelfth, after a sudden jump cut. She just stands there, and presents as another of the show’s shrill, dispossessed wives: Janey-E (Naomi Watts), wife of Dougie (Kyle MacLachlan); Doris Truman (Candy Clark), who has been in a petty rage since losing her son to suicide; and Sylvia Horne (Jan D’Arcy), ex-wife of Ben and mother, or babysitter, to the disabled Johnny (Erik Rondell). Audrey’s damage is unclear, but we found out in part seven that, after an explosion at the Twin Peaks Savings and Loan, she—like Ronnette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine) before her—landed in a coma for some unspecified time, and was visited by Cooper in one or the other of his forms.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 12. Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn).


Audrey tongue-thrashes her tiny husband (Clark Middleton) for not helping her find her lover, a sober farmer named Billy; and her husband calls a woman she despises, maybe his own lover. This bathetic scene goes on for like forty-five minutes (actually ten), and if Fenn is reprising any character, it’s that of Anna Nardini, Luke’s ex-girlfriend and a sort of evil twin to Lorelai, on Gilmore Girls (2003–2007), in which she also played a totally separate character. The eyebrows and the maraschino lips are there, but something is glazed and doughy in her face, like she’s just been unwrapped from plastic; and some expressiveness has been lost, maybe to the needle. Ditto in the face of MacLachlan. Maybe they’re both frozen in time, and will awake if they kiss. But he does seem evil, and mostly she seems disappointed. Her new characterization spits in the face of her old image—her teenage, dreamy, indefatigable manner and perfervid will to seduce—and of the men (on both sides of the screen) who bought into it. That or more simply: Precocity doesn’t age well.

It’s sad, in any case, but Fenn’s out-of-place performance makes you appreciate the other ones. Even Ashley Judd, playing Ben’s desired assistant, Beverly, seems to have a new, sly ripple in her flattish affect. Likewise with the amateur Chrysta Bell, who plays the FBI’s Tammy Preston with an advanced robotism, but who also displays a surprising range of expression—her facial muscles make the battle to control emotion into a cubist dilemma, or as Don DeLillo would say, her face is avant-garde—when she reacts to a dangerous promotion: She will work with Albert on the Blue Rose Task Force, a latter-day replacement for the disappeared Cooper. The former members of the force, and its forerunner, Project Blue Book, are mostly dead or missing; and William Hastings, the layman who got physically closest to the metaphysical origins of the mystery, finds his head exploded (crushed by a Woodsman, invisible to the others) when he takes the agents and Diane to the dilapidated tract at 2240 Sycamore, where he first found the portal. Any scene can be stolen by Diane, who has the advantage of being played by Laura Dern: casually, brilliantly. “There’s no backup for this,” she whispers, peering through the windshield into the car at Hastings’s mutilated body while the agents recoil.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 11. Diane Evans (Laura Dern).


Lynch exacts in every episode, more noticeably in the recent, quieter ones, these little ariosos that balloon, change shape, and deflate. At the Double R Diner, we watch with Norma Jennings (Peggy Lipton) as drama unfolds among Shelly Johnson (Mädchen Amick), her daughter Becky (Amanda Seyfried), and Bobby (Dana Ashbrook), who turns out to be Becky’s dad. Norma’s expressions shift dramatically but none are scrutable. She watches what is happening as if she were remembering it a decade from now. When Shelly’s new crime-boss boyfriend (Balthazar Getty) shows up outside the diner, appearing with his own neo-noirish lighting in his greasy leather, she seems to disappear in a flash, and, on the other side of the glass, rematerialize as her old teen self. Shelly’s glittering transition dissolves into the old Bobby’s feeling crushed as he sees her in love, and Becky instantly wises up to see him not as her father, for a second, but as a fellow broken romantic. Ashbrook and Seyfried could play those dogs with eyes the size of teacups and water wheels in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and their companionship too is doglike, hushed.

