Living Proof


Left: Cover of Time magazine, August 31, 1970. Right: Advertisement for the opening of Kate Millett's Three Lives, 1971.

KATE MILLETT’S DOCUMENTARY Three Lives, a triptych of autobiographical accounts by women, opened at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York on November 5, 1971, to a positive, if not especially enthusiastic, review in the New York Times; critic Vincent Canby described it as “moving, proud, calm, aggressively self-contained.” A year earlier, more provocative, if not condescending, language had been used to characterize Millett in the mainstream press: Shortly after the publication of her feminist landmark Sexual Politics, Time magazine, which ran an Alice Neel portrait of Millet on the cover, called her the “Mao Tse-Tung of Women’s Liberation.”

A rarely screened artifact of the cultural revolution that Millett and other second-wavers were spearheading, Three Lives is, like the 1909 Gertrude Stein novel with which it shares a title, both radical and accessible. An advertisement for the documentary, made by an all-female crew and billed as “a Women’s Liberation Cinema production,” featured this straightforward tagline: “a film about women . . . what it’s like to be us.” Consciousness-raising captured on 16 mm, Three Lives is an act of intimate excavation. Its subjects delve into the past so that viewers—specifically, those who would be included in the first-person-plural pronoun in the ad copy—may somehow recognize and thus be able to articulate their own experiences.

The three women who appear in the documentary share only one trait: white skin. In her late twenties or early thirties, Mallory, the director’s younger sister, recounts a joyless marriage to a businessman. Speaking in a hard Minnesota twang as tie-dyed curtains in a Bowery loft blow behind her, Mallory recalls further misery and alienation when she, her spouse, and their young daughter relocated to the Philippines (“I was living in this huge Aztec sacrificial altar”). She fled this wifely prison, almost losing the right to ever see her child again in the process, for a life of extreme privation in New York, where her goals are crystallized: “to be important, to be recognized.”

In contrast to Mallory’s abject uxorial existence, Lillian Shreve, a chemist in her early fifties, reflects fondly on her marriage of twenty-three years. That Lillian has led a less tumultuous life may explain why her segment is the shortest in this seventy-minute film. But just as she is about to disclose, offscreen, what led to her supportive husband’s nervous breakdown, an episode Lillian considers one the greatest challenges in her union, the audio cuts out. Not a silencing, this deliberate interruption seems deployed to ensure that the focus doesn’t stray too far from “what it’s like to be us.”

Spared the details of a mental collapse, the viewer is then introduced to the film’s most confrontational interlocutor: Robin Mide, a twenty-one-year-old erstwhile “nice Jewish girl from Queens” who left her Far Rockaway family home at seventeen for a life of avant-garde theater, dope, and bisexuality—though she shuns all labels, particularly lesbian. “I do a lot of things that are not acceptable to a lot of people. I go to bed with women. I go to bed with men,” she says, filmed, at one point, in a room filled with toilets and cable spools. Inaudible offscreen comments stoke her into an increasingly agitated state. “You box me in, I’ll kill you,” Robin, credited as one of the codirectors, threatens—either to whoever is standing behind the camera or to the world at large.

Within the trajectory of filmed first-person accounts in the US, Three Lives falls between, both chronologically and structurally, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), whose only subject is a flamboyant black gay hustler, and the Mariposa Film Group’s Word Is Out (1977), in which twenty-six interviewees from around the country speak about their experiences as gay men and lesbians. (Millett’s film is also linked to another documentary, shot in 1971 but not released until 1979, in which she is conspicuous by her absence: Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall, a chronicle of the infamous “dialogue on women’s liberation” among Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and others.) Born of the then thriving personal-is-political impulse, Three Lives records a specific moment in another era yet still remains vital and absorbing today. Or, as Robin reminds the filmmakers, “You have to remember: Nothing stops.”

Melissa Anderson

Three Lives screens February 8 and 19 at Anthology Film Archives as part of the series “A Tribute to Amos Vogel and ‘Film as a Subversive Art.’ ”

Peter Adair, Holy Ghost People, 1967, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 53 minutes.

