COLUMNS

  • Riding Giants

    THE POPULAR IMAGE OF SURFING—a rider on a large, wind-groomed wave—is, alas, an idealization. Waves are bad more often than good, even (in fact, especially) at world-class breaks like Pipeline. Hence surfers travel when they can, in the hope that the waves will be better elsewhere. Occasionally they are. But even in the elite ranks of globe-trotting professionals, most of one’s time is spent doing various mental and physical finger exercises. Great waves arrive like Rilkean storms of inspiration, and serious surfers are fully the equal of artists in the degree of their commitment and obsessiveness.

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  • Baadasssss!

    MELVIN VAN PEEBLES’S now-legendary Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in) was the first film to show a black man kill a white man—two white cops, in fact—and get away with it. Rejected by the Hollywood system, it became required viewing for members of the Black Panther Party. But its appeal reached far beyond the radical fringe, as the box-office figures attest: Made independently on a shoestring budget of $150,000 in 1971, Sweet Sweetback grossed over $15 million in the United States, despite opening in only two theaters initially and, because of

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  • Superstar in a Housedress: The Life and Legend of Jackie Curtis

    JACKIE CURTIS made brilliant entrances, and although he sometimes overstayed his welcome, his final exit, in 1985 at age thirty-eight, came much too soon. Heroin, to paraphrase Lou Reed, was the death of him. Craig Highberger’s documentary portrait, Superstar in a Housedress: The Life and Legend of Jackie Curtis, which opens at New York’s Film Forum this month, takes its title from one of Curtis’s wryly class-conscious self-descriptions. The film would be a pedestrian affair if not for the vivacity of its subject, whose multiple incarnations—both on and off stage and screen—are evoked through

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  • Gary Indiana on Los Angeles Plays Itself

    THOM ANDERSEN’S film essay Los Angeles Plays Itself—which opens in New York, at Film Forum, in July—would seem to confirm a view that many of us who’ve lived all or part of our lives in Los Angeles have held as a matter of course: to wit, that LA’s a great place to live if you have nothing to do with “the Industry,” in which thirty-nine out of forty Angelenos are neither employed nor especially interested.

    The film’s opening sequence illustrates the bogus and silly qualities of “Los Angeles on film,” with footage from B movies like The Crimson Kimono (1959), He Walked by Night (1948), Pushover

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  • Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

    STRANGE TO SAY, at the very moment the rock-critical establishment finally discovered the ephemeral genius of avant-disco pioneer Arthur Russell (the adulation is lost on Russell, who died poor, of AIDS-related illness, in 1992), I found myself joining the millions who had plunked down their twenty bucks for St. Anger, the 2003 album by Metallica, a band that had always been—how shall I put this?—outside my sphere of reality. What activated my desire for this particular fetish object, which I probably will never play, was the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, by Joe Berlinger and

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  • Lars von Trier’s Dogville

    THE DOGME 95 “Vow of Chastity” notwithstanding, purity isn’t high on Lars von Trier’s agenda. Dogme’s refusal of certain resources and techniques is aimed less at establishing a “pure” filmic practice than at stimulating greater awareness and more conscious use of conventions. Strict rules can be liberating rather than oppressive, so long as they haven’t hardened into multiplex clichés. Although his new feature, Dogville, isn’t a Dogme film, von Trier has nevertheless imposed strict constraints on himself, shooting entirely on a soundstage. The set consists mainly of outlines and blueprints

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  • The Five Obstructions

    “The hardboiled old men with hearts of stone must die,” Lars von Trier declared in his first manifesto, twenty years ago, fresh from film school and ready to launch a Nordic nouvelle vague by killing the Father—or fathers, Ingmar Bergman in particular. Among the ancients the enfant terrible had in mind to vanquish was perhaps his professor and mentor, Danish icon Jørgen Leth, a poet, novelist, diplomat, and filmmaker whose poetic documentaries form the antonym of von Trier’s aggressive aesthetic. Nursing a grudge for two decades after Leth supposedly snubbed him in the hallway of the Danish Film

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  • Leni Riefenstahl

    NOW THAT SHE IS authentically dead—at 101, felled by a curse from the ghost of Ernst Jünger, who lived two years longer—Leni Riefenstahl has joined the shades she often conjured during a career of ardor, mystification, and, perhaps, subliminal expiation.

    What good would it do to apologize? she asks in the 1993 Roy Müller documentary The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. Apologies don’t turn the clock back or raise the dead from dust. The sensible tactic, in the face of speeding time and mass amnesia, is to move on and hope that everybody forgets about it. But Leni knew they never

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  • Gary Indiana on The Fog of War

    I WILL BEGIN BY ADMITTING that I fell asleep five times during a morning press screening of Errol Morris’s The Fog of War—which received its US premiere at the New York Film Festival last September and is currently playing in theaters around the country—and I left the auditorium with precious few impressions besides that of the spectacularly bad dental work that Robert S. McNamara, the former secretary of defense, exposed each time he was featured in close-up. Having now viewed the documentary three additional times, while fully awake, what ultimately seems most impressive about Morris’s skewed

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  • Nathaniel Kahn’s My Architect

    We do not “own” the facts of our lives at all. This ownership passes out of our hands at birth, at the moment we are first observed. —Janet Malcolm

    LOUIS I. KAHN’S NOT-HUGE OEUVRE includes a disproportionate number of masterpieces: the Salk Institute, Yale’s Center for British Art, the Kimbell Art Museum, the Phillips Exeter Academy library, Bangladesh’s capitol. Modern buildings with the presence of ancient monuments, they exude the timeless, sacred quality that invites you to transcend—not to historicize.

    When Kahn died suddenly in Penn Station in 1974, with illegible ID, the police were unable

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  • Gus Van Sant’s Elephant

    WHEN GUS VAN SANT’S ELEPHANT was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May, it was taken by some Americans on the scene as a backhanded gesture. At a festival haunted by echoes of European-American tensions over the war in Iraq it was hardly surprising that the honoring of yet another movie about the Columbine massacre (a year after the same prize had gone to Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine) might look like a deliberate statement about America as seen through European eyes: psychotic, gun-crazy, on the edge of meltdown. The irony is that, judged as a movie about the Columbine shootings,

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  • Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand

    SOMETIME IN 1969, during the making of Easy Rider, Dennis Hopper introduced his costar and producer, Peter Fonda, to Bruce Conner, the San Francisco–based artist and avant-garde filmmaker best known for the 16 mm found-footage collages he began showing in the late ’50s. “Bruce’s work was not soiled by any desire to make features,” writes Fonda in his deliriously earnest 1998 autobiography, Don’t Tell Dad. Fonda goes on to describe Conner’s visits to his home in LA. “We screened his movies and talked about our dreams. After watching his films—which I could do for hours—we often played music

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