Nicolás Pereda, Greatest Hits, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 103 minutes.

THE MUSEUM OF THE MOVING IMAGE is serving up some offbeat fare at its 2013 “First Look” series. Take Greatest Hits, Nicolás Pereda’s latest exercise in downbeat Mexican life. Gone are the framing strategies of his previous films that gave the illusion of some vague theme making sense of eventless existence. In his new work, people hang around at the kitchen table or the living-room couch—two of them played by Pereda regulars Gabino Rodríguez and Teresa Sánchez—chatting idly and endlessly about nothing much. No one is rushing off to work, although they talk a lot about schemes for making money. Just as we’ve resigned ourselves that nothing unusual is likely to happen, the long-lost husband and father of Sánchez and Rodríguez arrives, although another actor had been playing that part in the first half. Then, when members of the film crew pop up, we think maybe we’ve been watching a Mexican version of the landmark television series An American Family (1973). Or perhaps everything we’ve seen thus far is another memorization exercise, like the one Gabino rehearses over and over of song titles (the “greatest hits” of the title). Handsomely shot in wide-screen with an emphasis on long takes, the film has a sly way of getting under your skin, as if these entrapped lives—fictional or non—were the comic underside of the lives of those fools in the rest of the world consumed by business and purpose.

There is also lots of waiting and longueurs—although far less talk—in Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan (Beyond Satan). If the title seems a bit noncommittal, think The Exorcist (1973) meets Ordet (1955). The film is saturated with a tension induced by the enigmatic male protagonist (David Dewaele) and the mysterious acts of mercy and murder that come to him as easily as breathing. If there has been a unifying theme in Dumont’s work in general, it may be that there’s nothing weirder than life in the French provinces, where boundaries between good and evil are unapologetically porous. Set near the Calais coast, the film’s austerely photographed exteriors convey a desolate beauty that induces our “hero,” and the young woman (Alexandra Lemâtre) under his protection, to kneel in recognition to some unidentified pre-Christian god. The man lives outdoors, his body immune to fire and the elements. Minutes into the film, moved purportedly by unassailable logic, he blows away the girl’s abusive stepfather. When a neighbor’s daughter seems inexplicably deranged, he applies the ultimate mouth-to-mouth cure, part exorcism, part rape—an act he repeats with a sluttish young woman, forcing a foamy substance from her mouth. Though he shuns intercourse with Lemâtre’s character, he does one better by bringing her back to life after she is raped and killed by a local hunter. Neither God nor Satan, Dumont’s protagonist is in touch with the unnatural order of things, dispensing miracles and murders as forms of archaic justice, as if in obedience to the same deities worshipped by Medea. And just as Medea is spirited away by the gods to escape punishment, our man moves on to the next village.

Bruno Dumont, Hors Satan (Beyond Satan), 2011, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes.

Nothing could be less detached in style—or seemingly so—than Siberia, a direct video portrait of the unraveling of a love affair between Dumont and the filmmaker Joana Preiss. Traveling together to Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway (Dumont participated in a film festival at Vladivostok), the two film each other with an often suffocating visual intimacy that only underscores the absence of the real thing. As the affair moves inevitably toward dissolution, we are apt to remember that even the very personal is prone to rhetoric—especially when a movie camera is involved.

Among the other documentaries in the series, Thom Andersen’s Reconversão (Reconversion) is an entrancing look at the work of the celebrated Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. A series of long takes of primarily private homes in Porto and other cities exhibit the man’s signature style, which is to incorporate a modern design within the on-site ruins of a previous century, integrating the lines and shapes of the latter into the living spaces of the former. As photographed by Peter Bo Rappmund, the images are stunning, arousing envy as well as admiration. By the time the amiable Souto de Moura makes his appearance, we easily connect his plain-speaking eloquence with what we have seen, Andersen’s narration and Rappmund’s images having made his aesthetic so palpable. Unlike poets and painters of the Romantic era, for whom ruins were melancholy remnants of death and decay, the architect sees them as living organisms, constantly breathing and testifying to movement in time. The movie’s magnificent cinematography actively echoes this sense of temporality as Rappmund’s images (consistent with his recent work Tectonics, shown at the 2012 Views from the Avant-Garde series at the New York Film Festival), shot at fast speed and using stop-motion technique, reduce people and vehicles to particle phenomena or fleeting swipes across spaces that fail to contain them—a paradoxical commentary on the transience of existence and the durable presence of ruins.

Tony Pipolo

The “First Look” series runs January 4–13 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan also runs January 18–27 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Peter Nicks, The Waiting Room, 2012, digital video, color, 81 minutes.