“IF ART IS ONLY A BUSINESS, AS WARHOL SUGGESTS,” scrolls boxy, yellow text down a black screen, “then music expresses a more communal, transcendental emotion which art now denies.” The words are Dan Graham’s, pronounced near the end of his 1982–84 video Rock My Religion, an eccentric study which locates rock’s origins in Shaker ritual and the born-again fervor of the Great Awakening. Such moments of ecstatic effervescence—that emotional state of which post-AbEx art seems most skeptical—are the subject of two documentaries screening at Light Industry on February 5. The event couples Graham’s 1983 video, Minor Threat, a looped recording of a November 1982 concert by the titular punk outfit at the Bowery’s CBGB, with Peter Adair’s 1967 film Holy Ghost People, a straight-faced accounting of an evening service at a Holiness church in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. Apposing the stylized slamming of young punks with the enraptured convulsions of Pentecostals seeking out the Holy Ghost, the pairing humors Graham’s alignment of rock and revivalism to provocative effect.

Low-key visuals and a refusal to judge unite the two projects. Shot on a handheld, 16-mm camera, Adair’s film nurses the vérité ambitions that so often attended the use of this technology in the 1960s. Yet while Adair plays the impartial observer, Graham is both filmmaker and fan. Now angled up from the mosh pit, now trained in a close-up on vocalist Ian MacKaye, his perspective shifts between crowd and stage in long takes. The club’s dim lighting—together with the camera’s poor resolution, jerky frame, and intermittent cut-outs to static—mean that Graham’s footage is often illegible. Enveloped in black, bodies appear only in pieces: torsos taut as they vault back, then launch forward; fists clenched as they beat the air; legs swung sideways midleap into the pit. Thus fragmented, the video reads as an anarchic, impersonal melee among white males, their violence poised precariously between necessary release and all-out brawl. Order is restored only when a set ends and the surge abates. It’s these interstitial moments, where Graham’s camera samples comments from concertgoers—“Yo, what’s with the video?” “OWW!” “Do you have a napkin?” “Aren’t you dying?”—that lend a sense of camaraderie to an otherwise rough scene.

Just as the exuberance of Minor Threat’s performance hinges on the hysteria of the crowd, so too does worship at Scrabble Creek’s Holiness congregation. The hour-long film was Adair’s first, shot while he was still in college. His style is direct and unassuming, his camera tracing restless, irregular arcs around his subjects as they shake, speak in tongues, and writhe on the floor. These performances of ecstasy, with each believer drawing on the zeal of others, soon reach a manic pitch where logic empties into tautology. “If God don’t want me to die of a snake bite, he won’t let me die that way,” says a soon-to-be-bitten preacher as he handles a venomous reptile. Interviews with the devout in the film’s opening minutes make the dependence of their emotional extremes on collective energy clear. In one, a homely woman appears in an unadorned room, jolting her neck and blinking repeatedly as she recites a spontaneous sermon. Full of lurching, garbled phrases, her monologue seems more stilted than sincere. Rapture, as Graham’s punks would attest, is difficult to achieve alone.

Courtney Fiske

Dan Graham’s Minor Threat and Peter Adair’s Holy Ghost People play Tuesday, February 5 at 7:30 PM at Light Industry in Brooklyn, New York.

Great Scot


Left: Alexander Mackendrick, The Man in the White Suit, 1951, 35 mm, black-and-white film, 85 minutes. Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), Frank (Patric Doonan), and Bertha (Vida Hope). Right: Alexander Mackendrick, Sweet Smell of Success, 1957, 35 mm, black-and-white, 96 minutes. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster).

