DURING THE LAST WEEKEND IN JUNE, while most of Europe took a break from focusing on Greece’s precarious economic future to follow the Euro 2012 finals, I traveled to the tiny Greek village of Lyssaraia, in the heart of the Peloponnese, to attend the third installment of Gregory Markopoulos’s monumental Eniaios. The silent film, when it is finally printed in its entirety, will run approximately eighty hours in twenty-two “orders.” I was among more than two hundred guests who had come to see three of these orders, newly printed thanks to the fund-raising efforts of the filmmaker Robert Beavers, Markopoulos’s longtime companion, and to the last-minute success of a Kickstarter campaign that rallied a diverse cast of advocates, including Matthew Lyons of the Kitchen, P. Adams Sitney of Princeton, Rebekah Rutkoff of CUNY, and recent Turner Prize nominee Luke Fowler. This was, in fact, a world premiere. Lacking the funds during his lifetime to print the film, Markopoulos, who died in 1992, never saw the work screened.
For all of us, the trip to Arcadia would be our first and perhaps only chance to view this portion of the film. Markopoulos, who had played a prominent role among the American avant-garde in the 1950s and ’60s, gradually pulled his films from distribution after he moved to Europe in 1967. He eventually determined that his works, and in particular Eniaios, would be screened exclusively in a sacred context: what he called, in accordance with ancient Hellenistic terminology, a “temenos.” Markopoulos’s temenos would ultimately materialize just outside Lyssaraia—the hometown of the Greek-American filmmaker’s father—when a local farmer offered to allow screenings on his pastureland. The site, at the end of a cliff-hugging path, was inaugurated in 1980 with screenings by Markopoulos and Beavers. Only a handful of people present this year recalled the events from the ’80s (which were much more of a village event, with a local priest carting down a sofa to enjoy the outdoor screenings in greater comfort), while a dedicated contingent have been attending since the first Eniaios screening in 2004. Many more, like myself, were present at the last screening in 2008.
The schedule of events now feels like a routine—or a ritual: There’s the dinner hosted by the town on the evening before the screenings, when buses from Athens arrive with guests from London, Istanbul, or Chicago, and the camaraderie of the packed guest houses—many built in the last decade with government subsidies—that seem as if they are rarely occupied otherwise. There’s the drive to the trailhead with the winding road not infrequently blocked by herds of goats, and the walk to the site, as the sun sets and the air grows cooler.
The crowd at the Temenos. (Photo: Michael Wang)
This year’s screenings began later—often not until 10 PM—when the summer sky finally darkened and the generator-powered projector would compete only with the blue glow of the moon. The scrupulous attention to the viewing experience was integral to Markopoulos’s conception of the film medium. By tying the film to a single location, he worked against the distributional logics embedded in the reproducibility of the film image. Instead (as the title of Eniaios—which means both “unity” and “uniqueness”—makes explicit) the film image, and in particular the individual film frame, was for Markopoulos something irreducible and singular. Beavers recalled Markopoulos’s revelation of the filmic image as a kind of “hieroglyphic.” Over the three nights of screenings we were presented with this vision of the film image as a kind of linguistic element, nearly devoid of movement. Timeless images: the stone carvings at Chartres, or the columns of Olympia, blinking images appearing between lengths of black leader. But then suddenly a young Beavers, in dishabille with eyes shut, posed as the God of Love in a messy loft. The universal and the personal were linked by the rhythmic structure of the film.
Like much of the footage incorporated into Eniaios, the images of Beavers came from an earlier film, Markopoulos’s Eros, O Basileus, from 1967. The content of the Eniaios images often indexed Markopoulos’s transatlantic practice: While later images were almost exclusively of European sites and artists, especially in Greece and Switzerland, much of the earlier footage was shot in New York. At the end of the final night of screenings, when I had become fully ensconced in the closed world of the Temenos, images from Lower Manhattan, from where I had just arrived, appeared on-screen. To see the memorials of Battery Park projected as if onto the night sky in the fabled paradise of antiquity triggered conflicting feelings of displacement and homecoming.
