PRINT February 1985


WHEN ONE FILM FOLLOWS ANOTHER in quick succession, when a chorus emerges from a collection of seemingly disparate voices, you start to make connections, linking together comfortable segues and queasy common tendencies. You become not the spectator of a single film but the audience for a cinematic anthology which itself is a work, a particular type of curatorial accomplishment replete with themes and subtexts. After I’d seen about twenty-five films at this season’s New York Film Festival, certain thematic confluences began to rise subtly to the surface like a cup of coffee cursed with last week’s milk. And milk, the juvenile’s beverage of choice, seems an apt garnish for a festival that clearly had its mind on children.

It is not impossible to compare the viewpoint of children with that of adult media spectators, who also see this “shown” world via an alteration of scale; whether through the reduction of video or the enlargement of film on the screen, the spectator is handily transformed into an agreeable, mute child. Corporate Hollywood movies have, in part, constructed this focus, and ceaselessly perpetuate it. In Paul Brickman’s Risky Business (1983), for example, the point of view is ours as well as the young herds, whose parents recite a litany of dos and don’ts that he must obey during their absence, directing his use of their suburban semi-Xanadu. It is we (through our identification with the boy hero) who receive, understand, and harmlessly rebel against the maintenance of suburbia. The epics of Stephen Spielberg repeat the conventional narrative opposition between a phantasmagorical universe of childhood benevolence and an implacably repressive adult domain; it is we, as well as the children, who cry at the lack of a universal language, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and at the sureness of death, in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). In an interesting reversal , prime-time television is currently inundated with a spate of sitcoms that feature kids stricken with the traits of adult behavior; they are scheming, manipulative, and oppressive (and in the case of Family Ties, right-wing), while the cowering parents are gentle and guileless. Perhaps these devilish juveniles are the work of TV writers who being veterans of the ’60s, are playing the role of avenging angels, etching out acidic portrayals of mean-spirited, calculating tot-reactionaries.

The “kid movies’’ included in this year’s festival are not the products of corporate Hollywood. They are clearly less for youth and more about it. Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Maurice Pialat’s A Nos Amours (1983), Márta Mészáros’ Diary For My Children (1983), Wojciech Marczewski’s Shivers (1981), and, more peripherally, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Class Relations (1983), Jacques Rivette’s Love on the Ground (1984), Andrzej Wajda’s A Love in Germany (1983), and Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984), all concern themselves with childhood (or an adulthood granted the dispensations of childhood) and its relationship to the economic and social field that contains it. Stranger Than Paradise drags the lineage of the European Art Movie into the Peanut Gallery with cute and amusing aplomb. Near the film’s beginning we see a graffiti-strewn wall which wears the line “U.S. out of Everywhere.” Jarmusch seems to have taken this very seriously, as he has managed to make a film about an America in which America is missing. European filmmakers are masters of this kind of geographic subtraction, but Jarmusch is one of the first home-grown practitioners. Peopled by guys who wear faces from a Fassbinder wet dream of a decade ago, Stranger Than Paradise is a smartly economic movie which understands its limitations and contains them in an astute, comfy manner. Its episodic structure escapes the demanding resolutions of literal narrative and adds to the film’s skitlike surface. To some, it’s a “nice’’ film, a good-natured giggle, a fresh foray into the “New American Cinema.”

But Stranger Than Paradise is really about cool, in that cool is about gesture—the fold of a collar, the cut of a jacket, the speed of a shuffle. Cool is always seen and almost never heard. lt’s about body language and seldom about spoken language. And when it is “said” ifs usually withholding and parodic. Cool knows its limitations and is cool enough to keep them a sweet secret. Cool understands the mean spirit that flourishes in quarters where exclusion is aped and stylized. Amusingly, those on the outside looking in at cool actually find it all nice and good-natured. They’re not considering its investment in contempt. Stranger Than Paradise is a quick, funny fairy tale whose low budget shows up all those in “the business’’ who waste blockbuster bucks tooting away forty grams to write five pages of shit dialogue. If Hollywood turned out more cool films they wouldn’t even have to write dialogue.