IN THE AUTEURIST heyday of the early ’60s, when you could still rush out to see the new John Ford or the new Raoul Walsh alongside the new Godard or the new Antonioni, the American-born, Scottish-bred director Alexander Mackendrick was a singularly elusive sort of auteur. Between the whimsical joys of his Ealing comedies from the ’50s—like The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers (but how whimsical or joyful were they, finally?)—and the corrosive New York noir of Sweet Smell of Success (underseen and underrated long after its 1957 release), it was hard to find blatant stylistic or thematic connections. When the director resurfaced in the ’60s with two seeming adventure movies that subverted most genre expectations—the surprising, commercially ill-fated Sammy Going South and his haunting, long meditated adaptation of A High Wind in Jamaica—the question of what Mackendrick was really about, and where he might be going next, became even more fascinating. Then, in 1967, came the more than slightly rancid beach comedy Don’t Make Waves—a hopeless project redeemed by the intransigent seriousness with which Mackendrick treated his jerry-built material, right down to the oceanfront bungalow capsizing in a mudslide with most of the cast inside—and after that, silence.

As it turned out the oeuvre would stop there, with the nine features he completed between 1948 and 1967. Mackendrick accepted the job of dean of the film school at the newly opened California Institute of the Arts in 1969; he would stay on for nearly a quarter of a century, until his death in 1993, a revered and evidently sometimes confrontational presence. Now, unexpectedly, we hear from Mackendrick again, with On Film-making (Faber & Faber): not the book he might have chosen to write about the craft of directing, but something perhaps more exciting—an assemblage of his classroom handouts that recreates vividly the atmosphere of his teaching. The students are very much in the room, and you can sense the tensions that must have resulted when their yearning for free-form self-expression came up against Mackendrick’s devotion to imparting the fundamentals of technical knowledge and discipline.

It must indeed have been difficult—if you saw yourself as the next Godard or Dennis Hopper—to be asked to “put aside your hunger for instant gratification and creativity, at least for long enough to understand some basic ideas and practical pieces of advice that you are perfectly entitled to discard later.” Or to be told: “Be sure to write in sentences with subjects, verbs and objects. . . . From the very grammar of the sentence structure in which an outline is written, I can sense whether or not the student has got the hang of cinematic narrative progression.” The oldest lesson in the world—that one must first know the rules in order to break them—was to be reiterated many times over: “The truth is I cannot help you explore what is often called Modernism in cinema. This is one reason why I keep referring to ‘movies’ rather than ‘cinema.’ The craft of storytelling is rather un-Modernist. It’s old. Ancient, in fact.” Self-expression must be tempered to the needs of others: “You should assume your audience is always bored.” He covered the walls of his classroom with mottoes such as this: “Student films come in three sizes: Too Long, Much Too Long and Very Much Too Long.”

As teacher, Mackendrick does not expound a personal vision; he rarely talks about his own films, and when he does so it is in the most modest terms. If he gained a reputation early on at Ealing Studios for being gifted at conveying ideas through visual means, it was because “I wasn’t very good at writing dialogue.” When he brings up Sweet Smell of Success, it is to focus—at fascinating length—on the screenwriting genius of Clifford Odets as, by a tortuous process, he shapes a rudimentary episode into the classic 21 Club sequence, that most Shakespearean of movie scenes. What he wants above all to convey is what hard and deliberate work it all is to achieve those effects that on the screen look like spontaneous inspiration. The book amounts to an insistently detailed exhortation to put forth mindful effort into every phase of filmmaking. Consider his note on “the value of listening and watching with real attention and concentration”: “These are not passive activities. . . . Nor are they things that are done well without considerable effort and a good deal of experience.” An obvious observation? As he writes elsewhere, “There is no danger in being obvious if what you are being obvious about is also exciting.”

Far from treating technique as a set of mechanical procedures, he sees it as a means to break through excessively verbal, rational, abstract habits of mind. Cinema precedes language: “To translate certain concepts into cinematic forms comprehensible without words, the student may actually have to unlearn habits of verbal thought and return to patterns that are in some ways more primitive.” To control and direct the power of film requires such a massive and complex effort precisely because the medium is so “richly loaded with sensory, emotional, and intuitive informational data,” working “at a level not necessarily subject to conscious, rational and critical comprehension.”

