Stephen Cone, Princess Cyd, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 96 minutes.


WALKING OUT OF BALTIMORE’S NEWLY RESTORED PARKWAY THEATER, I was in a daze after having watched a 35-mm print of Agnès Varda’s magnificent Vagabond (1985)—the first time analog film had been shown in the building in more than forty years. I then stumbled into a neighboring McDonald’s and queued up behind a slim older gentleman clad in head-to-toe Comme des Garçons who just happened to be the director of Pink Flamingos (1972). It is on the occasion of such pure strikes of Stendhal syndrome that having devoted one’s life to cinema seems like a not entirely worthless undertaking.

I had been twice before to the Maryland Film Festival, which over the course of its nineteen years has become something of a beacon to American independent filmmakers, particularly those based on the eastern seaboard. For those lay moviegoers not inclined to brave the tribulations of Sundance or the unendurable spiritual degradation that is South by Southwest, Maryland—that’s MdFF for short—offers, across five days, an actually curated slate that contains most of what you’d actually want to have seen at those other festivals in the first place.

Consequently, MdFF doesn’t place much priority on premieres, though there are usually a few. This year, for example, there was Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd and, of lasting material benefit to the festival, the Parkway complex—officially the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway Film Center, named for the Athens-based philanthropic organization that donated a cool $5 million to the restoration of the circa 1915 cinema.

Located on the corner of North Charles and North Avenue in what has been branded the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, the Parkway was a showpiece cinema based on a Coventry Street theater in London and opened by Baltimore impresario Henry Webb in the year of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. In later years—from 1956 to 1978 it was the Five West Art Theatre—the building followed a familiar trajectory for downtown cinemas in the years of white flight, going from art house to porno theater to crumbling ruin, in this case adding in a tenure as a Korean grocery, for good measure. When I received a tour of the Parkway’s auditorium shortly after MdFF had bought the building from the city for a purely nugatory fee, it looked like a ruined husk that you’d expect to have been burned down under suspect circumstances years ago. Now it’s open for yearlong programming, both repertory and first-run, with two smaller, purpose-built cinemas supplementing the four-hundred-plus seat big house, which has been brought back, balcony and all, by architect Steve Ziger with no attempt to erase the years of wear and tear: The top of the proscenium arch remains broken, and most of the oval panels on the walls are still vacant, only two bearing faded Rococo revival pastoral scenes. The sightlines are good, the aisles broad, and the achieved ramshackle effect is not altogether unlike that obtained by the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I pronounce it altogether a very satisfying place to watch a film, and yet another hopeful indication of the appearance of a viable new theatrical model after a dispiriting couple of decades.

Of course some Baltimoreans may harbor fears that their city might someday turn into Brooklyn—nobody wants that, including most Brooklynites—and such a prominent addition to the neighborhood was bound to draw scrutiny, hence an article in last week’s City Paper that allowed various long-term residents to voice concerns about the Parkway’s impact on the community’s ecosystem. And analyzing the demographic engineering of Charm City, with its racially rigged history, also happens to be the subject matter of the most prominent Baltimorean film, which played MdFF after appearances at Locarno, True/ False, and Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real: Theo Anthony’s Rat Film (2016).

Theo Anthony, Rat Film, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 82 minutes.


A kind of trash-can city symphony, Baltimore-based Anthony’s film keeps hold of several disparate threads that relate to his hometown’s rat population and various attempts to curb it, but that also—both obliquely and then overtly—touch on the deliberate segregation of the city through both government and private interference, which created pockets of endemic poverty that have been left to fester for a century and more. Anthony moves briskly between contemporary footage of Baltimore’s professional and amateur rat catchers; dissertations on several historical efforts in pest control by researchers at Johns Hopkins University as dispassionately described by automaton narrator Maureen Jones; and analog and digital maps of Baltimore, drawing parallels between human behavior and that of the cornered Norway rat. (Shades of Alain Resnais’s Mon oncle d’Amérique [1980] here.) The metaphor gets a little snarled, the utopian-apocalyptic conclusion worked for me not at all, and a digression into Frances Lee’s crime dioramas seems like an instance of the director—also acting as his own cinematographer and editor—being unable to kill his darlings. But for at least several sustained passages the fleetness of the cross connections made was enough to convince me that I was dealing with an exciting young filmmaker with a deft, limber mind and a style to match.

The best movie I saw at MdFF, perhaps unsurprisingly, was Vagabond, which upon review seems easily one of the greatest films of the 1980s—funny and unsentimental and unfathomably sad. Watching the conclusion, in which Sandrine Bonnaire’s exhausted drifter sinks down in a vineyard ditch and gives up the ghost, there to die of exposure as already preordained by the film’s Citizen Kane–esque inquest-and-flashback structure, I thought of some lines from François Mauriac’s 1923 novel Génitrix which have always troubled me: “There was no tear-stained face for her to leave behind, nothing to mark for her this slipping into the shadows. She died quietly, as those who are unloved.”

