Say Uncle


Aaron Brookner, Uncle Howard, 2016, color, sound, 96 minutes. William S. Burroughs and Howard Brookner.

CHARISMATIC, IMMENSELY TALENTED, AND DRIVEN TO REPRESENT, Howard Brookner made three feature-length films in his short life. He died of AIDS in April 1989, a few days shy of his thirty-fifth birthday. Today he is best known for his 1983 documentary portrait of William S. Burroughs, Burroughs: The Movie. But he might have fallen into complete obscurity if not for his nephew Aaron Brookner, who dug up and restored the Burroughs film (rereleased by Janus Films and Criterion in 2014). Aaron then took charge of Howard’s enormous archive, with materials for Burroughs and two other features, Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars (1987) and Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989), as well as the diary movies he kept of his family, including his nephew and his friends, lovers, and colleagues, some famous, some unknown, and many of them dying in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

From this archive, Aaron fashioned Uncle Howard, an invaluable and extremely moving mosaic of personal, cultural, and social history. The movie weaves together two narratives—Howard’s and Aaron’s, both about the making of personal movies, which is to say movies that are labors of love. Uncle Howard begins with Aaron attempting to convince poet John Giorno to allow him to remove the hundreds of boxes and film cans comprising Howard’s archive from “the bunker,” as Giorno’s current and Burroughs’s former residence at 222 Bowery was dubbed. Although he manifested no interest in Howard’s archive per se, Giorno was reluctant to allow anything to be dislodged from the time capsule that the bunker had become. But Aaron was persistent, and with aid from Jim Jarmusch and Sara Driver, who had been Howard’s classmates in film school at NYU, where he began Burroughs (Jarmusch was his sound recordist), the archive was liberated.

What follows is Aaron’s journey through the life his uncle recorded on film from the mid-1970s to the late 1980s mixed with contemporary interviews he did with key figures in Howard’s circle—at least, with those who are still alive. “Howard’s was an unfinished life,” says Burroughs’s partner James Grauerholz as he and Aaron sit on the porch of the Kansas farmhouse where Howard had filmed Burroughs more than thirty years before. At that point Aaron cuts to a shot from his uncle’s film, where Burroughs talks about retiring with his cats and asparagus beds and then ambles slowly across the field, exiting Howard’s movie as he would exit the land of the living some fifteen years later.

Uncle Howard weaves together then and now, leaving us to mull over what did and didn’t happen in between. For Aaron, the films and writings in Howard’s archive are memories made indelible. “In what he left behind, he lives on in a place where there is no AIDS, where Saint Vincent’s is not a luxury condo, and the Chelsea Hotel is still a bohemian folly. In that space, Uncle Howard will live forever.” If that speech brings tears, it also doesn’t do justice to either Howard’s or Aaron’s work. We see Howard record himself on video as he discovers that he has “a bruise” on his foot, as his health declines, as he directs Bloodhounds of Broadway, a period musical that would have been absurdly ambitious for a fledgling director, even if he wasn’t racked with fever while shooting ten-hour days in a freezing winter. Howard died before Bloodhounds opened, but the film had already been recut by a nervous studio. I remember thinking at the time that it wasn’t very good, but the behind-the-scenes clips in Aaron’s movie allowed me to see the film that might have been had Howard completed it on his own.

All this makes the film sound unbearably sad, and at moments it is. But it is also a tribute to Howard’s energy and to a wildly improvisatory cultural moment when Beat, punk, and Minimalist aesthetics merged in New York No Wave. When people ask what New York was like in the ’60s, I always send them to Jonas Mekas’s Walden: Diaries, Notes & Sketches (1969). For a glimpse of what followed, even though New York was supposedly a wasteland, there is no better place to start than Uncle Howard.

Amy Taubin

Uncle Howard is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York.

X Files


Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke, Project X, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 10 minutes.

THE MOST SINISTER ESPIONAGE THRILLER currently playing in a theater in New York (and soon to be released online) is a mere ten minutes long. Laura Poitras and Henrik Moltke’s Project X ends with a low-angle shot that makes the exceedingly strange, windowless building at 33 Thomas Street in TriBeCa look like the Monolith in Kubrick’s 2001.

