Adolpho Arrietta, Imitación del Ángel (Imitation of the Angel), 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 22 minutes.
LITTLE KNOWN OR SCREENED in the United States, the work of Spanish experimental filmmaker Adolpho Arrietta is more than ready for discovery and appreciation. An upcoming Arrietta retrospective at Anthology Film Archives will hopefully encourage both.
Arrietta was born in Madrid in 1942 and began shooting movies as a teenager. A trio of short, thematically linked 16-mm black-and-white films called the “Angel Trilogy” garnered him his first recognition in the 1960s and continues to be his most highly regarded work. The first in the series, The Crime of the Spinning Top (1965), consists of an elliptical, oneiric narrative about a sexually frustrated adolescent boy bursting with homicidal urges against an older brother who undeservingly courts his object of desire. The daydreams and flaneurlike wanderings of the protagonist, as well as a glissando-heavy piano score, lure the viewer into a reverie eventually disturbed by fratricide and a disarmingly happy denouement.
Imitation of the Angel (1966) and The Criminal Toy (1969) play even more oblique variations on the themes and motifs of the first film. In Imitation of the Angel, a stifled bourgeois woman enlists a lover to kill her husband, and then—in a bizarre act of metaphysical transformation—herself. (“You must strangle me until I disappear,” she pleads. “Until I become something else.”) To complicate matters further, the young man brings along an accomplice, or possibly two—the level of reality at which a tunic-covered angel operates remains purposefully obscure. In The Criminal Toy, a middle-aged man stalks his former wife even as another couple—who might be dreaming about the first one—wrestle with marital problems occasioned by the seductive intrusion of a handsome angel. Throughout both films, poetic images—of wings cut from cheap paper, of spinning globes, of angels floating and dressing in reverse motion—comment on and enter into the dialogue-minimal stories.
Arrietta’s work has been frequently likened to Cocteau’s, a connection made all the more obvious by the presence in The Criminal Toy of Cocteau actor and muse Jean Marais. While the comparison is apt, it’s also worth pointing out the possible influence on the “Angel Trilogy” by the American avant-garde of the ’40s and ’50s and the various European new waves of the ’60s: The films’ amateur production values and psychodrama narratives recall Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, while the violence instigated by ennui-plagued youth is reminiscent of the kinds of transgressions Jean-Luc Godard and Marco Bellocchio were committing contemporaneous to Arrietta.
This isn’t to say the “Angel Trilogy” is a mere amalgam of historic cinematic trends. A unique understanding of Catholic sin and salvation informs these films. Arrietta’s angels offer neither grace nor messages from God, but instead haunt their human charges as agents of unfulfilled longing and dark desire. And Arrietta’s complex and challenging narrative strategies—which often involve the blurring of separate characters’ identities and aims—creates a troubling confusion of good and evil, love and fear, provoking the question of whether the divine order might not itself be divided and corrupted.
Steven Soderbergh, Contagion, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 105 minutes. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon).
WHEN I LEFT THE THEATER after I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, my hands were shaking so hard that it took me fifteen minutes to text the words: WHAT A SCARY, CONVINCING RIDE. A few days later I saw the movie again, and even though I knew what was going to happen and to whom, it was no less unnerving. Contagion is a champion sprinter–paced entertainment that is in no way escapist, which is why it sticks with you long after the fact. “Somewhere out there, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat,” is how one CDC medical biologist explains the genesis of a virus that is on track to kill one in twelve persons on the planet unless a vaccine is concocted to stop it. This scenario—and the details of its depiction—is not only plausible on the screen; it is a glimpse of an almost inevitable real-life catastrophe.
Like the lethal bug, Contagion is itself a hybrid, comprising nearly equal parts of two genres, both dear to the 1970s: the disaster thriller epitomized in such Irwin Allen productions as The Towering Inferno (1974) and the investigative procedural, of which the telling modern American example is Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 All the President’s Men. David Fincher, a director who seems to share a radar with Soderbergh, also used Pakula’s “follow the money” saga as a map for his 2007 Zodiac. In Contagion, epidemiologists and medical researchers follow the airborne virus, which is largely transmitted by touch (sick person coughs into her hand, sticks that hand into a bowl of nuts in an airport bar, and in days, the virus is killing people—gruesomely—all over the world). At a moment when movies—particularly art movies—are praised for their “tactility,” Soderbergh, one of the least tactile and most sardonic great directors in world cinema, has made a movie whose mantra is “do not touch.” By evoking tactility in the negative, Contagion makes you aware of the feel of every bacteria-laden surface you put your hand to. I’ll never grasp a subway railing again.