Earlier that day, I had paid a visit to the museum at Olympia to see again the sculptures depicting the rape of the Lapinth women by centaurs that had adorned the pediment to the Temple of Zeus. Pieced together from shattered hands, hooves, and faces locked in expressions of terror or lust, the sculptures have been restored to sit within their original, triangular frame, with fragments, aided by steel struts, sometimes seeming to float in place. After two nights of Markopoulos screenings, each suspended detail seemed to evoke, in fact, a cinematic image. The sculpture, in its restored unity, seemed an apt metaphor for the form of Eniaios: a unity of fragments.
The sixth, seventh, and eighth orders of Eniaios premiered at the Temenos site near Lyssaraia in Arcadia from June 29 to July 1, 2012.
Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla, Olhe pra mim de novo (Look at Me Again), 2011, color film, 77 minutes.
A PROBLEM WITH NATION-THEMED PROGRAMMING is that it presumes a national character. In the case of Brazil, whose multiethnic population of two hundred million lives across a wide and diverse array of terrains, any summary of that character will always be incomplete. The twelfth edition of “Premiere Brazil!,” the Museum of Modern Art’s annual festival of new Brazilian films receiving their United States premieres (organized in collaboration with the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival), gives a sampler of Brazilian life and art that goes far beyond the stereotypical images of beaches, drugs, and slums. (It also exposes American film distributors’ consistent failure to show any other kind of Brazil.) In lieu of a single, fixed view of the country emerges a rich display of people and places.
Among the panoply is Wolney Oliveira’s The Last Cangaçeiros, a documentary that depicts a couple in their nineties who reveal their history as members of a famous outlaw cowboy gang against the backdrop of a hard northeastern desert. Vicente Amorim’s fiction film Dirty Hearts features a Japanese family in São Paulo who fall into dealings with a terrorist group after their native land’s surrender in World War II; it offers a glimpse of Brazil’s greater community of Japanese descendants, the largest in any country outside Japan. Meanwhile, Eryk Rocha’s docudrama Passerby follows an older man as he wanders through Rio, black-and-white camerawork absorbing everyone in sight.
It’s a tribute to the variety and richness of the current film scene that my four favorite Brazilian movies from last year (the mysterious, unsettling fictions Hard Labor and Neighboring Sounds, and the elliptical, beautiful, and weird documentaries Belair and Raul—The Beginning, the End and the Middle) aren’t part of “Premiere Brazil!,” and that, even so, there’s still strong work showing. I’d recommend Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla’s documentary Look at Me Again, in which we meet Silvyo Luccio, a garrulous, horny female-to-male transsexual in the Northern state of Ceará. He hopes to conceive a child with his female partner, and still chats up every lady in sight. Silvyo’s transition has affected many other aspects of his life, including his relationship with his grown daughter, who mourns her mother and can’t accept her new father.
Brazil has an excellent nonfiction filmmaking tradition. (Eduardo Coutinho, the generally acknowledged master, is on hand this year with his latest film, The Songs.) The popular narrative cinema is steadily emerging, represented in “Premiere Brazil!” by the biopic Heleno (with Rodrigo Santoro playing soccer great Heleno de Freitas) and the feel-good dramedy The Clown. But more compelling is 5x Favela: Now by Ourselves, an omnibus comprising five narrative segments by young directors shot in a Rio favela. Light, handheld camerawork and a bouncy score unite a cast of characters ranging from a young man resisting his law-school classmates’ efforts to make him their drug dealer to a group of rooftop-dwelling kids with eyes on the sky as they fly delicate kites. Families celebrate a solved power outage with a block party. The focus throughout this ebullient film is the mutual effort people make to build a better community.
5x Favela is dedicated to the memory of filmmaker Leon Hirszman, whose Cinema Novo marvel São Bernardo (1972), based on a novel by Graciliano Ramos, will screen at “Premiere Brazil!” in a new digital restoration. São Bernardo tells the tale of the monstrous Paulo (Othon Bastos), his release from prison, and his subsequent efforts to take over a rich, green property in Alagoas. He claims a wife, Madalena (Isabel Ribeiro), to stake his landowner’s identity, but torments himself once she refuses to live as his property. The film is full of sharp, incongruous juxtapositions. The manic Bastos shouts and lurches inside hard, flat, fixed frames, his dark skin standing out against white clothes and walls. He stomps through vast fields that will outlive his or any other owner’s hands. He narrates the film, but no one point of view triumphs. The world is larger and stronger and richer than any single voice can contain.