In such passages Mackendrick begins to suggest the quality of his own films, under whose controlled surfaces and exquisitely lucid story lines a potential for chaos and violence swirls almost palpably. His reasonable and civilized art is profoundly in tune with instinctive forces that can manifest themselves as ecstatic celebration but also as tribal warfare or relentless perseverance in a private mission. It is a recurring feature of Mackendrick’s films that those who seem most harmless—the bedraggled boatman of The Maggie (1954), the sweet, slightly dotty widow of The Ladykillers (1955), the ostensibly innocent children of A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)—prove quite capable of destroying business magnates, professional criminals, and bands of pirates.

In these obscure battles it is often far from obvious where our sympathies are to be enlisted. The Man in the White Suit (1951) is objectively an account of the destruction of an idealistic, otherworldly scientist by the combined forces of the British textile industry, desperate to prevent him from marketing a fabric that doubt they can be read in the troubled currents his films chart with such precision. His parents had eloped to America, but his father, a civil engineer, died in the flu epidemic of 1918, when Mackendrick was six years old. His mother took him back to Scotland but lapsed into alcoholism and later became fanatical about religion. Leaving the Glasgow School of Art without a degree, he spent over a decade in advertising, becoming an art director at J. Walter Thompson. When the war broke out, he found himself working on government projects, most notably for the Psychological Warfare Branch, which sent him to North Africa in 1943 and then to Italy. After the Allies took Rome, Mackendrick briefly oversaw the Italian film industry and produced documentary footage that included the execution of one Fascist official and the death of another at the hands of an angry mob. Returning to London after the war, he was hired as a staff scriptwriter by Ealing Studios, that quintessentially English organization that billed itself “The Studio with the Team Spirit” and that became best known for a brand of comedy at once cozily fanciful and laced with antiauthoritarian satire.

Mackendrick’s first feature, Whisky Galore! (1949), was crucial to the emergence of Ealing, and it remains an immensely satisfying film. Like all Mackendrick’s comedies, it is deeply absorbing but doesn’t provoke a great deal of laughter; the gags are incidental to a deadly serious sort of war, as the inhabitants of a Scottish island band together to thwart an English official from confiscating the cases of whisky that a shipwreck has miraculously tossed up on their shore. Neither the ferocity of the islanders nor the final humiliation of the hapless Englishman are fudged by Mackendrick; the ending is right and fitting but not heartwarming in the usual movie-ish way. Likewise, the film’s visual beauty in no way assuages the real conflict at its heart.

The most underrated of his Ealing comedies, The Maggie, pushes the ferocity almost beyond the point of comedy, as a tenacious boatman fighting for survival triumphs over the American businessman who has mistakenly hired him to transport a valuable cargo. By avoiding any easy resolution in the battle of tradition versus modernity, native versus interloper, Scotland versus America, Mackendrick creates a comic situation that can end only on a note of pain swallowed with as much dignity as possible. Neither cynical nor sentimental, The Maggie laconically and eloquently conveys the sense of cultures finally unable to bridge the distance that separates them. In its more gentle way, it implies levels of cruelty fully up to the high-level urban savagery of Sweet Smell of Success. Mackendrick was a perfectionist who—after making the most of Ealing’s protective environment, which nurtured him as a filmmaker—finally had trouble dealing with the casual ruthlessness of the international film world. He was fired from several important projects, apparently for being stubborn and slow to produce. When he did finally succeed in making his adaptation of Richard Hughes’s 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica, it was taken away from him and cut by a fourth. What survives is still an extraordinary film, of bravura lyricism in its visuals and unyielding harshness in its emotional drama: a great children’s movie about the destructive power of childish innocence, in which, true to his credo, Mackendrick goes beneath the verbal to find a world of “feelings, sensations, intuitions and movement,” a world of direct and terrifying contact. Great teacher that he apparently was, it is impossible not to regret the films he ought to have made. The sustained intelligence and beauty of those we have remains bracing.

Geoffrey O’Brien

This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Artforum. Alexander Mackendrick: Filmmaker, Teacher & Theorist. A Centennial Celebration” occurs at REDCAT in Los Angeles on Wednesday, February 6.