No less tough, if lacking Vagabond’s occasional leavening cloud breaks, is Werewolf (2016), the feature debut of Ashley McKenzie shot in the director’s hometown of Cape Breton in the northeast reaches of Nova Scotia, a scenic summer destination which also enjoys Canada’s highest unemployment rate and an out-of-control opiate epidemic. Andrew Gillis and Breagh MacNeil, two of the most translucently pale Caucasians I’ve ever seen, costar as ex-addicts whose tab at the methadone clinic is hardly covered by their door-to-door lawn-mowing service. The movie is distinguished by McKenzie’s almost monomaniacal head-down focus on minutiae, her attempt to tell a story through a collection of process-based sequences—the daily routine at the clinic gradually gives way to the MacNeil character’s job at a soft-serve ice-cream place, broken down into the component parts of a crap job, with the rumble of hand-grinding Oreo cookie bits taking on a particularly ominous quality.

Nathan Silver has tended toward a nerve-jangling, vérité-informed style in his previous improv-based productions, which have appeared with unnerving regularity since 2012’s Exit Elena, but Thirst Street (2017), which arrived at MdFF after a Tribeca premiere, is an animal that looks and moves rather differently, shot in anamorphic widescreen and splashed in theatrical gels. Lindsay Burdge, who recently appeared as Lindsay Burdge in Silver’s Actor Matrinez (2016), here plays a flight attendant who begins to recover from the emotional devastation of her lover’s suicide only when she finds a new preoccupation, a skeevy strip-club bartender played by Damien Bonnard. She clings to him, barnacle-like, in the aftermath of a one-night stand, dropping everything to take a job at the club (presided over by the director Jacques Nolot, in a hysterical cartoon of Gallic contempt) and an apartment across the way from that of her beloved. The premise, stretched nearly to the point of snapping, owes something to François Truffaut’s Antoine et Colette (1962), while the stained-glass and neon palette reflects cinematographer Sean Price Williams’s stint on a Locarno jury with director Dario Argento. Now would be as good a time as any to confess a friendly acquaintance with the involved talent here, as well as feeling a powerful ambivalence toward every new film of Silver’s. And I think this is the desired effect: With the willfully lurid suicide scene, the intrusion of Anjelica Huston’s case-study narration, and, above all, the spacey opacity of Burdge’s performance, which has more than a touch of Julie Hagerty to it, Thirst Street rejects every entry to empathy, a real pebble-in-the-sock agitation.

Nathan Silver, Thirst Street, 2017, digital video, color, sound, 83 minutes.


If Silver’s worldview might best be described as comic-grotesque, Cone’s is generous to a fault. When Princess Cyd comes to a scene of violent confrontation, Cone lingers only long enough to show a few frames of hands on a throat, and in a way his aversion to high-pitched conflict is as radical as Silver’s compulsion to goad, irritate, frustrate, and confound. Cone’s latest is set in the leafy suburbs of his adopted hometown of Chicago and concerns an extended visit by sixteen-year-old Cyd (Jessie Pinnick, excellent) to her novelist aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence). during which Cyd develops a growing interest in Miranda’s circle of friends—mostly middle-class Christian humanists with various connections to the arts—and explores her budding sexuality with both girls and boys, and gingerly prods at the old wound of her mother’s death. It’s a movie I felt tenderly toward even as I couldn’t help but wish Cone was willing to draw a little blood, but then maybe he wouldn’t be himself if he did. It is for the presence of real individuals that a festival like the one they throw down in Baltimore is to be prized.

The Maryland Film Festival ran May 3–7 in Baltimore, MD.

Nick Pinkerton

Chris Burden, Through the Night Softly, 1973. Photo: Charles Hill.
In Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey, Burden, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 88 minutes.


A PRIMER ON THE WORK of the West Coast artist of the title—first name, Chris—Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan’s documentary Burden is well-researched but short on context. Piecing together video documentation of both the confrontational performance works that made Burden the most notorious artist of the 1970s and the intricately fabricated, often magically beautiful sculpture that he began to produce in the 1980s until he died in 2015, the filmmakers leave the commentary largely to Burden himself. Fortunately, he is articulate and seriously witty both in archival footage and in interviews recorded specifically for this film in and around his Topanga Canyon studio in 2014.

Burden insisted that his pieces were sculpture, including those he made in the first half of the ’70s, in which material elements were eclipsed by the performances that defined them in space and time. In Five Day Locker Piece, 1971, his MFA thesis at the University of California, Irvine, and the first of many pieces to apply the Abstract Expressionist aesthetic of risk to his own body, Burden scrunched himself into a four-by-four-by-five-inch metal locker, where he remained for five days. The locker had been altered so that he could access jugs of water in the locker above and piss into a bucket in the locker below. Something of the connection of art and science, which Burden admired in Renaissance art, was mapped into the Rube Goldberg–like inner structure of the three lockers, but at the time that aspect of the work made less of an impression than the torture Burden inflicted on himself.

