October 6, 2015


To stud its carpets with stars, the 53rd New York Film Festival has turned to the biopic. It opened with The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’ recreation of Philippe Petit’s World Trade Center tightrope walk, gave a centerpiece slot to Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs, and closes with Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie, Miles Ahead. Though I haven’t managed to see those high-gloss productions, biographical approaches extended throughout the festival and into many of my favorites. Manoel de Oliveira’s Visit, Or Memories and Confessions is a wistful and austere reflection on his life, his career, and the house he lived in for forty years. Hong Sang-soo puts another of his wayward film director characters through a structural ringer in Right Now, Wrong Then, and the weight of history and mortality is felt in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendour, set in his hometown of Khon Kaen, Thailand, and which he has described as “a search for the old spirits I knew as a child.” Soldiers afflicted with sleeping sickness dream away their lives in a makeshift hospital, situated on top of ‘an ancient burial ground. Those sleepy spirits of history seem to have wandered throughout the festival and through the avant-garde Projections sidebar, much of which is on Weerasethakul’s somnambulant wavelength.


“It’s a film by me, for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have made it. Either way, it’s done.” So says Manoel de Oliveira near the start of Memories and Confessions, in a voice-over written by novelist and frequent collaborator Agustina Bessa-Luís. It is a film of reluctant revelation. Shot in 1982, Oliveira ordered it not be shown until after his death, which sadly occurred this past April. The NYFF screening was its North American premiere. The film is structured as a tour of Oliveira’s Oporto home, built for he and his wife Maria Isabel (still with us at age 97) after their marriage in 1940. An unseen male and female walk through its environs, comparing the garden trees to guardians and the house as a ship – to these interlocutors it is a shapeshifting landscape occupied by spirits. They hear noises of its previous inhabitants, one of them being Oliveira the friendly ghost, tapping away at his typewriter. He turns in an artificially startled manner toward the camera, as if on an awkward public access show, and tells the story of his life. He screens home movies of his four children, lingers over portraits of his wife, and walks us through the economic failure of his father’s hat factory that put him into debt, leading to the sale of the home. Maria Isabel is only shot outside in the garden, cutting flowers. Asked by an offscreen voice what it is like to be married to a filmmaker, she replies, “it is a life of abnegation”, with a hint of a Mona Lisa smile on her face conveying the years of stresses living with a “man of the cinema”. Manoel has numerous copies of Da Vinci’s masterpiece stashed around the house – perhaps it reminds him of his wife? Though only 72 at the time of shooting, the film seems like a summation, a wrapping up, as he strolls through a Portuguese film studio and reflects on his own insignificance as the roll of film ends, cutting to white screen and the sound of flapping celluloid. He would go on to shoot twenty-five more features.


Cemetery of Splendour is also about the energies and spirits that can adhere to a space. Apichatpong Weerasethakul grew up in the small town of Khon Kaen in Thailand, where his parents were doctors. For the film he merged all of his childhood landscapes into one: his wooden home, the patients’ ward where his mother worked, the school, and the cinema. The movie is about a temporary rural hospital that cares for soldiers with sleeping sickness that no other wards will take.  Their building is a rotting old schoolhouse that still displays remnants of its past: chalkboards, toys, and textbooks. The doctors utilize an experimental therapy using colored fluorescent lights that are said to tame the patients’ dreams, and perhaps ease them back to consciousness. Volunteer Jenjira (Weerasethakul regular Jenjira Pongpas) develops a close friendship with patient Itt (Banlop Lomnoi), who scribbles enigmatic koans in a notebook in between narcoleptic sleeps. An encounter with the psychic Keng (Jarinpattra Rueangram) forges a mental bond between Jen and Itt that traverses dreams and reality, with Itt guiding Jen into the world of warring kings, buried in the ancient cemetery underneath the hospital. At the same time Jen leads Itt through the ruins of the school where she once attended, weaving history and myth together, all part of a lost Thailand that Weerasethakul is mourning.


At the beginning of the short video Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton, Guy Maddin is mourning his career. Unable to complete funding for his next feature (what would become The Forbidden Room, part of the NYFF main slate), he decides to take a job as a director of a behind-the-scenes video for Hyena Road, a big-budget Afghanistan war movie. Maddin decries how Hyena Road’s catering budget could fund most of his features, so he soldiers on, even deigning to act as an extra corpse in one particularly humiliating long shot. But this being a Guy Maddin film (co-directed with Evan and Galen Johnson), things don’t stay linear for long. He decides to cobble together his own war movie with random shots of extras and and some lo-fi CGI lasers, morphing the hero-worshipping Hyena Road into some kind of subversive sci-fi freakout where the Afghan extras are the leads. Maddin makes it personal by pulling in his childhood hockey heroes Tim Horton and Guy Lafleur (he intones “Lafleur, Lafleur” as if the name itself held the key to the universe), and ends with Lafleur’s bumptious disco song “Scoring” while a talky drone interprets the lyrics.


Hong Sang-soo is a serial self-portraitist, always depicting sensitive male artist types in various states of self-examination or self-delusion. In Right Now, Wrong Then he follows famed art film director Han Chun-su (Jung Jae-young) the day before he is giving a post-screening lecture in the small town of Suwon. He spends it with painter Hee-jung (Kim Min-hee), who he is strenuously attempting to seduce. They have coffee, retreat to her workshop to discuss her work, have dinner, and attend a small party. Through it all Han is working from an established script, using practiced lines from old interviews to create the seamless patter of an intellectual pickup artist. Hee-jung is initially charmed, then slowly irritated by his insecure mansplaining. But this is not the end – as Hong cycles the timeline back to the beginning and replays each scene, with Han subtly altering his approach.  Each detail is magnified in this second go-round, each thread of conversation a possible fork in the narrative that sends it down new paths. Han displays more confidence in his own thoughts the second time around, speaking thoughtfully and honestly rather than relying on recycled ideas, baring his body and soul. As Han begins to listen to Hee-jung’s perspective, Hong shifts his camera to her – though it framed Han more centrally in the first half. It all sounds very simplistic and binary, but in action it is a marvel of subtlety of Jung and Kim’s performances. The first half was completed and screened for them before they shot the second, and their reactions seem to play off that first encounter, a teasing flirtation both with each other and with the movie itself.


