Oskar Fischinger, Raumlichtkunst, 1926/2012. Three-screen projection comprising three 35-mm films transferred to HD video, black-and-white and color. © Center for Visual Music. Installation view, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2012.


IN TATE MODERN’S recently opened Structure and Clarity Collections, a passage off to the side of the light, expansive gallery space leads to a large, pitch-black room. Here, visitors can immerse themselves in Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst, ca. 1926/2012, a film performance recently acquired by the Tate. The latest iteration is a re-creation produced by the Center for Visual Music in Los Angeles; the work comprises three ten-minute-long reels that are variably looped to make ever-new combinations. The Center took original nitrate and transferred it to 35-mm film and then to high-definition video, digitally restoring the color in the process, and also added a new percussive accompaniment—a track by Edgard Varčse and another by John Cage and Lou Harrison—derived from details of the original film events.

While all three projections offer evidence of a variety of methods, each screen is nonetheless dominated by a single technique familiar from Fischinger’s “visual music” animations. On the left, orchestrated groups of long rectangular forms push upward and sideways in ripples and forceful, angular thrusts. The right screen demonstrates his wax slicing technique (Wax Experiments, 1921–26), which uses methods redolent of those used to make murrine and millefiori glass to create liquid swirls. The subsequent vertigo effect draws viewers into a colored maelstrom, which, when it reverses, suggests infinite cosmic space. The center screen uses a combination of the other two and adds fluid graphic forms and celestial depth.

Fischinger’s creative philosophy was bent toward generating emotion through non-naturalistic, abstract, “absolute” form, color, and music. He was a filmmaker who also painted, and with Raumlichtkunst (a compound German word that translates as “space-light-art”) the variety of his experimentation can be experienced in one work. While Fischinger is still best known for his “visual music,” this three-ring circus of an installation is an occasion to revisit the given histories of expanded animation. REWIND, an important British genealogical project researching and archiving electronic media arts, includes Fischinger’s Bauhaus contemporaries (Theo van Doesburg, László Moholy-Nagy) in its history of expanded cinema, but makes no mention of Fischinger. This latest iteration of Raumlichtkunst offers undeniable evidence that he was an early pioneer of the canon.

Suzanne Buchan

Oskar Fischinger’s Raumlichtkunst is on display through October 28 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and through May 12, 2013, at Tate Modern in London.

Fever Dreams

09.18.12

Dario Argento, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, 1970, color, 35 mm, 98 minutes.


DERIVING FROM the late 1920s yellow (“giallo”) covers of the Mondadori publishers’ crime series, the giallo literary and cinematic phenomenon comprises what in English is rendered roughly as “crime drama,” and in French, the roman policier. It is to London and Paris, in fact, that the genre may be traced in the main: You see origins in Poe’s Detective Dupin prowling about the Rue Morgue, or Sherlock Holmes’s abode on Baker street. The Parisian pulp crime serial Fantomâs echoes to the far reaches of avant-garde experimentation, from Magritte’s 1927 painting The Menaced Assassin to the masked killer in Mario Bava’s 1964 film Six Women for the Murderer. Yet Italian directors, not least Bava himself, developed their own, increasingly self-conscious strain of cinema during the late ’60s and early ’70s. Bava takes pride of place in the history of Giallo all’italiana, and his influential The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) aptly features in Anthology Film Archive’s rousing ensemble of ten films by seven different filmmakers.

That range encompasses a generation from Massimo Dallamano (said to have filmed Mussolini’s corpse in the Piazza Loreto in Milan in his younger days) to Dario Argento—perhaps the genre’s best-known practitioner outside of Italy. Even still, the arc of time here is limited to a few vital years. It was a period roiling period with social and political unrest in Italy, but the turmoil of these works is a mannered one. If anxiety forms the giallo’s crux, it is an angst sealed in the hermetic chamber of cinematic convention, in which a larger world echoes only allegorically—indeed, can barely breathe. Suffocating close-ups; creeping and creepy pans; framings so portentous they border on camp—these are all here, whether in the hilarious/horrible final montage of Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) or the no less bathetic teeth bashing in Argento’s Deep Red (1975). There are too many anonymous, gloved hands in these films to count. The frequent mix of unsettling imagery with jaunty musical accompaniment bespeaks a certain irony about the meaning of violence here. (That Tarantino has taken careful note of the giallo tradition comes as little surprise.)

More than plot or acting, it is ambience that these films evince best. Far scarier than the act of murder in Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is the view of its site: an empty modern art gallery at night, its isolated objects illuminated by a stark and sour light. If Argento’s work helped push the giallo’s proverbial envelope, the genre has always been intrinsically and unabashedly pluralistic, drawing on both high and low culture. Pastiche of—and contamination by—other styles constitutes the giallo’s very quiddity, inflected as it is by horror, mystery, melodrama, noir, thriller, slasher, and seemingly infinite cinematic rubrics. The terrors and pleasures of this uniquely Italian strain of filmmaking have not so much faded since the ’70s as merged imperceptibly with other forms and formats.