ENHANCED CINEMA VERITÉ, Peter Nicks’s The Waiting Room drops us into the middle of the emergency room of Oakland’s Highland Hospital, which has become, by dint of our failed health care system, the primary care facility for a population of some 250,000 Californians, most of them without health insurance. We are, of course, like the director and his compact crew, merely observers. Nevertheless the thought occurs that, but for the grace of a regular paycheck with benefits or a substantial rainy day fund, there go you and me. Refusing didacticism, statistics, or analysis, The Waiting Room is, by virtue of the experiences it documents, an irrefutable argument for the necessity of universal health care, here and now. The movie depicts real human beings, every one of them deserving better than what they get.

Nicks condensed five months of shooting into one composite day that focuses on a rough half-dozen patients and three health care providers, all of the latter group worthy of sainthood at the least. And no, I’m not implying that they are putting on a kind face for the camera. For the patients, the most difficult part of visiting the emergency room is the waiting, which for some can last not hours but days, depending on how they are triaged and how many serious trauma victims suddenly appear to take precedence over everyone else. Unlike a series such as ER, The Waiting Room’s focus is not on these adrenaline-rush crises (though at one point three young men with gunshot wounds are wheeled in, one of whom does not survive) but on the chronically ill or those with garden-variety infectious diseases who rely on the emergency room because they can’t afford a primary care physician.

There’s a young girl with a raging fever and a scarily rapid heartbeat caused by a strep throat. Her father lost his insurance when he was laid off and is distraught and humiliated that he can’t provide for his daughter’s basic needs. A young man who has a large, likely cancerous, testicular tumor is referred to Highland when the private HMO that provisionally accepted him (he and his girlfriend are confused about the details) discovers he can’t afford membership or the copayment for the surgery he urgently needs. There is a middle-aged man who has worked for twenty years laying carpets. He has painful bone spurs in his back, but because he has no insurance, he can’t have them removed because public hospitals can’t cover surgery that is considered “unessential.” All the ER doctor can do is offer him Vicodin, which he doesn’t want to take because he’s afraid it will make him too sleepy to work.

“I just want you to turn around and see all the beautiful people here,” says the remarkably kind triage nurse, hugging a frightened, elderly Southeast Asian man. (We’ve previously seen her walk a nearly blind diabetic woman outside and down the driveway so that she can get on the right bus to take her home, a kindness that’s far beyond the stipulations of her job description.) She’s right about all the beauty of the people in the waiting room, who, for the most part, despite pain and anxiety, seem empathetic to one another’s needs. It is their openness that makes a project like The Waiting Room possible.

Because cinema verité by definition does not permit talking-head interviews or explanatory voice-overs, even such masters as Frederick Wiseman are partially stymied when their subjects are institutions. Observing how people operate within an institution seldom reveals its structure and purposes. That is, unless the institution is so dysfunctional that dealing with its problems is front and center 24/7, as is the case here. Nicks does, however, bend the vérité rules by using as voice-over some of what the patients and health-care workers must have said in footage that we don’t see. In other words, he doubles up on the verbal information provided by the characters. I don’t fault him for not being a purist, although given how engrossing, informative, and moving the film is, he could have done without the swelling music at the end, or the sped-up sequences of the waiting room as if to prove that thousands of patients come and go every week. These are minor quibbles. In a year of exceptionally strong documentaries, The Waiting Room is one of the most urgent and effective.

Amy Taubin

Reprised by popular demand, The Waiting Room plays daily at 1 PM through January 3 at the IFC Center in New York.

Nicolas Rey, Anders, Molussien (Differently, Molussia), 2012, 16 mm, color, 81 minutes.

JUST A DECADE OLD, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival—more commonly known as CPH:DOX—already occupies a sizable footprint on the European festival landscape. This ambitious, outward-looking event now boasts multiple ancillary initiatives, including a financing forum and a cross-cultural production project, but at its heart is a strong curatorial stance, an idea of documentary film that is at once distinctive and expansive. Fittingly, one of the themed programs for last month’s tenth anniversary edition was titled “Maximalism,” and it stretched to encompass Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, Raya Martin’s psychedelic road trip Buenas noches, España, and an Animal Collective performance. Countering the stodgier impulses of more established documentary venues, the programming has both a hipster bent and a welcome sense of showmanship; even the occasional gimmickry is endearing. Denis Côté’s animal study Bestiaire was shown one afternoon at the Copenhagen Zoo. A double bill of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s immersive, convulsive Leviathan, shot entirely aboard (and off the side of) a fishing trawler two hundred miles off the Massachusetts coast, and David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Kingdom of Animal, a one-take tour of a Maine fish factory, was followed by a dinner of fish soup (by all accounts delicious).