The Projections programs of experimental films also dealt with the self, especially Laida Lertxundi’s Vivir Para Vivir, which attempts to render her body through cinema. Mountain peaks are connected to the peaks in her cardiogram, which are both seen and heard on-screen. It is a bold, sensuous kind of embodied cinema, ending with a blast of color timed to a recording of an orgasm. Alee Peoples’ Non-Stop Beautiful Ladies is a casual bit of urban photography, as Peoples documents an unusual marketing technique around her north Los Angeles neighborhood: busty female mannequins which hold motorized signs for a variety of small businesses – income tax accountants and gas stations alike. In an economically depressed landscape of empty billboard signs, these intrepid inanimate ladies still hawk their wares, absurd emblems of sexism that have held onto their jobs longer than most. The most unique and haunting work I saw in the festival was Lois  Patiño‘s Night Without Distance, another short playing in Projections. Shot in the mountains on the Galicia/Portugal border, it envisions the smuggling trade as ghostly emanations of the landscape. Patiño used color reversal stock and then presented it in negative, creating uncanny silvery images that look like they came out of the video game Metal Gear Solid. That impression is further solidified by how the spectral figures, speaking of secret meetings and escapes, use stealth like that game’s Solid Snake. The long takes of smugglers waiting in crevasses and by creeks take on depth and volume, with physical textures vibrating across the frame. The travelers seem to speak in code, traveling towards a point beyond time, ghostly smugglers wandering the borderlands of perceivable reality.  It conjures the same spell as Cemetery of Splendour, leaving me suspended in its waking dream of cinema.


April 14, 2015


Before the start of his heartbreaking rural romance True Heart Susie (1919), D.W. Griffith asks in an intertitle, “Is real life interesting?” He implies that the answer is yes, expecting that you’ll sit through the ninety minutes to follow based on its adherence to the facts of everyday life. But there is no expectation of documentary truth, since the star is Lillian Gish and and the writer of the story, Marian Fremont, are named front and center. Instead, Griffith said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second annual Art of the Real series, a wide-ranging survey of non-fiction (ish) cinema that runs through April 24th, is one that privileges the contemplative and dreamlike over works that only admit to one truth. Like Griffith’s work, the Art of the Real films (over twenty shorts and features), co-programmed by Rachael Rakes and Dennis Lim, think along with you, offering multifarious pathways to the “real”. The series will feature the North American premiere of the Lebanese portrait film Birds of September, Luo Li’s environmental doc/shaggy dog mystery Li Wen at East Lake and Luísa Homem & Pedro Pinho’s epic observational documentary of the Cape Verde tourist boom Trading Cities. Not to mention sidebars on The Actualities of Agnès Varda (with Varda introducing her films in person) and Repeat as Necessary: The Art of Reenactment, which takes the abused reenactment form and traces its storied history in documentary art.


The most affecting work in the series, though, might be its simplest. Masa Sawada’s I, Kamikaze is a seventy-five minute interview with the ninety-year-old former kamikaze pilot Fujio Hayashi. Hayashi sits behind a table, his glasses traveling up and down his nose, as he dredges up the memories from his time in the Japanese Imperial Navy. One of the original volunteers for the air suicide attack units, he was, and remains, a good soldier. He lost his mother at a young age, and the few words he spares for his father depicts a neglectful, distant figure (after he returned from WWII, he said, “I’m back. I’m sorry for losing the war.” His father did not respond, and they barely spoke the rest of their lives). Hayashi poured his soul into the unit, and was willing and able to give up his life for his country. Instead he was tasked with training the young kamikaze recruits, ordering their missions, and hence, their deaths. Hayashi takes long, considered pauses before many of his answers, opening up blocks of time to study his face, his posture and his too-large suits. These are silences filled with thought, for Hayashi and the viewer. His expressions are almost entirely impenetrable and thus open to interpretation, a stonewall even when discussing his good friend Nishio, whom he had to order on a suicide mission. His military bearing is still intact, emotions attaching to the meaning of the words, but none in the inflection of his steady, phlegmy voice. Hayashi is comfortable with death, and has lived with it all his life. He keeps repeating that for long stretches of his life living or dying made no difference to him. He was, in this sense, the perfect kamikaze -though he was never able to achieve his intended destiny. He describes that period as “memories bathed in light”, and that when it is his turn to leave on his final mission, he will have a smile on his face, just as the kamikaze pilots did on theirs as they were heading out into oblivion.


