New York

“The Golden Eighties,” directed by Chantal Akerman; “Heart Like a Wheel,” directed by Jonathan Kaplan

New York Film Festival

With a number of exceptions, this year’s New York Film Festival was comprised of a cinema entertaining that great theme of themes: man’s terrible struggle with his terrible freedom. The “great” European directors Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, Alain Tanner, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Andrzej Wajda portray the gargantuan responsibility of it all: the painful quandaries of history, the infinity of the spiritual, the charms of esthetic formality, the romantic immortalisms of sexual otherness. Carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, these are “great” and ambitious men, artists who mediate between God and the public—and who, in doing so, have incidentally refined the art of making the “perfect” festival film. Compared to the ireloquent exercises in florid pretense, Robert Altman’s Streamers and Francis Coppola’s Rumble Fish read like refreshingly forthright expositions of the classic boy-bonding riff. Both films seem admirably stuck in the concrete and suggest a criticality that ironically eludes the work of their Euro-intellectual brothers, who are just too busy tracking down metaphor and apocalypse under every pebble, between each gracious fold of satin, and at the tip of every rosy-pink tit. But located even further from this aforementioned grandiosity are Chantal Akerman’s The Golden Eighties and Jonathan Kaplan’s Heart Like a Wheel.

Like Godard’s Passion, The Golden Eighties looks at the assemblage of material and intellectual goods that comprise a movie. But where Godard comfortably segues into his familiar narcissistic harangues and self-congratulatory intellectualisms, Akerman abides by a terse economics. She tells us of preparation and product, of the refinements that accumulate to produce representation. Unlike her previous TouteUne Nuit (1981-82), which indulges in a brand of Hallmark Card avant-gardism, The Golden Eighties melds the stylistics and intellectual dispensations available to avant-garde practice with the conventions of popular cinema. The film is divided into four parts, beginning with a section called “Audition.” Shot in video and blown up to 35 mm, this is a litany of performers’ tryouts which hone the multiple to the singular and conflate the notions of reduction and portrayal. As a sampler of characterological possibility, it allows each hopeful actress and actor to coat their lines with a purportedly personalized intonation. The words they speak and sing are the staples of a familiar mode, that of the movie musical, and through their repeated shadings one can say that Akerman defoliates a genre, encouraging the viewer to consider the construction of illusion. However, it should be noted that this entire section consists of avant-garde maneuvers which are also deserving of certain de-constructions. This does not occur here.

The next three segments, titled “Project 2,” “Project 3,” and “The Golden Eighties,” reconnect and formalize the deconstructions of “Audition.” Located in a soda shop, a beauty parlor, and a dress shop, they emerge in a moment of minor astonishment. As “Audition” ends, the curtains framing the screen widen as the video/film image gives way to the precisely shiny flourishes of widescreen 35 mm. This can be read as a reward to the patient spectator (perhaps unschooled in appreciation of the avant-garde) who sat out the first hour of non-resolution in both the image and the narrative. And this meeting of the fuzzily unkempt video image with the snazziness of cinematic color illustrates how novelty invades the realm of visual pleasure, how formality envelops preparation in what is seen as the fixity of the image. So Akerman’s melodramatically melodic declarations of lost love are siphoned through a repetitive procedure which empties them of their “truth,” of their ability to solicit the empathetic response. Though employing a different approach than the earlier Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), or Les Rendez-vous D’Anna (1978), The Golden Eighties can be read as another of Akerman’s critical positionings vis-à-vis the seamlessness of the image and the figures that embody it.

In relation to this last point the inclusion of Akerman herself, wrestling with the specificities of recording techniques and directorial gestures, connects again with Godard’s autobio-pic “man and his machines” number. But where he displays a plodding self-seriousness, she presents herself with a sort of lilting irony which admittedly comes perilously close to cutesiness. In ending the film with a pan of the city of Brussels, Akerman acknowledges the world beyond the interior encapsulations of the big studio musical. But she also suggests that cinema is an accumulation of codes ripe for collapsing. The strength of The Golden Eighties is its ability to cast aspersions on movies and their power to perpetuate what we look at and what we look like. Its presence amidst the festival’s “masterpieces of cinema” will hopefully encourage viewers to question what we mean when we call something “great.”

Rather than interrupting narrative, Kaplan prefers to get on with it. He is a storyteller who wastes no words, using the most conventional narrative form to insinuate characters and situations usually absent from representation. Heart Like a Wheel follows Shirley Muldowney (Bonnie Bedelia) as she progresses from a young bride with a yen for fast cars to the only three-time world-championship winner in National Hot Rod Association history. Melding the sentiment of the bio-pic with the edge of the sports film, Kaplan succeeds in showing us a woman’s attempt to define herself both as a professional racer and as a wife and mother. The latter goal, however, eludes her, as she slips away from her initially supportive but increasingly threatened husband (Leo Rossi) toward the flirtatious antics of fellow driver Connie Kalitta (Beau Bridges). But whatever the sexual involvement, Shirley struggles to keep her balance, to walk the thin line between isolation and masochistic deference.

Kaplan has wryly noted that most Hollywood films with a feminist slant concern women making choices about which New York townhouse to live in. Clearly, in Heart Like a Wheel he is interested in a feminist depiction that engages questions of class. His workmanlike films are quick to establish the relationship between economics and the embellishments or hardships of social life. Taking great pleasure in American views and vernaculars, his astute sightings range from the period details of popular music and architecture to regional subtleties, like the change in light and scale from the dense greenery of New York State to the big, bright sky of Southern California.

Lacking the stunning cinematography and elegance of the European and Hollywood blockbusters, Heart Like a Wheel and Kaplan’s earlier Over the Edge (1982) connect to the familiarities of the TV film. Considering this, it is ironic that these accessible works have had difficulty finding their audience. Perhaps with the help of an intelligent distribution strategy they can be allowed to do their work. Kaplan’s movies are frequently alluded to as “small,” and their ambitions surely differ from the European art films that dominate the festival. Eschewing man’s terrible struggle with his terrible freedom, Kaplan never indulges in “deep,” ponderous heroics. Heart Like a Wheel cuts through the grease and hits 85 in a 55 MPH zone with a woman at the wheel.

Barbara Kruger