While Leviathan won the New Vision competition for formally innovative works, the prize in the main competition went to The Act of Killing, one of the most talked-about films at Telluride and Toronto this year, as well as a Danish co-production. Directed by American-born Joshua Oppenheimer with the help of many crew members who remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, the film induces several elderly Indonesian men who slaughtered hundreds during anticommunist purges in the 1960s to relive their crimes (for which they have never been punished and apparently feel no remorse).

It’s a startling gambit, not least because the restagings, with the filmmakers’ help, take the form of movie spectacles by turns kitschy and grisly. Bizarre and boldly sensational, The Act of Killing has already found vocal fans in Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who promptly signed on as executive producers. Its political significance is not to be underestimated: The film brings to garish light a horrific, still-suppressed chapter of modern Indonesian history, and it says plenty about the way its antiheroes see themselves and rationalize their actions. But some of its implications verge on glibness. The emphasis on violent Hollywood movies as an influence on the massacres, however much the thugs admired Marlon Brando, seems like a flashy red herring (especially given the US government’s actual complicity), and a glimpse into the delusions of a few murderous sociopaths, however vivid, is very far from a truth and reconciliation process. Less exposé than stunt, The Act of Killing builds to an implicit endorsement of its own queasy methods, filmmaker and subject alike affirming the cathartic potential of reenactment.

Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous, The Act of Killing, 2012, color, 159 minutes.

My highlight of CPH:DOX was catching up with one of the year’s most resonant political films (and best films, period): Anders, Molussien (Differently, Molussia), the French experimental filmmaker Nicolas Rey’s attempt to adapt an untranslated, posthumously published novel by the German philosopher Günther Anders, set in the total dark of a penal colony in an imaginary fascist state called Molussia. (It was shown as part of a themed program titled “Empire,” riffing on post-Negri/Hardt notions of imperialism and also featuring Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme [2010] and the late Gerhard Friedl’s Farocki-like essay film Wolff von Amerongen: Did He Commit Bankruptcy Offenses? [2004])

Rey’s film has had a healthy festival life, and is effectively a world premiere every time it shows: It’s divided into nine reels, and the order of presentation is selected at random by the projectionist at each screening. (A deck of cards is provided to aid the process; 362,880 permutations exist.) What we hear, in addition to intricate field recordings, are excerpts of the text in German: a Platonic dialogue of sorts between two prisoners about the outside world. What we see are agrarian, industrial, suburban views of today, shot on expired 16-mm stock, at times with a rotating camera. Part dystopian science fiction, part landscape film, Anders, Molussien sustains an endlessly evocative dialectic between sound and image, the past and the present, the real and the fantasized. An essay on the visible and invisible manifestations of power, it’s also a testament to the political uses of imagination (which is also, as it happens, the subject of The Act of Killing, albeit in a grimmer and more literal sense).

Anders, Molussien screened at Copenhagen’s Husets Biograf, a cozy neo-grindhouse that Rey called a “temple to analog.” It’s also a reliable site for strange chance happenings. Last year, a print of Kenneth Anger’s eruptive Lucifer Rising (1972) caught fire midscreening; this year, as Rey answered questions after Anders, Molussien, the lights abruptly went out, plunging the audience into pitch darkness. As the film suggests, Molussia is indeed everywhere.

Dennis Lim

The tenth CPH:DOX ran November 1–11.

Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained, 2012, 35 mm, 141 minutes. Django and Brunhilda (Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington).

AS IRRITATING, if not quite as inflammatory, as a hemorrhoid, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained makes a queasy Oscar-season obverse not to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as some have suggested, but to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Though operating in vastly different genres—ZDT is a fact-based thriller about events of the past eleven years, Django Unchained an antebellum freed-slave revenger deeply in thrall to spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation movies—both are responses to eras in which the torture and subjugation of other human beings was part of US policy. One film unequivocally presents the horror of legally sanctioned physical abuse; the other is a little turned on by it.

Django Unchained, Tarantino’s eighth film (or seventh, if you count the bisected Kill Bill as one entity), operates in the same avenging-angel vein as his previous movie, the World War II–set Inglourious Basterds (2009), in which Nazis are scalped and set aflame. In both films, the writer-director imbues his florid cinephilia, the engine of all his productions, with the power to wield divine retribution, to turn history’s most vile abusers into its most cowering victims. This cartoonish fantasy works quite well in Inglourious Basterds: There is indeed something deeply, perversely satisfying about watching SS officers beg for their lives or the instantaneous combustion of the higher-ups of the Third Reich, gathered to attend a screening of a Nazi propaganda film.