“Giallo Fever!” runs September 20–30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Ara H. Merjian

Paul Thomas Anderson, The Master, 2012, 70 mm, color, 137 minutes. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix).


ONE REASON the Toronto International Film Festival has been able to attain such prominence is that it’s been careful not to step on the toes of its biggest rivals. Unlike Cannes, Venice, Berlin, and Sundance, TIFF has no competition beyond a modest slate of critics awards, honors for the best Canadian entries, and the audience prize that’s come to be regarded as an early predictor of awards-season success—The King’s Speech and Slumdog Millionaire were recent winners. That’s why filmmakers hungry for hardware typically treat Toronto as a second stop (or third, if they start the victory lap at Telluride).

Nevertheless, given the Venice jury’s much-publicized foul-up over Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master—which failed to win the Golden Lion due to a technicality that prevents films from getting more than two awards—it’d be a savvy move by TIFF’s top brass to hastily concoct a shiny statuette and thereby stake a claim on the only new movie to have inspired mass admiration at the festival’s midway point.

Arriving amid much speculation over what Anderson’s period piece would or wouldn’t portray about the origins of Scientology, The Master has proved to be a meatier, more ambiguous, and more accomplished work than even the director’s admirers might’ve expected. Making an astonishing return from his still-perplexing hiatus, Joaquin Phoenix stars as Freddie Quell, a troubled war vet who comes under the wing of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Constance Dodd, a loquacious and temperamental author and speaker who bears some resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard in the early days of Dianetics. Yet Anderson is ultimately less interested in America’s perennial love affair with self-actualization philosophies than in the stormy dynamic between the two characters and the different ideas about power, control, and identity that they represent.

With its extraordinary swagger and sophistication, The Master leaves most of the other new features at the festival looking puny. The only film with anything like the same impact was Leviathan, a punishingly physical documentary shot aboard a New England fishing vessel by Lucien Caisting-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab. Then again, TIFF’s other keenly anticipated new work by a much-venerated American auteur was bound to seem meager no matter what. Largely unloved in Venice, Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder struggled to find much support in Toronto, too. Fragmentary to the point of being formless, this muddled romantic melodrama stars Ben Affleck as Neil, a taciturn American who labors through a tumultuous relationship with Marina (Olga Kurylenko), a beautiful Parisienne who returns with him to Oklahoma. Whereas the autobiographical nature of The Tree of Life lent a degree of relative coherence and directness to Malick’s languid, expressionistic style, To the Wonder sees the director cycling through his favorite motifs to ever-diminishing effect. The innumerable shots of Kurylenko twirling through verdant fields and sun-dappled rooms yield precious little wonder but plenty of ammunition for Malick’s detractors. (Reports that the suddenly prolific director will have two more movies next year beg the question of whether he’s so wise to shorten his movies’ incubation periods.)

Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers, 2012, 35 mm, color, 92 minutes.


The possibility that Harmony Korine may have created a better Malick movie than Malick is among TIFF’s weirder developments. Of course, the bacchanalian excesses of Spring Breakers—Korine’s slick and sleazy youthsploitation flick about coeds gone wild in Florida, who get some help from a drug dealer played with evident relish by James Franco—make the film disreputable in the extreme. Yet with its dreamlike, often nonlinear flow and wealth of images both gorgeous and grotesque, Korine’s latest provocation may very well be a Tree of Life for dirtbags.

Wayward youths made a memorable showing in another festival highlight. A remarkably clear-eyed look at his teenage self’s imperfect efforts to reconcile his nascent artistic ambitions with the anarchic fervor of those too young to have participated in the 1968 revolts but still try to keep the fire burning, Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air is subtle, substantial, and loaded with the director’s typically astute musical choices. Songs by the Incredible String Band, Amazing Blondel, and Soft Machine all figure prominently.

Even so, the most imaginative film at the festival was about not formative years but final ones. An unabashedly odd counterpart to Michael Haneke’s far more somber Amour, Night Across the Street was the last film to have been completed by director Raúl Ruiz before his death last year at the age of seventy. (Lines of Wellington, a Napoleonic epic that he’d been preparing to shoot and was completed by his widow and longtime collaborator Valéria Sarmiento, also screens at TIFF and the New York Film Festival.) Based on a novel by Chilean writer Hernán del Solar, this tale of an elderly man overwhelmed by memories and fantasies is an endlessly playful and frequently moving meditation on mortality. Like the best in TIFF’s thirty-seventh edition, Ruiz’s swan song proves that mastery comes in many forms.

Jason Anderson

The Toronto International Film Festival continues through September 16.