Back in the Dakotas, Jennifer Jason Leigh thrills as the gum-smacking, laconic Chantal, henchwoman to Evil Coop, opposite the equally white-trash henchman, Tim Roth’s Hutch. Near the end of episode twelve, Hutch shoots to kill a man—Warden Dwight Murphy (James Morrison)—and Chantal, driving the getaway van while watching Murphy die in front of his child (Luke Judy), licks Cheeto dust from her index finger, seeming to enjoy the orangey tang more than the sight of blood, which makes it sicker. “Next stop: Wendy’s,” says Hutch. Sky Ferreira, the very modern bombshell with an ash-in-ice-cream voice, appears at the Roadhouse at the end of episode nine as one of the locals who, with their unrecurring, relatively heterogenous appearances, make a jangling chorus. She’s a chick on methamphetamine, scratching horribly for too long at a rash in her armpit. She got fired from a burger joint, but it’s okay because she has a new job. Where? asks her friend, and she grins with the reply, At another burger joint. Ferreira has never looked worse, making the before-seen single mom on heroin (Hailey Benton Gates) look like a heroin addict in a Calvin Klein ad.

When I said the web was a substitute for the dream-world, I did not add that being online feels less phantasmagoric and venturesome as we professionalize, try to grow up, and play limited versions of ourselves. Compared to the nightmarish, as they say, state of the world, online feels lighter, more banal, and, at its worst, somehow mere, like being stuck in an anxiety dream. Timelines—on Twitter, Instagram—are rearranged to show us what we already know to see. There is constant refreshing, getting nowhere. It’s like that––or like opening the fridge for the seventeenth time, only to find the same undesirable yogurts––every time Cooper as Dougie wanders on-screen. The eleventh hour threatens to be his last, as the Mitchum Brothers plot to end him, having lost to him in jackpots and again in a bid to collect, from his insurance company, a thirty-million-dollar payment for arson. I could yell through the screen: Wake up! You’re going to die a meme.

But one of the brothers, Bradley (James Belushi), has a dream and, unlike real dreams, it predicts the day. He remembers it bit by bit as the day catches up, and this for Lynch is a clever, if not new, way to build suspense. On a one-way road into the desert, in what looks like an homage to the endgame of David Fincher’s Se7en (1995), Dougie arrives with a box; should the box hold what it did in Bradley’s dream, the brothers will have to forgive Mr. Jackpots. Ding ding ding, the box holds a cherry pie. Table for three, at the Silver Mustang Casino: “Damn good,” says the other brother digging in, and “Damn good,” says Dougie, sounding more like Coop. He still might die a meme. ☹️

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 2. Sarah Palmer (Grace Zabriskie).


The single greatest performance of the series so far belongs to Grace Zabriskie as Sarah Palmer, unsurprising for this magnificent seventy-six-year-old actress but all the same a shake of the bones. Sarah is buying food she won’t eat and three bottles of Smirnoff at the store, when she sees, behind the cash register, a “new” kind of jerky—turkey jerky, which has existed since Natives were the only Americans—and is rushed by terror, whether of the contents or the packaging, primal symbols. “They” once “came” and are “coming” again, she warns with escalating terror. Maybe she means the Woodsmen, who are a kind of smoked meat incarnate. Or maybe the animals she disconsolately watched maul each other on the Discovery Channel, on a big flat-screen television, in the second hour. That shot has become, for me, the after-image of the show, but any frame of Zabriskie’s untouchable face may trigger the lonesome. Hours after the outburst, a fan whirs monotonously in a lamp-less room and she answers the door as old Sarah, scarier with her cold, hard brow, her low-burning eyes, and her corroded smile suggesting a mettle twisted to bitter ends.