Haile Gerima, Bush Mama, 1976, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 97 minutes. From left: First Welfare Recipient (Minnie Stewart), Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones), and Second Welfare Recipient (Malbertha Pickett).

THAT CHARLES BURNETT’S STARK NEO-NEOREALIST KILLER OF SHEEP (1977), Julie Dash’s nuanced historical drama Daughters of the Dust (1991), and Haile Gerima’s cinematic hand grenade Bush Mama (1976) all grew out of the same fecund moment in film history is not immediately apparent on viewing them. While each film has been hailed in its own right as a landmark achievement in cinematic expression, the three feature-length works evince significantly different styles and sensibilities. Yet the sense that Burnett, Dash, Gerima, and others trained in filmmaking at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1970s share not only a film education but a commitment to making movies that are simultaneously art and weapon, a commitment that can be grasped in terms of loosely defined, anti-Hollywood aesthetics and black-liberation politics, has motivated critics, historians, theorists, and cineastes to contextualize their work within the framework of a film movement—namely, the LA Rebellion (also referred to as the Los Angeles School).

Variously spunky, raucous, elegant, and contemplative, the films of the LA Rebellion challenged conventional aesthetic strategies and offered visions of black life and existence that stand as insistent politicized alternatives to the images of African Americans projected by Hollywood films. In his 1993 essay “The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers,” Ntongela Masilela, a South African–born scholar who was himself a member of the movement as an undergraduate, observes that the LA Rebellion consisted of two waves of filmmakers whose film training started in the short-lived Ethno-Communications Program at UCLA between 1970 and 1982: The first wave included Gerima (who was born in Ethiopia), Burnett, Larry Clark (the director of Passing Through [1977] and Cutting Horse [2002], not the Larry Clark who made Kids), Ben Caldwell, John Rier, Pamela Jones, Abdosh Abdulhafiz, Jamaa Fanaka, and others; the second, Dash, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Zeinabu irene Davis, Barbara McCullough, Jacqueline Frazier, and Bernard Nichols. These filmmakers have made what should prove to be lasting contributions not only to avant-garde and independent American filmmaking but, more broadly, to cultural politics in the United States. While the Los Angeles School’s significance and impact is still being assessed and debated—indeed, even as these filmmakers continue to create compelling works in film and video—the UCLA Film & Television Archive is about to make its rich collection of films and other materials related to the Los Angeles School available to researchers through a new archive specifically dedicated to the LA Rebellion. Further, under the auspices of the Getty Foundation’s “Pacific Standard Time” program, UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater will showcase more than fifty films in the collection in a series titled “LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema.” In addition to Killer of Sheep, Daughters of the Dust, and Bush Mama, lesser-known films by Burnett, Dash, and Gerima will be included, along with films by McCullough, Davis, Nichols, Woodberry, and others.

Individually, many of the films of the LA School reconceptualize the terms through which black life becomes legible, and they are valuable on their own merits. When considered together as part of a movement, the films offer a conceptualization of black existence in the United States that is remarkably complex, varied, urgent, and still generative today. For example, Larkin’s A Different Image (1982) gives a poetic account of a young African-American woman reclaiming herself and her cultural heritage from the barrage of racist and sexist images that seem to define them. Indeed, the filmmakers of the LA Rebellion sought to undermine the validity of the limiting and dehumanizing images of blackness projected in mainstream Hollywood films and in blaxploitation flicks alike by producing more sophisticated and culturally relevant images. Caldwell’s experimental short I and I: An African Allegory (1977) forwards one of the cardinal tenets of the LA Rebellion: that the minds and imaginations of African Americans have been colonized by Hollywood and other vehicles of white supremacy. I and I is composed of several sections, each filmed in a different style but unified by the figure of a blue-robed visionary, a woman who experiences the loss and historical recovery of her African origins as an allegory for the spiritual decolonization and regeneration of the African diaspora.

