Ben Wheatley, High-Rise, 2016, color, sound, 119 minutes. Jane (Sienna Guillory).
AS REAL ESTATE BECOMES A LIVING NIGHTMARE in cities like London, New York, and San Francisco, it seems a good time to revisit novelist J. G. Ballard’s fictional nightmare of real estate, High-Rise, recently made into a film by British director Ben Wheatley. A pitch-black social satire typical of its author, the 1975 source novel concerns a state-of-the-art, high-tech apartment building—all mod cons and then some—whose residents quickly slide into violent and sexual depravity, losing touch with the outside world, as its conveniences begin to malfunction.
Ballard was interested in situations where the thin veneer of “civilization” is stripped away from human relations, either by technological developments or natural disasters, revealing the ignoble savage within. As in his unclassifiable, technopornographic 1973 novel Crash, in which “the deviant technology of the car-crash provided the sanction for any perverse act,” the rigorously automated citadel of the high-rise, which “[b]y its very efficiency…took over the task of maintaining the social structure,” left its residents “free to explore any deviant or wayward impulses.” The high-rise was, as one of Ballard’s characters reflects, “a model of all that technology had done to make possible the expression of a truly ‘free’ psychopathology.”
Like many literary authors who flirt with science fiction, Ballard was regarded as a prophet of dystopia, but it is not always acknowledged how prophetic he really was. Contemporary readers of High-Rise will come upon this passage, as accurate a description of ardent social-media users you’re likely to find in a mid-’70s text: “A new social type was being created by the apartment building, a cool, unemotional personality…who felt…no qualms about the invasion of their privacy by government agencies and data-processing organizations, and if anything welcomed these invisible intrusions, using them for their own purposes. These people were the first to master a new kind of late-twentieth-century life. They thrived on the rapid turnover of acquaintances, the lack of involvement with others, and the total self-sufficiency of lives which, needing nothing, were never disappointed.” Pressing the point, one of the characters in the film delivers a line that doesn’t appear in the book: “We’re all bio-robots now. None of us can live without the equipment we surround ourselves with—cameras, cars, televisions, phones.”
Superficially, High-Rise can be seen as an adult version of William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies (made into a film in 1963), but Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1962) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) are also cornerstones of its architecture. Taking cues from the Spanish surrealist, Ballard and Wheatley depict the decadence and barbarism of the upper classes as they insulate themselves from the lower-floor residents and “what’s going on at street level,” as one penthouse partygoer contemptuously puts it in the film. There are also echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) in the epic journey a lower-floor resident, coded as coarse and working class, makes to the very top of the high-rise to confront its architect and owner.
High-Rise is Wheatley’s fifth feature, and as with most of his films, its screenplay was written by his wife, Amy Jump, who stays fairly close to the novel, even if she occasionally puts certain characters’ thoughts into other characters’ mouths. The team is known for their mordant wit and mild surrealism, their most effective works to date being the truly shocking three-genre mashup Kill List (2011) and the dark Beckettian farce A Field in England (2013), which is set during the English Civil War and manages to be convincingly psychedelic despite being shot in black and white. The set and setting of High-Rise, as well as its tone, suit them well.
Ben Wheatley, High-Rise, 2016, color, sound, 119 minutes. Laing (Tom Hiddleston).
Wheatley lacks the cold, nearly inhuman artiness of Nicolas Roeg, slated to direct the film adaptation in the late ’70s, whose sensibility lies somewhere between Kubrick and Antonioni, but he is equipped and prepared to walk the razor-thin lines between humor and violence, prophecy and satire, realism and science fiction that Ballard traces in his novels. Ballard’s signature clinical distance, literally acquired in medical school and evident in his seemingly amoral descriptions of the increasingly appalling tableaux of the building’s degeneration, is honored by Wheatley in the film, leading to matter-of-fact plot points in my notes like “The morning after being raped by Wilder, Charlotte serves him a half-eaten can of dog food on the terrace.”
As with its budget and promotional push, the cast of High-Rise is a step up for Wheatley, though he still finds minor roles for some of his recurring actors. Of the stars, Tom Hiddleston brings his slightly effete, thin-lipped reserve to the role of Robert Laing, a medical school professor whose name is tellingly close to that of R. D. Laing, the unorthodox psychiatrist who theorized that psychotic episodes were legitimate human expressions and might be way stations to more enlightened states of being. Sienna Miller, here a dead ringer for Elizabeth Hurley in the Austin Powers cycle, plays Charlotte Melville, a vampy widow with a young son of mysterious provenance, who sleeps with Laing and other male residents of the building. Reprising his George Sanders–as–zombie role from Margin Call (2011), as a member of the urbane, moneyed undead who only inhabit stratospheric penthouse suites, Jeremy Irons is the building’s architect and “father,” Anthony Royal, whose name—like Laing and Richard Wilder, the story’s avenging id—is a bit too on the nose.