Yet the cathartic thrills of witnessing that righteous, murderous revenge are gravely compromised in Django Unchained by Tarantino’s obsession with the ghastly torments inflicted on those who were considered chattel. The film opens in 1858 in Texas, where Teuton bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), posing as a dentist, buys Django (Jamie Foxx) from his masters. In exchange for the now-freed slave’s assistance in a contracted kill, the good German promises to reunite Django with his wife, Brunhilda (Kerry Washington, her character’s improbable name explained in a signature Tarantino digression), and rescue her from the sociopathic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in deepest Mississippi.

A whole mess of nasty peckerwoods and slavers will get their due, either from bullets pumped into them or from sticks of dynamite detonated. These are high-volume, generic deaths, filling the screen with so much red or orange. Where Tarantino really likes to pull the camera in close is during those moments that further objectify the already abject. Punished for trying to run away, a slave is torn to pieces by dogs (a scene returned to in flashback); two shirtless, perspiration-soaked black men bare-knuckle battle for Candie’s pleasure (the victor of this “Mandingo fight” being the one who doesn’t die). Most egregiously, a slow pan down the body of a naked Django, strung up by his feet and only seconds away from castration from a Candie henchman, captures every taut muscle, every bead of sweat.

About the one white man who isn’t a blue-eyed devil: Schultz is unmistakably a benevolent force, but Waltz is essentially reprising the role he played in Inglourious Basterds, in which he dominated the screen as the suave Nazi colonel Hans Landa. Both Landa and Schultz are exceptionally eloquent polyglots whose perorations seem to punctuate every scene. So much screen time, in fact, is devoted to Schultz’s orotund speeches that taciturn Django (“I don’t know what positive mean”) is frequently overshadowed. In this, Tarantino’s film, for which he has coined a new genre, the “southern,” resembles not so much his beloved spaghetti westerns or Richard Fleischer’s notorious, similarly themed 1975 melodrama, Mandingo (which the late, great critic Robin Wood passionately, if not altogether convincingly, once hailed as “the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood”), but The Blind Side.

Melissa Anderson

Django Unchained opens December 25.

Echo Park


Left: Cover for Cunningham Dance Foundation, Park Avenue Armory Event, 2012. Photo: Stephanie Berger. Emma Desjardins and Brandon Collwes. Right: Cunningham Dance Foundation, Park Avenue Armory Event, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 53 minutes. Andrea Weber and Brandon Collwes.

ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF 2012 was not released in theaters or shown at any festivals or streamed on Netflix or anywhere really but is only available on DVD through a small San Francisco–based nonprofit art-film distributor. The Park Avenue Armory Event, a capstone of one of the great achievements in art of any era—the technique and choreography that travels under the vulpine name “Merce Cunningham”—is now viewable on a three-DVD release from Artpix.

Park Avenue Armory Event: six performances featuring fourteen dancers dancing “excerpts” of fifty years of choreography on three separate stages in that massive, titular space over the course of three nights, December 29–31, 2011. It was the final performance of the Cunningham Company and a goodbye to modern dance. It was a delirious, historic occasion. Lessons in seeing. Lessons in getting lost. Lessons in coming up for air and finding that not all air is like every other air. It was the sort of thing you can get all glowy about. There will never be anything remotely like it again.

The Artpix release, produced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation and accompanied by a pitch-perfect essay by Douglas Crimp, is as smart and elegant an homage to the actual events as one could have hoped for. It’s a miracle the filmmakers were able to do Park Avenue Armory Event justice at all. That they’re able to capture it this vividly is remarkable. Dancer and videographer Nic Petry edited footage culled from nine cameras and two performances into a single, fifty-minute film synthesizing the action on all three stages. The camera-eye is different from the human-eye, and the dancers it anoints for history are different from the ones my own memory chose. I wonder, too, if the camera-eye will eventually overwrite my mind’s-eye. But in the end it doesn’t matter. Let my memories and these edit-memories mingle and swell.

