Left: Robert Gardner, Forest of Bliss, 1986, still from a color film, 90 minutes. Right: Hilary Harris and George Breidenbach, The Nuer, 1971, color film, 73 minutes. Production still.

ROBERT GARDNER, who is eighty-seven and the subject of a Film Forum retrospective that begins this week, is perhaps best described as an anthropologist who has made film his medium. Specializing in people and places that are at a remove from the modern world—and therefore endangered, if not lost altogether by now—he coaxes cultures into revealing themselves through their own sounds and images.

Gardner stays behind the camera, but as you watch his artful films about tribes of Ethiopia and New Guinea, the intelligence of this elite filmmaker is almost tangible, as is his curiosity, and perhaps a sense of security in his enterprise that insulates him from the impulse to entertain in conventional ways. The pleasures to be had from Gardner’s work are subtle, and while it’s unfortunate that his films spend more time shelved away in academic archives (at places like Harvard, where he founded the Film Study Center) than they do on screens, it’s not entirely unexpected.

Chief among those pleasures, particularly in two films Gardner made in India in the mid-1980s, is a bewitching sense of immanence. If profound meaning, and maybe even divinity, are right in front of us, Gardner’s liberated cinema verité makes a compelling argument that film, despite its preoccupation with surface, conveys this particular message better than other media.

Admittedly, it helps Gardner’s case that he’s often filming religious rituals—especially in as theatrically devotional a place as India. The twenty-two-minute film Sons of Shiva (1985) depicts a holy celebration in a desert in West Bengal. Gardner’s voice-over narration, here as elsewhere, certainly encourages the viewer to think of him as an ethnographer, and he is often called that, but the images contain as much poetry as information. Shooting at low angles, Gardner experiences this gathering of souls at ground level, and the pink dhotis to which his camera returns (clinging to wet bodies, or hanging in the breeze to dry) are like veils barely separating the material and spiritual worlds. The worshipers rub each other in turmeric and mustard oil; aided by hashish, some enter trances. During these rituals, Gardner explains, the usual social hierarchies disappear.

In the holy city of Benares, on the other hand, Hindu rites don’t offer temporary release—they are the fabric of daily life. Stan Brakhage has called Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1986) “a series of wonderful metaphors” and has pointed out that, were it a fiction film, it would buckle under symbolic overload. The film’s subjects make devotional gestures the way most of his viewers turn on a microwave. Carrying a basket, lighting a candle, pounding a nail—Forest of Bliss portrays these simple acts as spokes in the wheel of human joy and suffering, and by eschewing music and leaving conversations unsubtitled, Gardner makes the moment king.

Forest of Bliss could have easily wrapped itself around the spectacle of cremation ceremonies along the Ganges, but Gardner steers the film gently toward ideas of death and rebirth in other ways. Feral dogs tear at corpses, floors are cleansed, wooden boats are repaired and launched, and the river keeps on flowing.

Gardner’s hypnotic tone poem begins at sunrise and ends at the same time a day later, yet somehow everything that passes in front of his camera seems to belong to the ages. The marigold garlands and shrines seen in Forest of Bliss belong to Hinduism, but the film also incorporates motifs (the silent boatman, dogs guarding the portals of the afterlife) from Western myth, and there’s universality in the interplay of fire and water, ashes that return to earth, and children flying kites in the air.

Gardner’s fine balance of reverence and roughness, manipulation and restraint, allows the small things of Benares to be seen for what they really are—things big enough to contain the world.

Darrell Hartman

Robert Gardner: Artist/Ethnographer” runs November 11–17 at Film Forum in New York.

Christopher Munch, Letters from the Big Man, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes.

SHORTLY AFTER I stopped believing in the tooth fairy, I became obsessed with Bigfoot, writing a book report on the creature in fourth grade—an academic exercise that made it hard for me to fall asleep, spooked as I was by the infamous still of Sasquatch in midstride from the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film. Though one character in writer-director Christopher Munch’s fascinatingly sincere Letters from the Big Man is similarly traumatized by a childhood encounter with the hairy biped, the Sasquatch presented here is a gentle creature, a dream man of sorts for protagonist Sarah Smith (Lily Rabe).

