Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 125 minutes. Emad and Rana (Shahab Hossein and Taraneh Alidoosti).

ASGHAR FARHADI’S THE SALESMAN is the director’s latest, most excruciating dissection of contemporary Iran. As in his other films, Farhadi treats social conditions, and the urban blight and political corruption they imply, almost tangentially. They are neither ignored nor his primary focus, and they are not the target of the characters’ or the viewers’ animus. For a lesser director, the catastrophic early scene in which an apartment building almost collapses, forcing its tenants to seek temporary quarters elsewhere, would have been a sufficient cause for the events that follow. But Farhadi’s method is more psychologically astute and essential to his aesthetic; he is more interested in the ambiguities and the nuances of human drama, in how people deal with domestic and personal crises generated by external circumstances. And so we follow Emad and Rana, a young married couple as they search for a place to live while trying to maintain their lives. Emad is a high school literature teacher, and both he and Rana perform in local theater––currently a production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

As if the crumbling walls in their apartment building were a foreshadowing of worse to come, a more personal catastrophe exposes cracks of another sort. As in Farhadi’s A Separation (2011), a haphazard event provokes ever-widening consequences. Coincidences, nagging suspicions, half-truths, and unnerving disclosures accumulate while the catalytic incident that prompted them occurs off-screen and remains ambiguous. Though clearly a byproduct of the couple’s forced move, this event produces even worse consequences. Unknown to them, the woman leasing a room in their temporary digs has frequent male visitors. One day, Rana, about to take a bath and thinking her husband is on his way up the stairs, leaves the door to the apartment ajar. We learn after the fact that a stranger entered the apartment and either molested or threatened to molest her, causing her to fall unconscious in the bathtub. Embarrassed to face interrogations, Rana refuses to speak to the police and can barely confide in her husband. More than one character agrees that police intervention would be pointless and would only expose her to shame and unwarranted accusations—an allusion to how ingrained social attitudes determine action, but suggested here without undue stress. Because Rana can neither be left alone nor continue rehearsing the play, tensions between husband and wife grow.

While Farhadi’s characters are embedded in a specific social context, their appeal and their situations are not circumscribed by cultural conditions. In The Salesman, this reach toward universality is reflected by the parallel the film draws between the unsettling event that changes the characters’ lives and the tragic fate of Willy Loman, the hapless everyman of Miller’s play. But while the latter places the fate of its protagonist within a context of changing times, Farhadi’s film conveys that there are neither easy answers nor easy solutions to the messiness of life, and one-dimensional characters, whether heroes or villains, are lame efforts to suggest otherwise.

In contrast to the inevitable denouement of the well-structured tragedy, Farhadi takes us toward an unexpected turn of events that precludes catharsis. Because his wife refuses to talk to the police, Emad, unable to contain his fury, seeks satisfaction himself. He is assisted in this quest when he happens upon the cellphone, keys, and money left behind by the stranger in his desperate flight out of the apartment. In tracking down the perpetrator, he embarks on a path that exposes his own flaws and patriarchal tendencies, at odds with the protagonist we first encounter as a gifted artist, loving husband, and dedicated teacher. His search leads both to unexpected revelations and a 180-degree turn in the thrust of the narrative and our understanding of its characters—not to be disclosed here, and no doubt the reason Farhadi won the award for best screenplay at Cannes.

It is a mistake to dismiss Farhadi’s narrative strategies as contrived, as some critics have. To do so underestimates the way his method generates close examination of the contradictions and subtleties of human behavior. His strongest asset as a director is his unbounded fascination with and compassion for the frailties of personality. What happens to his characters is as much a result of moral weakness as it is of accident and social conditions. Along with that, of course, is his unfailing talent for wresting moving, fine-tuned performances from his actors. Most outstanding among them are Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti as Emad and Rana and Farid Sajadhosseini as the intruding stranger.

Tony Pipolo

The Salesman opens in select theaters on Friday, January 27.

Peter Watkins, Punishment Park, 1970, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 90 minutes.

A FACE IN THE CROWD, Elia Kazan’s caustic 1957 exposé of American greed and gullibility, has never seemed as horrifying as it does now that a fulminating, fascistic fuckup has become the leader of the unfree world, its future to be determined by Exxon. Under Kazan’s direction, Andy Griffith gives a larger-than-life performance as a country-western singer with a talent for demagoguery who rides local TV stardom into high political office.

Kazan’s takedown of American democracy opens Anthology Film Archives’s eclectic series “Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome: Coping with the Election,” which runs January 20 through 24. Face and the three other feature films were cautionary tales that might have seemed overly paranoid when they were first released but now speak to a rational collective fear.

Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo’s It Happened Here (1965) and Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park (1970) are dystopic fictions that border on faux documentaries. Brownlow, a renowned British filmmaker and historian, and Mollo, a British military historian, conceived and began shooting It Happened Here in the late 1950s when they were both in their teens. Set during World War II, it depicts an England where the Nazis have invaded and occupy the country with the help of all-too-willing citizens, just as in Vichy France. While there are pockets of resisters, the majority has adjusted to the occupation and administers the new regime when the Nazi army withdraws to boost its ranks on the eastern front, leaving a skeleton crew of SS behind. The ongoing bloody encounters between resisters and Nazis surrogates are akin to a Civil War. The narrative focuses on a nurse who wants to remain apolitical but is drawn into working for the occupation and falls in line with its program until she discovers that she is involved in genocide.

Brownlow and Mollo were in production on and off for eight years, during which their roughly $10,000 budget was somewhat enhanced by contributions from such prominent directors as Tony Richardson and Stanley Kubrick. (The latter supplied leftover black-and-white stock from, what else, Dr. Strangelove [1964].) Years ago, when I wandered into a screening of It Happened Here, I mistook it for a 1940s British studio-fiction film, thanks to the precision and luminosity of the 16-mm cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (later David Cronenberg’s DP) and Brownlow’s crisp documentary-style editing. Even when I learned something about the film, I wrongly believed that the firefights set in bombed-out rubble and the sequences of the occupying government goose-stepping through London streets were an ingenious combination of stock footage and live action. Not so. Entirely made up of original live action, It Happened Here is a visionary film about an imagined past that could easily become our future.

Robert Kramer, Ice, 1969, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 135 minutes.

Banned by the BBC for twenty years and trashed by some otherwise astute American critics when it played at the New York Film Festival, Punishment Park may be Watkins’s least subtle film. But its premise—that as the war in Vietnam rages on during the Nixon years, people who are judged a threat to national security are rounded up and given a choice between life imprisonment in some Gitmo-like facility or playing a game of “Survivor” in a vast humans-hunting-humans desert preserve—struck a nerve in 1970 and again with its 2006 rerelease, during the second Iraq war. Now, with that-guy-whose-skin-looks-like-a-tangerine-just-a-day-away-from-rot claiming to be president and boasting that he’ll soon be filling Gitmo with “bad actors,” Watkins’s faux-reality show has never seemed so real.

A hybrid of a radical leftist (in)action thriller and a psychodrama that administers a nightmare dose of castration anxiety, Robert Kramer’s pioneering American-indie Ice (1969) is a prototypical male take on the feminist axiom about the personal being political. Flawed though it is, Ice bores into your consciousness and never lets go. For moving-image makers searching for models of activist art, the 1967 compilation For Life, Against the War is a treasure-trove of ideas, whether successful or failed. A loose-knit group of artists put out a call to filmmakers to produce shorts for “The Week of the Angry Arts.” Among those who responded with protest films were Larry Jordan, Stan Brakhage, Shirley Clarke, Joyce Wieland, Michael Snow, Jonas Mekas, Robert Breer, Ken Jacobs, Leo Hurwitz, and Lewis Jacobs. Someone should brave the copyright issues and bring For Life, Against the War to Blu-ray now that Anthology, with help from Sony Pictures, has restored the original 16 mm. Two films by Brakhage, The Governor (1977) and Song 23: 23rd Psalm Branch, Part 1 and Part 2 (1978) complete “Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome.” Brakhage stuck to his aesthetic guns while struggling with war anxiety and the spectacle of political power. The latter is one of his great films, the former no more than what meets the eye.

Amy Taubin

“Inauguration of the Displeasure Dome: Coping with the Election” runs Friday January 20 through Monday January 24 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. All box-office proceeds on January 20 (Day Without Art) will be divided equally among three nonprofits: The American Civil Liberties Union, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Planned Parenthood.

Peter Watkins, The Journey, 1987, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 870 mins.

ONE OF THE SCORES of interviewees offering their opinions on nuclear proliferation in Peter Watkins’s The Journey (1987) is a middle-aged Mexican woman in Guadalajara who implores that the presidents of powerful nations might link hands to “go around the world and look at the situation of the people.” This is among the not-inconsiderable undertakings attempted by The Journey, a film little seen in part because of availability issues and in part because of its daunting runtime: 873 minutes, which comes in at a frisky fourteen and a half hours.

Light Industry, an experimental screening space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, is no stranger to epic undertakings: To begin their 2013 calendar, they ran an all-day marathon that gave tribute to “The American Serial: 1914–1944.” The Journey, presented by Watkins scholars Rachael Rakes and Leo Goldsmith and shown in fabulous 16 mm, will kick off Light Industry’s 2017, with the weekend-long screening, perhaps not coincidentally, beginning two weeks before the inauguration of a president-elect who has cavalierly announced his intention to begin stockpiling nukes anew with no discernible endgame in sight and has averred his willingness to, should the occasion demand, evaporate Europe.