The prominent class-warfare theme of the novel would have made less sense to Americans in the ’70s. It is far more apposite today in a country that, despite its tediously ballyhooed Horatio Alger myth, is now commensurate with the UK in terms of (lack of) social mobility. US audiences will recognize in Irons’s unchecked arrogance and casual sociopathy the demeanor and attitudes of disgraced Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld, the model for the CEO in Margin Call. Toward the end of High-Rise, as the camera scans the concrete desert of the larger development where the building sits, Wheatley cuts in audio of a Margaret Thatcher speech, presumably from her late-’70s rise: “There is only one economic system in this world, and it is capitalism. Where there is state capitalism, there will never be political freedom.” The irony here is that the “freedom” so often lauded by Objectivist sock puppets like Alan Greenspan and Paul Ryan is truly realized in Ballard and Wheatley’s high-rise, a model of totally unregulated private capitalism where the law of the jungle prevails. Ayn Rand, to say nothing of Thatcher, would be proud. Perceptive viewers will detect the underlying message of the film, which couldn’t be more timely: Beware wealthy, self-satisfied men bearing skyscrapers; they will usher in a social system where only the richest and most brutal will survive. It’s gonna be yuge.
High-Rise opens in select theaters on Friday, May 13.
Ben Chace, Sin Alas, 2015, 16 mm, black-and-white and color, sound, 90 minutes. Isabela (Yulisleivís Rodrígues).
EARLY IN THE ALLURING, bittersweet Sin Alas (Without Wings, 2015), there is a shot as mysterious as a passage in Jorge Luis Borges or José Lezama Lima, the writers that inspired filmmaker Ben Chace’s memory piece about love and loss in a city where past and present soon will be obliterated by the tidal wave of capital that is its future. High above the cluttered cityscape of Havana, the camera captures a pigeon soaring and circling to land inches from the lens. A reasonable explanation: The bird is a homing pigeon and its coop is probably on the roof where Chace and his ace cinematographer Sean Patrick Williams have stationed themselves. If, however, you suspect that bird and camera are secret sharers of a vision beyond the human, then this is a film for you.
Chace’s first feature, Wah Do Dem (2010), which he codirected with Sam Fleischner, also explored a Caribbean island culture (in that film, it was Jamaica) by combining documentary and fiction with energizing local music. His follow-up, Sin Alas, was shot entirely in Cuba before bans on travel and commerce had been lifted to the extent they are today. The film began as a documentary about Cuban literary magical realism and then mutated into a subjective fiction about an elderly former journalist, Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), whose long-repressed memories of his passionate affair with a married dancer come flooding back when he learns of her death. But Chace’s original objective—to capture the Cuba of crumbling Spanish-style nineteenth-century architecture, 1950s American cars, and triumphant revolutionary posters, together with vibrant street life of Havana—informs every scene.
Like Havana and rural Cuba as well, Luis’s mind is mapped with memory. Past mixes with present as he walks about the city, finding the mansion where his lover lived with her husband, a military honcho in Castro’s government; the theater where he saw her dance; the park where they secretly met. Sin Alas is exceptional for its temporal fluidity, and for the ingenuity with which Chace brings the past—Cuba both before and after the revolution—convincingly to life on what must have been a miniscule budget. Luis’s passionate encounters with his lover and the melodrama of the triangle in which they were caught, are like scenes from Latin movies of the 1940s. In memory, the actuality of the romance is inseparable from its romantic archetype and even more deeply repressed childhood memories. Late in the film, Luis visits the town where he grew up, Hershey, named for the American chocolate factory where his father was a manager. His purpose is to find the deed that gives him legal rights to his rambling Havana house so that he can leave it to a young couple who for complicated reasons have no place of their own. But he also discovers the origin of his obsessive love for the dancer in his memories of the maid who worked for his parents and was his forbidden object of desire.
Padron, a venerable Cuban stage actor, gives an affecting performance, as does Lieter Ledesma, who portrays Luis as an earnest young journalist, more in love with love than revolution, but perhaps most anxious to save his own skin. Sin Alas is not a political film; rather it shows how people’s lives are defined by personal relationships on which political systems have little effect. As for Cuba, it’s a different matter. We will be grateful for Chace’s evocative souvenir once Walmart, Amazon, and Chase come to town.
Sin Alas plays through Wednesday, May 11 at the Metrograph in New York.