A former employee of the Forest Service, Sarah, whose live-in relationship has just ended, takes a contract assignment in southwestern Oregon to test stream water in a burn zone. She delights in her solitude and in living off the grid, a self-sufficient nature worshipper who addresses the pesky insects biting into her flesh as her “mosquito brothers and sisters.” Strange, unidentifiable sounds in the woods that seem to follow her every move, though, are making her feel uneasy. Sarah soon realizes she has nothing to fear; Bigfoot (Isaac Singleton Jr. in a large, furry bodysuit) has been tracking her but offering messages of love. “Dear One, only with your open heart will you know us,” begins one epistle, read by an offscreen voice. “I wish I had a man like you,” Sarah calls out to the trees after taking to her cabin an origami bird left for her by Sasquatch.

Munch’s fifth film in twenty years, Letters from the Big Man, like its predecessors, has the courage of its own sweetly far-out convictions. The director has a particular interest in unconventional romances: His debut, The Hours and Times (1991), is a graceful imagining of a sex-charged night between Brian Epstein and John Lennon in a Barcelona hotel room. Harry and Max (2004), a less successful exploration of homophilic leanings among pop stars, traces the incestuous relationship between two brothers who were once boy-band idols (imagine an episode of Behind the Music scripted by Dennis Cooper).

Though it gets sidetracked by a conspiracy-theory plot thread, in which an environmental activist Sarah meets (and later sleeps with) becomes convinced that a nefarious military organization is going to capture and kill Bigfoot for infrasonic research, Letters from the Big Man sustains its deeply felt love of nature’s mystery—and majesty. Working with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Rob Sweeney, Munch captures extraordinary bursts of Pacific Northwest sun, shining down on the Edenic ecosystem. Sarah’s love of the apelike being in the woods is an expression of her humility, of her appreciation for the vastness enveloping her. “I can feel you nearby. Thank you for being here,” Sarah says to her not-quite-visible pen pal. Her gratitude is wholly believable, even touching, especially when we learn that Bigfoot and his friends want only to save us from ourselves. Munch has made a film that, in lesser hands, would have been little more than Old Joy meets Trog.

Melissa Anderson

Letters from the Big Man opens November 11 at the IFC Center in New York.

Dark Horse


Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm. J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio).

“WHAT IS A GUY ON A WHITE HORSE DOING THERE?” I wondered as I watched Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. Horse and rider are glimpsed on an urban street crowded with early-1930s cars as the FBI is about to apprehend a notorious bank robber. Though J. Edgar Hoover, for fifty years America’s “Top Cop,” took hands-on credit for nabbing the most-wanted criminals of the Depression era, his self-aggrandizing claims were refuted by eyewitnesses, who described Hoover and his sidekick Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) waiting until FBI underlings subdued or killed their quarry, before coming on the scene with dramatically drawn guns.

Working from a complicated, emotionally resonant script by Dustin Lance Black, Eastwood has couched J. Edgar almost entirely in the first person, with Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a most unreliable narrator. Although Hoover’s version of the truth is occasionally contested in dialogue and, more subtly, in visual clues that might escape one’s notice on first viewing, it is not until we’ve nearly come to the end of this strange journey that Tolson, Hoover’s yes-man at work and his constant companion in private life, challenges the version of FBI history that Hoover has committed to print. Included in the short list of exaggerations and lies that Tolson sorrowfully enumerates is the fact that there was no white horse in the vicinity when Hoover made that fabled arrest. More than any other false claim that Hoover has made, it is the white horse which we suddenly realize was a fabrication of Hoover’s imagination—no matter how alive it appears on the screen—that undermines the reality, or rather the truth, of everything we’ve seen, as deliriously as does the final image of Naomi Watts in bed in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. (2001). Rather than the terse J. Edgar (which Hoover used as a personal signature), the film might have been more aptly titled “The Fever Dreams of J. Edgar Hoover.”