All that remains of Five Day Locker Piece and the even more notorious works that followed—among them Shoot, 1971, Doorway to Heaven, 1973, and Trans-fixed, 1974—are some still photos and a few seconds of video or Super 8 film. To confirm the works’ importance, the filmmakers call upon some of Burden’s most successful contemporaries and teachers to appraise them in one or two sentences. Since no one has the time to say much of anything, a viewer who knows nothing of Burden’s work or this period of feverish activity in performance and body art across the world, might come away thinking that Burden was sui generis. It’s not until Vito Acconci shows up to comment—forty years after the fact—on Kunst Kick, 1974, in which Burden had someone kick him down a flight of stairs at the Basel Art Fair, that one might consider that these two artists, though working on opposite coasts, were stunningly in sync throughout their careers, even in that they both hit a wall in using their own bodies for performance in the mid-’70s and turned instead to hybrid forms of sculpture and architecture.

Burden is invaluable, and even moving, when it focuses on the artist’s late works, some of which are site-specific. Burden’s first major museum retrospective was not in Los Angeles but at New York’s New Museum in 2013. What could not be included was Urban Light, 2008, the permanent installation of antique street lamps arranged as densely as a forest and now lit by solar power. That it is a visionary work of Apollonian beauty is evident even from the movie’s paltry images. The illumination here is from the discussion by Burden and some of his assistants, which is also the case with Burden’s final, similarly transcendent work, Ode to Santos Dumont, 2015, a forty-foot-long oval-shaped polyurethane balloon that flies in large circles through the air, powered by helium and a small gas motor. Named for the Brazilian aviator who flew a small dirigible around the Eiffel Tower, it was first shown by LACMA just after Burden’s death. He had lived long enough to see the piece tested, and as an assistant relays in the film, he felt in his entire being the moment when the motor cut out and the balloon continued to fly. Burden may be light on art history, but it does suggest the transformation of the artist’s work from the body confined to the spirit released and taking flight.

Amy Taubin

Burden runs through Thursday, May 11, at the Metrograph in New York.

Laura Poitras, Risk, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 95 minutes. Julian Assange.


“INFORMATION WANTS TO BE FREE.” This cyberpunk maxim, originally uttered by Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand in conversation with Apple’s Steve Wozniak at the 1984 Hackers Conference, rarely comes up in discussions of the character and motivations of Julian Assange, the editor in chief and global face of WikiLeaks. Assange has been an activist “publisher” for so long now that it is frequently forgotten he was originally a hacker—a very sophisticated one. Operating under the pseudonym Mendax from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, Assange successfully cracked the US Department of Defense and various US military branches, as well as top defense contractors, major multinational corporations, and other high-value targets. He was finally arrested for these activities in Australia, his native country, in 1994. He pleaded guilty to twenty-five charges but was released with a slap on the wrist, partly due to his apparent lack of malice or profit motive.

I mention this because whether you currently think Assange is an unimpeachable hero, the leader of a “hostile intelligence service,” a Kremlin stooge, or merely an irritating megalomaniac with great hair, his original mission of radical transparency has deep roots in the hacker community. Books advancing arguments resonant with Assange’s initial stance—David Brin’s The Transparent Society (1998) and Amitai Etzioni’s The Limits of Privacy (1999)—circulated as the first dot-com bubble inflated. Indeed, it was not immediately apparent in WikiLeaks’s early years that Assange was taking a specific political position on his leaks (other than “institutional corruption must be exposed,” which is Hacktivism 101). In recent years, however, with a few exceptions, nearly all of WikiLeaks’s releases have been at the expense of the US government. Assange and his representatives maintain that they only publish what is submitted to WikiLeaks and have no control over where the leaks come from, but it is difficult to shake the feeling that Assange has settled on the US as the Main Enemy in his campaign for global justice.

While there is no doubt that the US military and intelligence services have done and continue to do horrible things around the world, often to serve the more underhanded needs of the nation’s private sector (otherwise known as “American interests”), one does not have to be a Hillary Clinton fan or supporter to note the extreme personal animus Assange holds for her and the Democratic Party. Both are corrupt and in the pocket of Wall Street and multinational corporations––partly thanks to the infinite wisdom of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision––but no more so than most sitting politicians from both parties, including Donald Trump, who is ushering in the type of family-based oligarchic kleptocracy usually associated with second-tier former Soviet states and tin-pot dictatorships in Africa and Latin America.