Author’s note: The beloved Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Reichenbach, a key figure in Brazilian cinema from the 1970s until his death last month at age sixty-seven, passed away too recently to be honored in the series’ programming.
Premiere Brazil! 2012 runs July 12–July 24 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Gonçalo Tocha, It’s the Earth Not the Moon, 2011, digital video, color, 183 minutes.
CORVO, THE SMALLEST AND FARTHEST WEST of the nine islands that comprise the Azores archipelago, is situated in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, nearly a thousand miles west of Lisbon, 1200 miles southeast of Newfoundland, and 2100 miles from North America. According to Gonçalo Tocha’s documentary It’s the Earth Not the Moon, there is no history of the island, not even a written memoir by a native or a visitor. (The title comes from a 1970 newspaper article that the island’s resident chronicler, who has kept records for the past forty years, shows the filmmaker.) With only about 450 permanent inhabitants, Corvo is the least-populated of the Azores and, unlike its sisters, did not serve as an air base for the Allies during World War II. Like the other islands, Corvo was formed and is dominated by a huge though inactive volcano, and purportedly has earthen structures dating back two thousand years, suggesting human presence before the Portuguese settlement that has dominated all the Azores for the past six centuries. Despite the film’s title, however, Corvo is no more alien-looking than many islands and, given its connections to its sister islands and to the Portuguese mainland, is not exactly “stranded” in the middle of the Atlantic.
Nevertheless, the fact that Corvo has such a small population, along with one village, one airport, one church (Catholic), one road, one school, one health center, and, if one can believe it, one restaurant, prompts the filmmaker and his assistant to jokingly promise at the outset that they will film every face, every street, every workplace, every rock, every tree, every animal of this “primeval” world—a term that speaks to Corvo’s volcanic origins 700,000 years ago. The result, while no rival of Robert Flaherty’s majestic Man of Aran (1934), nor a match of Werner Herzog’s eccentric ethnographic excursions, is a patiently observed, quietly filmed exploration of the island’s botanical and geographic life, as well as its social, cultural, and economic structures. A cinematic record divided into fifteen chapters, the camera does most of the work with minimal, mostly neutral audio commentary. This works fine with the long silent gazes at land and seascapes, the views of agricultural and forestry activities, slaughterhouse, and cheese factory. It also seems right for the intimate visits to craftsmen, the island’s chronicler, church services, and the old woman knitting a traditional Corvo beret throughout for the filmmaker.
The approach is more questionable when we hear a political speech about the island’s diminishing social services and workers’ rights and wonder how seriously we’re meant to take it. Though such data may counteract an impression that the filmmaker wants us to think he has found a harmonious earthly paradise, the viewer may feel that something is missing. I certainly wanted to know more about the German piano teacher who came to Corvo precisely because it was “the furthest point in Europe.” Among the more wiling raconteurs, one tells a story about the old whaling days, while a man identified as the second oldest on the island follows his statistics with the curious remark, “Do you want more lies?” Is this the island’s cynic or its stand-up comic?
Near the close of its three hours, the film offers us two affecting montage sequences that require no comment, on the one hand a juxtaposition of the natural signs of the island’s primeval character—the volcano, the sea, random rocks, and ancient bones—and on the other, an iconic display of the rugged, enduring human faces of its native population. A sobering touch is the shadow of—one presumes—the filmmaker, camera in hand, stretching across and then dissolving slowly into the earthen landscape, a gesture that bluntly marks his visitation just as it replays the perpetual cycle of appearance and erasure of human life to which Corvo, like all such islands, has given silent witness over thousands of years.
It’s the Earth Not the Moon has its New York theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives July 13–19.
