IN RETROSPECT, 2011 was a great year for cinema. That year’s Berlinale memorably served as a barometer for bold statements, which ranged from Béla Tarr’s stark essay on finitude, The Turin Horse, to the sweeping AIDS documentary We Were Here. The prospects for 2012 are rather more humble, if the current edition of the Berlinale (or at least what I’d seen by its halfway mark) is any indication.
One of the more pervasive trends is a shift away from the macro (large, worldly issues) and toward the micro (personal, domestic crises). Is this to be the year of the Relationship Movie? Two films that both happen to star Thure Lindhardt—Formentera and Keep the Lights On—epitomize this direction. The former, directed by Ann-Kristin Reyels, analyzes a young professional couple from Berlin vacationing among aging hippies on the eponymous Spanish island. He wants to run away from it all and relocate there with their young child; she feels content with their life back home and fathoms that his desire to flee is grounded in his secret unhappiness with their marriage. In Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On, Lindhardt plays a gay documentary filmmaker attached to a young lawyer whose struggles with addiction threaten to implode their relationship. The plot is fairly rote and at times hovers dangerously close to cliché—though I suppose it serves a political purpose, showing, in the raging topical arena surrounding gay marriage, that queer couples can be just as miserable as their hetero counterparts.
Of course, with a program as vast as the Berlinale’s, which features several hundred films in ten sections, there are always surprises. Finding them is often a matter of luck. So far, the Zellner Brothers’ Kid Thing tops my list of fortunate accidents; its prepubescent, white trash antiheroine sorts through the refuse of the American heartland and contributes her own bit of pitiless violence to the pile. When Annie (Sydney Aguirre) discovers a woman trapped in a hole in the ground in a remote forest, she runs away, believing it to be the devil. Eventually she must grapple with whether it is in her moral fiber to help another person. The film is, in many ways, disgusting and difficult to watch; its few characters (cripples, drunks, sadists: human derelicts) and their crude, pointless activities are all as unsympathetic as the protagonist herself. At the same time, the film’s stylistic cunning makes it hard to look the other way: Conjure a world populated with living Duane Hanson sculptures and photographed by Jeff Wall. Kid Thing could very well be the scariest slice of Americana Ugliana since Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997).
Among those making their feature debuts this year is Zainichi Korean director Yong-hi Yang. Her previous documentaries explored her estrangement from her brothers, who as teenagers were sent by their parents to study in North Korea and were never able to return to Japan. Kazoku no kuni (Our Homeland) uses this fascinating autobiographical material to animate the story of a son who is permitted to come home after twenty-five years to seek medical treatment for a brain tumor. The film owes its success to an ensemble of powerhouse performances, headed by Iura Arata as the traumatized son.
Other worthwhile endeavors include flashy festival opener Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen), director Benoît Jacquot’s chronicle of the last days of Versailles from the perspective of Marie Antoinette’s reader; timely documentaries on Marina Abramović and Ai Weiwei; and a handful of cinematic installations included in two of the four Forum Expanded exhibitions I managed to attend, “Kritik und Klinik” and “Gutschow-Haus.” We’ll see what the remaining days hold in store.
The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival runs February 9–19.
EXPLORING THE MARITIME WORLD as the unseen matrix of globalization, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space (2010) begins as an investigative documentary and concludes as a mythopoeic essay on modernity and the sea. Along with the quickening staccato of the accordion sound track, the film’s rhetorical intensity slowly builds as metaphor and allusion are interwoven with the facts and conditions of global trade.
In one of the final scenes, we learn that Doel, a small Belgian village, is being demolished to expand the port of Antwerp. In one shot, we see a street that dead-ends in a dike wall protecting the low-lying town from the ocean. The giant steel tower of a cargo crane slowly crosses through the background; like a scrim, the dike hides the ship on which the crane is being transported. To the viewer, the crane seems to stand still while the ground seems to move beneath one’s feet. It’s a disorienting effect, a haunting visualization of Marx and Engels’s dictum that, under capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air.” Only here amended: Everything bound to the earth is forced to sea.
At a folk festival in the doomed town, a close-up shows an artisan’s hands and tool as he hollows out the inside of a wooden shoe. Picking up on its shape, the voice-over likens it to a lifeboat crafted from past tradition; in a dizzying metaphoric twist, it comes to stand in for the village as whole and, by extension, all the lands of the globe that might be submerged under shifting economic tides. The film’s conclusion is torn between the manifesto-like call for “the lowly crew to seize the helm” of this provisional craft, and the open question about how to extend hospitality to those bankrupt and shipwrecked refugees who might arrive on our shores.
