OBSERVATIONAL CINEMA of an exceptionally subtle and affecting order and a road movie like no other, Argentine filmmaker Pablo Giorgelli’s Las Acacias has taken a year and a half to travel from its 2011 Cannes Film Festival debut to its New York opening. At Cannes, it won the Camera d’Or (for best first feature) and also my favorite Cannes prize, the Grand Rail d’Or, which is given by an organization of French railroad workers. The workers are adventurous cinephiles, with tastes running to humanist films that stretch the conventions of realism to show unexpected truths. In 1998, they bestowed the prize on Gaspar Noé’s harrowing I Stand Alone, a film that is as painful in its vision of love and loss as Las Acacias is tender and—at the risk of making it sound sentimental, which it is not—uplifting.
The film’s premise is its most traditional aspect: A single mother and her five-month-old baby girl are the catalysts of change in the life of a lonely, emotionally closed, middle-aged man. Rubén (Germán de Silva), a long-distance trucker, hauls logs from the acacia forests of Asunción del Paraguay to Argentina. As a favor to his boss, he agrees to let Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), whose mother, we later learn, works in the boss’s house, ride with him to Buenos Aires where she is going to live with her extended family. One of the film’s many subtexts has to do with how indigenous people from poorer countries in South America, as a matter of course, travel to richer countries, supposedly for vacation, but actually to settle and find work.
Rubén is not happy when he discovers that he’ll also be transporting a third wheel, Jacinta’s chubby, bright-eyed daughter Anahí. Sensitive to his irritation, Jacinta at first barely speaks a word. For the first quarter of their journey, almost the only sounds are those of the truck’s wheels and gears, the wind rushing past the open windows of the cab, and the baby gurgling and occasionally wailing. Inconspicuously, the camera changes position and focus to take in the unremarkable landscape outside the windows and the faces and bodies of the two adults and the child. (Giorgelli’s choice of shooting in 35 mm anamorphic paradoxically increases the movie’s intimacy and gives the images a warmth as yet impossible to achieve with digital cameras.) Their glances and gestures tell a story.
Charming as she is, Anahí (or, rather, Nayra Calle Mamani, who incarnates her) is not a scene-stealer. But because very young children live entirely in the present moment, her mere existence coaxes the adults on the screen and the viewers in the audience to amend their habitual patterns of attention—to set aside anticipation and memory in favor of the now. Even when Rubén and Jacinta reveal fragments of their past history—he has a son whom he hasn’t seen for eight years; she cries when she talks to her mother on the phone and tells the border guard that her baby “has no father”—these details are less expressive and engrossing than, for instance, the way Rubén holds his cup of mate, his muscled forearm leaning on the window, or how Jacinta looks down at the baby cradled in her lap and, for a split second, widens her gaze to include Rubén in this maternal dyad. When nicotine-addicted Rubén, realizing that Jacinta is concerned about the baby inhaling smoke, tosses his cigarette out the window, the action resonates as a major plot point.
And when, toward the end of the film, Rubén watches tensely at a rest stop as Jacinta chats animatedly with a young man from her hometown, we suddenly realize how attached he has become to her and her child. Back in the truck, as it approaches the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Rubén’s stiffened face and shoulders prompt Jacinta to ask if he is ill. She worries for a moment, as we might, that all those ciggies has provoked a heart attack. But Rubén is suffering a different kind of heartbreak. He is overwhelmed by separation anxiety. It takes an actor as great as de Silva to express interior emotional turmoil with such clarity, and to make us wish that this completely ordinary and utterly magical journey would never end.
Las Acacias is now playing in New York and Miami.
Rian Johnson, Looper, 2012, 35 mm, color, 118 minutes. Older Joe (Bruce Willis).
THOUGH THE EVENT may be better known for the living luminaries it attracts, the most ubiquitous guest at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival may be a ghost. The festival’s thirty-seventh edition pays tribute to the late French maverick Chris Marker by devoting the very first screening slot to Sans Soleil (1983), the essay film–travelogue widely regarded as his signature work. The new TIFF Cinematheque section of archival screenings also includes Loin du Vietnam (1967), the omnibus project whose contributors included Marker, Agnčs Varda, and Jean-Luc Godard. That film’s proud pinko legacy is also invoked in Far from Afghanistan, a similarly provocative project conceived by activist and filmmaker John Gianvito in which modern-day muckrakers like Travis Wilkerson weigh in on America’s latest war.