I watched these two episodes on a television like that, huge in a small room, dark, the way Lynch intended. To watch a movie on your phone and “think you’ve seen a film” strikes him as nuts, and to defend phone-watching on the basis that we all have phones, and don’t all have televisions, disinterests me since necessity is not inspiring, nor related to the good. (Besides, the television costs less than the phone.) A character’s face in a close-up on a screen should not appear as if it were in a pocket mirror, or even in a regular mirror. The head should be significantly, alarmingly bigger than yours, and in a portrait shot, from the shoulders up, it should be the size of a clock on the wall. Alternatives, conveniences, begin to suck. On whatever websites, avatars the size of pencil erasers ease our forgetting the obvious, like that the owners of these avatars also have homes, incomprehensible habits, old haunts on certain square miles in a subdivided country, and especially that they have other faces, shaded minutely by expressions never represented in a reaction GIF. “The face is what one cannot kill,” said Emmanuel Levinas, another thinker of otherness, the year I was born. Can representation make us stronger? On The Return, it matters that the stories are disparate, that worlds diverge and are weirdly, sparsely populated, so that the faces do not appear in a crowd.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Sarah Nicole Prickett’s previous recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:

Episodes 1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episode 5
Episodes 6 & 7
Episode 8
Episodes 9 & 10

Twin Peaks: The Return plays Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.

Ingrid Jungermann, Women Who Kill, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes.


A LOVING SATIRE OF MATING AND MORES among Park Slope lesbians, Ingrid Jungermann’s Women Who Kill combines romantic comedy and murder mystery, and a dollop of psychodrama, and lightly stirs it into a summer movie treat. (Since crucial scenes take place in the fraught, rule-bound environment of the Greene Hill Food Co-op—actual name and location employed—a cooking metaphor is apropos.) Jungermann, the director, writer, and star of her debut feature, plays Morgan, a character so awkward and insecure that no one could regard the woman who conceived and embodied her as narcissistic or overreaching. Just scrupulously honest and very funny.

Morgan and Jean (Ann Carr) are minor Park Slope celebrities, thanks to their podcast, “Women Who Kill,” for which they research and interview imprisoned female serial killers. Their signoff line—“I’m Morgan,” “I’m Jean,” “and we are women who kill” (the last phrase spoken together)—is a tease suggesting that not only are they fascinated by their sociopathic subjects but they have absorbed them into their own garden-variety neurotic psyches.

The two are ex-lovers, but neither of them can let go—they share an apartment as well as a podcast—until Morgan is attracted to the secretive Simone (Sheila Vand). But the more infatuated Morgan becomes the more she fears that Simone is hiding something, and that this something might be homicide. You don’t have to be obsessed with female killers to wonder what Simone keeps in the sealed wooden box that occupies a dramatically lit shelf in her apartment. When Morgan gets up the courage to inquire, Simone answers, smiling as enigmatically as Simone Simon in Jacques Tourneur’s 1942 The Cat People, that everyone asks that same question.

Jungermann doesn’t flaunt her references, but her inspired twists on movie genres are really pleasurable. Women Who Kill opens with rapid-fire bickering reminiscent of George Cukor’s 1940 The Philadelphia Story (imagine the push-pull of Katharine Hepburn’s romantic impulses if she had been caught between opposing women rather than Cary Grant and James Stewart), and the wit of the early scenes doesn’t disappear, even as the narrative and Morgan’s thoughts turn inward. The relationship between her best friend, Alex (Shannon Patricia O’Neill), and Alex’s seemingly flaky but oddly grounded partner Kim (Grace Rex) keeps the comedy going. If Women Who Kill were to become a cable series (it evolved from Jungermann’s web series The Slope), I’d want the second season to focus on Alex and Kim.

As Morgan’s affair with Simone grows more intense, her suspicions mount. Who is Simone? Is she a serial killer? The daughter of a serial killer? Or is the mystery of her identity a strategy to make Morgan, whose obsessions have been fully exposed in the “Women Who Kill” podcasts, fall in love with her? The more she ponders the possibilities and the more paranoid she becomes, the more we suspect that her fetishizing of female murderers is a substitute and a shield for her fear of intimacy—of losing herself by falling in love with Simone. It may be asking too much of a spirited romantic comedy that morphs into a disturbing drama to achieve a satisfying narrative resolution. Which is to say that the final twist in Women Who Kill might leave you first shaking your head and then marveling at Jungermann’s courage in allowing a character as alive in her contradictions as Morgan the imaginative luxury of ambiguity to the very end.