Through visits to four port cities, viewers learn that nine-tenths of the world’s freight is moved by 100,000 ships and 1.5 million seafarers. Rotterdam, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong are each expansive megaports that handle huge amounts of containerized cargo. Surveying their environs reveals some of the costs of ever-expanding trade, from pollution to standardization to the automation that increases productivity but keeps wages low and eliminates jobs. In the formerly industrial town of Bilbao, the Guggenheim museum exemplifies the replacement of the working port by a tourist economy that floats on a forgetting of industry and nostalgia for the sea. Its emblem is Frank Gehry’s sinuous, piscine building, whose titanium scales never rust—“a lighthouse that shines only when the sun is out” and blinds viewers both to industrial history and to the realist and modernist sculptures by native Basques and Spaniards at the city center. When ocean waves overwhelm the sound track as museum visitors wind their way through rusting, rolled steel sculptures by Richard Serra (himself a former shipyard worker), it amounts to a return of the repressed.
The film continually returns to the cargo ship on the open ocean, but it also tracks the ways goods move inland. The camera takes us inside the cramped cabs of the crane operator, the barge captain, the train engineer, and the truck driver, to listen as they explain the demands of their jobs. People are paired with machines to which they sometimes become appendages, now all part of a global, mobile factory. The voice-over emphasizes that factories have become like ships, continually moving production to countries with low wages and few environmental protections. And ships, now mammoth floating buildings, become factories and warehouses.
We also explore the domestic spaces that support this form of trade, visiting the inside of a seafarer’s hostel in Hong Kong. Security guards keep the crew from entering a homeless camp in California, so the filmmakers interview the unemployed on the sidewalk. Viewers tour the massive spaces inside a Chinese appliance factory in Shenzhen, and accompany two female workers to their tiny dorm and then out into the city as they go shopping. Despite the exploitative conditions, these women are some of the most hopeful figures of the film—not only in their youth and enthusiasm, but because of the collective power they might someday wield.
The Forgotten Space has its New York theatrical premiere Wednesday, February 15–Tuesday, February 21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Allan Sekula will be present at the opening-night screenings on February 15.
Kleber Mendonça Filho, Neighboring Sounds, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 124 minutes.
ONE YEAR after marking its fortieth anniversary with an expanded edition (tagged “XL”), the 2012 International Film Festival Rotterdam flaunted a slimmed-down profile. This accelerated cycle of binge and purge surely had much to do with the deep funding cuts that have hit Dutch arts organizations in recent months, but organizers put a positive spin on it, calling it a user-friendly downsizing for a famously sprawling event. While there were indeed fewer sidebars (and somewhat quieter bars), festival director Rutger Wolfson’s claim that Rotterdam could now be “summed up in four sentences” is not exactly true, and would not have been a good thing anyway. The hit-and-miss overprogramming typically pays dividends for those willing to do a little snooping around: This year’s retrospectives encompassed “The Mouth of Garbage,” an ambitious historical survey of São Paulo’s down-and-dirty Boca do Lixo scene, a cine povera crossroads of social realism and genre exploitation; among the other programs were topical roundups of Arab Spring dispatches and underground Chinese docs with an obligatory focus on Ai Weiwei. (The activist artist’s loops of Beijing traffic were installed in an “Ai Weiwei Café,” which served free instant noodles and was meant to echo the informal screening spaces where Chinese audiences typically encounter banned work.)
The wide range of offerings, along with a smartly programmed array of short and experimental work, help divert attention from the grumblings (which seem to grow louder each year) that Rotterdam’s central event, its Tiger competition for first or second films, is not what it used to be. There was at least a newsworthy outcome this time. All three prizes went to women directors, and all of these, as it happens, were first-timers with substantially different variations on the coming-of-age tale. Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone, a moving autobiographical account of youthful trauma, parcels out the grim backstory of an unwanted teenage girl in rural China through an art-film lingua franca of fixed, precise compositions and an oblique, withholding narrative. Equally accomplished and also more than a bit familiar, Dominga Sotomayor’s Thursday Through Sunday chronicles a disintegrating family’s road trip via off-kilter details and circumscribed perspectives reminiscent of Lucrecia Martel’s films. But if Martel’s singular style, at once sensual and abstract, promotes disorientation, Thursday Through Sunday means to evoke something known, even universal: sense memories of childhood, with adult realities just coming into view. The least deserving prize, Maja Miloš’s Clip, was also the festival’s designated controversy thanks to the surefire combination of titillation and moralism. This Kids retread for the digital age, about sexually hyperactive Serbian adolescents and their cell phone cameras, comes complete with hard-core scenes and a closing-credits assurance that no actual teens had any actual sex.