Though many LA Rebellion films deployed Hollywood conventions subversively, as did Passing Through, which drew on tropes of the action genre to reveal the dangers of the commodification of black musical traditions, none embraced these conventions as wholeheartedly as Jamaa Fanaka’s blaxploitationesque offerings. Fanaka’s Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975), Emma Mae (1976), and Penitentiary trilogy (1979–87) stand in stark contrast to the poetic and allegorical styles of Larkin and Clark and to the deliberative and elegant cinematography of Killer of Sheep and Daughters of the Dust. Indeed, Fanaka’s movies seem to eschew the ideological underpinnings and political commitments of most LA Rebellion films, yet they must be accounted for as part of the same moment and school.

Hal Hartley, Trust, 1990, 35 mm, color, sound, 107 minutes. Matthew Slaughter and Maria Coughlin (Martin Donovan and Adrienne Shelly).

HAL HARTLEY’S second feature, Trust (1990), has aged gracefully: Its left-handed ambiguities, quizzical juxtapositions, wryly twisted symmetries, blank wit, askance plotting, pungently sketchy characters, and subversive understatement have taken on the stature of a recondite landmark. The iconic performances of Martin Donovan and the late, profoundly missed Adrienne Shelly feel like Long Island’s flatly blue-collar answer to Belmondo and Karina: a half-cocked, mixed-motive duo that bond over abusive parents, mutual despair, word definitions, a parched thirst for knowledge, and a hand grenade. Their sputtering, circuitous, stop-motion chemistry culminates in just about the most oddly romantic denouement of late-twentieth-century cinema—a low-key, high-stakes burst of seriocomic transcendence.

An early indication of the rise of American indie filmmaking, Trust established Hartley as the go-to guy for hard-to-define post-genre exercises. There are the visual/tonal references to Bresson and Godard wedded to vernacular speech and the knockabout vicissitudes of working-class life. There are the sidelong detours (the protagonists’ search for a woman who may have kidnapped a baby). There’s the persistent erosion of the line between the funny and the tragic, the absurd and the poetic, randomness and interconnectedness, without disavowing either end of those tricky equations. Trust was a hard film to read initially, because Hartley’s out-of-the-blue style is at once so head-on and so oblique—it takes a while to pick up where Trust is coming from, to fully take in how utilitarian Hartley’s technique really is.

When he schematically frames a scene ŕ la Godard or invokes the pared-down affect of Bresson, it isn’t with film-school showiness but rather the brusque efficacy of a handyman reaching into his toolbox for the right implement, finding the proper angle with the least clutter, the maximum impact with minimal fuss. It’s all a process of distillation, boiling things down to essentials: loneliness, suffering, endurance, surprise. So along with the diffused stuff of family trauma and even noir mystery, Hartley will unobtrusively insert Tatiesque sight gags (Donovan’s bull-in-a-china-shop barreling past a motley line-up waiting to get their decrepit TVs repaired, or the sleuthing pair trying to pick a needle out of a haystack of M. Hulot commuters). All in a day’s work, locating the congruencies tucked away inside the incongruous everyday.

On a sliding continuum between Raoul Walsh’s Me and My Gal (1932) and David O’ Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Trust is definitely closer to the former’s primitive-sophisticated stew of slapstick melodrama, sardonic social asides, tough cookies (Joan Bennett, yowza), good Irish eggs (Spencer Tracy, never livelier), and two or three orphan subplots (not to mention a startlingly hip, revue-style mini-parody of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude that would be equally at home in Masculin Féminin or on SCTV). Trust rewrites the movie playbook with casual underdog panache, alternating short punchy scenes with long ruminative takes, whereas the coy Silver Linings serves up its mildly agitated, retro-luncheonette romance like Dancing with the Stars on a deep-fried shingle. Shelly’s Maria is an encyclopedia of untapped intelligence and emotional resources: Whether foiling a would-be rapist with a lit cigarette to the eye or purposefully striding through a fleeing factory mob to save Donovan’s Matthew from himself and his trusty grenade, she’s an eminently unsentimental and believable heroine. Karen Sillas’s Nurse Paine’s square-shouldered walk past the abortion clinic protesters on her way to her job there (then, after sitting down, pouring herself and client Maria a stiff drink) conveys the same resolve, while Matthew’s battering-ram gait has the impracticable comic-strip charm of Popeye exiled to the badlands of Nowheresville, New York.