Amy Taubin

Women Who Kill is playing through Tuesday, August 1, at the IFC Center in New York, and is available on VOD on August 29.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 10.


“ELECTRICITY IS HUMMING,” says the Log Lady to Hawk in the tenth hour of Twin Peaks: The Return. She says “electricity” like she’s a kid with a crush on Ben Franklin. She says it flows like a river and is heard in the river, too, and in the mountains, and is seen to glow around the moon. It’s a long conjure, electricity: a literal expression of magic that also connotes the satisfying pop of eureka, the blue purl of genius finding its vessel, a longed-for apotheosis, like when wires burst and flood the walls with lightning as Henry unites with the Lady in the Radiator in Eraserhead (1977). Drama like that can’t happen with technology unplugged, devices wireless, noiseless, eliciting idioms like “losing connection,” as if “connected” is our natural state and nothing is immanent. “In these days, the glow is dying,” the Log Lady says. “What will be in the darkness that remains?”

Any comment on “these days” from a woman who’s been using a log as a pager since the 1980s is bound to be iffy, but then she may mean “decades” by “days.” Lynch uses new, dated, and totally out-of-date technology to juggle the times. He takes a bemused view of the latest devices, less like an old man yelling at clouds and more like an old man saying, How do you know the clouds aren’t talking to us? Why do you need a phone to access the cloud? Here in Twin Peaks, devices such as Dale Cooper’s tape recorder, Gordon Cole’s hearing aid, and Dr. Jacoby’s coconut have been used to dramatize the minor struggle of saying what you mean and to turn up the funny polyphony, more than to help along the plot.

A pratfall performed solo and in tempo rubato by Candie (Amy Shiels), one of three bunny-type chicks in pink silk at the Silver Mustang Casino, ends with her using a remote control to whack a housefly, and with it (accidentally or Freudianly) her boss. In a dance of paired electrons, or a scene from a domestic comedy by an absurdist theater troupe, Andy and Lucy Brennan (Harry Goaz, Kimmy Robertson) look at the same chair on the same furniture-selling website at their separate desks, three steps apart. She gets up to tell him she really likes the beige one. He gets up to tell her he really likes the red. Then he says she can get the beige, and pleased, practically humming, she gets the red. Lynch will be damned if he lets technology make anything faster. Ages before Lucy fainted for the first time, and not for the last time, at the sight of Sheriff Frank Truman walking into the office while also talking with her on the phone, the director believed that a body could be in two places at once. He seems to appreciate the high-speed networked world, with its lapsed temporality and objects set loose in space, as a pastiche of his obviously superior dream one.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 10. Candie (Amy Shiels).


Anything can become anything else in a dream, and Lynch likes to get back at our devices, which try to expropriate our conscious and unconscious functions alike, by using them as props. Or abusing them, like when a resurrected Mr. C (Kyle MacLachlan) uses a hot-pink flip phone to tap out a single text, T9-style, before gratuitously shooting it to bits with a single-barrel rifle. “Around the dinner table,” says the text, “the conversation is lively.” In South Dakota, Diane (Laura Dern) smokes in the waiting room of a morgue (“It’s a fucking morgue,” she says when told she can’t smoke), while Gordon and Albert view the corpse of Major Briggs. She gets the text. Her hands don’t shake. Either Diane is as good an actress as Dern herself or she doesn’t know who she’s talking to. “They have Hastings,” she replies, off-screen, referring to the high-school principal (Matthew Lillard) charged with killing Ruth, the school librarian, and pairing her head with the Major’s body. “He’s going to take them to the site.” The FBI finds and reads the text, presenting a serious twist. And a smirk: Diane’s textually legible and “heavily encrypted” message, delivered via technologically superior means, is worse at conveying a secret than Mr. C’s unencrypted cryptic one.