Watkins’s film was shot during the last escalation of the arms race, between 1983 and 1986, in countries that were nuclear players—the United States, the unknowingly near-death Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France—as well as several that were used as test sites and landing strips by those powers: Norway, for example, or Mozambique, where people speak of their struggle for subsistence living while a king’s ransom is spent on armaments every day, or Japan, where the relationship with the mushroom cloud is somewhat more than abstract, or what Watkins, a good anticolonialist, pointedly refers to as “(French) Polynesia.” In each place, he sits down with what we will broadly call average citizens, many of them living in proximity to a hidden-in-plain-sight facility that plays a role in the construction, housing, or transportation of nuclear arms, and asks them the same questions, intended to discover what these average people know about these weapons, and how they feel about them. Often they don’t know much but are willing to learn—sometimes I hoped to see some subjects with a bit more resistance in them, in fact—and Watkins, for whom this ignorance is indicative of a vast conspiracy of obfuscation, makes a point of regularly confessing his own ignorance prior to the research and production: “Did you know this?” he asks more than once via voice-over. “I didn’t.”

The Journey is baldly didactic, and Watkins states his purpose for undertaking the project in plainspoken terms. “These people,” he says in the first of the film’s nineteen chapters, each of which ends in a hanging question mark, “have been denied information by the system in which they live.” Watkins’s intention, then, is to reveal “the mechanisms they use to deprive us of information and participation.” (The “they” is, of course, the powers that be.) One of the mechanisms brought in for extended scrutiny is television news, with its elisions and misrepresentations. The Journey is on the ground for the Shamrock Summit of 1985, a Saint Patrick’s Day meeting between Ronald Reagan and Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney in Quebec City. Not only does Watkins go behind the scenes to film the production meetings and man-in-the-street interview shoots of French-language station Radio-Canada, he also shows “finished” excerpts from international television news, employing the deconstructionist technique of using blips of various tones to show the sutures, drawing attention to the busy editing and the intervention of on-screen graphics.

In a sense, the capsule-size packaged, easily digestible television news report provides Watkins with an antimodel for The Journey, which acts as a rebuke to TV news just as the snatches of native folk song and unsullied landscape are a rebuke to the images of airstrips and bulldozers and windowless government buildings—the world we’ve been handed against the world that’s been made of it. In contrast to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which devotes 0.3% of its Shamrock Summit coverage airtime to the public, Watkins gives the public his full and undivided attention. Rather than streamlining and simplifying, he keeps everything in: the mountains of statistics (dollars, casualties, destructive power), the tally of expenditure on nuclear weapons throughout the film’s runtime (of which we’re kept abreast), the maps, and, above all, images of the burned and carbonized victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which we see time and again splayed out across various families’ kitchen tables, with Watkins listening to the families as they respond, aghast, to the scenes of horror. Some of these same families participate later in visceral “reenactments,” recalling Watkins’s approach in his Punishment Park (1971) or La Commune (Paris, 1871) (2000), as they perform their roles as panicked refugees playing out the clearly insufficient, haphazard civil defense plans in place to deal with what is referred to, in the deadpan delivery maintained throughout, as the “unlikely event” of nuclear catastrophe.

Watkins’s approach is scrupulously honest and ethical—though it’s clumsy as satire in moments such as the animated interlude starring an anthropomorphic mushroom cloud called “Nukie,” and perhaps this limits the efficacy of The Journey as a “tool for social change.” A fourteen-and-a-half-hour documentary about nuclear proliferation just doesn’t address itself to the broadest possible audience—although if you, like myself, happen to believe that the use of art as a tool for social change fails in just about every case other than maybe Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Blackfish, this isn’t necessarily a demerit. Watkins tells hard truths here, and in a language that owes very little to those he opposes, and that is enough. The Journey isn’t made to be seen by the greatest number of people, but instead to be really seen by those who brave it. (It might be noted that Watkins was responding to a proliferation of Anglo-American Armageddon dramas in the Reagan-Thatcher era, including The Day After and Special Bulletin [both 1983], and Threads and Countdown to Looking Glass [both 1984], whose imaginings of a nuclear holocaust Watkins took to be a kind of invitation.)