Back to the lives of the kids in Stranger Than Paradise. Willy (John Lurie), Eddie (Richard Edson), and Eva (Eszter Balint) were probably never really kids but in another way they always will be. Eva jets in from Budapest and crashes with her cousin Willy, who lives in a perfect shithole of a place. He watches TV while he downs TV dinners, explaining, “This is the way we eat in America.” He instructs Eva not to say she’s going to use the vacuum cleaner but that she’s going to “choke the alligator.” Willy and Eddie are friends. They play cards, loiter around, and do routines. Eva splits to Cleveland to visit her Aunt Lotte (Cecillia Stark). Willy and Eddie joyride out to join her. Everything in this rotten postindustrial landscape looks like hell. Auntie’s house is butted against a railroad track, as almost every other structure in this film seems to be—making many shots look like swipes from O. Winston Link. Leaving behind the adorable aunt who talks funny, the threesome heads for Florida, where they buy sunglasses so they’ll look like real tourists. They survive on scams, petty pilfering, card tricks, and racetracks. They decline the designation of “responsible adult” and shuffle around just fast enough to catch the gravy train before they’re flat broke. Lucky things happen to them. It almost seems like they’re slumming till the trust fund comes through. They’re never inconvenienced by pleasure or desire. (Except for Eddie, whose little quirks tend to de-cliché him. He’d better watch it; Willy might leave him flat for a cooler friend.) They all seem dressed up in someone else’s clothing which is just too big for them, as though they raided the attic and found mommy and daddy’s old duds. Stranger Than Paradise is a disingenuous yet winning parody of everything, which picks up mileage by dressing kids up and dressing America down.

The adolescent sexuality that is hardly even implicit in the Jarmusch film is made stereotypically explicit in A Nos Amours. Pialat’s film contends with the trials and tribulations of dealing with a young girl’s exploding desire; of trying to tame the pulsating, undulating irresponsibilities and insatiable needs of a budding yet already voracious gaping maw. In other words, A Nos Amours is the latest Franco-nympho export film. This is the kind of movie that funnels so smoothly into the Paris Theatre/Lincoln Plaza art-house circuit. Using his mastery of conventional narrative exposition, Pialat indulges his notion of unwieldy female sexuality but is savvy enough to envelop his saga in the wraps of “domestic melodrama,” giving its picturesque T & A the validation of “sociological exploration.” Suzanne (Sandrine Bonnaire) strikes terror into the heart of her family, detonating raucous screaming sessions, but still finds time to break young boys’ hearts. She seductively purrs, "For the while it’s you. You’re cute,” and seduces them with fantastic promises—“I’ll make you 15 again: She proudly declares her allegiance: “I’m on no one’s side. I’m for myself.” And what a demonic young beastie she is. With Pialat (of course) playing daddy, the man she really desires, Suzanne emerges as just another churlish dragonette, another directorial wet dream presided over by papa.

The father/daughter theme as subtext extends to Mészáros’ Diary For My Children, a semiautobiographical view of the oppressive Stalinization of Eastern Europe. The film can be seen as a complex examination of the relationship between Juli (Zsuzsa Czinkóczi) and her guardian, Magda (Anna Polony), a staunch party functionary who supposedly exemplifies the repressive force of the regime of Matyás Rákosi. But it also can be seen as a strict delineation of character, eschewing subtlety and difference, and thereby replicating the binary extremities of the regime it seeks to criticize. It is the Hungary of 1947, and Juli is an orphaned teenager returning from Russia; her mother is dead and her sculptor father has disappeared in the Stalinist horror, dragged from his studio by the secret police. Magda adopts her, but Juli is lost in reveries of her parents’ idyllic love, which we see as a slow-motion, utopian familial romp through some Uralian Shangri-la. These fantasy passages, combined with the escapism of her constant moviegoing, constitute the bulk of Juli’s concerns, pulling her away from her role as dutiful youth to that of moping truant. Repulsed by Magda’s attempts at concern she cathects to János, a colleague of Magda’s and not incidentally played by the same actor (Jan Nowicki) who embodies Juli’s fantasy of her father. She compounds the authorities’ suspicion of János by moving in with him and his son. But Magda and the regime she represents continue to stalk Juli. The fact that her connection with János seals his fate and guarantees his arrest is of little concern to her. The tangible presence and vulnerablility of those who people her world mean little to her. She communes only with a phantasmagorical yesteryear or (like the child/spectator she is) with huge figures on a movie screen that emphasize her own miniaturization. Magda’s character escapes momentarily from the cliched portrayal of Commie ogre, but Juli seems forever sealed as a sullen scamp. Parading around like "her majesty the baby; she appears less a victim of the regime’s (and Mészáros) overdetermined melodrama and more like some little princess who gets sulky on the maid’s day off. While Mészáros intends to picture Juli as a brave little freedom fighter bucking the tides of oppression with an assertion of her own desires, the character appears merely as a narcissistic projection emerging through the autobiographical mode. Unfortunately Mészáros does not speculate on what might exist outside the dualities of oppressive totalitarianism and anesthetized self-interest.