Messages, either way, seem not to lose compression but to pick up resonance as they move through the air, giving humans on the other side of the screen a gravitas that normally belongs to spirits. Jacoby, formerly the town shrink, is now a charlatan with an hour-long weekly web series wherein he advances addled theories on why the world is so filled with shit, and then asks you to buy a gold (gold-painted) shovel, only $29.99, for the purpose of shit-digging. Whether this represents a real career change is unclear: Lynch is loud about distrusting analysis, psychiatric or otherwise; but he also shies from intelligence generally and does not seem to consider “conspiracy theorist” a slur. He once, twelve years ago, appeared on the Alex Jones Show with some questions about the events of 9/11, and there described intuition as “a flowing of knowingness,” also as “an ocean of solutions.” Plus, Jacoby’s monologue is gold. Pure anticapitalist gold: “We’re sheep to these monsters, and they don’t give a shit! We grow our wool, and just when we’re getting warm, they come along with their electric clippers, and shear our wool off, and we’re just naked, screaming little fucks!”

At the Great Northern Hotel in Twin Peaks, something is definitely ahum. The noise comes from the walls, giving owner Ben Horne (Richard Beymer) and his hot, boring assistant, Beverley (Ashley Judd), an opportunity to stand very close in the corner of an empty room, whispering. They could sleep together, except that Ben has a conscience, or enough trouble. His disabled adult son, Johnny (Eric Rondell), lives in constant danger of injuring himself in a big beige house owned by his ex-wife, Sylvia (Jan D’Arcy), and paid by alimony. His brother, Jerry (David Patrick Kelly), has been in the woods for days hunting a cell signal, playing the role of the too-stoned viewer at home: “I’ve been here before!” he screams. “I am not your foot!” screams his foot. We have to agree, ceci n’est pas un foot. Then there’s Audrey, the one beautiful member of his family who so far remains unseen. Maybe she’s screaming, “I am not your daughter.” Maybe she’s stuck in the walls? And all the while, the boy we assume is Audrey’s son, Richard (Eamon Farren), is sucking the light from the world, a vampire for glow.

Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 10. Richard Horne (Eamon Farren).


Richard, on the run after hitting and killing a child in his giant truck, goes to “talk” to the witness who recognized him: Miriam (Sarah Jean Long), who lives in the Fat Trout Trailer Park, in a mobile bachelorette pad the color of chewed mint gum. From behind a screen door, Miriam says she’s just mailed a letter to Sheriff Truman about how Richard’s a murderer, and so if anything is done to her, they’ll know who did it. Does she not have power in her apartment? Where is the phone? Why didn’t she e-mail? Her pride in doing the right thing is as tragic as any hamartia. Richard bashes in her head, opens the gas stove, and lights a candle, and leaving the scene he phones a dirty cop at the sheriff’s department about stopping the letter. Next stop: Grandma’s, to get cash. Using his words as well as his hands, he brutalizes a crying Sylvia and a pathologically speechless Johnny, while Johnny’s only friend, a robotic teddy bear with a white-lit plastic globe for a head with a Sharpie’d cartoon face, says, “Hello Johnny. How are you?” on repeat. Like something dredged up from an abandoned student film in Lynch’s basement, this stupid and annoying bear, who is also not cute, affronts in two ways—one as a bad response to monstrosity, the other as a gesture or grace note of surreality where surrealism has long since evolved.

The Surrealists prefigured with a curious, justified horror the future extreme cleavings of man and machine. Salvador and Gala Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, and Max Ernst took turns guessing at the nature, the effect, of these transmogrifications, going so far as to summon the “thinking machines” that Alan Turing would later make plausible. Otto Neurath, a philosopher born the same year as Germaine Dulac, wrote that a “thinking machine,” like the “logic piano,” conceived by the nineteenth-century logician William Stanley Jevons to instrumentalize syllogistic methods, would allow for “syntax to be formulated and logical errors automatically avoided” so that “the machine would not even be able to write the sentence: Two times red is hard.” Hours after reading this, I had to look up the passages again, as the only thing I could remember was that two times red is hard. My iPhone has helped make remembering irrelevant over time. Nothing replaces the unpredictable. But predictive text and text-bots still can get it “wrong,” producing striking accidents of wording and making us second-guess, as if we’ve misspoken at the shrink’s office, what we meant to say.