Two out of three isn’t bad, but it was still mystifying that the jury, headed by Singaporean director Eric Khoo, failed to recognize Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds, a supremely poised and ambitious first feature from Brazil that towered over a largely subpar competition. A former critic-programmer with a series of inventive shorts to his name, Filho has made a thoroughly modern, film-savvy opus (at times it suggests Cache as directed by Paul Thomas Anderson), steeped equally in dread and humor. Neighbouring Sounds concerns urban tumult, class hierarchies, the threat of violence, a culture of fear—common themes in recent Brazilian cinema—but, as someone puts it during a charged confrontation in the film, “This is no favela.” Instead we’re in a well-off beachfront neighborhood of Recife where the residents are ensconced in bourgeois comfort but also trapped behind barred windows, high fences, and all manner of human and mechanical security systems. The Altmanesque tapestry, which includes members of a rich family that owns much of the area and of the working class that variously serves, protects, and threatens them, appears to promise the puzzle-piece convergences of the Iñárritu-style ensemble movie, but Filho, using fluid camerawork and an intricate sound design to sensational effect, has something more original in mind: a horror movie in which the horror is nameless and pervasive, both embedded in the domestic everyday and a convulsive emanation of the collective unconscious.
As is often the case at Rotterdam, the discoveries were not confined to new films. Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s Anna (shot in 1972, first shown in 1975, and newly restored by the Cineteca di Bologna) is an astonishing nearly four-hour documentary about a sixteen-year-old homeless junkie, eight months pregnant, whom the filmmakers discovered in Rome’s Piazza Navona. Mainly shot on then-newfangled video (which at times gives the black-and-white images a ghostly translucence), it documents the interactions between the beautiful, clearly damaged, often dazed teenager and the directors, who take her in partly out of compassion and partly because she’s a fascinating subject for a film. Far from straightforward vérité, this self-implicating chronicle includes reenactments of the first meeting, explicit attempts to direct its subject, and frequent intrusions from behind the camera (not least the emergence of the film’s electrician as a love interest). Anna cuts between long, often discomfiting domestic scenes (including an interminable delousing in the shower) and equally protracted café discussions back in the square, where the unruly cross talk among hippies, bums, bourgeoisie, and angry young men touches on the movie’s key themes of obligation and intervention: between filmmakers and their subjects, the state and its citizens, fellow members of society. An end-of-the-1960s document with the scale and intimacy of Robert Kramer’s Milestones, Anna also marks the birth of our media age, not just demonstrating the obsessive immersions of a new technology that, as Grifi put it, “makes life filmable,” but also embodying the uneasy dawning awareness of what that means. It’s a film born on a cusp, as an urgency to change the world yielded to an urge to record it.
The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 25–February 5, 2012.
Bill Morrison, The Miners’ Hymns, 2011, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 52 minutes.
BILL MORRISON’S The Miners’ Hymns (2011) is a remembrance of northeast England’s lifeworld of coal and an ode to the solidarities born of the struggle to survive it, before the industry was union-gutted and privatized unto extinction in the 1990s. Like Morrison’s Decasia (2002)—whose deliquescing cast included men fleeing a mining disaster only to encounter death by nitrate film stock—it is a necromantic collage, but it extends a homecoming to the past more than a final farewell. Black-and-white clips culled from archival footage since 1900 underscore strain and occlusion in the dug-out dark—miners prowling on all fours to reach farther seams, coal in chiaroscuro out-glistening faces. Slowed for a searching, heedful gaze, the frame lingers before scenes of telling simplicity, like a clothesline against tessellating rowhouses, its billowing whites dignifying conjoined work-cycles. It’s astonishing how often we see the open sea, never so distant from the airless pits; kids bound toward it after sliding down slag hills while their elders harvest washed-up seacoal there.
A present-day flyover of Durham’s reclad villages notes the supermarket parking lot that was Ryhope’s colliery and the dry ski slopes now upholstering Silkworth’s. But aerial survey promptly turns to historical X-ray as the helicopter descends to earth, gusting a grassy field until it dissolves into a flat-capped crowd from another time, gathered for the annual Durham Miners’ Gala. When men next convene in a field it is for civil war: Images from the Battle of Orgreave during the 1984–85 miners’ strike surge like the political unconscious of The Iron Lady (2011), out for a reckoning. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s enveloping, electronically finessed score of brasses and organ, drawing on the region’s colliery brass-band tradition, is paced with suspense, and The Miners’ Hymns concludes in the very Durham Cathedral where it premiered, ushering film-memory into lived experience.