Since the release of the flawed Assange biopic The Fifth Estate (2013), which appeared in the wake of sexual-assault allegations leveled against Assange by two Swedish women in 2010, but especially since WikiLeaks’s role in the 2016 US presidential election, Assange’s reputation, never saintly to begin with, has become increasingly questionable. His unctuous, condescending manner, Mona Lisa smile, and air of smug self-satisfaction have not helped in this regard. Unlike Edward Snowden, with whom Assange is often associated in the public imagination and who is frequently criticized on the same grounds, Assange really does seem like a self-dealing narcissist with a messianic complex. Snowden remains a socially awkward, self-deprecating Boy Scout, a nerdy Dudley Do-Right; he repeatedly insists that the numerous debates he started by releasing the NSA archives are not and should not be “about him,” and this is credible. It is hard to say the same of Assange, who basks in the spotlight of global attention like a pampered lap cat. If I were asked to guess the one man in this world who could naturally purr, I would name Assange.

Laura Poitras, Risk, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 95 minutes. Julian Assange.


A scene in Laura Poitras’s new Assange documentary, Risk, which debuted at Cannes last year in a substantially different version, illustrates this perfectly. Amid a milling crowd of demonstrators, police, and curious passersby, Assange is shown arriving, on foot, at his 2011 extradition hearing in London. The shot, from above, seems to cast a strange glow on Assange; he is brighter and more colorful than the masses surrounding him, and his facial expression radiates a serene, almost unearthly sense of satisfaction, as if this were the moment he had been waiting for all his life—all eyes on him, the world at his feet.

During this sequence, Poitras cuts in a voice-over from her production diary: “This is not the film I thought I was making. I thought I could ignore the contradictions. I thought they were not part of the story. I was so wrong. They’re becoming the story.” She is referring to the Swedish sexual assault allegations and Assange’s responses to them, which are fleshed out in the film, much to Assange’s detriment. In a scene with the female lawyers who are representing him in the case, Assange condescendingly dismisses the Swedish women’s accusations as coming from a “tawdry radical feminist perspective,” adding that they will be “reviled” in court (presumably for hampering the imminent arrival of the Second Coming). The lawyers regard him incredulously, one rolling her eyes; their request that he not appear “insensitive” to the Swedish women is a bridge too far for Assange. Poitras has publicly acknowledged that she and Assange no longer speak, and this is likely due to her inclusion of this scene in the film. (It was in the 2016 Cannes edit that Assange saw, which was generally more favorable to him.)

While it’s clear that the Swedish episode gave Poitras pause in her assessment of Assange, as it would any woman, the real impetus for her significant revisions to the film were the multiple sexual-assault allegations later made against hacktivist and former Tor Project developer Jacob Appelbaum, Poitras’s friend, colleague, and, as she reveals in the film, former lover. In the wake of this imbroglio, Poitras decided to reedit the film to incorporate unavoidable issues of gender and power in activist communities. The result is a fascinating, ambiguous, multifaceted portrait of Assange, an extremely complicated, often maddening man whose efforts have added even more uncertainty to an already dicey period of world history.

Risk is a far richer documentary than Poitras’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour (2014), about Snowden, partly because it covers a longer period and involves many more locations, but largely because of the personality differences between Snowden and Assange. The NSA whistleblower’s case invites moral and ethical interpretations; Assange and WikiLeaks cry out for psychological ones. Poitras seems aware of this. In another production diary voice-over, she says, “With this film, the lines have become very blurred. Sometimes I can’t believe what Julian allows me to film. Ego, yes. But also brave. He’s managing his image, but also being vulnerable. It’s a mystery to me why he trusts me because I don’t think he likes me.”

Nowhere is the nexus of Poitras’s curiosity and Assange’s peculiarity in sharper relief than in a bizarre scene in a darkened London hotel room, where Assange physically disguises himself for his initial asylum-seeking trip to the Ecuadorian embassy as his mother and other supporters whisper in the other room. Right before he departs, his mother holds up a note to him that reads “I love you. Money?”—an offer one might make to a twelve-year-old. Mother and son high-five as he leaves the room.

When Assange was young, his mother became romantically involved with Leif Meynell, a member of the Australian cult the Family, and eventually had Meynell’s son. Consistent with the cult’s dynamics, Meynell was a hypercontrolling man from whom Assange and his mother frequently fled, only to be doggedly pursued to their new location. It is easy to see how this type of childhood would lead to a persecution complex, with Meynell and the Family providing early rehearsals for Assange’s cat-and-mouse games with Clinton and the US intelligence community.

In one of Risk’s oddest scenes, Assange is interviewed inside the Ecuadorian embassy by Lady Gaga, who comes off as a supercilious idiot, primarily concerned with getting Assange to bitch about his confinement as if he were a spoiled celebrity on Dlisted. Assange responds, “I’m not a normal person . . . I don’t care how I feel.” Poitras’s film, very much worth seeing even if you despise Assange, says otherwise. Rarely has the personal seemed more political than in the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.