Trading Cities depicts a journey of material and capital into and out of Cape Verde, the island country that lies off the coast of West Africa. The island has few natural resources, and the local government as been promoting itself as a tourist destination for Europeans. They joined the WTO in 2007, built a new international airport, and started developing beachside resorts. But they started to run out of sand. This essential element for creating concrete was being stripped bare from their beaches, turning sand thievery into a source of petty crime. Construction ceased while trade routes opened to import the concrete from nearby Mauritania, which in turn received boats from Lisbon. For Trading Cities, Luísa Homem and Pedro Pinho take an observational, direct cinema approach with their 16mm as they document this circulation of material. The film stars in Lisbon on a cargo ship, goes to Mauritania to depict the collection of sand and the firing and molding of concrete blocks. They pay close attention to the process of labor, the particular skills and peculiar rhythms that emerge in any workplace. The slow journey of a cargo ship, which has the abstracted beauty of one of Peter Hutton’s Hudson River films, is contrasted with the slow camel-ride a white European couple takes on their way to one of the resorts. This is where the concrete comes to rest, in the static packaged splendor of a middle-class resort, designed to channel the country’s colonized past. The majority Italian, German and Portuguese tourists laze in wading pools as a black African plays a native string instrument. Another Cape Verdean sings a canned “Redemption Song” to a group of bored tourists uninterested in freeing themselves from mental slavery, while in another show the locals paint themselves in tribal-looking  make-up for some community theater Lion King knockoff. The Cape Verdeans put their kitschy colonial-burlesque work in and go home, where the old subsistence farming economy proceeds at its edges, slowly fading into the future of the service economy.


Sarah Francis is after a more stylized kind of city portrait in Birds of September. She constructed a “glassed van”, a kind of vehicular bubble into which she invited random people from Beirut’s streets. She recorded interviews with them as the bubble drove slowly around the city, the locals’ daily anxieties percolating on the soundtrack as the city reveals itself behind their heads. Francis said she made the film because of “a claustrophobic feeling I had towards Beirut. I have always lived here and yet I always felt like I was not always fully part of things.” She is using the bubble to break the city down into component parts. She even separates the interview audio track from the video track, so the subject’s words play over their silent faces. Each element is only partially graspable – it’s possible to focus on the words, the face or the city behind them, but usually never all at once. At times it feels like tapping into Beirut’s unconscious, the streets and sky merging with anxieties about work, relationships and religion. The concept is stretched thin over its 100 minutes, but it’s a provocative and promising work.


Luo Li is another young artist on display at Art of the Real with Li Wen at East Lake, an shapeshifting shaggy dog thing that begins as a documentary about developers illegally filling in a lake to build the “Happy Valley” amusement park. About 35 minutes in it changes into a narcoleptic mystery as two misshapen detectives track down a vagrant who may or may not be spreading tales that a dragon will soon rise from the lake in anger. The investigation gets sidetracked into Cultural Revolution history, the detective’s fear of castration, and real estate conspiracies. It’s a series of dead-ends and false leads that recalls the proliferating melancholic mysteries of Inherent Vice. What lies beneath is the state’s micromanaging fear of the old, weird China. The McGuffin of this whole enterprise is a young eccentric who believes all the old timers’ myths about the lake – about its personality and the dragon who protects it. The whole state apparatus springs into action to shut this harmless guy down. The cop’s obsession with Cultural Revolution paraphernalia suggests the current era has replaced Mao’s little red book with technocrat babble.

Art of the Real is formidable, ear and eye-worm kind of programming. These are movies that burrow up into your cortex, laying eggs that will hatch for weeks afterward. Each film gets at the “real” in their own way, through unvarnished interview, direct observation, stylized portraiture or fictionalized documentary. Regardless of the process, they each glimpse their own facet of reality, which is, as D.W. Griffith must admit, interesting indeed.



Movies are hard to see. That statement feels false, what with films all around you, available to stream at a keystroke. But distribution is a weird, half-hazard thing, a pseudo-science that pretends to know which products will sell and which not, a presumptive mind-reading of an imaginary audience that doesn’t get to choose for themselves. So many of the most challenging and strange films get left behind, mere rumors in festival reports and critic bull sessions. This is why festivals like the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look series are so essential. I don’t have the time or the expense account to travel to far-flung locales and sample the outer edges of film festival programs. This is what we pay programmers (not much) for! Now in its fourth year, First Look provides a necessary catch-up for the most challenging work from the previous year, stuff too bold or bizarre to reach screens otherwise. Chief curator David Schwarz and assistant film curator Aliza Ma teamed up with FIDMarseilles, a similarly provocative French festival, and organized a wide-ranging program of too-hot-for distributor films. There’s a vital verite document of the Syrian civil war (Our Terrible Country), a lyrical portrait of rural Brazil (August Winds), and a Persian language lesson that opens up a swathe of Iranian history (I For Iran).


The “biggest” titles on display were Aleksei German’s mud-choked sci-fi dirge Hard to be a God (which has distribution from Kino Lorber) and Amour Fou, a studied depiction of Romantic writer Heinrich von Kleist’s suicide pact with his beloved Henriette Vogel, which premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. But I go to First Look for the small and impossible to see — and was stunned by Our Terrible Country (screening January 17th at 7pm), a portrait of Syrian dissident Yassin Haj Saleh and his fraught journey into exile. Yassin had been imprisoned from 1980 – 1996  by Hafez al-Assad’s regime for what Yassin described as his membership in a “communist pro-democracy group”. Filmmaker/photographer Ziad Homsi wanted to capture Yassin’s experience in Damascus during the uprising against Hafez’s son Bashar, a rumination from one of the beacons of the revolution. But the film turned into something much darker, as the civil war created a vacuum of power that ISIS came in to fill, dreams of revolution getting snuffed by Islamic extremism. It begins in the liberated city of Douma, some 10km northeast of Damascus’ city center. Yassin and his wife Samira fled there after Damascus became too dangerous.