The making of a movie as enormous as The Journey is, in itself, an act of defiance. I’m reminded of something the film director and shit-stirrer Nick Zedd once wrote about avant-garde deity Jack Smith: “Attending a [Smith] event was a long march of endurance, a challenge: the realization of a way of life not lived by people on time schedules dictated by jobs, personal responsibilities, or the need to be distracted and amused.” Watkins tells us that his subjects in The Journey are “money and time, and the ways which we use them on this planet,” while the sheer heft of the film—by most reckonings the longest nonexperimental film ever made, an achievement even more remarkable when you consider the rigor of construction on display throughout—is a reproach to how we do use them. (I write this on a day when the internet is abuzz with rumors concerning the iPhone’s new “theater mode,” which presumably will allow the cubicle-dweller to remain on call and on the clock at the multiplex.)

Watkins is still a filmmaker, however, and he avails himself of the medium’s tools, helpfully announcing his own pieces of deceit. (He explicates his motives for an associative edit, and during a Gaelic-language community meeting in the Scottish Hebrides discussing the militarization of the region, he announces, “These are cutaways I put in . . . to condense the main scene.”) Most freely used is cinema’s ability to collapse distances, moving, for example, between sunny Polynesia and the frozen Saint Lawrence River in the blink of an eye. At least one journey, though, he is eager for the viewer to experience step by trudging step—one on foot along the tracks that carry assembled warheads on a so-called white train from the Pantax assembly plant in Amarillo, Texas, to a nuclear submarine base in Bangor, Washington. He returns to images of walking the last leg of this journey throughout the film, like a sort of refrain; following the trajectory of the warheads provides the film a kind of structure. These tracks are the film’s spine, one journey among many, and I doubt that anyone can walk their entire length with Watkins and remain wholly the same.

Nick Pinkerton

Peter Watkins’s The Journey runs January 6 through 8 at Light Industry in Brooklyn, New York.

Marcel Pagnol, César, 1936, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 141 minutes. Marius Ollivier and Fanny (Pierre Fresnay and Orane Demazis).

MARCEL PAGNOL’S MARSEILLES TRILOGYMarius (1931), Fanny (1932), and César (1936)—is one of the most beloved works of early French sound cinema, though it might be more accurate to call its true country of origin Provence. A region as distinct as Scotland is to Britain, Bavaria to Germany, Texas to the United States, the peculiarity of Provence has led some to question if it belongs to France at all; in J.K. Huysmans’s 1891 novel Là-bas, a Parisian character opines that “the coronation of a Valois at Rheims created a heterogeneous and preposterous France . . . uniting the most incompatible nationalities” before launching into a tirade against those “stained-skinned, varnished-eyed munchers of chocolate and raveners of garlic . . . [the] histrionic, forensic, perfidious chatterboxes, the precious Latin race.”

Pagnol was a patriotic Provençal, the grandfather of regionalist filmmaking, and his Marseillaise—histrionic chatterboxes, to be sure—are no more trusting of the northerners in their midst than Huysmans’s speaker is of the Latins; one recurring bit player in the trilogy, Brun (Robert Vattier), is subjected to endless abuse for reason of his being from Lyon, even though by the third film he must have been living in Provence for at least a couple of decades. Pinched, squint-eyed Brun is one of the characters who congregates at the Bar de la Marine, a café facing the port of Marseilles owned and operated by César Olivier (Raimu) and his twenty-year-old son Marius (Pierre Fresnay), who dreams of rigging and the open seas as he wipes down glasses, while Fanny (Orane Demazis), a young girl selling cockles at a nearby stall, dreams of Marius.

The trilogy will be playing at Film Forum for eleven days beginning today, the DCP restorations by Janus Films undoubtedly preceding a forthcoming home-video release from the Criterion Collection. The first film, financed by the French branch of Paramount Pictures and directed by Alexander Korda, details the shy, touchy father-son relationship of César and Marius, the consummation of the unspoken longing between Marius and Fanny, and Marius’s final escape on an oceanographic vessel. The second, directed by Marc Allégret, picks up immediately where Marius (and Marius) left off, with Fanny fainting dead away as her lover’s ship leaves port, soon to discover that she is pregnant with Marius’s child, for whose sake she accepts the proposal of Honoré Panisse (Fernand Charpin), a wealthy, big-bellied widower nearing fifty. Pagnol, who wrote the whole bunch, directed the final installment himself—it picks up some fifteen years later, when Césariot (André Fouché), Fanny’s grown son, discovers that the man who has raised him is not his blood father and sets out to find the banished and bitter Marius.