Andrew Hultkrans

Laura Poitras’s Risk opens across the US on Friday, May 5.

After Darko

04.25.17

Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 134 minutes. Donnie Darko and Gretchen Ross (Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone).


RICHARD KELLY’S now-legendary debut, Donnie Darko (2001), forged a bittersweet, nutty-poignant idiom from the pop-culture overload of the writer-director’s late 1980s suburban Virginia youth. (It feels as if Kelly was possessed by Donnie instead of merely being his creator.) Most impudently, the film juxtaposes the grinning title teen (Jake Gyllenhaal, exhibiting a quirky Travis Bickle–as–Boy Scout air) below a movie marquee featuring the dream Halloween team of The Evil Dead and The Last Temptation of Christ.

That combination sums up Donnie Darko as well as anything: a comic-book Passion Play haunted by malevolent supernatural forces. (And that jet engine dropping out of the sky.) Donnie receives otherworldly instructions from Frank, a holy ghost in a gnarly rabbit costume (picture the Easter Bunny with a Heavy Metal makeover), through a rent in the space-time continuum. When Donnie meets his troubled soul mate, Gretchen (Jena Malone), she teases that his goofy name makes him sound like a superhero. “What makes you think I’m not?”

Kelly’s film is a conundrum wrapped in an enigma inside a valentine. Out of long-lost weekend Blockbuster Video rentals (E.T., Blue Velvet, Poltergeist, Heathers, Time Bandits, Watership Down), Stephen King novels, shimmery post–New Wave records (Tears for Fears, Echo and the Bunnymen, INXS), Escher prints, motivational infomercials, The Smurfs, and Stephen Hawking came a lyric, mid-Halloween night’s world all its own. It’s the cult film as supercollider physics experiment: What would happen if, for example, particles of the Buffyverse would be “smushed” up with the gravitational tangents of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia? Darko’s “Mad World” montage is a partial answer.

On its most immediate level, the film’s a shrewdly absurd exploration of waking dream states—or teenage schizophrenia. Donnie isn’t the only character who appears to follow strange, preordained paths: The people he encounters all seem to double as messengers, prompting him, provoking him. They’re semisentient pieces on a cosmic chessboard, and the sense of dual, or dueling, realities being communicated is entertaining and suggestive. But it’s grounded in something more acute about adolescence: those moments of discovery when something deeper, more dangerous, and more insightful breaks through the routines and clichés of cloistered life.

When his troublemaking young English teacher, Ms. Pomeroy (Drew Barrymore), assigns the Graham Greene story “The Destructors,” it’s a roadmap. The clock is ticking down to the end of the world, according to Frank: Donnie will have to perform a series of disruptive acts and decipher ambiguous clues to save it. First, by flooding his high school and somehow embedding an axe in the bronze head of its giant mascot statue, the Mongrel. (Which itself has the wonderfully bulbous look of a comic-book character: It could be the Incredible Hulk’s pet.)

Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 134 minutes.


Later, Donnie is directed to burn down the mansion of the self-help guru Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze), who has gotten too deeply involved with the school curriculum. That this already creepy, gung-ho motivational speaker (pitching a program halfway between Tony Robbins and Scientology) turns out to be a secret pedophile doubles the implications of his campus recruitment efforts. Most telling in the film’s narrative terms is that when Donnie and Gretchen walk past the as-yet-unidentified Cunningham house, a couple schoolgirls run by and, in the background, go into it. Another Alice in Jeopardy motif is the school’s serenely exploitive Sparkle Motion dance troupe, which includes Donnie’s sister: They’re all prepubescent, so even if it were a joint middle and high school, they’re awfully young to be thrown in with horny older boys (including Seth Rogen!) for whom harassment and hazing are sport.

Donnie Darko is all about the blending of head-on blatancy with a raft of undertones, sense-making non sequiturs, and lysergic aperçus. Raw sincerity meets ironic self-awareness, with these different levels of sophistication coexisting and ricocheting off one another. If art doesn’t encroach on life and alter it, as Kelly implies with Darko, why bother? The movie’s an elaboration of how personal and artistic associations can bleed together and cross-fertilize inside your consciousness. The casting of iconic actors Barrymore, Swayze, and Katherine Ross (as Dr. Thurman, Donnie’s therapist) also blurs the lines: Their recognition factor feeds into the film’s convoluted sense of the familiar wrenched out of shape.