Douma’s “liberation” is pyrrhic, a crumbling ghost town that threatens to fall to the regime at any moment. Yassin keeps up a good face, organizing street cleaning teams to remove rubble from the streets. But the locals are wary of this community organizing, and one neighbor expresses a demand that the volunteer women should cover their faces. With a divided populace, a dwindling energy supply and no end in sight to the war, Samira expresses an “anger that I could explode the universe with”. Homsi stays close to Yassin who decides to search for a route out of Douma and into Raqqa, his hometown in the north of Syria. As they travel side roads and through deserts, avoiding the blazing sun by laying underneath canvas sheets, Yassin learns that ISIS has taken over his city and kidnapped his brothers. He travels on anyway, knowing his wife is in constant danger in Douma, and knowing ISIS meets him at the end of his journey. Every step seems weighted with doom, and the populace loses hope. The righteous revolution has caused endless bloodshed and created a foothold for ISIS, what Yassin calls “the cancerous growth of the revolution.”  The country is tearing itself apart, and it begins to seep into the emotions of its people. The owner of a falafel joint breaks down when Yassin questions the amount he was charged for a hummus plate, taking the question as a grievous insult to his dignity. He yells and wails to all the customers at this indignity, but after he calms down he tells Homsi’s camera that, “Assad is merely an illusion. The disaster is inside us.”


Yassin escapes to Istanbul using his brother-in-law’s passport, ensuring his own safety, but leaving Homsi and his wife behind. There is no safe route outside of Douma anymore – Samira is trapped, her image seen only in the Skype calls Yassin can make before Samira loses the last of her electricity. These sequences are unbearably painful to watch. Soon all hope is lost. Homsi’s father is in prison, but is desperate to spirit his mother out of the country. He simply states, “People who want to live should get out.” He finds his way to Yassin in Istanbul, and they fall apart together. Our Terrible Country is an urgent document of despair from a stalled revolution.


I For Iran (Saturday, January 17th at 4:30) filters the 1979 Iranian revolution through a Persian language workbook. In this deceptively simple essay film, director Sanaz Azari sits in a classroom and has a teacher lecture her in the language on a blackboard. Azari was born in Iran, but raised in Belgium, and hopes to re-connect with her ancestral home through language. The teacher is another Iranian exile, a gray haired performer who shifts between nostalgia and sarcasm regarding their mutual lost home. Through simple language exercises fraught histories peek through, whether it’s the teacher’s cynical digression on the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani, or the sample sentences used, like “Dad doesn’t give bread, because there is no work.” The images created for post-Revolution children in the workbook become portals through which Azari envisions the country, it’s beauties and repressions both.


August Winds (Sunday, January 18th at 5:00) is another document of a place, though it is physical and tactile where I For Iran is cerebral, constructed in your head. An atmospheric portrait of the Northeastern Brazilian state of Alagoas, it uses narrative as an excuse to portray the lush atmosphere and monotonous day-to-day life of its inhabitants. Director Gabriel Mascaro is a documentarian at heart, though one who is hyper-aware of his privileged role in shaping the depiction of his subjects. In his documentary, Housemaids, he gave cameras to seven teenagers and asked to film their maids – he edited the footage after it was returned to him. In August Wind he takes more compositional control, using fixed camera compositions with narrowing vanishing points, whether it’s stream, lake or hallway. It opens with the camera on the back of a canoe, a bikini-clad local Shirley (Dondara de Morais) splayed out and listening to The Lewd’s punk anthem “Kill Yourself”. In suing Coca-Cola as a suntan lotion and blasting West Coast American punk, Shirley is looking for a way out of the traditional life of Alagoas, which is still dependent on the coconut harvest. She has a Nancy Drew interlude when her boyfriend finds a polished skull, buffed to a shine by the tides, and indicative of the tidal pull this town has on her, circling her and keeping her in place. The one envoy from the outside world, a young meteorologist studying wind patterns, seems to emerge and disappear with the waves, and may have washed up as a corpse. This hypnotic, repetitious work recapitulates many of the strategies of Lisandro Alonso, from its isolated locale, fixed camera set-ups, and slender death-drive narrative.

If you happen to be in the New York City area, you should gaze longingly at First Look, which gives screens to the screenless. And with Our Terrible Country, it is the only place to see one of the finest, and most vital documentaries of the year, poking its head under an ongoing human tragedy that retreats further into the back pages of the newspaper. Here’s hoping a distributor runs the numbers and decides to pick it up anyway.


October 28, 2014


Late last month, on the outrage machine known as Twitter, Variety tweeted the following: “Most films and TV shows are now available online legally, says a new study”. As with most provocative headlines, it turned out to be incredibly misleading. The “study” was commissioned by NBC Universal and performed by audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG. They only chose to track the most “popular and critically-acclaimed” films, which according to them comprises films with the “highest gross box office receipts” and those that won Oscar Best Picture awards. So this is a highly selective, entirely meaningless 808 film sample that overlooks the majority of film history. It’s not surprising then, that 94% of the films in their report were available on streaming platforms. Essentially it is saying that all the films you have already seen are available for you to watch again. 35mm is becoming an archival medium, more stable than digital in its constantly shifting technologies, but that makes archives more reluctant to ship prints to theaters, as Nick Pinkerton reported in his article on the DCP wars in Film Comment. A situation is growing where studios don’t want to ship prints of rare titles, but neither do they want to shell out the money for a decent HD transfer and clean-up, a very expensive proposition to enact on a large scale. Thus my dream of a 127-film 4K-scanned Edward L. Cahn retrospective will never come to pass.