FOR THOSE INTERESTED in the windfall of innovatory midcentury documentary filmmaking, recent weeks have been awfully hectic. The Criterion Collection has just released a four-movie Blu-ray collection of The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates, last month New Yorkers had access to a Film Forum retrospective of the work of Albert and David Maysles, and now Anthology Film Archives is hosting a thirteen-day, seventeen-program, thirty-something-film series dedicated to “Québec Direct Cinema.”
To US audiences, the films produced under the auspices of Québec Direct Cinema may be less well known than the contemporary works produced by Drew, the Maysles, and Pennebaker out of New York, or the output of filmmaker-anthropologist Jean Rouch in Paris and Africa. If you’ve taken a university documentary class, you might at least be familiar with Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s Lonely Boy (1961), a twenty-six-minute backstage doc which accompanies Ottawa-born singer-songwriter Paul Anka on dates from Atlantic City to Bronx amusement park Freedomland USA. (Koenig was a German émigré and Kroitor a native of Saskatchewan, though both were instrumental in inspiring and encouraging Quebecois talent through their CBC program Candid Eye.) Re-viewed, Lonely Boy seems at least several centuries removed from the media-savviness of, say, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011), and acts as a time capsule not only of some of the gnarliest Greater Philadelphia–area accents you’ll ever hear, but of the queer, transitional moment in pop music between Elvis’s Army stint and Beatlemania, when it seemed for a moment that the cultural id might’ve been packed back into the box forevermore, and the airwaves might have been handed back over to nice, well-kempt young crooners like Anka.
A sense of pregnant anticipation for something to happen pervades the early Québec Direct Cinema productions—not just retrospectively, from the vantage of the present, but as an element of their conscious history-in-the-making construction. The films first appeared in the period immediately preceding the so-called Quiet Revolution that began with the premiership of Jean Lesage, years during which the state would take over the business of welfare from the Catholic church, which had previously run the province as something skirting on a theocracy, and when there was a sudden upswing in Quebecois nationalism, as a portion of the Francophone population—relatively impoverished in relation to their Anglophone neighbors—began to consider their situation in light of other contemporary struggles for self-determination by colonized peoples around the world, an act of political awakening dramatized in Gilles Groulx’s docufiction Le Chat dans le sac (The Cat Out of the Bag, 1964).
Groulx, along with Koenig, Kroitor, Michel Brault, and other key Direct Cinema figures, honed his talents using the facilities of the state-sponsored National Film Board (NFB), which, significantly, relocated from Ottawa to Montreal in 1956. (They are also underwriting the series, curated by NFB conservator Carol Faucher.) The earliest works in AFA’s program are Colin Low’s Corral (1954), a silent, observational vignette of an Alberta cowboy at work herding wild mustangs deftly shot by Koenig, in which one can practically smell the sweat and buckskins, and Kroitor’s Paul Tomkowicz: Street-Railway Switchman (1954), a portrait of a sixty-four-year-old Polish émigré in his last year on the job clearing frost and muck from the tracks of a Winnipeg streetcar line.
Throughout the series, one finds a concern with the quotidian realities of Canadian workers, bending down between the rows with tobacco harvesters in southern Ontario (The Back-Breaking Leaf, 1959) or explaining the lots of Quebecois lumberjacks (Bûcherons de la Manouane, 1962), copper ore miners (Normétal, 1959), and paper-mill workers (Jour après jour, 1962). Boiled down to subject matter, these titles may sound like caricatures of dour, responsible state-sponsored art, but the films themselves are something very different. New lightweight equipment and sensitive film stocks that could photograph in low-light (and low-life) conditions enabled high-contrast nocturnal photography and deft stick-and-move handheld camerawork—even a fairly routine piece like Koenig, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Stanley Jackson’s Montreal-shot The Days Before Christmas (1958), made for Candid Eye, features little bravura sequences like cameraman Brault following the unholstered revolver of an armored car guard making the final pickup rounds before the bank holiday. At a moment when much of popular narrative cinema was suffering from CinemaScope lugubriousness and the still-firm grip of Hollywood decorum, the best of the new documentaries offered visual rock ’n’ roll—shown to good advantage, one hopes, in AFA’s laudably 16- and 35-mm print–heavy program.