If you feel cramped by the jump-cuts, disc two features uncut views of the dancing from each of the stages. Disc three includes excerpts from sixteen dances—from Suite for Five, 1956–58, to Nearly Ninety², 2009—reprised during the Cunningham Company’s two-year valedictory Legacy Tour. Here’s original footage from RainForest, 1968, where you can see Cunningham himself dance his mad, inimitable solo, swiping at and about Warhol’s sublimely in-the-way silver balloons. It all makes a perfect companion to Aperture’s iPad-only release from this summer, Merce Cunningham: 65 Years (a crucial update to the classic Merce Cunningham: 50 Years). A compendium of journal entries, videos, drawings, essays, and photos—all chronicled by Cunningham’s longtime archivist David Vaughan—the App is its own special event, an engaging history/biography/information-bank that really fulfills the promise of “multimedia.” The trove includes (among many great moments) a dusty film clip of a young and buoyant Cunningham dancing with Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins in Graham’s Every Soul Is a Circus, 1940. That Cunningham feels a million miles away from the Cunningham memorialized in Park Avenue Armory Event feels a million miles from the land of no-Cunningham now.

David Velasco

The Park Avenue Armory Event DVD box set is now available through Artpix and Microcinema International. Merce Cunningham: 65 Years is available from Aperture.

Worlds Apart


Ron Fricke, Baraka, 1992, 70 mm, color, 97 minutes.

RON FRICKE’S BARAKA is a curio of 1990s filmmaking. Part nature documentary, part animated panorama, the film and its epic, breathless ambitions failed to ramify. Viewed today, the singularity of Baraka’s style lends it the dated feel peculiar to projects that fashion themselves as self-consciously cutting-edge. Inspired by Fricke’s stint as a cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s cult classic Koyaanisqatsi, Baraka was one of the final films to be captured on Todd-AO 70 mm, a lush, high-definition format abandoned to the cost-effectiveness of digital. The camera, computerized and custom-built for Baraka’s extended time-lapse shots, was Fricke’s invention, and the film reads as a eulogy to its powers. Now angled at the vaporous cascade of Argentina’s Iguazu Falls, now surveying the airy dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Fricke’s camera glides, swoops, and tracks across six continents. Screening as part of Lincoln Center’s late-December ode to 70 mm alongside such stalwarts as Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) and Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982), Baraka’s sumptuous succession of images fascinates, perplexes, and perturbs in equal measure.

Defining its scope in the broadest possible way—the world, in totoBaraka’s pretensions are sweeping: to effect, in Fricke’s words, “a guided meditation on humanity” that transcends the bounds of language, nation, and religion. The fullness and lucidity of 70 mm made it the ideal medium for Fricke’s project, which strove to bracket thorny questions of politics in favor of a seamless, absorptive experience. Stripped of context, each of the film’s 152 locations is grounded only by those details immanent in the images themselves. An air of unreality thus pervades Baraka’s run-time, as if its scenes were less tangible places than stock signifiers of nature and natives, culled from the collective imaginary of a society reared on the Discovery Channel. Fricke’s camera movements are minimal, limited to smooth pans and slow tracking shots, and his cuts are frequent. Hypnotic views of mountains, tides, and clouds punctuate rapid juxtapositions of disparate forms of worship—Buddhists in Kathmandu, Hasidic Jews at the Western Wall, and whirling dervishes in Istanbul—as if to imply that everything in the world is composed of the same spiritual stuff. In lieu of identifying the sites imaged, Fricke gives us the eclectic, incongruous instrumentals of world music, where Japanese koto drums mix with bagpipes and Tibetan water music.

It’s this exasperating, seductive jumble that both defines and dooms Baraka. “It’s not about where you are, or why you’re there, but what’s there. It’s like doing a painting,” Fricke remarks in an interview on the film’s Blu-ray release. His approach to the world, indeed, partakes in that of a painter—albeit less a modernist master than an eighteenth-century landscape artist, enraptured in distanced contemplation of nature’s picturesque vistas, their pure aesthetics divorced from the gritty realities of history and power. Yet, confronted with the silent gaze of a sex worker in Bangkok or burning oil fields in Kuwait, abstracting from politics becomes impossible. Fricke’s New Age rhetoric, steeped in the pop mysticism of Joseph Campbell, at times cloaks a disturbing conservatism that reinforces notions of the third world as static and ahistorical, removed from the frenzied flow of time that structures life in the West. At its worst, Baraka devolves into a neo-imperialist fantasy, its euphoric jaunt around the globe collapsing cultural difference into the easy, untroubled exoticism of a tourist’s souvenir.

This willful naïveté is Baraka’s knell. Enamored of nature’s grandeur and the novelty of cross-cultural contact, the film attempts to elide its implication in the global economic order that produces the very inequities that it laments. Symptomatic of the contradictions of well-meaning humanism, Baraka neglects the central lessons of post-’60s filmmaking: that no image is innocent, no depiction of the world eternal.

Courtney Fiske

“See It in 70 mm!” runs December 21–January 1 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.