That is why festivals like To Save and Project are so vital. In its twelfth year at the Museum of Modern Art, the series gathers recent restoration projects from around the world, and was organized by film curator Joshua Siegel, adjunct curator Dave Kehr, Adjunct Curator, and curatorial assistant Sophie Cavoulacos. For years a redoubt of celluloid, it has had to bow to the prevailing winds and present digital scans, including this year’s 4K restorations of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and A Fistful of Dollars.  But there are also more heroic instances of digital rescue, like the South African blaxploitation soccer-rigging curiosity Joe Bullet (1971, screening 11/8 and 11/13), banned by the government soon after its release but rescued by the Gravel Road African Film Legacy (GRAFL) initiative. I’ve always treasured the festival more for its oddities than its classics, which would emerge elsewhere anyway. Another one is Miss Okichi (1935, screening 10/31 and 11/4), with Kenji Mizoguchi credited as “supervisor”, though elsewhere he is listed as a co-director. It’s a tragic tale of doomed love that feels like a missing piece in Mizoguchi’s filmography, even if more detective work needs to be done about its origins. Then there is the bizarre It’s a Wonderful Life noir Repeat Performance (1947, screening 11/12 and 11/14), in which a murderous dame gets to re-live the year leading up to the moment she kills her husband.


Joe Bullet was one of the first South African films with an all-black cast, a no-budget Shaft that opened briefly in Soweto before being pulled from theaters by the Apartheid government. Though not explicitly political, the image of star Ken Gampu brandishing a gun and enforcing vigilante justice must have struck a nerve. The story revolves around the Eagles soccer team, whose star players are getting attacked by thugs from an opposing squad. When the feud turns violent, the Eagles call on Joe Bullet to even the score. The film has a rough, unfinished quality, with poorly post-dubbed dialogue that was seemingly made up on the spot. But the film has a schlocky energy and DIY vibe, especially in its inventive fight scenes. Mr. Bullet has a sweaty staredown with a King Cobra, opens a door with a bulldozer, and chases the villain up a steel girder in the honest-to-goodness nail-biting finale, complete with a weighted mannequin tossed off the side. Complete with catchy theme song that repeats the main characters name ad infinitum, Joe Bullet has midnight movie screenings in its future. It is also valuable as a document of its own making, capturing the styles, hangouts and cultural scene of black Africans in the early 70s. Gampu sports a checked sportcoat and beige turtleneck ensemble that is the epitome of 70s cool. Gampu was one of the first black African actors to break into Hollywood, he was a “warrior” in The Naked Prey (1965), and later appeared in Zulu Dawn (1979) and The Gods Must be Crazy (1980), again in stereotyped “native” roles. In Joe Bullet Gampu’s unflappable cool was shunted off into shabby locations. The big nightclub scene, with a hard-driving funk band, looks to be shot in a clapboard shack, and the soccer manager’s office looks like that of a custodian’s. There is no physical white presence in Joe Bullet, although their impact is palpable in the economic disadvantages that are etched into every frame.


Miss Okichi (1935) is also about economic imbalance, and the criminal enterprises it encourages. Isuzu Yamada (Throne of Blood) stars as the ill-omened Okichi, whose parents are dead and whose brother is a wanted murderer. To keep her family’s hotel afloat she signs up with a gang in an arranged marriage scheme. The gang targets arranged marriages, and has the beautiful Okichi pretend to be the betrothed. Then they grab the dowry and disappear. Eventually Okichi gets disgusted with all of the deceptions and runs off with one of her marks. It is a dark, necrotic melodrama, steeped in darkness and death. These are the fatalistic  lyrics Okichi repeatedly sings to her beloved: “To meet is when parting begins.” The print of the film was housed at Shochiku and presented on Japanese television. David Bordwell writes that Mizoguchi “codirected it with Takashima Tatsunosuke for Dai Ichi Eiga, the production company he formed with Nagata Masaichi.” The MoMA notes list Mizoguchi as “supervisor”, so it’s unclear how much input he actually had in its production. But it features Mizoguchi settings and themes – female self-sacrifice in a patriarchal web, and, as Bordwell notes, scenes of “chiaroscuro melancholy”. Regardless of whether it can be labeled a Mizoguchi film or not, it’s a tough poison pill of a movie, filled with dark beauty.


Repeat Performance is a noir that borrows the plot of It’s a Wonderful Life, though to different ends. George Bailey saw what life would be like without him. For noted actress Sheila Page (Joan Leslie) in Repeat Performance, she has to live her life over again, only to see that she while she can change the path of fate, she cannot alter its destination (it’s a film noir Final Destination). The film opens with Sheila murdering her husband, the camera pushing into the grisly scene through the flapping front door in a bravura shot. While mounting the staircase to her producer’s apartment, she wishes she could live the previous year over again. With nothing other than a cut – there is no angel to guide her – she is thrust back a year, and so she begins to try to change the adulterous path of her husband, the transgression that led to the crime. But nothing Sheila does can change her destiny. This rather ambitious project was the first big budget foray by the Poverty Row studio Eagle Lion. Director Alfred L. Werker (He Walked by Night) replaced Jules Dassin just before filming, and it’s a workmanlike job that can’t overcome the repetitious nature of the material. Though it retains a chill for its downbeat closing scenes, where nothing has materially changed – for all of Sheila’s effort and foresight. Everyone is either dead or alone, and nothing can be done about it. Repeat Performance will screen in a 35mm print restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding from the Film Noir Foundation. To Save and Project runs through November 22nd at the Museum of Modern Art, so if you are in NYC make sure to attend and bear witness to some of the fascinating oddities of film history before they escape back into the vaults.


October 7, 2014


For director Michael Powell, The Red Shoes was “mostly a sketch for The Tales of Hoffmann“. So far the sketch has eclipsed the full painting, with The Red Shoes a repertory film staple that plays regularly around the country (you can catch it in my cinema-starved hometown of Buffalo on November 17th!), while The Tales of Hoffmann has endured decades of neglect and chopped up film prints. Its relative obscurity should begin to lift, now that a new 4K scan of the original camera negative has been performed by the BFI, with support from The Film Foundation and StudioCanal.  The stateside premiere of the restoration occurred at the New York Film Festival, introduced by superfan Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who was married to Powell until his passing in 1990).