The movie takes some getting used to. It begins conventionally, with the elderly Hoover dictating the story of how he single-handedly transformed the FBI from an ineffectual government agency into the most powerful police force in the world and, in so doing, saved the US from subversives and terrorists within and without. Since Hoover’s paranoia did not distinguish between the Bolshevists of the ’20s and the civil rights activists of the ’60s, this official history of the FBI makes associative leaps back and forth through six decades. Complicating the narrative, the achronological history that Hoover dictates to his scribes opens onto subjective memories of both his private life and the material amassed in his infamous “secret files.” Hoover realized early in his career that knowledge is power; his initial desire to fingerprint every person in the US developed into massive surveillance via telephone taps and bugs of seven presidents, their families, and the people in their administrations. Anyone who held public office, anyone who was a celebrity of any kind, was fair game. Hoover used this “knowledge,” much of it secrets of the bedroom, as fodder for blackmail. It enabled him to keep his job through seven presidential administrations, and also to “persuade” whoever was running the Justice Department to authorize what should have been completely illegal surveillance.

Clint Eastwood, J. Edgar, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm. Helen Gandy and J. Edgar Hoover (Naomi Watts and Leonardo DiCaprio).

J. Edgar hop, skips, and jumps through this history. It spends almost no time on Hoover’s relation to Joseph McCarthy or his role in the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations, but leaves no doubt about his hatred of Martin Luther King Jr. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is of the top cop, who in the last years of his life was mainlining as much amphetamine as any Warhol superstar, dictating a letter smearing King, miming the voice of an imaginary African American. (The smears had to come from the inside, Hoover opined.) While the film never claims that Hoover or the FBI were complicit in King’s assassination—or in those of JFK and RFK, whom Hoover loathed almost as much—his rage against all three men certainly provokes speculation.

The man who used sexual secrets as commodities had without a doubt something to hide from the world and probably from himself. J. Edgar plays like a combination of Citizen Kane, Psycho, and an amateur Tennessee Williams production in which the actors are playing characters twenty years older than themselves but nevertheless rise to confrontations of great emotional power. Everything in Eastwood’s visual concept for the film—in particular the gleaming, yet heavily shadowed, desaturated color cinematography, and the obvious layers of latex on DiCaprio’s and Hammer’s faces when their characters age—speaks to the secrets and perversions of the closet. Wildly ambitious for her son, Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench) instills in him a terror of becoming a “daffodil.” After she dies, Eastwood gives us a Psycho-like tour of her bedroom that climaxes with Hoover putting on her beads and her dress, and, while regarding his reflection in her dressing table mirror, mimicking her voice to warn himself against exactly the temptation to which he has yielded.

There are few films to which the much-overused slogan “The personal is political” is better applied. Or that give a more mind-boggling spin to the imperative to “print the legend.” As Hoover’s private memories snowball in the film’s second hour, J. Edgar becomes a love story, whose poignancy is all the more powerful because it does not excuse the evil Hoover did as director of the FBI. Eastwood is a superb director of actors, and DiCaprio has not given a performance this rich and riveting since he became an adult. Like the film itself, the actor seems slightly wooden until we understand it is the character and his vision of the world that is stiff and stultified, made grotesque through repression. When I left the theater heading for the subway, the people in the street looked as mad and desperate as the people on the screen. More important than any detailing of the “anti-American” deeds of the FBI that the movie might provide is the overwhelming sense with which it leaves us—that we are engulfed by paranoia and corruption from the top down. J. Edgar is one crazy, wise, late masterpiece.

Amy Taubin

J. Edgar opens in select theaters on Wednesday, November 9, and in theaters nationwide on Friday, November 11.

Real Change


Alexei Jankowski and Alexander Sokurov, We Need Happiness, 2010, still from a color film, 50 minutes.