Marker’s sensibility—typified by his eagerness to bend and blend cinematic and literary forms, his ability to invest political provocations with a giddy spirit of play, and his abiding love of voice-over—manifests in less overt ways as well. You can even find his stamp on the festival’s opening selection. A terse science-fiction thriller about time-traveling hitmen, Rian Johnson’s Looper may boast the star-heavy cast and commercial appeal typical of so much TIFF fare, but it also reconfigures elements of Marker’s La Jetée (1962) with the same ingenuity as Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), a touchstone that Johnson acknowledges by casting Bruce Willis in his movie too.
Of course, Marker’s influence may be more readily apparent in the selections in Wavelengths, the festival’s bustling section devoted to avant-garde and experimental works. Wavelengths has incorporated the former Visions sidebar, and now features a more substantial array of feature-length films, several of which owe more than a little to Sans Soleil. The Last Time I Saw Macau, a captivating curiosity codirected by Joăo Pedro Rodrigues and his longtime partner and collaborator Joăo Rui Guerra Da Mata, situates fixed-camera images of the Portuguese colony–turned–Asian gambling mecca within the cheeky construct of a noirish tale of conspiracy and murder, complete with references to Josef von Sternberg’s Macao (1952). That nearly all of this ominous chicanery is only heard in Da Mata’s pseudogumshoe narration is a touch that Marker would have appreciated. (The preponderance of mysterious felines would have been the icing on the cake.)
Making its North American premiere after a rapturous reception at Berlin earlier this year, Tabu is similarly cunning in its use of voice-over. A superb third feature by Rodrigues’s fellow Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes, it too has a playful relationship with an earlier screen classic—in this case, F. W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). Knitting together a series of narratives set in modern Lisbon and 1960s Africa, Gomes creates a potent and surprisingly poignant rumination on the power of storytelling and the legacy of colonialism.
Another provocative exploration of a previously hidden history is Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s The Lebanese Rocket Society. The film recounts the true story of rocketry experiments by students at an Armenian university in early-’60s Beirut, and how their idealistic efforts were eventually co-opted by military officials before being halted altogether. Here, the narration proves to be somewhat overbearing (as does the musical score), so it’s a tonic to experience the austerity and rigor of a new film by another Wavelengths regular, Heinz Emigholz. The latest in the German filmmaker’s ongoing “Autobiography as Architecture” subseries—which already yielded an unlikely crowd-pleaser in the form of Schindler’s Houses (2008)—Perret in France and Algeria presents a set of often stunning views of buildings by French architect Auguste Perret. Emigholz’s film gives starring roles to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, Perret’s postwar buildings in Le Havre, and other structures that display his mastery of concrete and his magpielike enthusiasm for a massive range of styles and forms.
Wavelengths hardly suffers from lack of diversity. Other highlights among the feature-length works include Bestiare, Denis Côté’s alternately grim and sardonic commentary on the ways that our species regard (or disregard) our animal brethren. And differently, Molussia is a mesmerizing, randomly arranged nine-part film comprising narrated excerpts of Günther Anders’s anti-fascist satire The Molussian Catacomb (1931) and grainy vistas and landscapes that are further distressed by French cine-alchemist Nicholas Rey. New short works by Ben Rivers, Nathaniel Dorsky, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and Tsai Ming-liang offer further rewards, as does a set of heretofore little-known videos by Francesca Woodman. Seen whitewashing her body and juxtaposing her own nude form with examples of classical statuary in brief, cryptic vignettes filmed a few years before her death in 1981 at age twenty-two, the much-mythologized photographer is another of the festival’s apparitions.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6–16.
Ira Sachs, Keep the Lights On, 2012, 35 mm, color, 102 minutes.
TRACING THE TURBULENT vicissitudes of a young New York couple over the arc of a decade, Keep the Lights On keeps the camera trained—almost unwaveringly—on the pair’s faces and physiognomies, arguments and intimacies, by turns steeped in pleasure or charged with anguish. Eric, a Danish, thirtysomething documentary filmmaker who has yet to fulfill his early promise, turns a casual trick with Paul, a closeted lawyer who—after a steamy one-nighter—tells Eric not to get his hopes up, as he has a girlfriend. Against those odds their relationship evolves, but only apace with Paul’s drug-fueled devolution. At the dinner table or in the bedroom, on the street and on the couch, we are plunged along with the pair into the travails of a relationship that never quite works, no matter how much they work at it.