There is almost nothing in this elegant connect-the-dots exercise that lower Manhattan denizens with any awareness of the workings of power didn’t take for granted decades ago. Designed by the architectural firm John Carl Warnecke & Associates, the 550-foot-tall nuclear-proof concrete-and-granite building named Project X was completed in 1974. Its stated purpose was to house and secure the long-distance telecommunications hub of the New York Telephone Company, then a subsidiary of AT&T.

A small AT&T logo is the only signage on the building today. I remember looking at 33 Thomas Street with a raised eyebrow after AT&T was served a subpoena in 1976 by the congressional subcommittee investigating the FBI’s illegal wiretapping of Civil Rights activists. Since then, AT&T has been regarded as one of the corporations most helpful to government security agencies, a reputation confirmed by documents released by National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden. In 2015, the New York Times published a front-page story with the headline “AT&T Helped U.S. Spy on Internet on a Vast Scale.” (Poitras and Moltke were two of the six bylines on that story.)

Using the Snowden material, Poitras, director of CITIZENFOUR, the Academy Award–winning documentary on Snowden, and Moltke, an award-winning Danish investigative journalist, make a compelling case for 33 Thomas Street being TITANPOINTE, the codename for one of the NSA’s primary surveillance sites, monitoring land- and long-distance telephone lines and, via the four satellite dishes on its roof, mobile and internet communications. Nothing in the film or in the Snowden documents nails the exact relationship between AT&T and the NSA. Nor do they establish for certain that the NSA has been given or has rented space in the building, nor what telecommunications data might have been provided to the NSA, legally or illegally. Nevertheless, the narrative is compelling.

Even at a compressed ten minutes, the anxiety-producing visuals and rhythms of Project X bring to mind two great spy thrillers of the 1970s, Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) and Sydney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor (1975), both extraordinary for being specific to their time and prescient of the present moment. Project X employs an NSA training manual released in the Snowden documents and read in voice-over by Michelle Williams and Rami Malek (both expert in conveying multiple levels of meaning in seemingly straightforward instructions) to delineate how agents rent cars and travel undercover, how they gain entry to TITANPOINTE, and how they should communicate with their families in case of emergency.

The film is a teaser for a far more detailed article by Ryan Gallagher and Moltke, published on the invaluable investigative website the Intercept. (Field of Vision—the short-documentary film production unit created by Poitras, AJ Schnack, and Charlotte Cook—and the Intercept are both part of First Look Media.) The film and the article also might inspire inquiring minds to wonder if the intel that led NSA director Michael Rogers to state a few days ago that there shouldn’t be “any doubt in anyone’s mind” that there was a “conscious effort by a nation-state to sway the result of the 2016 presidential election” was harvested at 33 Thomas Street. And if there might have been related hard intel about potentially illegal communications between the President-elect and those around him with said nation-state, and what leverage that intel, if it exists, would give the NSA now and in the future. Think hard about the Iran treaty.

Amy Taubin

Project X plays at the IFC Center in New York Friday, November 18 through Thursday, November 24 before shows of Cameraperson at 5:45 PM, Fire at Sea at 3:20 PM, and Weiner at 4:50 PM.

Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, Into the Inferno, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 104 minutes.

WERNER HERZOG’S INTO THE INFERNO opens with what might be the most amazing drone shot in the short history of drone-use in motion pictures. We seem to be gliding up the side of a large mountain—up, up, past the tiny figures of a camera crew hovering near the crest—and then, without hesitation, floating over the top to look down into a crater with red-hot churning magma. A nearly invisible jump cut brings us closer to the molten mass, now filling the entire screen, and another cut puts us deeper into the pit, the drone camera swooping amid exploding fires. Be thankful that Herzog did not avail himself of 3-D.