Many of the landmark Direct Cinema films dealt not with work but with leisure—the former sometimes appearing as curiously serene, the latter sometimes as quite violent. Brault and Groulx’s Les Raquetteurs (1958), depicting a formal meetup of snowshoers in Sherbrooke, Quebec, near the border with New York State, is a key work, dispensing with instructive narration and concentrating on ambiance rather than incident, giving as much screen time to spectators as to competitors. A direct line can be drawn from Les Raquetteurs to La Lutte (Wrestling, 1961), codirected by Brault, Marcel Carrière, Claude Fournier, and Claude Jutra, which revels in the performances of professional wrestlers at the Forum de Montréal, seen pretzeling together hairy ham-hock limbs to the strains of Bach, while the crowds vent their seething, latent energies in cheering on hometown favorites. The filmmakers were assisted in finding their approach by Roland Barthes, whom Brault met when the philosopher was visiting in Montreal, and whose thoughts on the mass ritual of the sporting event can also be detected behind Groulx’s Golden Gloves (1961) and Un Jeu si simple (1965), which respectively focus on amateur boxing and professional hockey, particularly the Montreal Canadiens, whose defenseman Lou Fontinato we see sustaining a broken neck. (Coincidentally, the direct cinema program appears only a couple of weeks after AFA’s series “Barthes at the Movies: A Retrospective.”)
Barthes dissuaded Brault and his collaborators from making La Lutte an exposé of wrestling’s fakery, instead steering them into producing something suppler and more ambiguous, while Rouch’s technique of “collaborative ethnofiction” profoundly influenced many of the Direct Cinema filmmakers in their disavowal of traditional documentary’s fly-on-the-wall sleight for an approach that admitted to the presence of the man behind the curtain. Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac is among several works here in which Direct Cinema pioneers can be found employing documentary tactics within the framework of narrative filmmaking—one can also see Brault’s Entre la mer et l’eau douce (1967), starring chansonnier Claude Gauthier and Geneviève Bujold, and A tout prendre (1963), the autobiographical second feature by Claude Jutra, a towering figure in Quebecois cinema who, like Brault, learned at Rouch’s feet, and who, unhappily, has recently been in the news in French Canada due to posthumous allegations of pedophilia. A tout prendre and Le Chat dans le sac may be considered the Quebecois landfall of the French New Wave spirit, comparisons which the films openly court. Jutra is perhaps closest in tone and approach to his friend Truffaut, while Groulx’s jump cut–rippled drama is in dialogue with Godard—the film, brimming with the restless, saturnine spirit of uncorrupted and insufferably pure youth, features Barbara Ulrich and Claude Godbout as two twenty-year-old lovers, a would-be actress who fancies that she resembles Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962) and a Frantz Fanon–reading Quebec separatist who gets a classic kiss-off from a middle-aged newspaper editor: “Do you know the world you’re going to change?”
The world was changing and fast, a fact of which the 1960s Direct Cinema filmmakers were acutely aware and which they sought to capture before the change was irrevocable. Even a work like À Saint-Henri le Cinq Septembre (September Five at Saint-Henri, 1962), comprising scenes taken around the rough, blue-collar precincts of Saint-Henri in Montreal in the course of a single day by a team of Direct Cinema luminaries including Brault and Jutra, today invites a measure of nostalgia for a bygone working-class culture. Any such temptation is severely complicated by a viewing of the staggering The Things I Cannot Change (1966), in which twenty-two-year-old Tanya Ballantine gained full access to the home of Kenneth Bailey, a sporadically employed short-order cook, his wife Gertrude, and their nine young children (a tenth arrives in the course of the film, the other main event of which is Kenneth having his lights punched out). Ballantine’s film of the Baileys, isolated Anglos in Montreal’s La Petite-Bourgogne neighborhood, ignited a controversy over the filmmaker’s alleged exploitation of her subjects, but what shines through today is the depiction of a home defined by an abundance of love and a paucity of resources—circumstances in which film art can sometimes thrive best.
“Québec Direct Cinema” runs through May 17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
IF EVER A FILMMAKER’S life and work are a cri de coeur for psychological scrutiny, it is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s. Both the title and chapter headings of Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands indicate that Danish director Christian Braad Thomsen takes this plea seriously. At the heart of his revelatory documentary, which he also narrates, is an interview he conducted with Fassbinder in 1978 during the Cannes Film Festival where Fassbinder’s Despair was featured—an interview which Thomsen says he “dared not watch” for thirty years. Visibly depleted, Fassbinder sits, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, rambling from abstract generalities to startling confessions, as earnestness vies with performance. One struggles to reconcile the needy child of “possibly indifferent” parents with the willful boy who resisted authority, as one does to separate the man desperate to be understood from the skeptic convinced that no one understands anyone, that all feelings are manipulated and all relationships are power struggles.
Whatever once made him wary of this interview, Thomsen eventually realized that beyond the fog was a goldmine—as if he had rediscovered a long-lost psychoanalytic session with a patient whose apparent maundering contained more truths than he suspected. It’s no surprise then that everything in Thomsen’s documentary expands on these impressions—from film clips, to an earlier interview with Fassbinder and recent ones with actors who worked with him. While Thomsen does not cover the entire career, he has constructed a moving, nuanced, and unsettling portrait of his friend.