Hartley called his first film The Unbelievable Truth and here he really nails the interaction between the ironies of devalued lives and their residual possibility of overcoming set limitations of circumstance, birth, bad luck, bad timing, et al. Grace is maybe too fancy a term for it. In Trust, it’s more of an unblinking emotional tenacity that opens up these damaged, inchoate souls to the transformative effect of each other’s tenderness. It’s a highly particularized film that uses allegorical devices as a way of working out issues from Hartley’s past by creating an objective perspective on misbegotten events. Sometimes three little words are worth a thousand pictures. When Maria asks Matthew why the hell he carries that grenade around with him at all times, he answers reasonably: “Just in case.”

Howard Hampton

Trust is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films.

Valerie Massadian, Nana, 2011, 35 mm, color, sound, 68 minutes. Nana (Kelyna Lecomte).

NANA BEGINS with a long shot of a farmer killing a large pig as a few people, including his granddaughter, look on. A medium close-up shows the pig being bled, the ordinariness of the act treated with a blunt simplicity characteristic of the film’s style. For the next twenty minutes of this beautifully photographed, stark but lyrical debut feature, we watch Nana—somewhere between age four and five—setting traps with her grandfather, gathering firewood, playing with her mother, and listening to a rather gruesome bedtime story. Life is simple, mother-daughter affections seem genuine, although some unspecified contention is hinted at between the grandfather and his daughter. Then, without warning or explanation, mother walks into the distance and disappears.

We wonder what has happened, and worry about the child left behind, but for the next twenty minutes, the unflustered Nana dresses and feeds herself, gathers wood, makes fires, even reads herself the same bedtime story—all with remarkable, if unnerving self-sufficiency. To see her free a dead rabbit from a trap, carry it home, wrap it in dry weeds, and toss it on the fire is to realize just how attuned she seems to the natural cycle of life and death. When her mother returns only to die inexplicably, Nana drags her body over the ground with the same unblinking demeanor. In the final scene, her grandfather closes up the daughter’s house and takes Nana home with him.

The naturalistic aura, character typology, and setting evoke a nineteenth-century French novel, but Nana has nothing resembling the densely packed narrative of societal problems typical of Émile Zola. Unless we choose to willfully read into the thinly connected tissue of its events, the film is as blithely indifferent to social, dramatic, and psychological concerns as it is free of sentimentality. It addresses us purely as cinema, allowing physical acts and the locations where they occur to speak for themselves. In that sense, it offers us the world as Nana herself must experience it.

Still, we wonder. Why does Nana’s mother leave an angry note about her father’s failure to complete a fence? If she is concerned about Nana’s safety, why does she abandon her? Where has she gone and for how long? From what ailment does she suffer? Where is Nana’s father? From whom did Nana learn the vulgar language that comes to her lips so easily?

To leave such questions suspended seems to be the filmmaker’s way of leaving the viewer as adrift as the protagonist. While the film celebrates a child’s endurance and survival skills, it also restricts its compass to her outward behavior. Refusing to provide fuller exposition and psychology, director Valerie Massadian documents Nana’s external existence, drawing a line between that and how she incorporates everything into her inner world.

The word minimalism too easily comes to mind in the face of such a work, but here it is less a formal choice than a recognition of the boundaries beyond which one cannot enter a child’s consciousness. If we believe Massadian that she “did not impose any word or gesture” on her actress, we might almost conclude that the central portion of the film is a passage of cinema vérité, to which the filmmaker has attached a titillating beginning and quasi-tragic end. However we read it, Nana is a genuine curiosity that deserves to be seen.

Tony Pipolo

Nana has its New York theatrical premiere January 25–31 at Anthology Film Archives.