The above covers the essential narrative elements of a trilogy that fills just over seven hours of screen time, and if this seems scant freight for such a vast hold it’s because Pagnol––whose signature combination of southern lassitude and unabashed melodrama suffuses all three films, regardless of his having directed only one––is less interested in efficiently getting from plot point to plot point than in meandering along, lingering to observe peculiarities of Provençal behavior and watching a community of friends as they move through their well-worked grooves: picking on the neighborhood cuckold, engaging in barstool philosophy, bickering over a game of cards, observing the medicinal benefits of the aperitif or the outcome of a match of pétanque. Fernandel, a fellow Marseillaise who worked with Pagnol time and again, famously described the director’s laid-back method thusly: “With Marcel Pagnol, making a film is first of all going to Marseille, then eating some bouillabaisse with a friend, talking about the rain or the beautiful weather, and finally, if there is a spare moment, shooting.”

Alexander Korda, Marius, 1931, 35 mm, black-and-white-, sound, 127 minutes. Piquoiseau, Fanny, and Marius (Alexandre Mihalesco, Orane Demazis, and Pierre Fresnay).

Much of the pleasure of the trilogy comes through Pagnol’s attention to the vernacular of his native land—not just the salty, epigrammatic humor but the semaphore-like language of gesture that accompanies and massages the cadence of speech, snapping at crescendos with a conductor’s flourish. Pagnol cultivated his own stock company, many of them, such as Raimu or Charpin, plucked from the music halls of the south, and each performer gives their character a distinct personal lexicon—Panisse, the salesman, moves his hands in a soft, caressing, wheedling motion, while César shifts between a languid fists-in-pockets shrug and flurries of chopping and stabbing. It is most moving to see in the final film how Marius has inherited his father’s gestural vocabulary, though he has for his own the crooked, boyish grin which, when he reappears in César, has frozen into a grimace. Most of Pagnol’s Marseillaise appear somewhat comic, especially when in fits of pique and paroxysms of fury, but it is Demazis’s Fanny alone who experiences the full weight of the tragedy she’s experiencing—a woman trying to make the savor of one moment of youthful passion last the whole of a lifetime, her sloe-eyed, sharp-featured face hugely compelling in a few scant close-ups.

Marius, which originated as a 1929 stage smash, was among the earliest talking pictures to be made in France, but it turned the relatively immobility of the then-young sound film into an advantage—indeed, into something like an ethos. Among other things, the Marseillaise trilogy is a progenitor of the “just hanging around and shooting the shit” genre, which extends through Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953), Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher (1969), Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1972), and through the highly disparate filmographies of Jim Jarmusch, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Kevin Smith. Romantic tragedy is the trilogy’s raw heart, but Pagnol follows scenes played at a hysterical emotional pitch with light comic palaver. As Panisse receives his last rites in his bedchamber, César sits downstairs in his friend’s parlor talking through a disturbing idea—what if the God that Panisse is preparing to meet isn’t that of the parish priest but one of the “red, black, or yellow God[s]” worshipped by the polyglot races that routinely pass through the port? This isn’t spoon-fed tolerance but an instance of the humble sophistication that runs through the trilogy, which offers up an abundance of disparate, clashing motives and a total absence of villains.

Marseilles, as Pagnol presents it, is a city at once cosmopolitan—as a bustling port town, it somehow seems closer to Sydney or Macau than to Paris or Lyon—and parochial in the extreme. The Marseillaise of the trilogy all draw on a shared personal history: César and Panisse, in many ways opposite numbers, are revealed in Fanny to have a competitive relationship that stretches back to their days in short pants, while the threat of family disgrace hanging over Fanny is exacerbated by the collective communal memory of an infamous Aunt Zoé. Pagnol keeps us always in mind of this sense of familiarity that stretches back generations, showing us people nursing decades of grudges, as well as maintaining enormous stocks of tenderness toward one another.

Not least because of his physical and spiritual distance from the capital and the center of the French film industry, Pagnol’s influence on future generations of French filmmakers is incalculable. After the success of his first cinematic efforts, he founded his own production house in Marseilles, and this independence would provide an example for the likes of, say, Jean-Pierre Melville, who in 1947 built his own Studio Jenner in the thirteenth arrondissement. His stature was still greater for those operating outside of Paris. For Eustache—another southerner, raised between greater Bordeaux and the Mediterranean port of Narbonne—the artisanal model provided by Pagnol was the thing to aspire to. Jacques Demy, a die-hard regionalist whose films returned repeatedly to the northwestern seaside scenes of his youth in Nantes, lifted much from the Marseilles trilogy for his The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), which in turn influenced Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016)—a film whose luxe wistfulness seems even flimsier next to the buffeting emotional savagery of the homecoming scenes in César.

A proselytizer for “filmed theater” when “pure cinema” was to become the religion of the day, Pagnol has since fallen in and out of fashion, a situation he seems to anticipate with an epigraph for the poet Sully Prudhomme that he places in Brun’s mouth: “A great writer and poet who is taken for a fool these days.” As director of César, Pagnol has less professional polish than either Korda or Allégret, prone to rather jarring shot-reverse-shot setups, overhead shots, and wobbly framings, but the film represents a triumph of intuition and emotion over technique. Above all, to paraphrase Virgil, Pagnol brought the cinematic muse to his country—and that’s no mean feat.