The film thus stakes itself upon a rather stark solipsism of two. We get brief glimpses of the protagonists’ professions, some interventions by close friends and family into the tempest of their relationship. For the most part, however, the plot hangs on the spare skeleton of codependency, a fragile love and its mounting discontents. Not much narrative or sociological flesh is hung on those bones. The specter of HIV surfaces early in the film, in a scene rife with the particular self-blame that has so often terrorized gay men. That it happens on a pay phone only underscores the director’s deft evocation of its late-1990s moment. Yet Sachs, who has created some compelling work on the theme of AIDS, passes over that thread here in favor of the (not unrelated) problem of drug addiction. Or, rather, one man’s spiraling dependency and its effects upon his partner.
To that end, the film distinguishes itself with a keen eye for mood and moodiness. The cinematography of its close-ups is especially striking, whether in the tension of a symmetrically framed car scene, or in the economy of Eric’s searching, inquisitive eyes glimpsed over his lover’s turned head; the crinkled relief of a shower curtain betraying an embrace, or a scene of lovemaking cropped into near-abstract forms. But an idealized physical beauty—or the more quixotic ideal of perfect romance it might evoke—is not part of this film’s particular vision. Eroticism here is expressly imperfect; sex proceeds with an often discomfiting awkwardness; lovers’ quarrels are marked by a certain aggression, even violence to the self. Every relationship, Keep the Lights On seems to imply, entails its own unspoken addictions. Substances make literal—and make worse—the needs and neediness that bring individuals together to begin with. The reasons why these two particular men come together is at times rendered a bit too elliptically. That makes it more difficult to care about what ultimately splits them apart.
Shirley Clarke, Ornette: Made in America, 1985, black-and-white and color film, 77 minutes.
SHIRLEY CLARKE’S PORTRAIT MOVIE Ornette: Made in America (1985) is an intricately knit series of riffs on free jazz giant Ornette Coleman, one of the greatest living artists twentieth-century modernism produced. What makes the movie thrilling beginning to end is the score that Coleman himself wrote for it, largely derived from one of his major works, Skies of America (1972), a composition for symphony orchestra and free jazz combo. The mono sound track on this newly restored version—supervised by Audio Mechanic’s John Polito working in conjunction with the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Ross Lipman, who supervised the restoration of the visuals—is brilliant. Using the original sound and picture elements, they found a richness that was lost in the 1985 film prints.
Ornette: Made in America is a movie about process: Coleman’s process of making music and Clarke’s process of using the moviemaking apparatus to convey something about his method of making music and living in the world. The backstory of how the movie came into being is no less fascinating. Beginning in the late 1960s, Clarke trained her cameras intermittently on Coleman, intending to make a movie primarily about his relationship to his son Denardo, who began to play percussion in his father’s group when he was only ten years old. The fragments of 8-mm and 16-mm film and primitive analog video languished in boxes, mostly under Coleman’s bed, until the early ’80s when Kathelin Hoffman Gray asked Clarke to document a performance of Skies of America. It was to be played by the Fort Worth Symphony and Coleman’s Prime Time combo to celebrate the 1983 opening of Caravan of Dreams, an ambitious, racially integrated multimedia arts center the likes of which no one in that part of Texas had seen before. Clarke and Gray hired cinematographer Ed Lachman to shoot the performance and Coleman’s return to the now officially desegregated city where he was born. (The police expected riots at the arts center’s opening.) Clarke and Lachman decided to shoot in yet another format, Super 16, considered experimental at the time.
The footage of the concert frames the film and gives it gravity. Clarke then spent three years editing the material, pulling together her own improvised sessions with Coleman—shot between 1968 and 1984—with this precise, visually eloquent rendering of the concert. The interaction of these two cinematic modes parallels that of the symphony orchestra with Coleman’s Prime Time combo in Skies of America. Memorably riffing conversations and inspired fragments of portraiture are woven into a crazy quilt of electronic editing. The movie’s only flaw is Clarke’s use of mid-’80s art-video image processing—thirty years ago it already looked like a garish cliché—which decidedly does not jazz up the movie.