OUT OF BASIC PRACTICALITY, most festivals are content to build their programs on a “best of” format based on works submitted. This year’s DocLisboa, however, took a more ambitious curatorial approach: Any path one took through the hundred-plus films on offer guaranteed the opportunity to graduate with a new thesis on both the history and the current state of documentary film. While this will undoubtedly cement the festival’s reputation as an affair designed for fetishists of the genre, beyond merely filmic concerns, its framing by retrospectives of Harun Farocki and Jean Rouch—representing sociological and anthropological stances, respectively—allow for a probing of the great uncertainties of the present.

Where Europe is concerned, this was poetically undertaken by Ivette Löcker and Nikolaus Geyrhalter, whose films Nachtschichten (Night Shifts, 2010) and Abendland (Nightfall, 2010) perform the Joycean task of employing nightscapes to explore the problems that haunt us in daylight—whether we wish to remain blind to them or not. Löcker’s Nachtschichten follows a selection of individuals who—by choice or necessity, their activities illicit or vocational—live as nighthawks in Central Europe’s largest city, Berlin. Geyrhalter’s Abendland takes a similar approach, only widening the scenic focus onto the entire European continent over a patchwork of scenes that move gracefully from the institutional (an EU parliamentary session) to the ecclesiastical (a conference at the Vatican) to careless revelry (a stadium megarave.) Where Nachtschichten is more character-based, with its revolving cast of shadows speaking freely to the camera, Abendland adapts a metonymic approach: While no one scene is returned to, each feeds the next, forming a rich inner narrative logic.

We Need Happiness (2010), Aleksandr Sokurov’s recent collaboration with Alexei Jankowski, was a highlight of the festival. The fifty-four-minute documentary brings us into the homes of families residing in the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq and centers on the struggles they have endured throughout the past half century. Sokurov recites diaristic reflections on his trip, a tactic that illustrates how impossible it is to separate yourself from the world’s great problems when you are immediately confronted by them—We Need Happiness establishes the filmmaker as the most engaging literary voice-over artist working in documentary film. (Sorry, Mr. Herzog!) Elsewise, 20 Cigarettes (2011) by James Benning, the great West Coast structuralist, marks a transition from his landscape films (13 Lakes [2004] and 10 Skies [2004]) to cinematic portraiture: Inspired by Warhol’s screen tests, Benning has twenty individuals each smoke a single cigarette over the course of his film. Agnes Varda’s latest work, Agnès de ci de lá Varda (2011), little more than a “what I did on my summer vacation” presentation with embarrassing iCamera effects, was less compelling—especially when one considers that the late George Kuchar mined similar territory with lesser technology for the last thirty or so years of his life, bringing the material beyond reportage and into the realm of the immortal, a feat Varda’s film does not manage. Finally, George Harrison: Living in the Material World (2011) was given the benefit of a miss, as this critic can no longer stomach the prospect of witnessing Martin Scorsese’s devolution into mediocrity, and frankly, it’s hard to see how anyone could be persuaded to sit through a three-hour-long biopic of the former Beatle, regardless of the director. Anyway, given the great urgency and range of issues the festival otherwise delved into, the celebrity-culture tripe felt like precisely the kind of diversion it was otherwise aiming to avoid.

Our current Occupy Wall Street era is as fitting a time as ever to take a second look at Farocki’s Videograms of a Revolution (1992). Composed wholly of footage shot by bystanders—mainly amateurs with camcorders—the film documents the popular overthrow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s murderous regime in 1989. Videograms of a Revolution reminds us that, in order to be effective, change needs to be total and systemic. Watching the film as a citizen of the United States, a country whose constitution stipulates the right of the people to overthrow their government if necessary, one can’t help but draw inspiration from this coup d’état by the citizenry of a totalitarian regime that denied them the right to any expression of political dissent. Chaotic as the Romanian coup was, it led to the sort of real change that can’t be bought or voted for. In light of the comparatively vaster resources Americans have at their disposal, viewing Farocki’s work today leaves one with hope that the present street protests will explode into full-on revolution, permanently ridding us of the capitalist slave economy that continues to destroy countless lives.

Travis Jeppesen

The ninth international DocLisboa ran October 20–30.