THERE’S SOMETHING UNCANNY about seeing—on film—the parents of a screen actor of your own era: watching a Kirk Douglas or Lloyd Bridges movie, say, if you came of age in the 1970s and ’80s with Michael and Jeff. Not only do you immediately start cataloguing similarities in appearance and mannerisms (odd in itself, as both parent and child are playing characters), but you feel compelled to make extracinematic judgments about the real-life individuals; how, even as an old man, Michael seems callow, baby-faced, and reptilian next to the craggy, eagle-like intensity of his father, who wouldn’t look out of place on Mount Rushmore; why Jeff, clearly the better actor, also comes across as a far more interesting person than Lloyd (or, for that matter, brother Beau).
Few living Hollywood actors carry as heavy an extracinematic load as Robert Downey Jr. Blessed with a surfeit of talent, he was until a decade ago as infamous for his monstrous drug addiction and attendant bad behavior as he was famous for his work. In recent years, having cleaned himself up after doing hard time, he’s become the blockbuster star of the Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes franchises, but these characters, entertaining as they are, sell him short. If you only know Downey Jr. from these movies, I suggest as correctives Zodiac (2007); A Scanner Darkly (2006); Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005); Chaplin (1992), for which he was nominated for an Oscar in the title role; and even Less Than Zero (1987), the Brat Pack apotheosis that first got him noticed.
The “Jr.” is not an aristocratic pretense but an acknowledgment that he isn’t the only artist in the family. His father, Robert Downey Sr. (né Elias), was the clown prince of ’60s New York underground cinema, and his mother, Elsie Downey (née Ford), who often starred in Downey père’s early films, was a manic actress-singer-comedienne of protean range. As the new Criterion Collection box set collecting five of Sr.’s films from 1964 through 1975 makes clear, Jr. got his rebellious spirit (and introduction to drugs) from his father, but he owes his nervy, peripatetic thespian energy to his mother.
By the time he started making movies at age twenty-five in 1961, the New York City–bred Downey Sr. (hereafter referred to as “Downey”) had already been a Golden Gloves boxer, a semipro baseball player, a frequently court-martialed soldier, an actor, and a way off-Broadway playwright. He was not a film buff in his youth and only took up the camera as a way to express his writing. Downey was partially inspired in this regard by artist-filmmaker and Village Voice film critic Jonas Mekas, who had written, “Anyone can make a film.”
Arty only by cultural context, Downey’s bawdy, satirical scripts were irreverent in ways that only seemed possible in mid-’60s America; the 1950s overhang of excessive, repressive propriety gave artistic jesters of the time a superabundance of fish-in-barrel targets. Newcomers will recognize a sensibility strongly reminiscent of the Terry Southern of Dr. Strangelove (1964) and the Thomas Pynchon of The Crying of Lot 49 (1966): silly, patently artificial character names (Chester Kittylitter, Chief Fricassee); adolescent antiauthoritarianism; Mad magazine puns (a man painting a white line in an alley is asked what he’s doing; “Gotta draw the line somewhere,” he replies); and instinctive conviction that war, big business, and Goldwater-style conservatism were all of a piece.
Robert Downey Sr., Putney Swope, 1969, black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 85 minutes. Putney Swope and Mr. Token (Arnold Johnson and George Morgan).
The jaded-from-birth attitude of Downey’s earlier films, particularly Chafed Elbows (1966) and No More Excuses (1968), also recalls the young Frank Zappa of the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money (1968)—mercilessly lampooning a new countercultural movement while being inescapably of that same movement. No precinct of the underground was safe from Downey’s impious skewering: Someone mentions a “seven-hour film of a man sitting on a park bench, smoking” called Smoke (a clear Warhol jibe). “I’m looking for any actor who radiates emptiness, despair, and futility,” says one character; “Today’s surrealism is tomorrow’s soap opera,” says another. There’s a “protest music” single (A-side: “Hey, Hey, Hey”/B-side: “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah”); a director named Leo Realism, “listed in the Yellow Pages under ‘Truth’ ”; a reference to “Jesus Mekas”; and a man complaining, “I need this like I need underground movies.”
The films collected in the Criterion box are primarily black-and-white, with notable color interludes in two of them. As one might guess, the camera is often handheld. Babo 73 (1964) is a Strangelovian Cold War farce, centered on future Warhol persona Taylor Mead as an ineffective, milquetoast president of the “United Status,” perpetually led astray by his two advisers; one is left-wing, the other right-wing, but both are Beckettian buffoons. For Chafed Elbows, about the rake’s progress of a hapless young man in an incestuous relationship with his mother, Downey often resorted to series of stills, developed at his local drugstore and edited together to create flipbook-like scenes (imagine Chris Marker’s La Jetée directed by Judd Apatow).
