Look Who’s Talking

Tony Pipolo on First Look at the Museum of the Moving Image

Jon Jost, Coming to Terms, 2013, color, sound, 89 minutes. James Benning.

THERE’S PLENTY OF GENUINELY UNUSUAL FARE at this year’s First Look series at the Museum of the Moving Image. In addition to new works by American stalwarts Jon Jost and Ken Jacobs (whose 3-D venture The Guests is not to be missed) and the final film of the formidable Russian filmmaker Aleksei German, the series, as it has in the past, will premiere a number of offbeat narratives and documentaries.

Take Alone with My Horse in the Snow, Axel Bogousslavsky (France, 2014), Alexandre Barry’s singular portrait of a poet, actor, and artist who once collaborated with Marguerite Duras but who now lives like a hermit in a forest. Even ritual tasks to sustain existence seem preternatural, as does his drawing and music. Perhaps in response to an offscreen question about his choices, he exclaims that he does not care to be understood—things that are understood no longer exist—better to remain mysterious and unknown. So eerily intense and yet recessive is the man and so self-effacing the film’s director that it seems we are witness to an unmediated vision with nary a camera on site.

Equally eccentric but existing on the impoverished margins of society, Charlie, the protagonist of Charlie’s Country (Australia), is an aged aborigine living in a predominantly white community, far from the bush country where he was born. Dependent on public aid, he lives in a hovel, roams the countryside, and hobnobs with others like him, protesting mildly against laws that inhibit his old habits. Eventually, he loses his cool, attacks a police car, goes to prison, and in the end—inspired by memories of performing for the Queen at the opening of the Opera House decades earlier—agrees to teach aborigine children to dance. The film’s tone and pace suit Charlie’s demeanor, which, as persuasively and unpredictably conveyed by David Gulpilil, keeps it from falling into mere sermonizing.

Denis Côté’s ironically titled Joy of Man’s Desiring (Canada) is a subtly corrosive gaze at the soul-defeating nature of labor, which is personified here as a seductive woman (Emilie Sigouin) who promises everything in exchange for devotion, only to turn into a vengeful ogress if she is not efficiently served. The exchanges among factory workers bear out the underlying malaise of those locked into a bargain that requires they keep up the perennial dance between bosses and labor lest they risk expulsion.

Sanaz Azari’s I for Iran (Belgium) and Marie Voignier’s International Tourism (France) are documents about countries whose revolutions have led to tyrannical regimes. In the former, set in Brussels, the format is simple: A teacher (played by actor Behrouz Majidi) stands before a blackboard and instructs director Azari (who remains offscreen) in Persian, her mother tongue, using an illustrated textbook dating from the Islamic revolution. As they proceed, it becomes clear how and why the definitions of certain words were dictated by cultural and religious principles. The charm of the instructor and the quiet but determined efforts of the “student” create an exchange that is both moving and illuminating.

Voices and language undergo a transformation in International Tourism, in which the disastrous consequences of the communist revolution in North Korea are embedded in the very form of the film. Tourists are led across squares, around monuments, and into museums and film studios by guides whose lips move but whose voices we never hear. “The official line,” thus suppressed, is replaced by paraphrased generalities in intertitles. A wall of texts goes untranslated as a title innocuously summarizes, “the text and diagrams are painted by hand.” To preserve the controlling myths of the regime, photographs are replaced by garish paintings illustrating the atrocities of the prerevolutionary state. Presidential portraits are not offered to visitors, but we are told that a huge painting of “the home where Kim II-sung was born is a tourist site.” In a film studio, actors dub approved dialogue for banal imitations of Hollywood melodramas—the same unctuous schmaltz produced by the Soviet Union in the Stalinist era. In effect, Voignier has turned the censoring propaganda machine against itself, silencing its all-encompassing lies while retaining a resonant sound ambience that renders the tourist guides robotic mutes.

Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God, 2014, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 170 minutes.