After completing a few short films, Fassbinder hit the screen running in 1969 with Love Is Colder than Death, a stylized effort to “reinvent the cinema,” Thomsen opines, which, though it won Best Film, was roundly booed at the Berlin Film Festival. Over the next thirteen years—in addition to staging and sometimes acting in plays—Fassbinder directed nearly sixty theatrical and television movies, a rate of production unparalleled in film history, and terminated only by his death at age thirty-seven in 1982. Speculations as to whether he died from cocaine and barbiturates, sheer exhaustion, or an overdose of sleeping pills seemed almost beside the point in light of his suicidal compulsion to keep working—the “only thing,” he once said, that made him feel “that [he] existed.” Was it an effort to distract himself from the emotional fallout of his childhood? Or to compensate for his tortured affairs? Or to punish himself for the wretched fates to which he drove ex-lovers? All true and all grist for the mill.
As reams of articles, interviews, and personal accounts attest, Fassbinder used and misused nearly everyone with whom he worked professionally, most of them victims of the same postwar generational malaise, seducing them into playing out a perverse “family romance” via the “anti-theater” group he formed. He acted out his own sadomasochistic tendencies by deliberately provoking theirs—both on and off screen—only to reject them in the end, fully spent, as so many discarded props of his films and his ego. He was, in short, a tyrant, a narcissist, and a genius—and he’d be the first to acknowledge all three. How else to describe an artist whose grandiose ambition was “to be for cinema what Shakespeare was for theater, Marx for politics, and Freud for psychology—someone after whom nothing is as it used to be.”
Thomsen was initially struck by the “poetic” texts of such films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Effi Briest (1974), which contradicted his childhood impression—formed by the Nazi occupation of Denmark—that German was the language of soldiers, judges, and executioners. With clips from those films and others, he illustrates how Fassbinder wove his biography and experiences into the fabric of each work, constructing an accumulated image of West German life from the 1950s to the ’70s remarkably in tune with social and political reality. This was no small part of his genius. In Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier (both 1970), considered amateur efforts to ape Hollywood’s gangster genre, the gangster and the cop are two sides of an “ailing society,” both doing a “dirty job.” Though a relentless social critic, Fassbinder was never aligned with extreme left-wing groups like Baader-Meinhof, which he believed resorted to the same fascist tactics as those they opposed. For him the relationship of society and the individual was more complex, something he explored perhaps most ambitiously in his television series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), based on Alfred Döblin’s novel, in which the protagonist Franz Biberkopf, former convict and pimp, was, in Fassbinder’s view, the kind of man drawn to Nazi ideology.
As one who believed that everyone had a second, contradictory self that demanded acknowledgment, Fassbinder used the pseudonym “Franz Walsch” in the credits of early films, fusing the first name of the charming, quasi-fascist protagonist of Alexanderplatz with the last name of Raoul Walsh, one of his favorite Hollywood directors. The notion that one’s divided personality is a product of social convention is as true of his reworking of Döblin as it is of his other literary adaptations, Effi Briest, The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977), Despair (1978), and Querelle (1982), all of which resonate autobiographically.
No title more explicitly proclaims the anguish underlying Fassbinder’s work than the Oedipally tinged I Only Want You to Love Me (1978). And there is no more literal indication of how he used his movies to act out conflicts rooted in childhood than casting his mother, Lilo Pempeit, either as a stern, unforgiving parent or a passive “blind follower.” Speaking of Fassbinder’s Oedipal issues in the 1978 interview, Thomsen wittily but wisely suggests that this use of his mother was the same as killing her. In the nonfiction Germany in Autumn (1978), Fassbinder castigates her mercilessly as typical of her generation’s responsibility for the rise of Hitler. In a 1982 recording included here, Pempeit says she was clueless as to what was happening during the war, and after it, was “incapable of raising a child.” While her son’s indictment stands, his own tendency toward bullying is on display in the next scene as he abuses the actor Armin Meier, his real lover at the time, who later committed suicide.
Given his image of his mother and an absent father, Fassbinder sought “mothers and fathers” in the prewar generation to whom he looked for guidance and inspiration: Freud, whose Moses and Monotheism he wanted to film; Döblin, Brecht, Marieluise Fleißer, and Oskar Maria von Graf, writers whose works he adapted; and American director Douglas Sirk, who inspired him to make films with wider appeal without forfeiting his critical perspective. In fusing melodrama with Brechtian alienation, a move compatible with the notion of the divided self, he found the formula that generated the stylistic shift that began with The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) and which sealed his reputation as a world-class director when Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) won the International Critics Prize at Cannes.