While shooting his 2007 Encounters at the End of the World, Herzog met volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, author of Eruptions that Shook the World, on the slopes of Antarctica’s Mount Erebus. Clips from Encounters, inserted as backstory for this new volcano doc, illustrate that meeting and how unsettling it is to see fire beneath a glacier. Testifying to Herzog’s long-standing fascination with people living on the edge of natural disasters is the unforgettable image, from his 1977 short La Soufrière, of an elderly man lying on the ground on the slope of a volcano, his black-and-white cat curled up comfortably at his side. Herzog had gone to Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, after seventy thousand inhabitants fled the island, after being told that La Soufrière was about to erupt. He found three residents who had stayed behind, the most memorable being the man with the cat, who wasn’t happy that Herzog’s camera had intruded on his solitude.

The credits for Into the Inferno read “A film by Werner Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer, written, edited, and directed by Werner Herzog.” Basically, the two men traveled to some of the world’s most active and/or historically most devastating volcanos, beginning and ending in Vanuatu, an island archipelago in the South Pacific, a thousand miles off the coast of Australia. In between, they hit Indonesia, Ethiopia, Iceland, and, most surprisingly, North Korea. Besides extraordinary images of volcanic landscapes, the film is, thanks to Oppenheimer’s skill as an interviewer, a work of comparative anthropology. Herzog’s voice-over and his choice of music—heavy on the sacred and the Wagnerian—dominate, but Oppenheimer’s analytic approach grounds the director’s romanticism. Unlike Herzog, whose focus is the individual, Oppenheimer is interested in social structures, the belief systems and myths that provide stability—or the illusion thereof—to societies that live with the memory and the anticipation of nature at its most cataclysmic.

Thanks to an ongoing scientific collaboration between volcanologists at Cambridge University and in North Korea, Herzog was able to film at Mount Paektu on the border between China and the DPRK. Inactive for eleven hundred years, Mount Paeku is the mythic birthplace of the Korean people five-thousand years ago. This foundational myth was co-opted by Kim Il-sung, who claimed to have led the revolutionary battle against the Japanese occupiers seventy years ago from a log cabin on the slope of the sacred mountain. The lake that has formed in the huge crater is too peaceful to be of interest, but Herzog finds both pathos and horror in the hysterically fervent faces and mechanical movements of those for whom ideology is a religion. The sacred log cabin is depicted in absurdly bucolic mosaics and as the central image in one of the DPRK’s emblematic stadium spectacles of lock-step dancing and banner-waving, where metamorphosing backdrops are created by thousands of “extras” flipping life-size colored cards in sync. Herzog calls them “human pixels.” The Korean section is overlong, making the film ungainly, but it’s also too short to show us much we haven’t seen before. Herzog’s insightful commentary, however, is tantalizing enough to make one hope that he can con his way back to Mount Paektu and beyond.

Amy Taubin

Into the Inferno is currently playing in select theaters and on Netflix, which has also made available a group of earlier Herzog documentaries including Encounters at the End of the World and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010).

Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation, 2016, video, color, sound, 166 minutes. Jane Fonda.

OFFICIAL LANGUAGE acts upon politics the way gangrene shrivels a foot: It freezes while it poisons. Take “constructive ambiguity.” Behind the bland opacity of Kissinger’s phrase—with its haughty procession of Latinate syllables—is the childish wish to stop the world. It was in the name of “constructive ambiguity” that in 1975 Kissinger lied to Syria’s Hafez al-Assad (father of Bashar) about a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, shattering the alliances within the Arab world that threatened American power. A devious tactic, yes, but in the service of a facile belief: that it’s actually possible to dominate reality, if only you lock it in place, stuff it full of puppets, and rule it according to your own “immutable,” imaginary laws. Since the mid-1970s, it’s been the conceit of American and European elites that the planet is a fixed system that need only be tinkered with and stabilized, leaving the overall picture gleamingly intact. Marx said that the point wasn’t to interpret, but to change the world—so of course his political opposites in the capitalist West have spent the past forty years conscripting their security agencies, supercomputers, and mercenary contractors to the grand, ridiculous effort of simply pressing pause.