Two times red. What would it mean? A pair of red shoes, as worn at one time or another by almost every leading lady in a Lynch piece. Laura Dern as Lula Fortune in Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) wears low-heeled red pumps in a rape scene, clicking her heels to disassociate. As Diane, she wears red flats and reconnects with her men. In another waiting room, at a police station in Vegas, Janey-E (Naomi Watts) wears red flats and wishes that the man she calls Dougie (MacLachlan) would come back to himself, or at least to her bed, while the audience wishes the man we know as Cooper would return to being . . . the man we know as Cooper. A sip of fresh coffee inches him nearer to awareness, so we follow his widened eyes to an American flag, whereupon an instrumental “America the Beautiful” plays faintly from the back of his mind; to a woman’s white calves in red high-heeled pumps, recalling the shoes Audrey wore to seduce him twenty-seven years ago; and to an empty power socket in the wall. Symbolism, not that it matters. He can’t connect these saturated images to the source, the power fails. Maybe the socket, which looks like an expressionless face up close, isn’t working, is unwired the way eventually all sockets will be, the new empty telephone booths. Lynch’s nostalgia is essentially for the heyday of advertising, when everyone seemed to know that red was for sex, also known as danger, whereas now red can mean seven different things, almost nothing.

At the same time, he’s grasped exactly how real the internet is, real not as reality but as dreams, realest at the moment you disconnect, awake, and wonder where you’ve been and for how long. Although now we’re all tossing and turning, unsure whether we are on- or offline at any given time, and unwilling to get out of the (metaphorical, sorry) bed. Online the reality level hovers somewhere between that of one’s own dreams (high or low, depending on what and how you dream, and where) and that of other people’s dreams (very low). Like a dream wherein everyone we know looks entirely different from life and yet is somehow recognizable, the experience of being with others online deranges the contents of our heads, making new content, but we are not required to find it meaningful or act upon whatever meanings we find there. “Internet Art” or “Post-Internet Art” has seemed, since its dubious inception, to be essentially surrealistic, picking up on the millennial habit of “being random” and taking it to new levels of senseless and ugly juxtaposition, with objects flying everywhere, text doing little to identify. Artforum’s Surrealism issue of 1966 invented the Post-Internet aesthetic before there was internet, with its cover designed by Ed Ruscha: Surrealism appears in block letters of filtered sunset orange with a massive drop shadow on a background of yellowy-green and cyan soap bubbles, fulgid like iridescent crocodile skin on a handbag.

  • Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 9. Diane Evans (Laura Dern).

  • Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 9.

  • Twin Peaks: The Return, 2017, still from a TV show on Showtime. Season 3, episode 9. Diane Evans (Laura Dern).

Annette Michelson in her essay on Breton et al., published in that issue, defines what Surrealists were doing, and (to me) what Lynch is doing on Twin Peaks: The Return, a show meant to be watched with your phone turned off, if ever there was one. She writes: “The linking of dream and waking state, of the ‘communicating vessels’ [an apparatus for keeping a homogenous liquid at the same level across different and differently shaped containers, for instance the head and the body, the unconscious and the conscious, in Breton’s metaphorization of the term] pre-supposed their prior discreteness, and an opposition (among many) which can be bridged, modified, but never really abolished, whether in art or in action. A notion of the ‘noumenal’ persists. Surrealist thinking is haunted by demons and old ghosts such as a ‘transcendence,’ subjected periodically to rituals of exorcism, but never quite dispelled.”