Mareike Wegener, Mark Lombardi: Death-Defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy, 2011, HD video, color, 79 minutes.


MAREIKE WEGENER’S PORTRAIT Mark Lombardi: Death-Defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy takes its title from the business cards that the late artist dispensed, giggling, at parties and openings. True to his self-conferred epithet, Lombardi was at once artist and sleuth, striving to distill the unseen, ubiquitous networks of power and corruption that structure our world. Wegener limits her scope to the series for which Lombardi is best known: his Narrative Structures (1994–2000), large-scale compositions of small circles and sweeping arrows, at once restrained and confoundingly dense, that furnish a visual catalogue of the international intrigues that rocked the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.

The film proceeds largely through interviews with those who circulated in Lombardi’s Brooklyn-based milieu: his dealer, artist friends, and erstwhile girlfriend. A trip upstate to Lombardi’s childhood home affords screen time to his parents and siblings, whose emotions ring at a much lower pitch than his. Through such encounters, Lombardi emerges as a man possessed of a monomaniacal zeal for information, his graphite panoramas as much an effort to condense the workings of global politics as they are an attempt to depict the frenetic movements of his mind.

Lombardi himself features in grainy, saffron-hued footage, shot with a handheld camera by an unnamed interloper in his Williamsburg studio. Here, we see him charting an idiosyncratic schema of lines—alternately straight and looping, solid and dotted—with the tools of an architect: pencil, eraser, straightedge, and curves. As clusters of names and dates resolve into diffuse constellations of malfeasance, each fact returns to a single index card, traversed by Lombardi’s handwritten citations. These glimpses of the artist at work make the dual immensity and hermeticism of Lombardi’s ambition clear. His was an attempt to ascertain the present-day “order of things” through books and newspaper clippings, the figures he so fastidiously trailed the denizens less of flesh than of indices and footnotes.

Conceived on so grand a scale, Lombardi’s drive to complete the circle could never be sated. The more connections he uncovered, the more remained to be found. His networks proved equal parts involuted and asymptotic, continually approaching, but never attaining, closure. Attentive to the tensions inherent to Lombardi’s project, Wegener’s film shows his drawings for what they are: charged meditations on the pendent, unresolved nature of knowledge.

Courtney Fiske

Mark Lombardi: Death-Defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy runs September 13–18 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Amy Seimetz, Sun Don’t Shine, 2012, color, 82 minutes.


JOSH AND BENNIE SAFDIE’S short film The Black Balloon (2011), inspired by Albert Lamorisse’s immortal children’s work The Red Balloon (1963), begins as a harried balloon man accidentally releases an array of brightly-hued delights into the sky. While most of the balloons fly high up, a lone black one floats back down over a trash heap, a highway, and then Times Square. It accompanies a little girl along an urban sidewalk, joins a homeless bum who has been turned away from a restaurant, and hovers between the members of a bickering couple. (“Go back to your little cubicle with the robots up there!”) While Lamorisse’s film was a fantasy of close friendship between a boy and his balloon set in a cheerful Paris, the Safdie brothers’ balloon stays open to everyone in New York, even to its multitude of grumps.

The Black Balloon screens this weekend as part of the 92Y Tribeca’s inaugural La Di Da Festival, a display of recent narrative shorts and features curated by Miriam Bale. It was shot by American cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who specializes in photographing displaced, roaming protagonists with a 16-mm camera. Williams also filmed another La Di Da entry, Maiko Endo’s Kuichisan, an oblique and beautiful black-and-white study of the Japanese town of Koza. Americans settled on the island of Okinawa after World War II, and the film depicts Koza as a veritable melting pot of people wandering shopping boulevards at night. The town is featured in parallel scenes—of a bareheaded boy (Raizo Ishihara) native to Koza racing to play with friends, and of a newly arrived young white American woman (Eléonore Hendricks), who walks through crowds as she tells a companion on her mobile phone that she feels alone, confused, and lost. While she continues her travels in isolation, the boy and his friends and family set off fireworks on the town’s outskirts, perform religious rituals, and tell stories. “In Okinawa,” a character explains, “we welcome our ancestors by leaving food for them, to treat the ghosts well.” The behavior of the solitary Western woman, who seems to live only in the present, is in sharp contrast to the locals, who believe in the suturing of past and future.