The Tales of Hoffmann is a deliriously beautiful film about male fantasies of female perfection. Hoffmann (Robert Rounseville) invents women to match the romantic ideal he has of himself, all of whom emerge from a mediated perceptual and meta-cinematic schema. Olympia (Moira Shearer) is a mechanical doll who looks human when Hoffmann views her through ornate (3D?) glasses. Giulietta (Ludmilla Tcherina) is a devil’s handmaiden who steals Hoffmann’s soul by having him stare into a mirror.  Antonia (Ann Ayars) is a thwarted opera singer whose mother’s statue comes to life.  Absorbed in his own vanity, Hoffmann is not granted unmediated sight, and so ends up drunk and alone.


Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were after something they called a “composed film”, a gesamtkunstwerk of music, dance and film that grants each their individual freedom but operates in concert, working without dialogue, but through purely expressive gesture. Their test of this concept was the climactic dance in The Red Shoes, and The Tales of Hoffmann was to be its fruition. The choice of subject matter was brought to them by conductor Sir Thomas Beecham. According to Powell the original idea was to record with him “a wonderful performance of the singers of the opera, and then make a film of it with dancers . Simple as that.” They adapted the Jacques Offenbach opera into a new English translation (by Dennis Arundell), and hired both voices and bodies for each character. Powell wanted “a performance, not a recording”, so he strayed from operatic singers and chose singer-actors for the vocals to which the actors would lip-sync. Only Rounseville’s Hoffmann and Ann Ayars’ Antonia sung their own parts. They recorded the score separately, and then shot the film according to the music’s rhythms, giving the director of photography and actors more freedom than they had since the silent era. It is not just the camera movement that is calibrated to the music though, but equally the actor’s movement inside the frame (dance choreographed by Frederick Ashton), as well as the rhythmic editing of Reginald Mills.

Instead of trying to mitigate the artificiality,  of the enterprise, they emphasize it, with painted backdrops and fantastical set designs by Hein Heckroth. This overt “staginess” attracted significant criticism. Siegfried Kracauer called it “nothing but photographed theater”, and that seemed to be the prevailing viewpoint until the film became nigh impossible to see. Distribution was nonexistent through the 60s, and when prints did get out, they were in B&W and missing the third act. That’s how Scorsese first saw it on the “Million Dollar Movie” on local NYC television, beginning a lifelong obsession. He named Robert Helpmann’s face as an influence on Taxi Driver. Schoonmaker related how Scorsese would screen the film endlessly during the editing process of Raging Bull, and would get enraged when MoMA would ask for the print back, because another director was requesting it. It turned out George Romero was another Hoffmann fanatic, and was analyzing it in the run-up to his film about traveling renaissance fair/ motorcycle gang , Knightriders (1981).


Act 1, “Olympia”, takes place in a mechanical doll studio that Hein Heckroth gave a Fauvist explosion of color. Hoffmann is agog at the ingenuity of it all, lost in his own perceptual whirlwind. The inventor Coppelius (Helpmann) twirls him through demonstrations of his amazingly lifelike puppets, which come to life underwhen Hoffmann dons garish glasses, some with pearls stringing down. They are a cinematic talisman, allowing the inanimate objects to come to life under his gaze. The camera rises up into the rafters to display the puppet master pulling the strings – but what are wooden dolls up there turn into prancing humans on stage – and one in particular catches Hoffmann’s eye. To him she is too real to be fake, or simply too beautiful not to reflect his idea of reality. In any case, it’s Olympia (Moira Shearer) reclining on a hammock, her aquiline features and aerodynamic limbs lying still in anticipation. It is clear this is a body that can do damage. And she does, swirling like a top but needing to be constantly wound up by her handlers.  Shearer is a marvel, not just as a dancer but a comedian, able to execute lithe ballet maneuvers at one end of the stage, and then collapse like an accordion at the other. Hoffmann is helpless at her cold, inanimate beauty, a dumbfounded idiot who thought he found the perfect woman. He is humiliated at the revelation of her not-aliveness, and she is eventually torn limb-from-limb in a scene of sadistic doll violence.


Act 2, “Giulietta”, gets supernatural, and begins to bring out the German Expressionist strains in Heckroth’s designs and Robert Helpmann’s Nosferatu garb. It takes place in Venice, and Giulietta is a leggy siren luring Hoffmann towards her. In a disorienting sequence, Powell and Pressburger cut back and forth between Giulietta’s disembodied head superimposed on the canal singing a ghostly tune, and Giulietta’s physical body in a gondola rowing for home. Here again is the spirit/body split, the woman multiplied into parts that Hoffmann can then separate and filter through his own ego. In this fable of betrayal she steals his soul for a neck full of diamonds. His soul is taken when he looks into a mirror, and his image disappears. His sight is blinkered and uncertain, his love a delusion. It’s only when he skewers a man with a saber and cracks the mirror in two, that his soul is restored to him. It did not, however, give him intelligence.


Act 3, “Antonia” is Hoffmann’s best shot at capturing reality. There are no disruptions of his sight, only his empathy. Antonia is in ill health, and has been advised not to sing for fear of her weak constitution. Her father isolates her in the bedroom, alone with a statue of her late grande dame mother, once a famed opera singer. Hoffmann arrives to declare his love and burst into song, and the satanic Dr. Miracle (Helpmann, again, with his menacing widow’s peak) has similar designs to nefarious ends – he wants her to sing until she dies, so she can join her mother. Miracle is a weird amalgam of Dr. Caligari madman and Dracula force of nature, able to summon Antonia’s body to instantaneously appear at his examining couch when she is off in another room – yet more imagery of the segmented female body. She is not in control of herself  – and her mind starts cracking. Her hallucinations escalate until she is sharing a duet with her dead mother in a medieval wood, sharing a mournful duet before suffering the same fate – a brutally beautiful escape.