We cannot say that Cooper will ever be fully present. We can guess, if we’re looking to be satisfied, that Miriam’s letter will eventually arrive in the right hands, the way those missing pages of Laura Palmer’s diary appeared at last. And we know that her account, partly because it is delivered after her death, and the dead don’t lie, will be believed as Laura’s dreams are believed. Ditto a message from Major Briggs, sealed for years in a gadget only his son Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) knows how to open, and written in a private language only Bobby knows how to read. I never thought I’d type the words “Bobby knows how to read,” but it’s a beautiful thing. Hastings breaks down and reveals his most deeply held secret: He has a blog, The Search for the Zone, whereon he and Ruth took “multidimensional time travel” and “dark matter” with utmost seriousness; and apparently, before she died, she met the Major. More than the wireless-enabled romances between old characters, or the inside jokes, the credence Lynch gives to this preposterous blog is a gift to all the out-there fans who turned the original Twin Peaks into a message-board sensation. Fans today on Reddit and Twitter are the people who think out loud and puzzle so Cooper doesn’t have to, the people who constitute one big and lively thinking machine.

Sarah Nicole Prickett

Sarah Nicole Prickett’s previous recaps of Twin Peaks: The Return:

Episodes 1 & 2
Episodes 3 & 4
Episode 5
Episodes 6 & 7
Episode 8

Twin Peaks: The Return plays Sundays at 9 PM on Showtime.

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, Mister Universo, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Tairo (Tairo Caroli).


TIZZA COVI AND RAINER FRIMMEL’S MISTER UNIVERSO, a simple, modestly scaled road movie made with delicacy and feeling, centers on the quite self-centered Tairo Caroli, a lion tamer in a small Italian circus who is in the habit of having his commands followed. We are introduced to Tairo preening in the mirror before a performance—he’s handsome if a little husky in his sequined shirt, still carrying some baby fat. Though Tairo makes his living stepping into a cage with big jungle cats to whom he plays “Daddy,” there is still much of the little boy about him, the tantrum-prone brat who bedevils his enemies with a slingshot.

Though Tairo enjoys mocking “circus people beliefs”—the salt over the shoulder, the greasy pack of Tarot cards—he’s superstitious in his own way, too. He has a prized lucky charm, an iron bar that was bent for him by the Guadeloupean French bodybuilder Arthur Robin, a 1957 Mister Universe turned circus strongman. When Tairo’s charm disappears one day, he discovers he can’t work without it—so he sets out to find Robin and have it replaced, a mission that will have him crisscrossing Italy.

Tairo can’t afford much more bad luck, nor can his troupe—Mister Universo arrives in the United States shortly after the Ringling Bros. circus train rolled out of the station for the last time, after 146 years, and throughout, the film gives a sense of the entire enterprise being on the precipice. We see the director of Tairo’s circus complaining of impending bankruptcy. Tairo has recently lost Rambo, one of his tigers, to stomach cancer, and bemoans the impossibility of doing his act with only four animals. Wendy, the redheaded contortionist who Tairo courts, complains that she’ll have to switch jobs because of back problems. Covi and Frimmel are describing the prospects of modern circus folk, but their film could be about any struggling show-biz concern. The milieu of the small circus is one which filmmakers—especially Europeans—have historically turned to reflect on their own practice, Jacques Rivette’s final film, 2009’s Around a Small Mountain, being a superlative example. That a direct relationship exists between the fate of the circus and that of the long-beleaguered Italian cinema is clear when Tairo pays a visit to his mother and finds his stepfather going over a script with a forty-year-old trained chimpanzee who boasts screen credits for Federico Fellini and Dario Argento—names which haven’t recently been equaled for international fame.