Marczewski’s Shivers handles similar terrain, focusing on the Poland of the mid-’50s. Tomek (Tomasz Hudziec) is a young boy caught in the powerful push and tug between Church and State, between the admonishments of Catholicism and the dictations of the Stalinist left. The climate is rife with canaries who sing to the authorities and fathers (like Tomek’s) who disappear in the night. Tomek is sent to a Communist youth academy, where he crawls through a miasma of physical and psychological trials. The academy is a buzzing nest of zealous adherents, religious malcontents, and a young woman instructor who, like Magda in Diary For My Children, is condemned to play the role of “repressed femme ideologue.” Shivers excels at its depiction of the complexities of childhood, its unmasked little terrorisms and stirring sexualities. But what begins as a densely rich portrait of adolescence under duress soon thins out into a silly cartoon of duplicity and corruption, marching on to a ridiculous narrative closure. In a relentless process of social alignment Tomek, who up until now has been a model of juvenile indecision and relative benevolence, stares at himself in the mirror, wets down his hair like an ardent comrade, betrays his friends and family, and begins spouting the jargon of the regime with the precision of a seasoned ideologue. Was his toothpaste spiked with LSD? Was the moon full? The film’s final 15 minutes are so abruptly silly that they struggle the entire project to the ground with the ease of Hulk Hogan flooring Riptide’s Murray Bozinsky.

Aside from the festival’s focus on children, another theme can be noted: the picturing of Eastern Europe under the thumb of Stalin. In addition to Diary For My Children and Shivers, attention to this period surfaces in a number of other films as a kind of casually dropped mention, a shorthand signal of “human interest” and “concern.” Victor Nuñez’s A Flash of Green (1984) tells of the battle between ecologically minded community folk and land speculators in West Florida. One of the characters is a maverick scientist, a woman who was apparently banished from her profession many years before because she had translated the work of a Hungarian colleague. Although the film is more than vague about the circumstances surrounding the incident, I suppose one is meant to surmise that she was victimized by McCarthyism for aiding a victim of Stalinism. Wajdas A Love in Germany takes place during World War II and tells of a young Polish prisoner of war condemned to death by the Nazis for the crime of being the lover of a German woman. The authorities offer him the privilege of being “aryanized,” to become German, which he vehemently declines, preferring death to the erasure of his Polishness. And even in Stranger Than Paradise Eva is a visitor from another planet called Budapest.