During the interview sessions, Coleman is marvelously at ease with Clarke, who is occasionally heard but almost never seen on camera. Speaking in his inimitable voice (he always sounds as if he has an imaginary reed in his mouth), he ruminates on his theories of music and his relationship to his son, who has continued to play percussion with his father as well as becoming his manager. He talks about his admiration for Buckminister Fuller. And you hear how, beginning in the early ’70s, his playing and composition—which, discomfiting as it sounded to traditionalists, was rooted in the jazz and blues of the American South—came under the influence of world music, in particular that of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Clarke’s brief clips of Coleman’s visits to Nigeria and Morocco and of William Burroughs and Robert Palmer, who introduced Coleman to Jajouka, are gems, as is a clip of Burroughs reading. Toward the end of the movie, Clarke slyly asks Coleman to tell “the castration story,” and he launches into a strange and most touching attempt to sort out the relations among sexual attractiveness, sexual attraction, and music. Coleman’s theory and practice of music involves the connections of breath, body, heart, and mind. Ornette: Made in America holds a mirror to the man inseparable from his art.
The movie was Clarke’s last major work. Shortly after its completion, Alzheimer’s disease began to claim her, and she died in 1997. Ornette: Made in America is the second of Clarke’s movies to be restored and released by Milestone Films under what is dubbed “Project Shirley.” The first restoration, The Connection (1961), was released earlier this year. Soon to come is her masterpiece, the 1967 Portrait of Jason.
Ornette: Made in America is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York and will open in other major cities on Friday, September 7.
Jamie Travis, For a Good Time, Call..., 2012, color film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Lauren and Katie (Lauren Anne Miller and Ari Graynor). Photo: Ryder Sloane / Focus Features.
WITH THE IMPRESSIVE box office generated last year by Bridesmaids—fueled in part by women filmgoers grateful for a pungent distaff-centered comedy free of both Katherine Heigl and the worldview that being a single female (or, more generally, having two X chromosomes) is a pathological condition—Hollywood studios and private investors are hoping that nothing succeeds like success. A post-Bridesmaids trendlet is borne out in the near-simultaneous release of Bachelorette and For a Good Time, Call..., both of which premiered at Sundance in January. The two newer films are smothered in more raunch than their standard-bearing predecessor, but here the similarities end.
Mundane vulgarity, such as mountains of snorted cocaine and a lengthy disquisition on blowies, is the only distinguishing feature of Bachelorette, written and directed by Leslye Headland, adapting her 2010 Off-Broadway play of the same name. (Focusing on gluttony, this is the second in her stage series based on the seven deadly sins.) Three high-school friends (class of ’99) reunite in New York for the wedding of the fourth member of their school-days clique, Becky (Rebel Wilson, who played Kristen Wiig’s bloodily tattooed roommate in Bridesmaids). Aghast that Becky’s sky-high BMI hasn’t precluded her from landing a loving, kind, handsome, wealthy groom, this trio of single, slender, backstabbing Millennials—led by Regan (Kirsten Dunst, usually a boon to any film but here miscast), who corrals the substance-abusing Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and Katie (Isla Fisher)—not-so-subtly try to sabotage their pal’s big day. The female frenemy passive-aggression; the tonally schizoid, late-act PSA about bulimia; and the name-checking of Gen Y cultural touchstones are grating enough. But the worst offense is Bachelorette’s determination to remind viewers of its “transgressions.” After prodigious tooting, Gena and/or Katie begin every third sentence with “I know I’m high” or “I know I’m on drugs,” typical of the film’s desperation to appear scandalous and its enervating redundancy.
Less overbearing and more enjoyable if still flawed is For a Good Time, Call..., directed by Jamie Travis, here making his feature-film debut, and written by Katie Anne Naylon and Lauren Anne Miller, who also stars. Miller plays dutiful Lauren, who, after losing her dull boyfriend and publishing job, reluctantly moves into the palatial Gramercy Park apartment that once belonged to the granny of Katie (Ari Graynor), the jumpsuit-wearing sexerciser toiling at a variety of part-time jobs, including freelance, at-home phone-sex work. The new roomies, at first unwilling to drop the grudge stemming from a decade-old college incident involving a pee-filled Big Gulp, quickly warm to each other: Practical Lauren convinces Katie to start her own XXX chat line, becoming first her business manager and then a professional dirty talker in her own right. The delights of the film, particularly the frequent hilarity of the smutty scenarios and the easy chemistry between Miller and Graynor, are undermined by the puzzling faux-lezziness that defines Lauren and Katie’s strictly platonic bond. Feeble double entendres and semi-awkward declarations of “I love you” aren’t so much bold gambits about its two leads slip-sliding on the Kinsey scale as throwaway titillation—which I hope doesn’t lead to a new genre of comedy: homance.