Covi and Frimmel, an Italian and an Austrian, respectively, have been quietly running their own workshop for nearly twenty years, collaborating on documentary and fiction projects—though the delineation between the two is quite deliberately muddied. Mister Universo revisits the circus folk of their 2005 Babooska and 2009 La Pivellina—in fact, some of the same personnel are on hand from both films, including Tairo, who appeared in the latter. As in La Pivellina, the performers work under their own names, doing their real jobs—on YouTube you can find Wendy Weber, who plays Wendy, performing her crazy crabwalks to Britney Spears’s “Toxic” with the Rony Roller Circus of Rome. And while the scenarios have been provided by Covi—she also does sound duties, while Frimmel handles the camera—the dialogue is entirely improvised. Tairo’s travels through Italy, on Robin’s tail, were shot chronologically, and the extended family members who he visits and mooches off are in fact Tairo’s extended family—this may go some way in explaining the general air of relaxation around the banter, free of the anxiety that often afflicts improv. The film’s few ventures into visual metaphor feature variations on the image of running upstream.

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel, Mister Universo, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Wendy (Wendy Weber).


The connection that Covi and Frimmel have to the circus people is long and profound—their first work together was doing photographic surveys of small circuses, and they have kept acquaintances from these tours in the interceding years, including one with Robin, who here appears in his first film at age eighty-eight, a figure of effortless gravity, at once imposing and clearly, affectingly slowed by inevitable age. In their evident respect for their subjects, the intimacy with which they capture them, and in their docufiction approach, Covi and Frimmel might be considered alongside the Italian American Roberto Minervini. But while Minervini, in his excellent The Other Side (2015), works in a mode of willful social significance, capturing the prevalent pastimes and attitudes of Duck Dynasty America, Covi and Frimmel are decidedly minor-key artists, betting heavily on the intrinsic charm of their stars to carry their work. I suspect that they aren’t better known because, based on a limited sample, their movies fall somewhat awkwardly between the established poles that dominate film culture—their style is rough-edged, observational, and generally in the neo-neorealist tradition of the “art film,” but their appeal is mostly human and emotional, something that the sophistos tend to recoil from when not couched in terms of condescending pity.

Mister Universo is largely dedicated to observing Tairo’s off-the-cuff behavior, revealing different facets of his prickly, fussy, rather strange personality. He is winningly playful and effortlessly wonderful with children, who he treats as equals. He also is frequently a pain in the ass and, as we see in a moment of conflict with Indian and Romanian coworkers and neighbors, a bit of an Italian chauvinist. His puffed-up ego is transparently a form of self-defense, and makes for an easy target. Though he’s working at a failing show with ailing and aging animals, he persists in carrying himself as though he’s the glamorous Gunther Gebel-Williams reincarnate, a moody, haughty little hothead who soaks up the hospitality that he’s greeted with on his travels as though it were a birthright. This changes perceptibly when he finally locates Robin, whose mere presence seems to compel him to be helpful for the first time in what we’ve seen of his life, returning him to the circus with his balance and confidence restored.

This gives you an idea of the big picture, but the movie is in the fine brushwork. It’s a string of finely rendered domestic vignettes filmed around the circus camp and in a series of Tairo’s house calls, most of which find him raiding a fridge or a cupboard. That Covi and Frimmel are working with accustomed performers skews very much in the duo’s favor, and their star is a natural, relaxed screen presence with an instinct for embroidering scenes with little bits of business, like mocking another performer’s workout barbell reps by doing concentration curls with a puppy.

I suspect it’s little moments like this, or tossed-off folksy phrases, or the uncommented-on sight of someone sauntering through the circus campgrounds wearing a Mickey Mouse costume head, that inspired Covi and Frimmel to make their movie. This, and something else, too. In a pop-culture environment in which a few venerated, bankable superstars dominate the conversation, Mister Universo may be a tribute to the endangered middle-class workaday entertainer: the peripatetic circus performer, the aging bodybuilder, the performing chimp, the one-hit-wonder crooner, or even the film lab worker. Mister Universo carries a dedication to those who have lost their jobs due to digitalization. These are the people that Covi and Frimmel gently recommend to a viewer’s attention in their warm and worthy film, which I recommend to you.

Nick Pinkerton

Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel’s Mister Universo has its US theatrical premiere Friday, July 21, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Covi and Frimmel’s 2014 film The Photographer in Front of the Camera has a special screening at Anthology on Thursday, July 20, at 7 PM and Sunday, July 23, at 9 PM.