It is a perfect reflection of Fassbinder’s unholy mix of genius and monster that one of the most illuminating aspects of Thomsen’s film—his interviews with the actors Harry Baer, Irm Hermann, and Andrea Schöber—is also the most painful. Hermann and Baer were with him from the start. Schöber plays the daughter of the depressed worker in Merchant who drinks himself to death—and whose mother, coincidentally, considers him worthless—and went on to play the crippled, unloved child in Chinese Roulette (1976). If she was the house child star, Hermann was the resident hausfrau, a cold, passive creature in Merchant of Four Seasons, whose barely disguised masochism is in full bloom as Marlene, the mute slave of Petra von Kant. To hear both women speak in the present of the Svengali-like blend of attention and cruelty that bound them to Fassbinder is to sense the inextricable bond between masochist and sadist that may underlie most prolonged artistic relationships, but which in the case of Fassbinder and his entourage blurred the line between fiction and reality.
Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands plays Friday, April 29 through Thursday, May 5 at Metrograph in New York.
THE FACE IS ICONIC: a Capote puckishness flaunting a Warhol cool, eyes alert with faux innocence, starkly framed by round, oversized, black-rimmed glasses, which, like the ones worn by silent clown Harold Lloyd, could easily pass for fake; everything topped by shocks of brilliant blonde—apparently dyed. This is David Hockney—painter, draughtsman, photographer, stage designer—in his brazen, flamboyant posture as naughty boy—one of Pop art’s quintessential stars.
Occasionally, time can be kind, so while that era’s glitz and hipness has faded, Hockney’s art looms larger and clearer than ever. At least that is the impression left by Randall Wright’s engaging documentary Hockney. With the artist as guide—in the present and in earlier interviews—we are taken on what could qualify as a whirlwind tour, but for the calm, sober-minded approach of filmmaker, artist, and the many interviewees with firsthand knowledge of the man and his work.
Hockney is as comfortable recalling his working-class roots in Bradford, England—where, as the fourth of five children, he remembers ducking under the stairs during the London Blitz—as he is speaking of his quick rise to fame during the groovy London of the 1960s, of recounting a customs agent’s confiscation of his male nudie magazines, or conceding his fascination with the male hustler’s life as described in John Rechy’s once notorious novel City of Night. Rechy’s Los Angeles—comprising anonymous sex, “all night movies and Beverly Hills mansions”—became Hockney’s dream city, “three times better than I ever imagined,” where, except for trips back and forth to England and the continent, he has lived and worked most of his life, nestled in the Hollywood Hills.
Part of radio’s last generation Hockney was so addicted to the “pictures” from America that he felt he had been raised in Hollywood. That, in addition to his “claustrophobic” English home, further explains why he was drawn to a city one must negotiate by car, which abounds in dazzling sunlight and open spaces and reeks with celebrity both counterfeit and real. Journalist Tim Lewis recently remarked that while driving to the artist’s home and looking out at the landscapes the “absurd oranges, greens, blues, and reds” of Hockney’s paintings are actually “disconcertingly realistic”—a remark that attests to the artist’s gift for capturing the essence of a subject beyond its naturalistic surface.
Wright is less interested in leaning on the judgments of art critics and historians than he is in the memories and appraisals of friends, colleagues, and lovers—and Hockney himself. Rarely seen photos and footage document his close friendship with curator Henry Geldzahler, whose persona here could not be more different from the aloof pose he strikes in one of Warhol’s film portraits. The rapport between them apparently went deep, beyond their mutual love of literature and the arts. Geldzahler consoled Hockney in times of grief—such as when the latter broke with Peter Schlesinger, his first lover—but both lost many friends during the AIDS crisis.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Wright’s deceptively simple approach is how much we learn from Hockney himself, thanks to his generosity in sharing what motivates him, and his amazing ability to discuss aesthetic choices in simple terms. He was so deeply impressed by Wallace Stevens, for example, that he made a series of etchings in 1976 inspired by the poet’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” which he is quick to tell us was itself inspired by the famous painting by Picasso. Even his gnomic utterances, which Wright could not resist inserting throughout like chapter headings, lack pretension. As we listen to the aging artist, we realize that he is as alert to and as excited as ever about cultural forces and technical advances and what they mean for his art. It’s no surprise that the man so deeply affected by the movies in his youth has, for the past few years, been painting hundreds of portraits and landscapes on his iPad.