What becomes interesting is how these films are read in a festival such as this one, in the America of the mid ’80s. This has always been a country that has sported a cavalierly undifferentiated reading of the political left, equating government-subsidized health care with the boogey man of “socialized medicine; union organizers with “commie dupes,” and antiwar demonstrators as “outside agitators.” It follows from this that the explicit critique of Stalinist Moscow in these films will, in America, inevitably collapse into a generalized attack on any political activity on the left. While it is important to criticize the evacuation of freedom in Eastern Europe, it is equally important to keep in mind the American governments soft spot for authoritarianism on the right. These films, which seemingly deal with the anthematic struggle for liberty, wind up like sentimental cartoons of victimization. Ultimately uncritical of how institutions and belief systems (churches, corporations, governments, and families) really do dictate power relations, they swell into broadbased collections of “feelings.” But greeting cards rarely save lives. These films are sloppy salutes to the purposely general idea of ”human universality“: a flowing of the milk of human kindness that miraculously heals the wounds of everyone everywhere (because everyone is the same) and warms the hearts of numbed-out filmgoers and festival directors. They are symptomatic not only of this festival but of contemporary culture in general: of a nonspecificity which blurs the important distinctions between left and right, between then and now. They solidify corporate power, reduce memory to the dictations of the sixty-second spot, and eradicate the palpability of history. So the same Film Festival audience that cheered for Diary For My Children could easily go gaga over Boat People (1983), Ann Hui’s entry from last year, which gives Red Dawn (1984), John Milius’ ”me big Yankee hard-on make commie die’’ singsong, a run for its money.

Finally, mention should be made of three laudable loose ends which were perhaps the strongest entries in the festival. Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Memoirs of Prison (1984) connects with the Eastern European films in that it examines the tortuous disappearance of human rights, but this time the oppressor is Brazil’s right-wing regime of the 1940s, which imprisoned thousands of left dissidents. Adapted from a semiautobiographical novel by Graciliano Ramos (which was writ-ten during his own incarceration), it not only chronicles the hierarchical ordering of the Brazilian penal system but also considers how experience is organized through artmaking. Unlike the films of Mészáros and Marczewski it does not present a binary universe of absolute right and absolute wrong , but instead studies the degrees of intolerance, the comedic ironies and shades of contradiction, that comprise power relations.

Intolerance and irony’s sad reckonings are also the stuff of The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), Robert Epstein’s powerful documentary which chronicles the 1978 double assassination of George Moscone, San Francisco’s mayor, and Harvey Milk, the openly gay politician elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors. Gathering together TV news footage and talking-head interviews, Epstein shows both the liberating force of Milk’s presence in San Francisco’s politics and the repressive backlash which ensued, culminating in the murderous rampage by fellow Board member Dan White. That White today is a free man attests not only to the farcical antics of the justice system, but also to Americas affection for the violence that simmers just below its surface. The Times of Harvey Milk is an effective and eloquent comment on this tragic state of affairs.

American-style violence, replete with Texas bars, rock’n’roll , radio preachers, and corny jokes, is the stuff of Blood Simple (1983), Joel Coen’s crazily confident first feature, a rowdy homage to noir and gore. A bad marriage results in extracurricular sex, which makes for a divorce detective, which leads to trick photography, which detonates murder, which culminates in an orgy of foul-ups, bleeps, and blunders. Dan Hedaya, M. Emmet Walsh, Frances McDormand, and John Getz head up an impressive cast which acts out the zany intricacies of Coen’s script (written with his brother Ethan) with a kind of deadpan hysteria. But this possible contradiction enlivens the movie, making it not only a good-ol’-boy romp but also a chillingly effective comment on the machinations which underpin the love affair with violence. Whether construed as foreplay, diplomacy, or the trickery of a redneck detective, machinations of this sort often make for the caperlike quality of American life and give the film the sourly ringing feel of truth. Dogs saunter through corridors, cigarettes dangle languorously from the mouths of stuffed animals, and guys clean up bloodbaths to the accompaniment of the Four Tops crooning "lt’s the Same Old Song; making the entire scene look like some radically disheveled Mr. Clean commercial. The rejected husband tries to explain his psychological condition to his philandering wife by pointing to his head and bleating, “In here I’m anal.” This kind of wacky shorthanding marks most of the dialogue and accounts for Coen’s ability to juggle drawling Texas vernaculars with terse one-line jabs. But perhaps the film’s most effective component is Barry Sonnenfeld’s stunningly eccentric cinematography, which clumps together a gang of skewed viewings into a crazy quilt fit to adorn any asylum. If one recalls that Dan White, Harvey Milk’s killer, was able to cop a plea for manslaughter on the grounds that he ate too much junk food, then Blood Simple seems horrifyingly on the mark. Hey kids, stay away from the Twinkies.

Barbara Kruger is an artist who writes regularly for Artforum.