For a Good Time, Call opens in select cities on August 31 before expanding September 7; Bachelorette, currently available on VOD, will be released theatrically September 7.
OH MY GOD, I’m having a quarter-life crisis. Should I quit my job to join the rank of interns at SoHo’s infamous Eli Klein Fine Art? Sigh.
It might be a recession, but a girl can dream and drain her trust fund.
Who doesn’t have a plan? A business plan? A life plan? A night plan? Or, God forbid, a day plan? The only decisive statement in the first two episodes of Gallery Girls comes from Chantal, co-owner of End of Century, a boutique/gallery on the Lower East Side. She knows that she’ll go to yoga in the morning, and then maybe show up to her “job” two hours late. Live free or die trying.
Welcome to the fantasy world cooked up by Bravo TV, a behind-the-scenes look at one of New York’s most specialized and last unregulated markets: the art world. Step into the lives of seven would-be art doyennes as they navigate the subtleties of one very insider-y industry. Watch each girl bad-mouth the other as they vie for something, although we (and they) can’t quite locate what that something actually is, because, as much as any producer disguises it, the end goal is for the series to be over so that these girls can do something—anything—else.
Each character projects a different socioeconomic status. Amy (Upper East Side), Liz (Gramercy), and Maggie (Murray Hill) are pitted against their poorer, but business-minded, do-it-yourself Brooklynites: Angela, Chantal, and Claudia. We don’t yet know which neighborhoods the latter are from. Williamsburg, perhaps? Now that Lena Dunham and Lana Del Rey have put Greenpoint on the map, will Bravo jump to catch up? We only know that this contingent dresses in black and that red lipstick permanently clings to their teeth. Consistently smiling Kerri (West Village via Long Island) slides easily among the castes. Just in case you can’t determine these demographics in gridded New York, the producers flash a map between each scene.
Sporting various zip codes, heels, and hemlines, each girl harbors (largely unarticulated) dreams that are not dissimilar from the next. The only consistent thread running through the greater allegory is the incessant hum of a solipsist’s narcissistic chatter. “Do you see how my face lights up when we talk about me?” Angela asks from behind the retina screen. Surprise! Not one fleshed-out thought falls from the lipsticked mouths of these caricature ladies. Though there are some fun tautologies: “How’s work?” asks Angela, pulling up with the girls at yet another steampunk watering hole. “Good!” says Chantal. “It’s just a lot of work.”
“Work” for these girls consists of folding dog-poop bags for lecherous dealers (Maggie), losing a top for “fashion photographers” (Angela), downing one too many at an opening dinner (Amy), ferrying Murray’s bagels to private jets at Teterboro (Kerri), or asking their boss to run for a caramel macchiatto (Liz). As a preamble to a small-beans day sale at Phillips de Pury, Amy (Upper East Side) spews: “Auctions have so much energy and they’re so fun. Everyone’s coming to see and be seen. And we’re all dying to see what goes for what price. It’s the biggest thing, and there’s always cute boys there!” Maybe Amy and I frequent different houses?
Gallery Girls offers up a devastating model for future generations: the Stepford gallerist. These young, nakedly ambitious women get marinated, grilled, and served up to the hungry public. Their “struggle” to find a fledgling voice is broadcast to the masses. But these aren’t the Paula Coopers, Barbara Gladstones, or Florence Bonnefous of the art world—women whose acumen and sensibilities built institutions. These are the reality girls, whose career aims boil down to not doing this. Again.
In the “real” world there’s a real archetype for gallerinas: Thinking girl served with a side of style and helping of brains, their workplaces offer a commons, albeit trendy, to propel dialogue before museums do. In Bravo’s version, the “girls” are siteless players unequivocally aware of sexuality as capital, cognizant of whom they’re servicing but unsure as how to monetize their faux-business relationships (except for that fee they’re paid for being picked up by the show to do nothing, really, except be who they are). One of them puts it best: “You work for free, until someone, someday, says that they’ll give you a shot.” Bravo is not accepting applications. Don’t call them, they’ll e-mail you.