No More Excuses, the rarest of the lot, is a puckish mash-up of several unrelated projects: his first (unreleased) short, Balls Bluff (1961); footage from a documentary segment on the Upper East Side singles-bar scene Downey was hired to shoot for ABC News; an activist bluenose from the Society for Indecency to Naked Animals, lecturing viewers about clothing their pets to promote decency and give them self-respect in front of their owners; and an original sex sequence depicting a rape that becomes consensual and ends with a live chimpanzee joining the fun (very John Waters). A loose, at times jarring montage, “in some grim and paranoid way, the movie often makes hilarious sense,” as Vincent Canby wrote at the time.
Downey is best known for 1969’s Putney Swope, a savage satire of Madison Avenue’s advertising culture that leans on every racial nerve without fear. The titular Swope, the sole black executive at a prominent ad agency, accidentally is voted to be CEO after the sudden death of the firm’s founder. Armed with a black militant conscience, he fires all existing white staff but one “token”; renames the agency Truth and Soul, Inc.; refuses to take accounts for cigarettes, alcohol, and war toys; and populates the staff with Black Power activists (including the inimitable Antonio Fargas—Huggy Bear himself—in a sheik’s kaffiyeh. “Who’re you, Lawrence of Nigeria?” Swope asks him).
Voiced over by Downey because the actor couldn’t remember his lines, Arnold Johnson’s gruff, deadpan portrayal of Swope, the righteous reformer who ultimately sells out, is rendered mildly cartoonish by the director’s Oscar the Grouch growl. The movie is black-and-white, save for the ads the agency creates, which have to be seen to be believed, particularly the zit cream spot featuring an interracial teen romance (probably the only time you’ll hear “You gave me a dry hump” in song). While still low budget, Swope was a step up for Downey—in length, film stock, and cast—and it got him broader countercultural attention on the heels of the breakout success of Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). Swope was a clear influence on the black militant subplot of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network (1976) and still holds up today.
Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight (1975), also known as Moment to Moment, is, oddly, the artiest of the five, a feature-length, plotless hodgepodge, shot and edited sporadically for years and largely featuring Elsie in a wide variety of roles. Seymour Cassel and other downtown luminaries of the time flit in and out of the film. It’s difficult to derive even a vague theme or meaning out of it, other than as an unstructured tribute to the live-wire perfomativity of Elsie Downey. Two Tons is somewhat melancholy, despite sequences of pure slapstick, and you can see a lot of Jr. in it, literally as a little boy on camera and in his mother’s face and performance.
So, not exactly Iron Man 3, but something that will likely never be made again. Hats off to Criterion for completing the Downey family album for present and future generations.
OK, PEOPLE, YOU CAN BREATHE EASY: Your guilty summer pleasure is finally here. The new Channing Tatum vehicle, endlessly referred to in recent weeks as “Steven Soderbergh’s highly anticipated male-stripper movie,” arrives in theaters today in a whirl of smooth, muscled torsos, hooded bedroom eyes, and thrusting and grinding pelvises. Loosely based on Tatum’s real-life, pre-breakout days as a member of an all-male revue, Magic Mike centers on the titular Mike, the thirty-year-old lady-killing centerpiece of a Tampa-based male stripping crew run by the drawling, genially Machiavellian former stripper Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Mike’s real passion—though, curiously, its practice isn’t once depicted in the movie—is for making custom furniture, and his hope is to turn this inclination into a business. But the economy, as he explains early on to one of his multiple bedmates, hasn’t hit “the sweet spot” yet. And so, putting his dreams aside, he details cars, works construction, and, most profitably, strips on the weekends, for throngs of howling “bachelorettes” and “cougars.” The movie’s animating conflict arrives in the form of the Kid (Alex Pettyfer)—a new recruit to the stripping business, who Mike grooms, Pygmalion-like—and his sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), a medical-claims administrator whose sharp tongue and slim hips position her immediately in the movie’s moral-compass/love-interest role.