Nick Pinkerton

Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles trilogy runs January 4 through 12 at Film Forum in New York.

Ken Jacobs, Reichstag 9/11, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 38 minutes.

AT A TIME when even high-profile movies face a nebulous afterlife, the First Look Festival at the Museum of the Moving Image, now in its sixth edition, has become increasingly indispensable to New York’s film community. Indeed, First Look is often the only look many worthy titles receive before falling into the bottomless pit of the forgotten, the neglected, and the impossible to see. From its opening feature—Hirozaku Kore-eda’s After the Storm—to the end, there isn’t a loser in this year’s lineup, and there are at least half a dozen must-sees, not likely to be better projected than on MoMI’s lustrous screen.

Among the must-sees is Alexandra Cuesta’s gorgeously photographed Territory. Its lovingly observed cinematic long takes of Ecuador exude a living sense of place and time that renders microscopic gestures and environmental sounds credibly present. With her all-too-human eye and patient sensibility, Cuesta wisely avoids commentary and has no use for images loaded with transparent “relevance.” Whether she focuses on a group of young boys lolling about, a man digging a well, an old woman recalling her once bounteous hair, or a child idly sitting on a hammock, every image is blessedly free of the triteness of a cultural agenda.

The serenity of Cuesta’s work contrasts with the urgency of several nonfiction films. German filmmaker Philip Scheffner’s Havarie is actually two movies—its audio and its visual tracks are brilliantly fused into a humanist document of the first order. The image track comprises a single three-and-a-half-minute shot protracted virtually frame by frame into a ninety-three-minute runtime. Originally filmed on September 14, 2012, the shot is of a small craft filled with immigrants from Algeria making their way across the Mediterranean to the coast of Spain. Like the lives of the people in the boat, the movie is suspended in time, the fates of the immigrants no more or less relevant than the coast guard officials patrolling the area and communicating—in English, French, Arabic, and Russian—with loved ones and one another about the present crisis, terrorism, migration, and life at sea. At a loss for solutions, these men may be no less adrift than the figures in the boat that occasionally slip into the distance where they become little more than a collective blot on the screen.

Charlie Lyne, Fear Itself, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 88 minutes.

Ognjen Glavonic’s Depth Two is yet another testimony to man’s inhumanity toward man. Recounting an event of 1999 in which a freezer truck containing fifty-three dead bodies sank into the Danube River near the Romanian border, it traces the bureaucratic cover-ups that ensued until the trials of dictators such as Milošević and Šainović, held between 2002 and 2011, exposed the ugly truth: that the bodies were of citizens—of Yugoslavia, Serbia, and Kosovo—murdered by their own government. Like Havarie, the data is provided by voice-overs while contemporary views of the Danube, its environs, and neighboring villages unfold with an indifference to, if not an erasure of, recent history, a strategy that recalls Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985).

First Look has always been alert to movies that bridge or fuse genres. At least three of this year’s features could be taken equally as works of fiction and as exercises in fictionalized “reality.” The characters in Kazik Radwanski’s How Heavy This Hammer, a relatively slight narrative about domestic ills and a husband’s midlife crisis, share first names with the actors who play them. Christopher LaMarca’s Boone follows three earnest people forced to give up their goat farm. Since we don’t learn that until the end, the film engages us in the manner of any narrative with affecting incidents, disclosing its dispiriting outcome as a footnote, perhaps to allow us to feel the same letdown that beset the disappointed farmers. Camila Rodriguez Triana’s Atentamente (Sincerely) so warmly paints the life of an old man in a retirement home—particularly in scenes of muted affection between him and a daughter he abandoned years before—that it is readable as a sensitive chronicle of an actual situation.

In wildly disparate ways, several features reflect on the history of cinema. The simplest of these, Andrew Gil Mata’s How I Fell in Love with Eva Ras, is set in a projection booth in a theater in Bosnia/Herzogovina, where a middle-aged woman spends her days—and nights—running old features and newsreels mostly set in former Yugoslavia. The monotony of her sparse, uneventful existence contrasts with whatever cinematic illusions from the past are unspooling before an unseen audience.