Both Ms. Pomeroy and Dr. Thurman have extremely curious relationships with Donnie—not overtly inappropriate, but Pomeroy verges on taunting him when she says in class, “Maybe your friend Frank can help you.” And Dr. Thurman, who hypnotizes Donnie, seems to helicopter between sternly professional, openly maternal, and embarrassingly overexposed. Gyllenhaal’s acting is a fascinating medley of registers and approaches—under hypnosis, doing a broad, childlike shtick, dialing it back in various boyish degrees, shifting from Method angst to repeating Minimalist notes, none more effective than his Darko smile, one of those gnostic flashes that capture a movie’s essence in a single shot.

“They made me do it” announces the graffiti he leaves after vandalizing the school. But while Donnie’s the center of contention, “they”—in this case, the tremendous ensemble of not only actors but the production’s crew and craftspeople—are what allow the center to hold. For all the distinctiveness of Kelly’s vision, exploring the making of the film through the prism of the newly and beautifully remastered limited-edition box set (with its multiple commentaries and a highly instructive making-of documentary), you realize it was openness to collaboration that made Donnie Darko what it is.

The box set includes the theatrical cut of the movie (which initially bombed), the director’s cut released in 2004 (after the film caught on in Great Britain), and the new ninety-minute documentary, The Philosophy of Donnie Darko. This, along with the commentary tracks, walks you step by step through the film’s making. There’s also a ninety-page book that includes a very detailed (albeit old) interview with Kelly, some solid features on the movie, and a particularly helpful piece by Anton Bitel on Kelly’s star-crossed post-Darko career. For the truly fanatical, the set includes the hilarious “Cunning Vision” infomercial, and a commentary on it as well—I can’t pin down the hinky male voice on the track, but I am pretty sure the punctilious female’s belongs to Kristen Wiig.

Getting back to the film itself: It looks wonderful in both versions. Especially gratifying is the preservation of gradations and alterations in Steven Poster’s cinematography, which doesn’t aim for a cookie-cutter look but lights and frames each scene as a specific, individual milieu. The theatrical cut remains more abrupt and more jarringly weird—its elisions invite a more cultish response, with less ordinary, humane life intruding on the uncanny and bizarre. The director’s cut restores twenty minutes and original song cues, plus adding some intertitles and special effects to lend the time-travel ploy a patina of plausibility.

Richard Kelly, Donnie Darko, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 134 minutes. Donnie Darko and Gretchen Ross (Jake Gyllenhaal and Jena Malone).


Crucially, it has a more intricate family dynamic, more range and counterintuitive texture and sheer empathy. The Darkos make for an extraordinary tight, prickly screen family: Holmes Osborne as the “wiseacre” dad (like father, like son), big sister Elizabeth (Maggie Gyllenhaal), little Samantha (Daveigh Chase), and the mother of all moms, Rose (Mary McDonnell). Even though the roles are small and mostly underwritten, the actors flesh them out so well you can vividly see them living out their own parallel movies. Especially Rose. McDonnell’s performance is a wonder of conflicted emotions bubbling just below a slightly soused surface, eyes like scalpels and her smiles laced with an ever-changing assortment of anger, amusement, contempt, sadness, resignation, and love.

Everyone on set seems to have caught that commitment bug—they bought into the premise even if they didn’t understand it and collectively hopped on Kelly’s wavelength. (Unlike in his follow-up, Southland Tales, where nobody seems to be on the same page or frequency or drugs.) His approach here wasn’t to autocratically impose himself on the frame, but to draw everybody in as coconspirators who felt they were all meant to contribute something—everyone was there for a purpose.

Which sounds like Donnie stuttering, but something about the production surely was charmed, lucky, fated, or whatever you want to call it. Like Barrymore stepping in as a guardian angel to coproduce and act in the film for scale, instantly doubling the budget and bringing a lot of other people on board. With Poster’s contribution, not only as an ace cinematographer but as the facilitator who got Panavision to let them use Anamorphic lenses and who procured a fabulous new high-speed film stock. With Michael Andrews’s serendipitous score. Getting the rights to use Evil Dead was a stroke of luck rather than design, making the portal scene in the theater perhaps the trippiest movie-within-a-movie coup in film history. Like that jet engine, in the end everything just fell into place.

Howard Hampton

A new four-disk set of Donnie Darko is now available from Arrow Video.

Ernie Gehr, Autumn, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 32 minutes.


HOWEVER GRUDGINGLY film-lovers have accepted the hegemony of digital, there is no denying that avant-garde artists have spun gold from newer media. The indomitable, self-taught Ernie Gehr, whose film career began in the late 1960s and whose thirty-odd ventures in 16-mm include such gems as Still (1969–71), Serene Velocity (1970), Eureka! (1974), and Side/Walk Shuttle (1991), has more than doubled that output with digital works, the latest of which will be shown Monday at Redcat in Los Angeles.