Angelina Maccarone, Charlotte Rampling: The Look, 2011, still from a color film, 98 minutes. Charlotte Rampling.

“I WAS PUT INTO MOVIES because I was beautiful,” says the titular sixty-five-year-old legend in the slight hagiography Charlotte Rampling: The Look. It’s one of many self-evident declarations (another: “Demons are what haunts you”) in the first documentary by German director Angelina Maccarone, whose earlier films include Unveiled (2005) and Vivere (2007), both of which had limited runs in the US. Billed as “a self-portrait through others,” The Look consists mostly of the sounds of one desultory, vapid conversation after another. Rampling kibitzes politely with Juergen Teller and Paul Auster, among others, vaguely discussing the nine opaque topics around which the film’s chapters are organized: exposure, age, beauty, resonance, taboo, desire, demons, death, love. Each limp disquisition is illustrated with clips from the actress’s best-known works, including her breakthrough film Georgy Girl (1966), the chimp–diplomat’s wife romance Max mon amour (1986), and her first two collaborations with François Ozon, the career-revitalizing Under the Sand (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003). Every excerpt undermines Maccarone’s project, highlighting the gap between Rampling the daring, transfixing performer and Rampling the muted documentary subject—between the movies we’d rather be watching and the one we must patiently endure.

Maccarone, also credited as The Look’s writer, may have initially envisioned a more penetrating portrait. But, as reported in The Guardian in May, Rampling had final cut. The actress told journalist Catherine Shoard, “It was simply a condition of my involvement. If this film is about me, then I have to accept it, and if I can’t accept it, then I have to know it can be destroyed.” Compared with Maximilian Schell’s Marlene (1984), a documentary about the Blue Angel herself, in which Dietrich refused to be filmed but spoke candidly (and contradictorily and outrageously), The Look, which features Rampling in every frame, seems even more restricted—and unenlightening.

Rampling’s tetchy need for control spills out on occasion, the most satisfying moments in an exceptionally anodyne project. Early in The Look, the actress regally tells the crew, first in English (“Hey, boys . . . ”) before switching to French, where they should sit. After speaking for a few minutes to an offscreen Maccarone about death, including her older sister’s suicide, Rampling’s steely composure cracks and she becomes visibly irritated—or maybe just bored with the line of questioning: “Why are we talking about death? This wasn’t what we were supposed to talk about, was it?” she asks her director, who can respond only with a meek, “Yeah, it was.” “Not really the place here,” the subject frostily retorts.

Despite its circumscribed structure, Maccarone’s documentary does capture a few odd, spontaneous moments, including the richly incongruous sight of soigné Rampling playing foosball or the actress in a Paris park chatting up a bunch of old coots, one of whom she agrees to smooch. It’s a surprising instance of compliance from a performer whose key to self-preservation has been to “find a way that you are not invaded all the time.” And nowhere are her defenses against psychic trespass more evident than in the soft autobiographical sketch she agreed to participate in.

Melissa Anderson

Charlotte Rampling: The Look screens Thursday, November 3, at the IFC Center as part of DOC NYC and opens November 4 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Capital City


Werner Herzog, Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 106 minutes. Michael Perry.

MORTALITY IS A FACT AND A MYSTERY in Into the Abyss: a Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, Werner Herzog’s best documentary in many years. Herzog’s subject is state-mandated execution, which he addresses via a case of triple homicide that took place in Conroe, Texas. Michael Perry, on death row at the time the movie was shot, was executed eight days after Herzog interviewed him. His accomplice, Jason Burkett, received a prison sentence that would not make him eligible for parole until he was nearly sixty years old. Their story began in 2001 when, seemingly on impulse, the two young men stole a red Camaro and killed its owner while she was in her kitchen baking cookies; slightly later, in a botched attempt to cover the crime, they killed her teenage son and one of his friends.