More ambitious, Charlie Lyne’s Fear Itself explores how the titular emotion has been cleverly, often perversely captured, evoked, or otherwise exploited in movies since the medium’s inception. There are generous clips from more than eighty films, many of them unfamiliar, whose titles—in Japanese, Hindi, and Spanish—are somehow left untranslated. While some landmarks are here—Hitchcock, Cronenberg, Whale—they are cleverly defamiliarized by the way the editing integrates them or by replacing their sound tracks—e.g., the famous shot of Martin Balsam climbing and falling down the stairs in Psycho (1960) excludes the Herrmann score. Narrated by Amy Watson in a disarmingly—no doubt deliberately—affectless voice, the film, despite its title, includes excerpts from films driven less by fear than by horror and repulsion—not the same things at all. This sometimes leads to blurring the lines, say, between Willem Dafoe’s realization of his wife’s psychosis in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009), the horror of cannibalism faced by the survivors of the Andes crash in Alive (1993), and Catherine Deneuve’s hallucinatory breakdown in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965). While such clips attempt to match the nuances of the narration, the tendency is to slip across boundaries. Unfortunately, the narration itself eventually succumbs to clichés, to wit, that what we really fear is the monstrous in ourselves, which we displace onto notions of evil and the supernatural. Fortunately, such rationales are quashed by an intelligent selection of excerpts, ample proof of film’s universal embrace of our most troubling emotions.

Andreas Horvath, Helmut Berger, Actor, 2015, color, sound, 90 minutes.

Takehiro Ito’s Out There reflects, at great length, on movies in relation to our sense of place, of being in the world here and now. If this stab at the existential overreaches, it is saved by a grounding context. The director of a film within the film interviews an actor named Ma—played by Chun Chih Ma in one of the film’s self-reflexive gestures—to revive a film project. Ma, born in Taiwan, now lives in Tokyo, which he explores on rollerblades to master its space, he attests, and how to “be” within it. His dilemma of whether to remain in Tokyo or return to Taiwan is complicated when he falls for a Japanese girl, but it also fuses with the search of the fictional director, as well as Ito, to create what is ultimately an engaging meditation on displacement and the uncanny way movies have of lending credence to place and one’s place within it.

César Vayssié’s UFE (Unfilmévénement) may well be symptomatic of the current state of French cinema. Disguised as a narrative about a theatrical troupe’s efforts to blow up the system, we are reminded that it is all a show. But this reflexivity, as well as the film’s congenial young actors, conceals a genuine frustration and disgust not only with the status quo but also for the feeling that there is no way out. In that sense, its allusions to Godard and Bresson imply a longing for a form and a mission not presently within reach.

Unabashed sadomasochism—on both sides of the camera—drives Andreas Horvath’s Helmut Berger, Actor, a portrait of the Austrian naughty boy that outstrips the tawdry exposés of the National Enquirer or Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon. Narcissistic and delusionary, Berger mopes about a cluttered apartment, his bare-assed, ornery demeanor flanked by images of Brigitte Bardot, Romy Schneider, and Luchino Visconti—pitiable reminders of his short-lived glory days as a bisexual prima donna. But for Berger’s near campy turns in Visconti’s Ludwig (1973), The Damned (1969), and Conversation Piece (1974), it’s doubtful anyone would remember him. Invoking the ghosts of the famous and infamous, he curses the off-screen, mostly mute Horvath, whose repeated requests for a real interview are met with demeaning slurs of his persona and talent. The result may not have been what Horvath sought, but there’s no doubt he knew that what he was getting was rarer, if much queasier: a self-flagellating exhibition, which, for all its brassiness, comes off as a masturbatory tantrum. It’s like watching an incontinent inmate of an asylum unravel before your eyes—less a tragic fall from greatness than a desperate plea for attention.

Last but far from least, Ken Jacobs’s new work epitomizes what big-screen video projection is all about. Jacobs dares to turn the hellish attack on the World Trade Center, long seared into our brains, into a three-dimensional spectacle in which every unbearable sight courts self-immolation. Crumbling, decomposing, shattering, fragmenting, disintegrating, dissolving, and melting, the images weep and bleed into each other and beyond the edges of the frame. He calls it Reichstag 9/11, and there is no better canvas on which its Bosch-like fury could be unleashed than the one at MoMI.

Tony Pipolo

The sixth edition of First Look runs January 6 through 16 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York.

No Angels


Luis Buñuel, The Exterminating Angel, 1962, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 93 minutes.

IT’S HIGH TIME to take Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and elevate it to its rightful place as a holiday—any holiday—classic. For one thing, its exquisitely paralyzed time-spatial continuum leads straight to Groundhog Day’s looping perpetual déjà vu machine. Buñuel’s inexplicably stranded, upper-encrusted partygoers—prisoners of their own karmic device—are doomed to snipe their looping, arrogant-respectable way through a mazy purgatory of socialized entropy, Catholic hypocrisy, and primal malevolence dressed as good manners. To rephrase a certain beloved yule-riptide airing-of-grievances episode of Seinfeld, “It’s a Festering Miracle!”