Before We Go (Jorge Leon, Belgium), a documentary-like meditation on imminent death, follows three elderly people as they interact with younger dancers and singers of the Theatre Royale de Monnale in Brussels, a company, we assume, to which they once belonged. Ghostly reminders of age and the inevitable infirmities of the body, they move about, observe rehearsals, examine props, and even get a chance to dance with those still in their prime. Dialogue is minimal and would only overdo what is enacted in the piece’s pantomimic encounters and incidental touches: An HIV-positive man listens to a mordant account of an old colleague’s final moments in a hospital bed; one old man weaves throughout the building with a young figure dressed as death; a lovely rendition of Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament underlines the point.

A quite different focus on death is found in Jon Jost’s Coming to Terms, as a terminally ill old man (played by the filmmaker James Benning) asks the largely estranged members of his family, two ex-wives and two sons—one gay and one a Jesus freak—to help him die before unbearable pain sets in. They do so and debate the consequences afterward. Jost, who has conjured a number of unusual visions of Americana since the 1970s, manifests the same straightforward, unadorned cinematic style—static shots, long takes, no camera movement—alternating impressive vistas of the Montana landscape with intimate, though dissociatively framed and edited, encounters between mothers and sons. All of this is characterized by Jost’s predilection for deafening silence that allows the natural world to speak and suits the subject all too well. However stark and somber the film seems, one discerns an underlying bleak wit in the filmmaker’s farewell to a world he no longer recognizes and seems somewhat relieved to depart. As Benning, close in age and cut from the same cloth as his director, dissolves into the landscape near the end, a doubly resonant experience comes to a close in this paean to the American pastoral filmmaking tradition.

Yet another, wildly different, take on willed death, Jessica Hausner’s Amour Fou is liberally based on a double suicide pact between the great German writer Heinrich von Kleist and Henriette Vogel, a bourgeois housewife of the early 1800s. A stately period piece, the film is laced with subtle wit and a slightly sardonic tone befitting the dementedness of its premise. Far from a biopic, its absurdly one-note Kleist, obsessed with finding a woman willing to die with him, is a convenient vessel to explode Romantic myths. When his cousin opts out, he convinces poor Henriette, who, to avoid a painful death from a tumor diagnosed (incorrectly, it turns out) by the medical wise men of the day takes Heinrich up on his offer, in a sense killing two birds with one stone. Too passive, and far too hesitant to voice last-minute doubt brought on by a cure her husband learns of, she is about to speak when Heinrich’s pistol blows her away (the staging and editing of which is either lifted from or an allusion to the arranged suicide in Bresson’s 1977 The Devil, Probably). With its abundance of self-absorbed male characters of varying patriarchal stripes, the film could have been a unidimensional feminist tract, but Hausner, whose Lourdes (2009) was a similar blend of spiritual mystery and intelligent skepticism, has created another haunting work of labile, ambiguous beauty.

There’s no mistaking that Aleksei German, director of Hard to Be a God, is the same man who made Khrustalyov, My Car!, one of the masterpieces of the 1990s. Both films share a teeming, frenetic, often grotesque mise-en-scène, peppered with sly looks at the camera and allegorical political bite. At once in-your-face and close to unfathomable, the new film is more wild vision than coherent narrative. A narrator tells us in the first minute that the cluttered snow scene in front of us is not the Earth but another planet, eight hundred years behind ours. I’ll take his word for it. But, given the twelfth-century “you are there,” mud-and-rain-riddled look of the next 170 minutes, he could simply be joking. The film wallows in such reeking physicality that it’s a wonder we don’t smell every defecation, fart, urination, bloodletting, and intestinal spill that generously fills every frame. We might think we’re in Bruegel territory, but the canvas teeters at times toward a Bosch-like image of hell. Through it all, we glimpse political figures, armies, religious leaders, all indistinguishable from your average peasant, whose functions seem interchangeable and nebulous. Last but not least is God—or rather the son of God, or rather a strong, good-looking dude named Don Rumata (Leonid Yarmolnik) who doubles as God—dispensing swift justice, and sometimes what seems the opposite, and who in the end sits wearily with his feet in a pond, declaring that everything that happens is really man’s fault, because it’s tough to be a God. It’s a bizarre, exasperating, exhausting experience of strenuously earned reward, and I can’t wait to see it again.

First Look runs January 9–19 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God also has a run January 30 – February 8 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.