That, at least, is the argument of HyperNormalisation, the new film by Adam Curtis. It premiered October 16 on BBC iPlayer and bears his inimitable stamp: jarring digression, ambient music, and reams of archival footage. It’s a protracted lament for collective passion as it’s strangled by a glossy technocracy. And there is, as always, Curtis’s voice—in all its crisp, declarative Britishness. “We live in a strange time,” he begins, his posh accent ennobling the cliché. “Suicide bombs, waves of refugees, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, even Brexit.” These things are all, by a certain logic, inexplicable—baffling ruptures in the rhythm of everyday life and leering counterarguments to the truths our leaders peddle. It will be Curtis’s mission, over the course of this nearly three-hour essay, to prove that our current inclination to crisis began in 1975. That year, two patterns emerged that cast “politics”—that is, the fury and agency of vast groups of people—as beside the point. Instead, our politicians crafted a fake world, and decided to rule that instead. The ensuing condition is called HyperNormalisation, and that fake world is based on the impersonal buzzing of the market, a cling to the current military balance of power, and a dazzled faith in the capacity of computers to predict and inaugurate a shining, knowable future.

It starts with Kissinger. His “constructive ambiguity” in Damascus scrambles the diplomatic process and inspires the widespread deployment of suicide bombers (funded by Assad) who, since they can’t assuage their sense of political despair, resort to blowing it up. Meanwhile, in New York City, a penniless municipal government is held hostage by the banks. So we see the twin curses of our age: the cruelties of austerity and the reversion to a nonpolitical politics, in which diplomacy is discarded and the public dismissed. This is the fake world: one where the mass sentiments of the Middle East can be skirted by Kissinger’s tricky wording, a world where a fickle Invisible Hand is either patting you on the head or giving you the middle finger.

Martha Rosler, Semiotics of the Kitchen, 1975.

Nobody opposed this. Where, Curtis wants to know, were the leftists? The artists? The radicals? Apparently wallowing in their glum, muddy psyches. It’s Curtis’s belief—and here his argument starts to teeter, though not quite collapse—that the failure of ’60s counterculture to change the world through revolution led to a retreat into the labyrinthine irrelevances of the “self.” (His Century of the Self [2002] elaborates further on what is here a rather pat point.) LSD provided a phenomenology of political surrender. But for all of the wild leaps of Curtis’s films, his weakness is his tidiness, his grinning satisfaction in his polished little theorems. His argument clicks along with maddening facility—while the real world roars outside. Yes, it’s apt to point out the hippie roots of cyber-utopianism and its eventual co-optation by repressive, reactionary forces. And he’s right to mourn the failure of the last truly global moment of anticapitalist sentiment—the mythic ’60s—as it melted into “lifestyle.” But sometimes he fingers the wrong suspects: Martha Rosler’s video Semiotics of the Kitchen is excerpted twice. The first time, it’s meant to illustrate the “new individualism” of the ’70s—it had the rotten luck of being made in 1975—and the second time, Rosler’s final shrug, a slapstick gesture that bespeaks a state of suspended agency in the face of patriarchal might, is condemned. It’s a sign, you see, of our deflated political imagination. But I feel silly objecting to that—what do a few moments matter, in this monstrous, epic film?

The moments accumulate. Women spring up whenever Curtis mentions the slackening of collective will or the torpid complacency of the postindustrial world. Cyberspace simply flings your own image back to you, says Curtis—while he gives us shots of dazed, dancing girls. Jane Fonda, erstwhile radical, is held up as an example of the disastrous vanity of the culture, as her workout videos embody the contraction of political aspiration to the size of a single shrinking waistline. And artificial intelligence, whose beginnings, Curtis demonstrates, were a kind of pseudo-therapy, is shown to cater to these new, fetid interiorities—the interiorities, that is, of women. “Men are all the same,” a woman types into a computer. We’re supposed to be dismayed.