The Miners’ Hymns has its theatrical premiere February 8–14 at Film Forum in New York.
NOEL BLACK’S satisfyingly sordid first feature, Pretty Poison, was released in 1968; eight years prior, the film’s male lead, Anthony Perkins, had his breakout role in Psycho, and his costar, Tuesday Weld, appeared as one of the titular Sex Kittens Go to College. These earlier screen incarnations crucially inflect the characters the actors play in Black’s film. In Pretty Poison, Perkins’s Dennis Pitt, a fragile fantasist in his early thirties out on probation—his earlier crimes include burning his aunt’s house down—could be thought of as Norman Bates’s less damaged cousin. Weld’s Sue Ann Stepanek, a sexed-up eighteen-year-old high-school honor student who’s been seduced by Dennis’s conspiracy theories, often lures him to “Make-out Alley”; soon she’ll coax him into her matricide plan.
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and based on Stephen Geller’s 1966 novel She Let Him Continue, Pretty Poison tanked at the box office and was dismissed by many critics, never earning the accolades that greeted two other criminal-lover films of the era, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). Though often spiked with mordant humor, Black’s movie, unlike those more celebrated titles, has no layer of cool detachment or irony; Dennis and Sue Ann throb with hurt, confusion, desire, and rage. Out in the real world for the first time in years, Dennis, whose parole officer secures him a job in a small-town Massachusetts chemical plant, can barely function outside the cocoon of his Scientific American–strewn Airstream trailer, often resorting to supercilious speech as a defense mechanism. He seems to possess one outfit—a light-blue oxford shirt and gray corduroys, an ensemble that makes Perkins, thirty-six at the time, look barely old enough to shave.
Weld has the opposite effect: She was in her mid-twenties during shooting—and looks it. Yet the discrepancy between the actress’s age and her character’s imbues Sue Ann, whom Dennis first notices carrying the flag for an all-girl rifle drill team, with a necessary perversity. Immediately turned on by Dennis’s silly CIA talk—“We’re under surveillance” is his pickup line, delivered at the local hot-dog stand—Sue Ann avidly follows all of his crazy directives, simply for the adventures they promise. When Dennis’s scheme to commit eco-terrorism at his workplace goes awry, it ignites in his girlfriend insatiable lusts—both for blood and carnal pleasure.
The flaxen-haired sweetheart, one minute concerned about being late for her hygiene class and the next aiming a pistol right at her mother’s heart, has an active tongue: It darts out from her mouth when she is concentrating, preparing to kill, or registering delight. The fleshy organ also helps deliver the teenager’s deepening mythomania, which, by film’s end, has surpassed even Dennis’s. If Weld’s and Perkins’s roles before Pretty Poison informed their characters, the compatibility they established in Black’s film would greatly enrich their next (and final) collaboration: costarring as Maria Wyeth, the unraveling Hollywood wife, and B.Z., the tormented bisexual producer (and Maria’s only friend), in Frank Perry’s 1972 adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays.
Pretty Poison plays February 3 through 9 at Film Forum.
Gob Squad, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2012. Performance view, The Public Theater. Photo: David Baltzer.
OF KITCHEN, the 1965 film directed by Andy Warhol from a script by Ronald Tavel that was largely ignored by its star, Edie Sedgwick, Norman Mailer rhapsodized: “It captured the essence of every boring dead day one’s ever had in a city, a time when everything is imbued with the odor of damp washcloths and old drains. I suspect that a hundred years from now people will look at Kitchen and say, ‘Yes, that is the way it was in the late Fifties, early Sixties in America. That’s why they had the war in Vietnam. That’s why the rivers were getting polluted. That’s why there was typological glut. That’s why the horror came down. That’s why the plague was on its way.’ Kitchen shows that better than any other work of that time.”