Tonally, the movie that Contagion most resembles is Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), with its chilly, clinical depiction of the implacability of the natural world and the limited ability of humans to understand or control it, or, more to the point, to challenge its desecration for the supposed benefit of one species—our own. The big difference: Birds are visible to the naked eye, viruses not. Thus the movie opens in darkness, through which comes the sound of a woman discreetly coughing. The sound provokes nervous, knowing titters in the audience, which will continue intermittently until the dire implications of the situation trump the familiar conventions of the epidemic/horror/disaster genre. Soon we see Gwyneth Paltrow, her face pale and sweaty, standing in an airport lounge talking on the phone. Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, who is returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and has stopped off in Chicago for an afternoon quickie with an old boyfriend before returning to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon, a wonderful everyman), and her young son in Minneapolis. The voice we hear on the other end of her phone connection is that of the boyfriend (rendered with repellent smarm by the director himself). As Beth chats, the title “Day 2” appears on the screen. (“Where was ‘Day 1’?” you might ask at this point, but no worry: Soderbergh’s best twist on the genre is to save the first for last—and what a reveal it is.) Still chatting and coughing, Beth reaches into the aforementioned bowl of nuts and the camera follows her hand, again provoking knowing laughter. As usual, Soderbergh, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, is his own DP, using the latest model of the RED camera. There’s nothing flashy or even beautiful about the camerawork, but like the virus itself and the scientists and health professionals who are called into action against it, it is notably efficient.
Steven Soderbergh, Contagion, 2011, stills from a color film in HD, 105 minutes. Left: Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow). Right: Dr. Ellis Cheever and Dr. Ally Hextall (Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle).
In about ten screen minutes, Beth will be dead and autopsied (her scalp peeled back to bare a brain so devastated by the virus that the CDC and the WHO immediately go into overdrive). It will of course be noted that her death, and that of her boyfriend soon after, fit the horror film convention (you enjoy sex, you die), but the movie’s punch line hammers another nail in her coffin—this is a bit of a spoiler so some of you might want to stop reading here—by making us aware of her role as a charming front person for the corporation whose pillaging of the environment led to the meeting of “the wrong pig with the wrong bat.” Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns deliver information so quickly and concisely and with such a light touch that the beauty of the payoff (and the fact that the movie ends by coming full circle, leaving you to imagine the next round rather than putting a new beginning on the screen as is customary in the genre) might escape you on first viewing. Movie critics were heard at press screenings debating plot points and character facets, all of which are crystal clear if you attend to every line of dialogue and the details of every image. Soderbergh proposes an audience workout, which calls for the speed and concentration that the professionals on the screen (the actors and the characters they play) bring to their jobs. The propulsive pace is maintained throughout by Stephen Mirrione’s lucid, elliptical crosscutting among at least half a dozen major narrative strands; Cliff Martinez’s synth score; and Soderbergh’s direction, which has the actors speed-walking while talking whenever possible.
Like the Irwin Allen disaster pictures, Contagion is laden with stars. The difference is that Soderbergh’s big names (Damon, Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law) eschew glamorous makeup and put aside their egos to act in the best interest of the machine of the movie. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Contagion is its liberal politics. The movie makes an excellent case for the professionals who work for big government agencies. Not that they aren’t above breaking a rule or two when it’s a question of “taking care of the people in my lifeboat,” as the deputy director of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) puts it, knowing fully that his moral position could cost him not only his job but his life. The movie’s consummate maverick good guy is CDC researcher Dr. Ally Hextall (a perfect Jennifer Ehle), who not only chances using the research of an eccentric independent (Elliott Gould) simply because he’s better at what they both do than she is, but also, in order to bypass lengthy human trial protocols, risks her life by testing her vaccine on herself. If there is hope for human survival, it lies with a well-funded, compassionate federal government. The villains of the piece are the drug companies, hedge funds, corporate antienvironmentalists, and an ace journalist (Law) turned to blogging—although not by choice—whose conspiracy paranoia and desire for power and big bucks result in his promoting an unproven homeopathic medicine that will cost millions of lives.
Tactile-phobic and anything but touchy-feely, Contagion nevertheless has its extremely moving moments. Take, for example, the image of Ehle, covered in her anticontagion suit and helmet, standing alone in her research lab smiling in gratitude and awe at the monkey who has survived her experimental vaccine. I’d like to believe that the monkey smiled back.
Contagion opens in theaters and IMAX on Friday, September 9.
Andrei Ujică, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, 2010, still from a black-and-white and color film, 180 minutes.