The movie is all the more haunting for being so straightforward in its narrative organization, visual composition, and method of address. It’s hardly news that Herzog is not a conventional documentarian; so-called objective journalism is never an option for him. He opens this depiction of a death penalty case by stating openly that he is against the death penalty. While the release of Into the Abyss follows hard on the execution of the likely innocent Troy Davis, Herzog’s position is not founded on the possibility that the criminal justice system can make mistakes. “A state should not be allowed—under any circumstance—to execute anyone for any reason,” he says, adding that, as a German, he is acutely conscious of the barbaric extermination of six million Jews by the Nazi state.

Herzog chose Texas as his location because it is the largest execution mill in the US, and this particular case because the date of Perry’s death had been set and perhaps because (as Herzog said in an interview) out of all the convicts with whom he had spoken, Perry seemed the most dangerous and the most likely to kill again if he could. Despite his baby face and soft, eager voice, Perry’s pathology—his overwhelming narcissism—is evident from his first seconds on screen. Herzog begins by cleaning the glass window that separates him from the prisoner. As in all the interviews, the director never appears in front of the camera, but his voice—in part because of the clarity and intelligence of his questions—equals in presence the voice and image of his subjects. Herzog is a superb interviewer, never bludgeoning the interviewees with his power as filmmaker nor shying away out of discretion or discouragement. He’s expert with the follow-up question, which he employs not merely as a basic journalism technique (sadly fallen into disuse) but because he wants, above all, to put the truth of his subject’s experience on the screen.

Into the Abyss consists almost entirely of interviews with eleven people, each of them framed alone as they respond to Herzog’s offscreen questions. There are also brief tours of the execution chamber and of the crime scene. (If the latter footage is archival police video, the camera operator was an artist; if it’s a re-creation, it’s the only misstep in the movie.) The picture that emerges of Conroe, Texas, is bleak and despairing, and although there are economic class differences among the interviewees, no one’s family life is untouched by problems of drug and alcohol abuse or incarceration or poor health care or violent death (sometimes accidental, sometimes intentional). In addition to Perry, the interviewees include Burkett; his father, Delbert Burkett, who has spent over half of his life in prison and whose testimony about the horrors of his son’s childhood convinced the jury to spare him from the death penalty; and Lisa Stotler-Balloun, whose mother and brother were killed by Perry and Burkett. Stotler-Balloun, who says that she felt “relief” after she saw Perry executed, offers through that description the movie’s only support of the death penalty.

The clearest anti–death penalty arguments are made near the beginning of the movie by Richard Lopez, a death row chaplain, who says he would have stopped certain executions if he could, and late in the movie, much more compellingly, by Fred Allen, a prison officer who was the leader of the team that strapped people to be executed to their gurneys. Allen performed this job for 120 executions, sometimes, he says, working two a week. (Texas Governor Rick Perry has signed off on over two hundred executions. But of course his involvement isn’t hands-on, which is perhaps why, unlike Allen, he seems never to have given the death penalty a second thought.) Allen describes how he went from believing that if execution was the law, he was going to see that “it was done with integrity” to realizing that “no one has the right to take another life even if it is the law.” It is the movie’s most revelatory sequence. Acting on his belief, Allen quit his job just a year or so short of being eligible for his pension.

Herzog’s penchant for over-the-moon characters is more than satisfied here by Melyssa Thompson-Burkett (a dead ringer for Phoebe Cates). She goes schoolgirl giddy describing her relationship to Burkett, whom she married after connecting through a prisoner letter exchange program. Although their physical contact is limited to supervised hand holding and kissing, she is nevertheless pregnant with his child. Herzog seems to regard this as a manifestation of the life force, but he still presses Thompson-Burkett for an explanation of her conception. She plays it coy (perhaps saving the details for a tabloid payout), forcing Herzog to come up with his own version of the origin of life, a combination of fact and metaphor that, like the entirety of Into the Abyss, jostled my thoughts for days.

Amy Taubin

Into the Abyss plays Wednesday, November 2, at 7:30 PM at New York University’s Skirball Center for the Performing Arts as part of DOC NYC. The DOC NYC festival runs in New York November 2–10, 2011. Into the Abyss opens theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 11.