The restored Tales of Hoffmann will screen at NYC’s Film Forum in early 2015 and presumably tour the country after that. It’s a bewitching, profoundly strange work, both radically free and conservatively stagebound. Kracauer wrote that it is both “a spectacle that transcends the possibilities of the stage”, but “built from miraculous studio effects, it shuts out any miracle the camera may reveal. The ripple of a single leaf suffices to denounce its treacherous glamour.” It’s a gorgeously suffocating work, and there’s truly nothing else like it.


September 30, 2014

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The New York Film Festival opened this past Friday night with the sadistic comedy of remarriage Gone Girl  (which is released nationwide October 3rd). It trails success in its wake, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel, which has occupied the majority of bedside end tables in the United States. It is the second straight bestseller that director David Fincher has adapted, following his glacial Girl With the Dragon TattooGone Girl is another story of female victimhood and bloody revenge, except this time the narrator is highly unreliable. If you are one of the zeitgeist-less few not to have read the story, it concerns the unraveling marriage of struggling writers Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamunde Pike). After Amy goes missing after an apparent home invasion, a massive investigation is launched to find her, with the evidence continuing to pile up against Nick. What follows is a thorough autopsy of their lives together, their union a sustained performance of mutual denial and dishonesty, an act that Amy internalizes to such a degree that she stages a much larger, more entertaining production in response. Fincher and Flynn jettison the balanced 50/50 POV split from the novel and filter the majority of the narrative through Nick’s perspective. This simplifies the story but also flattens Amy into a sociopathic cipher, one who can too easily be dismissed as a hysterical female. But Rosamunde Pike’s performance is ferociously controlled, betraying no loss of agency. If men want Amy to play a part to salve their fragile egos, she will oblige only until a better role comes along, whereupon she can trash their script and obliterate them.

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night depicts a different kind of determined female. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work after a bout with depression, only to find her job at a solar panel factory will be eliminated. In an either/or vote, the union chose to receive a 1,000 EUR bonus over Sandra keeping her job. Sandra successfully lobbies for a re-vote after rumors of tampering, and has a weekend to convince each individual employee to forego the bonus and keep her on staff. The film is a kind of moral procedural, the question re-framed through each employees’ personal circumstances. Sandra troops through the Dardennes’ terrain of Seraing, Belgium on foot, bus and car, continually wilting and re-forming under the stress and humiliation of her position. The handheld camera sticks tight to Cotillard (who, with this and The Immigrant is in perpetual close-up this year), whose face is a Richter scale of emotional tremors.


Gone Girl is a David Fincher movie and is thusly a very good-looking one, working again with DP Jeff Cronenweth (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network, Fight Club). Though it opens and closes with a shallow-focus close-up, the majority of the film emphasizes maximum visibility, with a lot of long shots that encompass glass, television monitors and security cameras. Much of the film has to do with the media frenzy that accompanies Amy’s disappearance, as she was the model for a popular children’s book series written by her parents. The tabloid talk shows push the trashiest and most outrageous narratives of the case, including at one point speculating on Nick and his twin sister Margo (an acerbic Carrie Coon) engaging in “twincest”. And though the movie runs a robust 150 minutes, Fincher and editor Kirk Baxter utilize a clipped editing style that always cut a beat or two before I expected. Even the opening credit titles flash on and off far quicker than usual. This clipped style kept me off balance  – as if the film was proceeding ahead of me and I was scrambling to catch up. It was fun to feel that off kilter, though the tempo distends in the climactic latter stages into something more conventional.


The acting tends to be as controlled and clipped as the editing, especially the investigative team led by Kim Dickens as Detective Rhonda Boney. Dickens is a superb no-bullshit cop, forever with an oversized styrofoam coffee cup in her hand and a bloodhound twitch in her eyes  when clues passed her field of vision. She has no wasted gestures, words or syllables. She leaves those to her assistant (Patrick Fugit), who seems to speak entirely in pithy putdowns. The only one in the cast who lacks this tightness is Ben Affleck, whose Nick floats in a boyish fog. When Amy disappears he doesn’t so much as shrug, while at the station he speaks to the police with distanced deference, as if arguing a speeding ticket rather than helping a search for his missing wife. It is an impressive bit of smarminess for a major star, but he doesn’t manage to sustain it. As Nick takes on the mantle of victimhood, Affleck becomes a genial joker, instead of the self-regarding a-hole the movie needs to balance its battle of the sexes. When the couple reforms, the movie becomes less about how spouses deform themselves to sustain relationships, but about the subjugation of Affleck’s good ‘ol boy to Rosamunde Pike’s world-devouring wife.



In Two Days, One Night Sandra is no Amy. Living in a healthy relationship with husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), she has no ability to dissemble in front of her fellow workers. It takes her entire force of will to knock on each door, and put herself under their pitying, guilty glares. She knows that her question will instill guilt, and each bonus voter is a fount explanations and justifications, some understandable, others not. Each encounter has the tension of a heist sequence, just that the stakes are much higher. Money is tight all over, and Sandra is asking these people to give up a year of gas bills. It is the rare film where bills have a physical weight, that conveys the suffocating anxiety that money problems can instill – the complete helplessness. Her path through the town in Two Days, One Night is stop-start as that force of will crumbles, having to be built up again by Manu or her few encouraging co-workers. Then there are the brief moments of happiness. Timur (Timur Magomedgadzhiev) weeps at getting a chance to reverse his vote to Sandra – and as she walks away breaks into uncontrollable smiles, Cotillard’s body a brief lightning rod of joy. The other burst occurs inside of Manu’s car, as Van Morrison’s “Gloria” crackles over the radio. The whole car bursts into song, Sandra giving herself up to the chorus, trying to escape into the tune. 