The central question Magic Mike poses, at least initially, is an important one: What happens when passion—sexual, professional, sociable—gets traded in for money? And this, in fact, is a question that Soderbergh should be quite capable of answering, as his past work has often chronicled the ways in which desire is translated into the impersonal language of the contemporary American marketplace. Soderbergh’s films—whether their plot, characters, and budget are more conventionally Hollywoodesque or less so—have consistently been distinguished by a professionalized, even-keeled directorial detachment, so omnipresent that it often becomes a thematic preoccupation. His movies are both instances of and comments on a culture saturated with impersonality—a culture turned product.
This tendency has been evident from the first in Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), which examined, with cool detachment, people who are able to engage with one another only through the mediation of a video camera, through the documentary-like Girlfriend Experience (2009), in which a high-class call girl struggles to build herself as a “brand” as 2008’s financial markets collapse around her, all the way up to Contagion (2011), where individual lives are effortlessly swept away by a cruel, abstract, global virus. And now, too, Magic Mike, which—despite its superficial lasciviousness, the expanses of bare, toned flesh it exhibits—isn’t really a movie about sex. Rather, it’s a movie about “sex,” and it goes some way toward depicting how particularized, felt experiences can be converted into abstract currency—of bland social banter, of narrative cliché, of spectacle, of money.
But although the movie’s trajectory inexorably, and predictably, leads toward Mike’s refusal to continue being converted into a tradable commodity—in a pivotal moment, he insists to Brooke, “I am not my lifestyle!”—the snag is that we’re only interested in Mike because of this lifestyle, certainly not because of his life. In other words, the movie still dares us to ogle Channing Tatum’s abdominal muscles even as it tries to sell us on his desire to leave the nightlife behind him to make coffee tables and go on monogamous dates with Brooke. And while God knows there’s nothing wrong with Channing Tatum’s abs, the earnest blandness of this rom-comish turn does disappoint. For all his vulgarity, the franker representative of Magic Mike’s true ethos may very well be the Kid, who, as the movie ends, is just beginning his reign as the new stripper king of Florida. In a speech that the movie seems to suggest is misguided, but that, in fact, reflects the credo that covertly animates it from the get-go, the Kid expresses his gratitude to Mike for showing him the ropes in the world of stripping. “I have money,” he says. “I can fuck who I wanna fuck. I have freedom. Thanks to you.” God bless America.
Magic Mike opens in theaters in the US on Friday, June 29.
Tim Sutton, Pavilion, 2012, still from a color film, 70 minutes.
BAMCINEMAFEST RETURNS with another superb lineup of independent movies, many hyped and headed for summer release and others flying under the radar. In the first category, Benh Zeitlin’s glorious Cannes Camera d’Or and Sundance Grand Prize winner Beasts of the Southern Wild is the one to see. BAM will give it the quality projection it deserves, and the promised postscreening Q&A features the articulate director and some of the actors, hopefully irrepressible Quvenzhané Wallis (now eight years old) who plays Hushpuppy, the film’s guiding consciousness, and Dwight Henry, who plays her tough-loving father.
Beasts aside, the most exciting movies in the festival don’t have distribution. In fact, their makers—Tim Sutton, Keith Miller, Dan Sallitt, the team of Melanie Shatzky and Brian Cassidy—ignore the rules that have turned the once promising independent film moment into Hollywood cheap and lite. Only one of them, Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act, has a hopeful ending; only one, Shatzky and Cassidy’s Francine, employs a “name” actor. All of them eschew glamour but have moments of rare beauty. And one of them, Sutton’s Pavilion, is exquisite beginning to end.
An impressionistic coming-of-age movie, Pavilion depicts a fifteen-year-old-boy and friends hanging out in the summer. The first half is set in the lush green woods and sparkling blue lakes of upstate New York, where the boy is vacationing with his mother. The second half switches to the flat, arid Arizona desert, where he stays with his unemployed father in a series of motels that are an embarrassment to both of them. Shooting with the lowly Canon5, cinematographer Chris Dapkin finds the light in both settings: The sun’s rays pierce through foliage and reflect from the water to dapple and dance on faces and bodies and the surfaces of objects, and the harsh unfiltered light bakes the highways and strip malls of the Southwest and turns the metal-fenced parking lot that the boy sees from his motel window into a prison. Seth Bomse’s editing is just as essential as the camerawork to the movie’s balancing of the ephemeral with the concrete.