THOUGH IT BELONGS TO THE TRADITION of found-footage documentaries—from the work of such Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s as Dziga Vertov and Esther Shub, to such later practitioners as Edgardo Cozarinsky—Andrei Ujică’s astonishing film The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu adds a twist. Boldly declaring itself an autobiography, it invokes the hidden other self that shadows all autobiographies and makes that the nucleus of the film’s deconstructive construction of the public life of the former Romanian dictator. A document of relentless self-aggrandizement that Ceauşescu himself could hardly have matched, the film, through sheer ingestion of the cloying, propagandistic media record—much of it commissioned by the dictator—of its subject’s manufactured persona, is both compelling and repellent. Ujică bookends his work with snippets from the mock trial that immediately preceded the execution of Ceauşescu and his wife, Elisa, on Christmas Day, 1989. Accused of genocide and illegal accumulation of wealth, Ceauşescu faced a judgment that shocked only those ignorant of the years of disastrous rule and economic oppression, blatant nepotism, and personality cult that constituted the truer biography of this socialist Macbeth and his partner in crime. Except for these brief excerpts at the beginning and end, the compiled footage bears hardly a sign of social distress as it tracks Ceauşescu’s twenty-four-year regime, from the time he assumed power after the death in 1965 of his mentor Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej—the country’s first Communist chief of state, whose elaborate funeral constitutes the movie’s opening footage—to his reelection as general secretary of the Communist Party just a month before the end.
Ceauşescu drew attention largely through his unique and paradoxical courting of East and West, as well as his resistance to Moscow’s efforts to control Eastern bloc nations. We see and hear his forceful denouncement of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Under his rule, Romania was the only nation to maintain diplomatic relations with both Israel and the PLO. It was no doubt such postures, reinforced by speeches proclaiming the progressive nature of his goals, that seduced state leaders of the West into believing that there was finally a voice and disposition in the communist world that was willing to communicate, if not negotiate, with democratic nations. The footage includes visits to Romania by both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, as well as receptions by Jimmy Carter at the White House and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. These paled, however, in comparison with the positively giddy extravaganzas welcoming him to China and North Korea, where hundreds of thousands of smiling, cheering indoctrinated youths lined the streets and lent their bodies to immense lawn and stadium mosaics spelling out each country’s euphoric greetings. These rarely seen images, as well as the gleeful interactions with Mao and Kim Il Sung, are precious precisely because of their unadulterated fakery.
Whatever signs of independence and progress Ceauşescu initially pursued, his second decade was marked by increased oppression and an impoverished quality of life while, inspired by the idolatrous cults of Mao and Kim Il Sung, he accumulated debts building costly, improbable architectural monuments to his rule—several of which we see in progress. Having absolute power, as both president of Romania and secretary general of the Communist Party, he suppressed all opposition and isolated Romania from any beneficial communication with the West that he himself once sought. Frightening evidence of his success is provided over and over by the unanimous, on-cue applause he received at every party meeting.
In 1986, a report by the humanitarian organization Helsinki Watch declared Ceauşescu’s regime to be as “totalitarian and repressive as any in Eastern Europe.” As part of what the critic J. Hoberman aptly called the film’s “structuring absence,” such information is not mentioned in the film. Alternating black-and-white footage and color, juxtaposing public appearances with private hunting outings and vacations, the film eschews helpful contextualization and voice-over narration of any kind. But Ujică’s understated rhetorical method does allow subtle relationships between images and sequences to emerge. For example, against the gaudy, cast-of-thousands concoctions of the Chinese and North Korean receptions, Ceauşescu’s tour of Hollywood’s Universal Studios seems paltry indeed. While we might wonder whether the fabricated illusions of the capitalist West were any match for the delirious spectacles of the Communist East, there is no mistaking the irony of watching the man comfortably touring the dream factory.
Of course, without some knowledge of the counterhistory of the subject, Ujică’s film might almost succeed as a propaganda tool, a latter-day Triumph of the Will. Unlike that commissioned masterwork, however, Ujică’s film demonstrates that even adulatory found images culled from the official record and offered ad nauseam can generate enough disgust to implode. More toxic than intoxicating, the overkill of jubilant parades and enthusiastic party endorsements illustrates the potential mock in every documentary. Against this glut, Ujică provides a telling and stirring motif—a silence that often interrupts the blather of politicians and statesmen as the footage continues. In these voiceless intervals—totaling well more than half of the film’s three-hour length, and sometimes accompanied by an ominous musical score—Ujică invites us to look at the ghostly images of the once powerful and reflect both on the dangerous if ephemeral nature of hubris, and on the historical and personal truths left undocumented.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on Friday, September 9.