In his sprint through the movements and exigencies of the past half-century, Curtis refuses to register—indeed, obliquely snubs—feminism. That political action and collective consciousness might also work to enrich the individual spirit—once a rather uncontroversial claim on the Left—is to him an insidious contamination of political sensibilities by our narcissistic present. It’s treachery, seduction. There’s something limp, perhaps . . . effeminate about it. Halfway through HyperNormalisation, my mind flew to Letter to Jane (1972), in which Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin dash off their own criticism of Jane Fonda, in a picture of her leaning in to speak to a Vietnamese guerrilla. But at least they have the decency to make an acknowledgement that Curtis would do well to revisit. “We are both men,” Godard says over an image of Fonda’s frozen, pretty face. “And as a woman, you are undoubtedly going to be hurt a little—or a lot.”

Tobi Haslett

Adam Curtis’s HyperNormalisation is available for streaming on BBC iPlayer and YouTube.

Lucio Fulci, ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà (The Beyond), 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes.

THE GENRE DIRECTOR LUCIO FULCI, though a deity for the average Chiller Theatre conventioneer, is probably best known to the wider world for directing the underwater struggle between a zombie and a shark that was used in a commercial for Windows 7, extracted from his 1979 Zombi 2—not actually a sequel, but an attempt to cash in on the success of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978), released in Italy as Zombi.

While Romero and even Fulci’s fellow Italian Dario Argento have, in the main, achieved and maintained a degree of critical legitimacy, Fulci was strictly a cult object for the splatter crowd at the time of his death in 1996, aged sixty-eight. His last film of note was 1990’s Cat in the Brain, certainly an address to his base—in it, he plays a film director named “Dr. Fulci” who, after a lifetime of visualizing ultraviolent fantasies, can’t look at a steak tartare without seeing visions of viscera swimming in blood. But now, twenty years after his death, Fulci is getting his day at the temple of Jonas Mekas, Anthology Film Archives, which is hosting the eleven-day retrospective “Lucio Fulci: Genre Terrorist.” This is the work of the “Malastrana Film Series,” a group who have previously wrangled together prints for AFA retros dedicated to the poliziotteschi and giallo genres, the latter which screened Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) and The Psychic (1977).

“Genre Terrorist” is Malastrana’s first series dedicated to a single auteur—hopefully Umberto Lenzi isn’t far off!—and in addition to the run of “gore” films like Zombi 2 for which Fulci is best known, they have pulled in instances of his work in comedy (A Strange Type [1962]), spaghetti western (Massacre Time aka The Brute and the Beast [1966]), family film (White Fang [1974]), sword-and-sandals adventure (Conquest [1983]), and even a historical drama, Beatrice Cenci (1969), which Fulci considered his own best work. But it is the giallo and horror-fantasy films that define his self-portrait in Cat in the Brain, and so it is into that squelchy muck that we will search for the quintessence of his art.

Lucio Fulci, Quella villa accanto al cimitero (The House by the Cemetery), 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 86 minutes.

Fulci was an artist, but the “bad” aspects of his works are manifold, and ignoring them won’t make the case any stronger. His mapping out of screen space is often disorienting in the extreme, though his supernatural thrillers often seem to be having a gas dispensing with all narrative and spatial logic—in an interview in the book Spaghetti Nightmares he discusses an interest in making “Artaudian” films that go “beyond time and space,” making his avant-gardism more purposeful than that of the recently deceased Herschel Gordon Lewis, with whom he shared the sobriquet “Godfather of Gore.” I am less certain as to how to explain away his reliance on highly unconvincing animal puppets in splatter scenes, such as the sashaying pipe-cleaner tarantulas that we watch masticate a man’s face in The Beyond (1981). Like so many of Fulci’s victims, this unfortunate soul goes to his fate transfixed, placid, like a willing sacrifice—Fulci’s characters are less psychologically developed well-rounded humans than meat-puppet cyphers lining up for the chopping block. Worst of all: Twice, in The House by the Cemetery (1981) and Manhattan Baby (1982), Fulci employed the services of horse-mouthed blonde moppet Giovanni Frezza, perhaps the most off-putting child actor who ever lived. Several of his movies, including those two titles, were largely set in and shot in the United States, but his attempts to establish anything like plausible regional setting are laughable—this is one of the aspects that makes Don’t Torture a Duckling, which concerns a killer priest terrorizing rural southern Italy, among his most fully realized and satisfying works.