Pavilion is, in the most basic sense, an action film; that is to say the kids—mostly boys but, at significant moments, also a girl or two—spend their time biking, hiking, swimming, climbing trees. The movie shows them doing all of this for real in extended shots and sequences. They are not particularly skilled or graceful, but they have the kind of adolescent recklessness that occasionally makes you fear for their lives. As the elliptically constructed, elusive narrative gathers force (it’s barely an undercurrent until the understated final scene), you might become aware that your growing anxiety has as much to do with the central character’s fragile psyche as with the physical dangers he sometimes courts. Sutton’s direction of his nonprofessional cast is as marvelous as his control of all of the movie’s elements. Pavilion is one of the rare films to depict the beauty of young teenagers without either neutering or exploiting their sexuality.
BAMcinemaFest privileges music, and many screenings are followed by live performances. (Sam Prekop of the Sea and Cake, who supply the subtle but pulsing score for Pavilion, will perform with Archer Prewitt after the film.) In this context, indeed, in any context these days, a film without a score can seem bare and awkward, as did the first two or three scenes of The Unspeakable Act. But soon the movie established its own rhythms, and the intelligence and emotional clarity of the script and of the central performance were more powerful for being thus exposed. It’s an American Rohmer movie, I thought, an insight then confirmed in the closing dedication. The tip-off came largely from the casting of Tallie Medel, in a remarkable debut as Jackie, a sixteen-year-old girl who is passionately in love with her slightly older brother. Medel resembles the young Béatrice Romand of Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970), in both her idiosyncratic dark beauty and her forthright, intelligent presentation of self. Jackie’s desire is not primarily sexual, and the titular “unspeakable act,” while much spoken about, is never consummated. What she claims she really wants is to live with her brother forever, a desire that is explored and gradually transformed in the course of the best psychotherapy sessions one could wish for.
If the festival gave an acting award, I would hope it could be split between Medel and the equally brilliant novice actor Shannon Harper, who stars in and is in multiple ways the reason for the existence of Miller’s powerful and poignant Welcome to Pine Hill. The movie opens with a scene in which a burly black man and a spindly white man argue about who is the owner of a dog. The black man is played by Harper, the white man by the director (this is evident from the credits), and the scene bristles with the kinds of antagonisms produced by race and class differences and which are important to get out on the table; while they never occur in the narrative per se again, they do underlie the movie’s production. If you go to Welcome to Pine Hill’s website, you will discover that the scene is a variation on the real-life first encounter of the two men, which led to Miller’s desire to build a film around Harper, despite the issues surrounding a white director making a movie that is set in a black milieu. But if ever there were an example of an actor making a film his own, this one is it. Harper gives a stunning, fully immersed performance as a former gangbanger who’s done his time and is working as an insurance claims adjuster. No sooner has he begun to enjoy having a regular paycheck than he discovers he has a rare form of stomach cancer that will kill him, painfully, in a matter of weeks.
If Welcome to Pine Hill sounds like a downer, it’s not near as difficult to watch as the two unsparing films by Shatzky and Cassidy: The Patron Saints, a documentary shot with intimacy and great respect in a nursing home, and Francine, the team’s debut fiction film, which stars Melissa Leo as a woman who loves animals too much to keep from damaging them and herself. On the other end of the emotional spectrum are several charming programs geared to both children and accompanying adults. In Crazy and Thief, basically a black-and-white home movie, Cory McAbee follows his two-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter as they invest the streets of Brooklyn with the magic powers of their imaginations. “Take Me to the Balloony Bin!” is a compilation of shorts built around balloons including three classics and Josh and Benny Safdie’s captivating The Black Balloon. This edition of BAMcinemaFest made me believe that the American art movie has returned to life.
BAMcinemaFest 2012 runs Wednesday, June 20–Sunday, July 1 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.