A master interrogator of space and gravity-defying cinema, Gehr has plumbed the possibilities of digital since Cotton Candy (2001), discovering—and at times stumbling upon—unexpectedly creative ways to stimulate the eye and challenge cognition beyond what film can do. Sensations of Light #7 (2016), one in a series of purely digitally generated works that nonetheless resonate within film history, takes the flicker films of Tony Conrad and Peter Kubelka to new extremes while recalling such earlier graphic-minded film ventures as Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale (1924) and Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1923).

But while a shot seized from one of those works might give a sense of the whole, the power of Sensations of Light #7 can only be experienced when projected. Freezing one frame discloses one or two colors or geometric shapes, none of which hints at the conflation and optical illusions induced by the faster alternation of frames allowed by digital: Red, green, yellow, violet, blue, black, and white rectangles flicker before us within the larger different-colored rectangles of the full frame, their displacements and illusory superimpositions, as well as the impression of advancing and receding movements, entirely a result of projection’s unwritten bond with the habits and limitations of vision. A similar illusion of movement occurs in Serene Velocity, though it is produced by editing in rapid succession different exposures of the camera at various distances. SOL, here an abbreviation of Sensations of Light, is the Latin word for sun—not an inapt allusion, since the effects of this series are akin to the intense, vertigo-inducing feeling one has when looking into that body’s flares, when we also “see” many colors surrounded by a halo of others. It’s no surprise that Gehr has decided that only one work in this series should be seen at any one screening.

While Sensations of Light #7 could not be less like Gehr’s dazzling new Autumn (2017), the optical aftereffects induced by the former, along with those of the quivering lines of Brooklyn Series (2013), the second work to be screened, linger over and heighten our perceptions of color and light in Autumn. Brooklyn Series could even pass as a paradigm for what digital images can do: Horizontal bars fill the screen top to bottom, shimmering ceaselessly, most likely as indices of a hidden reality compressed into strips of color and light. If we’re tempted to read the blurred streams as rapidly passing vehicles shot at close range, this is largely thanks to the moving traffic heard on the sound track, but also because cars and trucks have a privileged place in Gehr’s work, often—and this is also true of Autumn—because they introduce a rainbow of colors, brightening and enlivening each frame as they articulate the space as they pass through.

How Gehr configured the squeezed horizontal bars in Brooklyn Series remains a mystery, even to him—or perhaps it’s one of his professional secrets. Nevertheless, as a potential technical feature of the system, it follows that everything digital can be reduced to that condition—which is to say that the human figures, construction sites, busy streets, moving vehicles, storefronts, and objects of Autumn are simply expanses of shimmering color and light, slowed down to a natural speed to resume their original corporeal form.

Ernie Gehr, Transport, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 22 minutes.


Autumn reminds us of that other Gehr—the phenomenologist as sociologist. Ten years hence, we might think of it as an elegy for a neighborhood—a few blocks around Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—whose identity is undergoing vast structural and demographic changes, a reality Gehr registers without sentimentality or judgment. Nor could overheard dialogue leaning toward those sentiments match Autumn’s final image—a long shot of a boarded-up building at the corner of Broome and Ludlow Streets, awaiting demolition. Seen today, however, it is the “nowness” that resonates—whether in the looming presence of steel-and-glass high-rises and the bright red cranes that reach into the sky, or in the two- and three-story tenements, storefronts, and teeming humanity below. A sleek new structure flanked by two weathered apartment buildings grounds the moment while foreshadowing the future.

In the work’s most complex and telltale shots, bodies, human and otherwise, technically on-screen and off, bleed into and fuse with one another, willingly or not, as the initial frame, doubled or tripled by windows and reflecting surfaces, yields multiple planes of action, layered images, and spatial disorientations. Every reflection is also a projection: A young man retrieving his bicycle parked outside a fast-food restaurant, technically offscreen, is dangerously close to colliding with the woman eating a hefty sandwich inside, thus falling into an on-screen space as dense as it is porous. In another shot, no sooner do we think we’ve seen all there is than a white truck passing from left to right serves as a fleeting backdrop against which two figures, mere shadows seconds earlier, suddenly come into focus. A pair of men sitting in a café, eclipsed throughout by the street life beyond, suddenly looms in the center of that same frame, where they’ve been all along. No change of focus, exposure, angle, or depth of field creates these successive apperceptions any more than materials in a painting or a shift in viewing conditions affect our gradual, accumulative recognition of details in the work.

The analogy is not insignificant. The social and historical resonances of Gehr’s work are palpable in the density of his living compositions, in the sense that people, however decentered or marginalized, define space––not the other way around. This is clear in shots of individual figures and actions, the equivalent of the singular details of those who populate large canvases. Here, they merge with the greater world, there they stand apart from it, now grounded, now floating as ghostlike doubles shadowing their neighbors—each shift a beat composing the very pulse that defines life in a great city. Autumn strikes me as Gehr’s best work in years, as startling to the eye as it is stimulating to the brain and inexplicably soothing to the heart.