A film for all seasons in hell, it’s the secret Christmas movie to end all Capraesque, It’s a Wonderful Life–affirming uplift: Here the living nightmare of these bourgeois taxidermy subjects doesn’t dissolve into moral lessons and emotional relief, they finally just stagger free of their haute-domesticated hamster wheelhouse straight into the waiting maw of the cannibal Church. They are swathed in enough tinseled layers of superstition, magical non-thinking, and cultivated repression to drape either a Douglas fir tree or mahogany coffin.

Built around a swank gathering of the Mexican social elite after a night at the opera, The Exterminating Angel employs a pokerfaced disjunction of gathering omens and stark visitations against a backdrop of escalating anxiety. The party assembles like prime suspects in a mildewed parlor mystery—or decorated generals prematurely toasting victory in the class struggle. But these walking antiques are only dimly aware that the servants are hurriedly deserting them (how rude and frightfully annoying!), propelled by the same forces that soon lock the dandies and socialites, Scrooges and stooges inside an ever-shrinking habitat for inhumanity. They dither and panic, coupling in closets and defecating in the pantry, maintaining a mild pretense of sanity while going gradually out of their coifed, made-up heads.

Modeling claustrophobia as the price of refinement and pseudo-taste, the second most shocking thing about The Exterminating Angel is how aberrantly entertaining it is. Silvia Pinal, whom Buñuel catapulted to scandalous stardom a year before in Viridiana, manifests the puffed-up, neurotic entitlement of Diva-hood without upstaging Buñuel’s judiciously selected ensemble of sophisticated blowhards and reactionary-chic matrons. One of his most useful performers is Augusto Benedico, who plays the psychiatrist Dr. Conde here in much the same handwringing register he essayed Professor Orlof in the masked-wrestler saga Santo vs the Vampire Women that same year. If these concentrically circling doyennes are vampire women of a sort, smoking like crematoria and pacing in nylon place, they’re anemic ones, malnourished by weak-blooded men in mothball-scented eveningwear.

Exit reason, pursued by a bear: a feral straggler who shows up in this contracting setting like a circus exile. Sheep scuttle under tables like sacrificial livestock fleeing a battlefield. Buñuel was the master of establishing a randomized, every-man-and-woman-for-themselves dynamic within a cloistered, static environment, where it seems like war might break out among not only the characters but the ornate set decorations. Next to Hitchcock’s spotlessly choreographed, pulley-and-lever Psycho stratagems or Kubrick’s vice-hard grip on a pearl-handled Nabokov revolver, Buñuel achieves a mordancy rooted in the sensation that anything or nothing-in-perpetuity could happen in the next fifteen seconds of a given scene. Only the rococo pulpiness of Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) approaches the specialized, mulchy dread of The Exterminating Angel, though Welles doesn’t have Buñuel’s patient knack for hardnosed indeterminacy. Welles set different strains of overdetermination at each other, like a bull against a drunken matador, where Buñuel was more apt to feature a stiff-necked aristocrat shadowboxing the blank degeneration of their dusty subconscious.

“Loveable” may not be the first word you land on when conjuring up fond Exterminating Angel memories, but Buñuel had an amazing capacity for—what shall we call it?—negative empathy. It’s the sense of recognition a nihilist feels when he meets his match: The so-called discreet charm of the pitter-épater of little bourgeoisies amounts to a black cancerous heart lurking under all their shiny materialism and paternalism and deep-seated shallowness. The Exterminating Angel, in the fashion of an air-raid warden bullhorning instructions while finishing his crossword puzzle, adopts an amused attitude to incipient disintegration and ravening disorder. All in a day’s work. Those archetypes that were already archaic more than half a century ago, one foot in the mausoleum and the other in the wax museum—how could the director resist chuckling, watching them lay the groundwork for their own extinction?

The joke, Buñuel’s admirers always thought, was on somebody else. The trouble now is that those ridiculous, benighted, smug apostles of social superiority appear to have time-traveled from 1962 and brashly installed themselves in our finest institutions and positions, just in time to watch their servants make a reverse–Black Friday dash for the exits. The party is over but nobody can break the spell and leave. We’re all stranded with these visions of Johanna or Ivanka or Grushenka, as the room gets smaller and the chewed-over chicken wings pile up on top of a funeral mound of Sunday Times. Someone’s rumbling down the chimney: Is it El Santo the masked wrestler or his arch-nemesis the Grand Inquisitor? Assuming one is not the alter ego of the other: such is the afterlife and times of The Exterminating Angel. Happy Christmas, Merry New Year, and Mazel-Karamazov to all!

Howard Hampton

The Exterminating Angel is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.