This bit of hyperbolic hindsight or “typological glut,” published in Edie, An American Biography (1982) by Jean Stein, edited with George Plimpton, also may be found in the description of Kitchen on the Warhol Stars website (www.warholstars.org), an Internet treasure, as is the website of the late Ronald Tavel (www.ronaldtavel.com), which contains the script of Kitchen as well as all of Tavel’s other scripts, journals, essays, manifestos, and scabrous gossip. The Mailer quote and the description of Kitchen (appropriated from Stephen Koch’s Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol ) were e-mailed to me by Tavel friend and associate Norman Glick as a way of encouraging me to hotfoot it to the Public Theater to see Gob Squad’s production of Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good). Glick liked the production a lot, especially the parts that used Tavel’s actual lines or paraphrased them, as in, “This cake is just like my life. One meaningless layer after another.” He was upset, however, that the piece did not give Tavel proper credit, despite the note in the program, printed in large black type, which explains that “the original screenplay for Andy Warhol’s Kitchen was written by Ronald Tavel.” Acknowledging collaborators was not in Warhol’s playbook, and history has done nothing to challenge his auteurist assumption. Gob Squad is riffing on a Warhol film (actually more than one), and the fact that Tavel’s layer-cake metaphor most likely inspired the pile-up of past/present/future that is the joy of the production won’t change an audience’s perception that it’s Warhol’s kitchen alone that Gob Squad has taken over.
On entering the Public’s Newman Theater, audience members are encouraged to tour the area behind the triptych of large video screens on which the entire performance will be projected. At once backstage, stage, and soundstage, the space through which we amble is divided into three sections. The titular kitchen (a narrow table, a few chairs, a cupboard) is at the center flanked by a bedroom (just a bed really) and a more amorphous area where a chair is positioned for “screen tests.” Small video cameras on tripods are trained on each area. Lounging around the set are the cast and crew, several sporting the unisex horizontal striped pullover favored by Warhol superstars. At what might be considered the climax of the performance, four actors clad in these signature shirts will engage in a high-speed mock orgy on and around the kitchen table.
During the tour, the actors are quite chatty. I tell them that I saw the premiere of Warhol’s Kitchen in 1966 at the theater directly across Lafayette Street from the Public, where the Blue Man Group has been in residence for more than two decades. It was then the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. They tell us that the tour is important because it proves to the audience that the black-and-white video projections which constitute almost the entire performance (and which resemble the texture and tonalities of Warhol’s black-and-white 16-mm films) are a simulcast of the performance taking place in the colorful, three-dimensional space behind the screens—and not a prerecorded video. The strategy works. Paradoxically, the video, which is larger than life but also ghostly, is more convincing than seeing flesh-and-blood performers moving around a three-dimensional space imitating Warhol superstars could possibly be.
Which is not to say that the Gob Squad actors are not extremely skilled and lively. At the performance I saw, the leading roles were played by Sharon Smith, Nina Tecklenburg, Sean Patten, and Simon Will. Whereas Warhol’s performers mixed up being themselves with playing themselves or playing nominal characters, the Gob Squad adds another “layer,” as Tavel would have it. “I’m Nina and I’ll be playing the character of ‘Nina’ in Kitchen,” Tecklenburg says, addressing the camera/audience directly. But it’s clear that she is also attempting to re-create the character played by Elektra in the film Kitchen, and she acknowledges the absurdity of such a re-creation. Time contracts and expands.
Gob Squad briefly ventures into Warholian boredom, although it never falls apart as thoroughly as the end of the original Kitchen does when Edie burns her hand on the stove and other performers wander about aimlessly for at least ten minutes. When nothing much is cooking in Gob Squad’s kitchen, one’s attention turns to the right or left screens, where passages of Sleep, Kiss, and a Screen Test or two are reenacted. At one point, the all-purpose kitchen table is used for a female version of Blow Job (the action, as in the Warhol version, kept discreetly below the frame line). About halfway through the performance, audience members are drafted to replace the lead performers. (The initial behind-the-screens tour may be a way for the Gob Squad to size up which of us is ready for fifteen minutes of fame.) The draftees add a layer of the unpredictable to what is clearly a precisely tuned—and therefore anti-Warhol—theatrical machine. Still, they are not free to do whatever they please. Instead they are given headphones through which they are fed stage directions and dialogue, which they then repeat.
As I remember, Warhol did not cue his performers through headsets. In Kitchen, pages of Tavel’s script were pasted on every available surface, but failing to avail herself of any of them, Sedgwick sneezed her way through the entire film. It was Jean-Luc Godard who outfitted his actors with invisible earbuds so that he could control how they moved and what they said while the camera was running. Warhol was as much indebted to Godard as Godard was to American Pop art. The striped pullover/boy-cut hair combination that we see in countless photos of Andy and Edie was first worn by Jean Seberg in Breathless (1960). Gob Squad nails the Warhol/Godard connection by including a bit of the Breathless theme music in the wittily collaged score that sets much of the tone of the production. Opening with the “Bell Song” from Lakmé (a Factory favorite), it sends us out humming the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” suggesting that Gob Squad’s Kitchen aims to be as endearing as Warhol’s was antagonistic.
Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) plays through Sunday, February 5, at the Public Theater in New York.