Duckling showcases Fulci’s passion for the infinite variations with which the human body can be destroyed, containing a fatal chain whipping and a show-stopping finale in which the culprit goes headlong after a cliff, the rocks seen shearing off chunks of his face as he plunges in slow-motion, this intercut with images of children at prayer and play, and everything overlaid with the curiously idyllic strains of composer Riz Ortolani’s score. As was standard practice in Italian movies, the dialogue in Fulci’s films was dubbed in postproduction, but it seems like Fulci gave most of his attention to his scores, by such giants as Ortolani and repeat-collaborator Fabio Frizzi, and foley effects. The latter point is most noticeable in his tireless search for the most repellent possible to accompany slithering viscera and mutilated flesh, though I can never think of the sound of fingernails grating on the lid of a closed casket in the buried alive sequence of City of the Living Dead (aka Gates of Hell, 1980) without a shudder.

Fulci’s tendency to fill the entire screen with a performer’s eyes and the bridge of their nose—what many of us think of as the Sergio Leone extreme close-up—isn’t just a way to distract from synch issues, but one instance of an ocular fetish that manifests itself in myriad ways in his films. Fulci is obsessed with eyes—with moments where the eye encounters an unutterable horror that strikes the viewer dumb, and with scenes that climax with bursts of blood and optic fluid, found in both Zombi 2 and The Beyond, a film that also prominently boasts the milky pupils of a blind soothsayer. That image of blank eyes recurs in Manhattan Baby, which also has some truly coo-coo pieces of subjective camerawork: the POV of a poisonous snake, or of a man being assailed by a trio of reanimated taxidermied birds. Actual tears of blood are shed in City of the Living Dead, a movie that has often been grouped with The Beyond and House by the Cemetery in an unofficial trilogy which, along with John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy,” represents the most successful attempt to (unofficially) adapt the themes and mythos of H.P. Lovecraft to the cinema.

Lucio Fulci, Zombi 2, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Mrs. Menard (Olga Karlatos).

Like composer-director Carpenter, whose contributions to the art of film scoring equal or exceed his importance as a filmmaker, Fulci gives soundtrack place of pride—for a time in the mid-1960s he’d even worked as a songwriter, and in the first decade of his career was best known for sprightly musical comedies after the style of his mentor, Steno (the screen name of Stefano Vanzina). Perhaps Fulci’s most important working relationship was with Frizzi, with whom he first worked on the western Four for the Apocalypse… (1975). A synthesizer innovator of the vanguard Carpenter/Morodor/Vangelis generation, Frizzi created earworm scores with then state-of-the-art equipment like the Prophet 5, Jupiter 8, and Yamaha CS80, which produces the sizzling chik-chik-chik tssss of Zombi 2’s triumphal march theme. Frizzi’s insidious rhythms are matched to an ornate visual style that is defined by a singular overreliance on the rack focus, sometimes yo-yoing repeatedly between foreground and background in a single shot—yet again, we see Fulci’s preoccupation with the function of the eye in these effects, which make the surface of the screen seem fairly to writhe. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati was, consequently, a key element of Fulci’s late-’70s/early-’80s run—unlike Argento with his phantasmagorical theatrical gels, Fulci preferred to keep things dark, gooey, and loamy—along with Frizzi, co-scenarist Dardano Sacchetti, producer Fabrizio De Angelis, cameraman Franco Bruni, and production designer Massimo Lentini, responsible for such touches as the catacombs of City of the Living Dead and the gray, purgatorial afterworld that concludes The Beyond.

After Manhattan Baby and The New York Ripper (1982), the latter featuring a Donald Duck–voiced serial killer at large in Manhattan, Fulci’s output and his health went into sharp decline. Cat in the Brain was mounted as a “comeback,” though what is most disturbing in this clunky metafilm is its portrayal of middle-aged Fulci’s solitary and melancholy life in a large, empty, tackily decorated Roman home. His wife had committed suicide in 1969, and his daughter, Camilla, died in a car crash shortly thereafter, and it seems like no great leap to say that Fulci’s growing interest in vivisection and putrefaction in the years ahead was something more than purely professional. After several stomach-turning moments and a few belly laughs—Fulci, after a long day at Cinecitta, muttering “Sadism, Nazism… Is there any point anymore?”—the film concludes with the image of the Maestro bidding goodbye to his crew to sail away in a boat named Perversion. I think I had something in my eye.