Ghosts run throughout the La Di Da program. One is that of a strain of American independent cinema that lived briefly in the early 1970s in films like Wanda (1970) and The Honeymoon Killers (1972). The programmers suggest that the spirit of those films continues via a small group of current collaborators. Williams has previously worked with Kate Lyn Sheil, the slim, oval-faced lead actress who costars in Amy Seimetz’s Florida neonoir Sun Don’t Shine (2012) with the frantically earnest Kentucker Audley, also the writer-director of the ensemble-based relationship drama Open Five 2 (2012). In the first, a man kidnaps a woman to accompany him across the Gulf Coast; he soon discovers that she’s dangerously in love with him, to the point where seeing him with another woman makes her grab a kitchen knife. Eventually, neither can escape the other, save for small moments of fantasy. Sun Don’t Shine probably does not match the best of those ’70s films, but it shares a lot in common. It’s fiction, but it also seems like documentary, and the traditional road-movie structure allows the camera to visit places where movies don’t usually go. Light shines on rural, working-class homes, bars, and parks, and the awkwardness of the actors visiting them calls attention to their reality. As the two members of the couple fight for control, they both stumble for words and stumble physically. Whenever it seems like they’ve broken from a script, they surprise the viewer as well as each other, and remind whoever’s watching that life itself is always improvised.

Aaron Cutler

The La Di Da film festival runs September 14 and 15th at the 92Y Tribeca.

Pablo Giorgelli, Las Acacias, 2011, 35 mm, color, 85 minutes. Jacinta, Anahí, and Rubén (Hebe Duarte, Nayra Calle Mamani, and Germán de Silva).


OBSERVATIONAL CINEMA of an exceptionally subtle and affecting order and a road movie like no other, Argentine filmmaker Pablo Giorgelli’s Las Acacias has taken a year and a half to travel from its 2011 Cannes Film Festival debut to its New York opening. At Cannes, it won the Camera d’Or (for best first feature) and also my favorite Cannes prize, the Grand Rail d’Or, which is given by an organization of French railroad workers. The workers are adventurous cinephiles, with tastes running to humanist films that stretch the conventions of realism to show unexpected truths. In 1998, they bestowed the prize on Gaspar Noé’s harrowing I Stand Alone, a film that is as painful in its vision of love and loss as Las Acacias is tender and—at the risk of making it sound sentimental, which it is not—uplifting.

The film’s premise is its most traditional aspect: A single mother and her five-month-old baby girl are the catalysts of change in the life of a lonely, emotionally closed, middle-aged man. Rubén (Germán de Silva), a long-distance trucker, hauls logs from the acacia forests of Asunción del Paraguay to Argentina. As a favor to his boss, he agrees to let Jacinta (Hebe Duarte), whose mother, we later learn, works in the boss’s house, ride with him to Buenos Aires where she is going to live with her extended family. One of the film’s many subtexts has to do with how indigenous people from poorer countries in South America, as a matter of course, travel to richer countries, supposedly for vacation, but actually to settle and find work.

Rubén is not happy when he discovers that he’ll also be transporting a third wheel, Jacinta’s chubby, bright-eyed daughter Anahí. Sensitive to his irritation, Jacinta at first barely speaks a word. For the first quarter of their journey, almost the only sounds are those of the truck’s wheels and gears, the wind rushing past the open windows of the cab, and the baby gurgling and occasionally wailing. Inconspicuously, the camera changes position and focus to take in the unremarkable landscape outside the windows and the faces and bodies of the two adults and the child. (Giorgelli’s choice of shooting in 35 mm anamorphic paradoxically increases the movie’s intimacy and gives the images a warmth as yet impossible to achieve with digital cameras.) Their glances and gestures tell a story.

Charming as she is, Anahí (or, rather, Nayra Calle Mamani, who incarnates her) is not a scene-stealer. But because very young children live entirely in the present moment, her mere existence coaxes the adults on the screen and the viewers in the audience to amend their habitual patterns of attention—to set aside anticipation and memory in favor of the now. Even when Rubén and Jacinta reveal fragments of their past history—he has a son whom he hasn’t seen for eight years; she cries when she talks to her mother on the phone and tells the border guard that her baby “has no father”—these details are less expressive and engrossing than, for instance, the way Rubén holds his cup of mate, his muscled forearm leaning on the window, or how Jacinta looks down at the baby cradled in her lap and, for a split second, widens her gaze to include Rubén in this maternal dyad. When nicotine-addicted Rubén, realizing that Jacinta is concerned about the baby inhaling smoke, tosses his cigarette out the window, the action resonates as a major plot point.

And when, toward the end of the film, Rubén watches tensely at a rest stop as Jacinta chats animatedly with a young man from her hometown, we suddenly realize how attached he has become to her and her child. Back in the truck, as it approaches the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Rubén’s stiffened face and shoulders prompt Jacinta to ask if he is ill. She worries for a moment, as we might, that all those ciggies has provoked a heart attack. But Rubén is suffering a different kind of heartbreak. He is overwhelmed by separation anxiety. It takes an actor as great as de Silva to express interior emotional turmoil with such clarity, and to make us wish that this completely ordinary and utterly magical journey would never end.

Amy Taubin

Las Acacias is now playing in New York and Miami.