The overall impression this documentary creates is that Hockney seemed both inside and outside the very culture and era he helped to define, keenly aware of how one’s private self can easily dissolve into the unreality of public celebrity. The very fact that he became famous immediately and that whatever he did was accepted carried the danger of not being taken seriously. How could he avoid projecting these tensions between his inner and outer self into his work?
For example, many of his famous portraits—Beverly Hills Housewife, 1967, and Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968—began with a black-and-white photograph. Hockney would compose the painting pretty much as he had the photo, but then would paint without regard for the lighting and tones of the original setting, juxtaposing blocks of brilliant color as discrete, clearly bordered entities that stand alone rather than bleed into the backdrop—as if the people he painted were both inside and outside the environment. Foreground and background lose their status and take their places alongside all other separate areas of color. Even a shadow—of a chair, say—takes on a separate existence distinct from its source. While some might characterize such a style as artificial or surreal, it gives the figures in the paintings a psychological dimension not immediately apparent and which results from the artist’s personal experience of the divide between inside and outside.
Even Hockney’s thoughts about composition, borders, and vanishing points seem rooted in his childhood memories. While speaking enthusiastically of his love of Hollywood movies, he remembers having a sense that the image went on endlessly, that sitting so close to the screen, borders seemed either nonexistent or “miles away,” beyond the confines or outlines of the theater. This describes a typical experience of young children whose undeveloped ability to distinguish real space from fantasy facilitates psychological immersion. The same phenomenon can induce the exact opposite in adults, provoking fears of psychic disintegration, of an inability to hold oneself together.
Such phenomena may be discerned in Hockney’s play with illusionism—he found it “fun”—and in his serious efforts to deal with vanishing points, as well as his pronounced use of borders and edges. With regard to A Bigger Splash, 1967, for example—in which a white spray bursts up in the center of the painting from an unseen dive into a pool—he notes how deliberately the diving board projecting over the pool from the lower frame is cut off at the edge of the canvas. While the implied out of frame space seems at one with that of the viewer, the latter’s tendency to be drawn into optical immersion with the painting is arrested by the strong use of borders and perspective.
One of the documentary’s last talking heads, fellow artist David Oxtoby, remarks that despite having lived in the glamorous world of fame, celebrity, and the fast life, Hockney remains the same person who grew up in a working-class family in Yorkshire. It’s hard not to think about this while watching the movie’s final moments As the credits are superimposed, Wright’s camera follows the seventy-eight-year-old Hockney strolling comfortably and quietly through the lush grounds of his sunny California home, every once in a while looking back for no apparent reason. And then, at the last second, we hear an off-screen dive into a perfectly blue pool.
Hockney opens Friday, April 22 in New York and Los Angeles.
Lazar Stojanovic, Plastic Jesus, 1971, color, sound, 73 minutes.
IN 1971, before it had a first run in its native land, Plastic Jesus was confiscated by the Yugoslavian government of Josip Broz Tito, and its young director, Lazar Stojanovic, was thrown in the clink by a military court for “anti-state activities and propaganda.” His stay lasted several months or a few years, depending on the account, but at any rate it was plenty of time to think over what he’d done. Well, Tito died before the dawn of MTV, Yugoslavia began its anguished atomization not long after the fall of Communism, and now Stojanovic is presenting the New York premiere of his Belgrade Academy of Dramatic Arts thesis film at the Museum of Modern Art, which goes to show that if you can’t beat ’em, the least you can do is outlive ’em.
The sacrilegious title of Stojanovic’s debut feature comes from the American novelty song written by Ed Rush and George Cromarty—one of the folk ditties of all nations which the film’s soundtrack is papered with—but it’s the graven image of the secular God, Tito, that’s implicitly receiving the razzing in Stojanovic’s scattershot satire, which whip-pans between a mock-heroic past and a louche, loutish present, between found-footage documentary and a lightly fictionalized portrayal of the New Morality as it was functioning in contemporary Belgrade.
Things like this weren’t supposed to happen in Yugoslavia, where the ruling single party avoided alignment with either Moscow or Washington, progressively mixed aspects of free-market capitalism and socialism, and poured state money into avant-garde art. This was the country where communism swung, where the young people wore dungarees and laughed at socialist realism, the home of young Marina Abramović and the New Art Practice and the animations of the Zagreb Film Company and the Black Wave films of Dušan Makavejev, whose 1958 short Monuments Should Not Be Trusted recently lent its title to a recently wrapped survey of Yugoslav art at Nottingham Contemporary.