Nick Pinkerton

“The Genre Terrorist: Lucio Fulci” runs October 21 through October 31 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Gianfranco Rosi, Fire at Sea, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 114 minutes.

GIANFRANCO ROSI’S award-winning Fire at Sea comes as close as possible to achieving genuine objectivity, a quality that eludes most documentaries, including those that claim not to espouse a partisan viewpoint. True objectivity does not preclude moral conviction. A strong point of view, manifested through a visual style—the hallmarks of authorship in narrative filmmaking—also characterized documentary filmmakers, from Robert Flaherty to Errol Morris. Since Rosi is the cinematographer of most of his movies, his perspective is literally synonymous with his camera’s eye—gazing with admirable equanimity at his subjects, whether that is Samuel, the young boy on the island of Lampedusa whose daily life we follow, or the pitiable migrants from north Africa who risk starvation and drowning to board overloaded vessels to reach European shores. No rhetorical commentary accompanies Rosi’s material, no talking heads attempt to explain it, and no music cues viewers as to how they should feel. Rosi’s tools are a keen and patient eye, a humanist sensibility, and a natural tendency to ignore agendas, political or otherwise. It is no surprise that all three are well-served by his consistent, uncalculated use of long takes.

As the largest island of the Italian Pelagie group in the Mediterranean south of Sicily and closest to North Africa, Lampedusa has been the destination of twenty thousand migrants over the last twenty years; another fifteen thousand died trying to get there. It has served as a gateway for hordes of people trying to get to other parts of Europe. Consistent with Rosi’s ethos, the rescue missions we witness accurately reflect the humanitarian policy of the island, which contrasts with the more rigid position of Italy itself. This is made clear by a doctor whose reverence for human life and description of the horrors visited upon the human body are moving precisely because, like Rosi’s overall approach, they are understated.

This is also true of the structure of Fire at Sea, the title of which refers to a popular song linked to the “rockets” that exploded in the sky during World War II. Rosi alternates scenes of the island’s everyday life with those of the rescues that have become no less a part of it. Inevitably, a contrast emerges between the desperation of those without homes facing immediate perils and unknown futures and those whose lives, however ordinary, epitomize the unsung values of safety and security: a woman’s patient brewing of the morning’s espresso for her husband and herself; a radio DJ answering phone requests from residents he seems to know; an undersea diver searching for sea urchins; and of course, Samuel, whose handcrafting of a slingshot, amateur hunting excursions, efforts to speak English, and slurping up spaghetti have charms of their own. We watch him learning to negotiate a pontoon to prepare himself, as his teacher says, to be a sailor—the destiny of most of the island’s young men. If the very ordinariness of these activities renders them precious, such an impression emanates naturally from the material and not from unwarranted stress by Rosi.

Rosi’s cinematography is as unceremonious as it is stunning. Against those who think a serious subject is compromised by a handsome look, Rosi proves that “matching” subject to visual tone is another form of editorializing. If anything, the majestic beauty of the sea and the sky as the backdrop for the human saga unfolding around them, while not played up for facile irony, is a sober reminder of the blunt juxtaposition that the world itself offers beyond the contrived efforts of any documentarian. This is as true of the film as a whole as it is of its last few shots of the gray, surging sea, the vigilant apparatus of a rescue ship against the nighttime sky, and a pale moon glimpsed behind clouds. If any single trait defines Rosi’s approach to his work, it might well be trust: trust in human nature to reveal itself without adornment, trust in his camera to observe the world without artificial technique, and trust in the viewer to see, reflect, and learn without the prodding of well-meaning sermonizing. Fire at Sea is nothing less than a work of moral character.

Tony Pipolo

Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea opens Friday, October 21 in select theaters. A retrospective of Rosi’s films will play October 28 through November 3 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.