Sam Fleischner, Willis Glasspiegel, Tony Lowe, and Olivia Wyatt, Below the Brain, 2011, still from a color film in HD video, 59 minutes.
HANDMADE, IMPROVISATORY, and almost as immersive as the event it depicts, Below the Brain is an impressionistic documentary of the Brooklyn West Indian Carnival, an annual Labor Day weekend event that has never been as hyped as New Orleans’s Mardi Gras but certainly should be. Sam Fleischner, co-director of the Jamaica-set Wah Do Dem (2010), one of the best narrative film debuts of the twenty-first century, is a Caribbean music fanatic, as is Below the Brain’s coeditor, musician-artist Tony Lowe. Teaming up with two other filmmakers, Willis Glasspiegel and Olivia Wyatt, the quartet “covered” the 2010 Carnival from sunset one day to sunset the next, each mapping his or her own route through the twenty-four-plus hours of tumult. They then pooled their best footage (everyone used low-end digital cameras) and Fleischner and Lowe compressed all of it into a furiously paced fifty-nine minutes, suggesting a nonstop sampling of sound and image, done on the fly.
Like the parade itself, the movie is rude, crude, hyperkinetic, and deliriously colorful. People deck themselves in feathers and often not much else, paint their skin gold or cover it with flour paste, flaunt their flesh and dance down the street to the polyrhythms of one steel band after another. There’s safety and joy in numbers. Occasionally we glimpse a studied, even ritualized interaction between the revelers and the cops who line the route, the latter clearly having been instructed not to intervene unless something dire occurs. It’s a bacchanal where children and elderly are welcome. One of the movie’s most memorable images is of two androgynous ancients with painted faces, holding hands and regarding the passing parade as if they were already in heaven.
Below the Brain screens September 1 at 6:50 and 9:15 at BAMCinématek in Brooklyn. A Q&A with the filmmakers and a live performance by the Rara group Brother High follow the 6:50 screening. The Brooklyn West Indian Carnival parade takes place September 5 beginning at 11 AM. The route is along Eastern Parkway from Utica Avenue to Grand Army Plaza.
WHETHER HE’S PUTTERING around his storefront studio in Lexington, Virginia, or ordering a turkey sandwich at a local restaurant, Cy Twombly displays a stubborn vitality in a new film portrait by Tacita Dean, made last year during what turned out to be Twombly’s final autumn. The twenty-nine-minute work, titled Edwin Parker after Twombly’s birth name, is a remarkably circumspect tribute. Shot by Dean from a series of judiciously unobtrusive vantage points, Twombly becomes the rare camera subject who is allowed to preserve his privacy.
Presented in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program a mere two months after Twombly passed away at age eighty-three, Dean’s film inevitably takes on an elegiac quality. But that air of finality has nearly as much to do with the death knells for 16-mm film, the medium of choice for Dean as well as for so many of the other artists represented in TIFF’s annual survey of experimental world cinema. Indeed, Dean has been increasingly vocal about the declining availability of film stock and labs in which to develop it. (The last one in her native UK has already closed.)
That anxiety and sense of loss permeate many of Wavelengths’ 16-mm selections, including Ben Rivers’s Sack Barrow—an eerie study of corrosion and decay shot in a decrepit electroplating factory outside London—and Joshua Bonnetta’s American Colour, which traces a final pilgrimage for several rolls of 16-mm Kodachrome stock between the film’s original birthplace in upstate New York and the Kansas lab that processed the rolls earlier this year. The Return, another masterful symphony of light, shadow, and shape by Nathaniel Dorsky, stands as further proof that the supplanting of analog forms with digital ones will leave the world a poorer place.
Adding to the gloom of this year’s Wavelengths is the news that it is the last edition to be programmed by Andréa Picard. Thanks to her careful curation, the program became an oasis for adventurous cinephiles otherwise alienated by the ever more frenzied and Hollywood-centric nature of the festival around it. But the works themselves are too full of energy and ingenuity for the mood to grow completely dour.
Among the most dazzling selections is Black Mirror at the National Gallery, a new seven-minute work by Mark Lewis. Lewis, always interested in matters of cinematic space and spectatorship, has created one of his craftiest works yet by inviting viewers to be led by a hulking automated tour guide through two galleries in the National Gallery of London. Blake Williams’s Coorow-Latham Road depicts another memorable journey, this one along a rural Australian highway. But of course there’s a wrinkle: These travels are an animated simulation derived from images collected from Google Street View.