What did Plastic Jesus do to crack the veneer? At the center of the straight narrative is a picaro played by the Croatian performance artist and experimental filmmaker Tomislav “Tom” Gotovac, a hulking figure with a humongous beard and receding hairline who is first seen, wearing a peace button pinned to his denim jacket, reading the credits in a singsong voice. Tom, a native of Zagreb living in Belgrade, thirty-three years old like Christ at the time of his death, is a film director, though what we see of his work is mostly arty underground cheesecake stuff, and the narrative is driven more by his troubled relations with women than by his tortured aesthetic ambitions.
As the movie begins Tom is keeping company with an American girl—she’s the one who warbles the title tune, and most of their interactions seem to consist of batting around their respective national songbooks, though they also pay a visit to Saint George’s Church, where she’s eager to see the crypt containing the Karađorđević Kings. When his little Yank takes a powder, Tom takes up with his blonde landlady, whose husband is abroad, only to have her bounce him out onto the street when things go south. (The problems begin when he runs rushes of a softcore shoot while her young daughter is hanging around his room.) Tom hits rock bottom from here, slipped a mickey and stripped by some shady associates, after which he runs nude along Sremska Street in the city center and is picked up by the police, who forcefully shave his scalp and beard as punishment for his failure to resemble his ID. Despite the fact that he now looks like a Holbein, Tom manages to get in with his ex’s husband’s sister. She tries to set him up with a television producer for work, he repays her by playing grabass with her brother’s wife on a trip to the provinces, and she shoots him dead in a pond at the end of a rather gorgeous mock-pastoral long-take—as his corpse bobs on the water’s surface, the panicked siblings are trying to decide how to dispose of the body.
In addition to these narrative vignettes—mostly single-shot scenes in shadowless rooms filmed from a stationary camera, sometimes condensed with jump-cuts—there are interjections in which Gotovac direct-addresses the viewer, offering such bon mots as, “The only connection between politics and sex is under the bedsheets” or abruptly standing up to let his limp cock dangle into the frame. Throughout the film there is a glee in provocation for the provocation’s sake, which is fairly typical of art-school kids anywhere—when Tom announces his pleasure in filming homosexuals, Stojanovic cuts to his star smooching another man—though the difference here is, of course, there happened to be real-world repercussions for playing the game of épater les commissars.
Politics and sex are the two items that Plastic Jesus seems most to have on its mind. Shuffled into Tom’s story is a sort of history of Yugoslavia during World War II, as told through the cinematic detritus left behind by all involved parties—a combination of documentary footage with original material similar to that which was almost simultaneously undertaken by Dušan Makavejev in his far-better-known examination of politics in the boudoir, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). Most of the films from which Stojanovic is lifting material are straightforward propaganda, in which we hear calls for courageous sacrifice from Tito’s Communist Partisans, the nationalist Chetniks, Ustaše fascists, German conquerors, Soviet saviors, and so forth, often in full-throated marching songs using lyrics that seem to have been bought from the same wholesale anthem dealer. (That these factions seem indistinguishable when so viewed is very much the point.) In some cases, the archival and original footage interface playfully, as when Nazi motorcade victory laps through flattened landscapes are intercut with a joy ride through the outskirts of Belgrade, which look as though they are in the midst of being excavated or razed. There are also several pieces of found footage that pertain to the German worship of physique and Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture), opening into wider reflections on the relationship of the state and the sovereign body which end with a fatal assertion of ownership.
A censor might have taken issue with any number of items in here, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was a seemingly innocuous scene depicting the wedding of two of Stojanovic’s friends, Ljubiša Ristić and Višnja Poštić, who happened to be related to Generals in the Yugoslav People’s Army. The inclusion of pseudo-surreptitious footage of high revolutionary officials milling about at a bourgeois ceremony under the benevolent gaze of a bas relief Tito was one piss-take too many, and Stojanovic was caught up in what would be a quiet crackdown. Gotovac, who would reproduce his streak down Sremska Street ten years later for a performance in Zagreb, had his art school matriculation delayed for years. Aleksandar Petrović, the professor who had been instrumental in completing Plastic Jesus, found his latest film, an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, suddenly withdrawn from distribution, around the time that a “Letter” issued by Tito in September 1972 recommended a rollback on liberalism in the wake of the Croatian Spring.
I haven’t seen Stojanovic’s later film work, which apparently includes a 2008 documentary incorporating footage of the war crimes of a Serbian paramilitary group during the Bosnian War. It’s certainly true that nothing would achieve the notoriety of Plastic Jesus—the communist nations, like the capitalist ones, produced their share of filmmakers too insubordinate to thrive within the system. But freed of its original, oppositional “use-value,” Plastic Jesus is more than a time-capsule, a counterpropaganda equivalent to the newsreels from which Stojanovic freely clips. Brimming with youthful bellicosity, it’s a live-wire with some crackle in it yet.