If it leaves us with the conviction that soon the very basis of its iconography will be a thing of the past, such awareness of the eventual erasure of history and a people is all too evident in Transport (2015). Shot in Berlin, Gehr pits indoor images of old train compartments, luggage, and a cattle car marked by its days of carrying Jews to the camps—all taken inside the Museum of Technology—against the ruins of earlier bridges and structures and the sleek look of the city’s present commuter stations. It’s a sobering document, suffused with a mournful air at odds with Autumn’s life-giving exuberance.

Tony Pipolo

“Phantoms of Light and Darkness: New Digital Films by Ernie Gehr” will play Monday, April 24, at the Redcat Theater in Los Angeles.

Laurie Simmons, My Art, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes. Ellie (Laurie Simmons).


WHEN LAURIE SIMMONS’S new film My Art was screened at the Whitney Museum last fall, the artist and now movie director accompanied it with a talk in which she remarked on how few films had gotten the business of being an artist right. Indeed, so many films which have gotten it wrong come to mind—we probably all have our own cheesy favorites—that the prospect of a movie on artmaking by a feminist artist of Simmons’s standing, and one that she not only directed but wrote and stars in, seems likely to draw murmurs of “At last.” Certainly when the film finds a distributor—it plays at the Tribeca Film Festival starting April 22—New York art audiences will find much to reward their viewing, but they will also, I think, be surprised: This is not the revealing look behind the scenes one might have imagined, but instead a kind of romance.

The film is about Ellie, an artist of a certain age—her sixties, she tells us at one point—who we first see roaming the Whitney’s new downtown building, looking at the large and canonized artworks on the walls, including a painting by Simmons’s real-life husband, Carroll Dunham. She soon bumps into a former student, played by Simmons’s real-life daughter Lena Dunham, who gives one of her usual bravely unsympathetic performances as a young artist whose career has surpassed her old teacher’s and whose every word masks condescension under false camaraderie. These opening scenes, which continue with Ellie’s end-of-semester pizza party for her students and with a visit to a more successful friend, Mickey (Blair Brown), are subtly dystopian, infused with gentle but cold observations of the life of a woman artist at a plateau of age and career. The mood changes dramatically, though, when Ellie leaves town for the summer, heading upstate to house-sit for another more successful friend. The mansion where she ends up (which I’m told is Simmons and Carroll Dunham’s own home in Connecticut) comes equipped with a studio, where she will produce her next body of work. Equally to the point, it has a beautiful garden.

Laurie Simmons, My Art, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 86 minutes.


There is a literary genre, the pastoral comedy, exemplified by Shakespeare plays such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, that follows a general pattern: a beginning full of tension and stress in the city; an escape to the country (“Well, this is the forest of Arden,” as Rosalind helpfully tells us in As You Like It); a period of delirious confusion, with much theatrical play, gender-switching, posing and pretending, and trying on and taking off the social roles on offer; and finally a return to the city, whose order, having been upended and put back together again, is now more beneficial and accommodating to its human inhabitants. Rather to my surprise, as I watched the rural scenes in My Art, I kept thinking of those plays, and perhaps a little more to my surprise, when I asked Simmons about this, she confirmed that she’d been thinking of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as modern cinematic pastorals including Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955) and the musical and film Steven Sondheim based on it, A Little Night Music (1973/1977). The pastoral link arises through the nature of Ellie’s work, which she describes as “stuff about memory and longing, nostalgia,” and which turns out to involve dress-up and the re-creation and filming of iconic scenes from well-known movies. Ellie begins alone in her borrowed studio, mimicking the tuxedo-wearing Marlene Dietrich of Morocco (1930), but before long she enlists people she meets locally, including Frank (Robert Clohessy), the gardener on the estate; John (John Rothman), the father of one of her students back in New York; and Tom and Angie (Josh Safdie and Parker Posey), characters recalling Puck’s “rude mechanicals” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Under Ellie’s direction, in various combinations, the crew starts to reenact scenes from Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), among other films. They have a wonderful time—Ellie records it all—and what do you know, a dealer offers her a show.

Yet Ellie’s return to New York—despite the success of her project, and despite her clear solidarity with other women artists—feels somehow sad and depleted. The scenes upstate, on the other hand, are magical, full of music and a liberating fluidity of identity, though not without a little danger and risk to give the proceedings weight. (A wonderful touch involves Ellie’s aging dog Bing, who one night vanishes down the dark lawn toward the sound of what Ellie calls a “coyote party”; we are enormously relieved when he comes teetering back.) In this way, My Art frames itself as an examination of an artist’s social condition, its tensions and contradictions and dissatisfactions—all of which are redeemed, though, in a statement of an artist’s love affair with making art.

David Frankel

My Art plays April 22, 23, 27, 29, and 30 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.