Williams’s work is proof that Wavelengths’ devotion to celluloid wonders shouldn’t be equated with an aversion to digital means. After all, James Benning’s own shift to HD video in recent works hasn’t dented his reputation as America’s master of real-time cinema. A Wavelengths habitué, he’s back this year with the premiere of Twenty Cigarettes, a Warholian gallery of cigarette-smoking subjects lighting up for the camera. Benning’s fellow film artists Thom Andersen and Sharon Lockhart are among the puffers under scrutiny.
While the environs of Wavelengths’ base camp at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall are prime terrain for smoke breaks, TIFF patrons can also venture further afield to the many venues hosting Future Projections, TIFF’s free program of film-based installation art. Gregory Crewdson, Ben Rivers, Duane Hopkins, and Banksy’s coconspirator Mr. Brainwash are among the artists with new works on display in local galleries, though the one that will attract the heaviest foot traffic is surely Memories of Idaho, a collaborative piece by James Franco and Gus Van Sant to be presented in TIFF Bell Lightbox’s atrium. A compendium of outtakes and alternate scenes from My Own Private Idaho (1991), Van Sant’s photographs of Portland street hustlers, and a Super 8 “ghost” version of the feature, Franco’s latest foray into installation art pays homage both to Van Sant’s original movie and to its doomed star River Phoenix. Whatever worries are prompted elsewhere about the future of film as a cinematic medium, Franco’s effort proves we can be confident about cinema’s powers to resurrect our dearly departed stars, at least temporarily.
The Wavelengths and Future Projections programs are presented September 8–18 at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall and various Toronto venues as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
AFTER SERGE GAINSBOURG DIED, at age sixty-two, in 1991, flags were flown at half-mast in France as President Mitterrand eulogized the singer-songwriter as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.” Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, comic-book artist Joann Sfar’s biopic of the louche legend, based on the director’s graphic novel, is short on poetry but long on puppetry.
“Gainsbourg transcends realities. I much prefer his lies to the truth,” the writer-director states in a closing intertitle, a slightly defensive license for his own unconventional methods in recapitulating his subject’s life story. Sfar’s debut film begins during the occupation of Paris, when pubescent Serge—né Lucien Ginsburg in 1928 to Russian-Jewish parents—perversely demands that he be the first to get his yellow star from the prefecture. Walking through the streets, young Lucien (Kacey Mottet-Klein) passes soldiers singing “La Marseillaise.” (The kid’s mangling of the lyrics foreshadows, none too subtly, the controversy that would ensue over Gainsbourg’s 1979 single “Aux armes et cætera,” his reggae version of the French national anthem, dramatized later in the film.) During his stroll, Lucien also notices anti-Semitic propaganda wheat-pasted throughout the city; a hideous caricature of a Jew on one of these posters comes to life, transforming into an enormous papier-mâchéd head that trails the boy. But this is only a fleeting phantasm. A puppet alter ego known as “the Mug,” which grotesquely exaggerates Gainsbourg’s prominent schnozzand ears, is soon introduced and stays for good, a totem of the artist’s self-loathing and self-destruction—and a trial for this viewer.
To be fair, there is something admirable about Sfar’s tinkering with the biopic, one of the most hidebound of genres, even if it involves a voluble creation that looks a lot like Sesame Street’s Count von Count. But this conceit seems even more misconceived when it becomes clear that Gainsbourg is just another paint-by-numbers retelling. After abandoning his ambitions as a painter, adult Serge (Eric Elmosnino, who uncannily resembles the singer) focuses on the chanson, his arrangements and clever lyrics eventually earning him a private audience (and more) with hep lady cat Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), who popularized his composition “La Javanaise” in 1963. Most of Gainsbourg unfolds as a series of clichéd encounters, lasting no longer than the A-side of a 45, between the libertine and the women who made him more famous. The entrance of Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) to the strains of “Initials B.B.” is followed by a quick rehearsal of their duet “Bonnie and Clyde,” orgasmic moans that serve as the genesis of “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” and Bardot’s morning-after query: “Are there any croissants?”
The transitions between lovers/muses are even creakier. “After an affair with Bardot, who cares about some English girl?” Gainsbourg says over the phone in between puffs of Gitanes, setting up, of course, the entrance of Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Their most famous creation, daughter Charlotte, is represented briefly as a half-pint, though Sfar skips the scandalous collaborations of père et fille: the 1984 song “Lemon Incest,” recorded when Charlotte was only twelve, and Serge’s film Charlotte for Ever, made two years later, in which they star as inappropriately attached father and child. Not even a puppet-id, it seems, could make sense of that.
Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens August 31 at the Film Forum in New York.