September 23, 2014


The fifty-second New York Film Festival begins this Friday night with the world premiere of Gone Girl, the David Fincher adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s  ubiquitous spousal murder mystery. But the early highlight of the thirty-film main slate concerns another missing woman, although in a less-outwardly-thrilling scenario. Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom, which screens the evenings of 9/30 and 10/8, concerns an unemployed Japanese intellectual in Korea, searching for an absent woman he once loved. It’s another variation on Hong’s recent string of films about travellers and transitional spaces (Our SunhiIn Another Country, The Day He Arrives) where drinking is the main form of communication. Hill of Freedom works hilariously well as a fish-out-of-water comedy, but also contains pockets of melancholy about time’s passage, professional failure, and the inadequacy of language. It is currently without a distributor, and unlikely to acquire one, considering how poorly his sparsely distributed output has done stateside.

There is another gone girl in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (screening 10/7 and 10/9), when the daughter of a colonial Danish military engineer (Viggo Mortensen) scampers off into the Patagonian wilderness. In his three features La Libertad, Los Muertos and Liverpool, Alonso has chosen landscapes first and built narratives around the spaces and the habits of its people. Jauja is his first period piece, and an imaginative leap from the patient everydayness of his previous films. With nods to The Searchers and Heart of Darkness, Jauja follows the engineer as he plunges deeper into a country he doesn’t understand, ending in hallucinations and a legacy of confusion.


Hong Sang-soo has been paring his films down to the essentials. Never one for excess, in recent years his films have limited themselves to a few city streets, a few self-loathing men and women, and a narrative built on repetition. Hill of Freedom constricts itself to couple of blocks in Seoul, mainly taking place at a guest house and at a coffee shop. Mori (Ryo Kase) is a Japanese visitor staying at the guest house, and is searching for Kwon (Seo Young-hwa). Mori met Kwon two years before, but is only now convinced of his love for her. But unbeknownst to Mori, Kwon is off in the mountains for health reasons, so he is forced to mope around town, communicating in limited English with his deep-in-debt guest house buddy Sangwon (Kim Eui-sung) and the profoundly unhappy owner of the coffee shop (named “Hill of Freedom). The story is told in flashback, from letters that Mori wrote to Kwon after his departure from Seoul. As Kwan is leaving the post office, she drops the letters on the stairs, shuffling them out of chronological order. The film proceeds in the order Kwon reads the letters, so they jump back in forth in time during Mori’s stay. The ghost that haunts the film is the one letter Kwan leaves on the staircase – perhaps the one that reveals the truth of Mori’s intentions, but more realistically documents another night of inebriated rambles.


Mori carries a dogeared book with him throughout his visit, which he seems to treat as a sacred text, or maybe more as a binky to calm his nerves. In one of his many awkward, flirtatious conversations with the coffee shop owner Youngsun (Moon So-ri) he informs her that it is a philosophical treatise that claims “time is not a real thing.” But that “at the end, you cannot escape this frame of mind, because our brain evolved this way.” He  believes that time is an illusion, a construct of our consciousness, that perhaps in reality, outside of ourselves, events occur in the shuffled manner of the narrative. It is our brains that constantly seek to arrange them in order. Mori is a failure at this kind of arranging, and at this order. He is an unemployed loner wandering Seoul, his only hope a woman he last saw years ago and who might want nothing to do with him. And in some ways Mori seems to live in his own pocket of pre-Internet time. The settings are clearly contemporary, but no one uses a cell phone, Mori hand writes his letters, and there is nary a computer in sight.


Then there is the film’s blunt use of language. The movie is almost entirely in English, the common ground for Japanese-Korean relations in this film. But this limits their vocabulary, so each conversation is abrupt and direct. Every conversation seems to begin with the question, “Business or pleasure?” Mori hems and haws through each iteration, his visit having possibly to do with neither, ending up as more misery than pleasure. When his guest house manager tells him the banality, “I hope you will enjoy your stay”, Mori cannot respond in kind. Instead, he says, “It’s not always easy to enjoy, except when I am lucky.” The bemused manager replies, “You know, I was just saying that”, implying it was a rhetorical question. But Mori is incapable of deflecting or armoring his meanings with the subtleties of his native languages. He is forced into direct statement, as are his interlocutors. Sangwon insists that Mori admit to being sad. Mori considers people to be “great” or “poison”, with no shades of grey in between. This forced directness creates quick bonds between Mori and Sangwon, who get blitzed and dream of happiness, as well as between Mori and Youngsun, whose attraction seems to be borne out of mutual melancholy. It ends as it has to, in the middle, unresolved, our minds having to put all the broken pieces together.


Jauja is equally concerned with blowing minds as puzzling them. With its pulsing colors and immersive deep focus cinematography, it’s cinema-as-sensorium. There’s a vibrant interplay in Alonso’s frames (in the old 1.33:1 aspect ratio) between background and foreground, usually with Viggo Mortensen in the front, his visage staring out beyond the horizon. It is 1882 on the Patagonian coast, during the “Conquest of the Desert”, a bloody campaign to drive the indigenous peoples out of the jungle, to make the region safe for European settlers. Mortensen plays Dinesen, a Danish engineer who will plan the future European-style cities that will replace the wiped-out cultures.  He is there with his daughter Ingeborg (Viilbjork Agger Malling), who soon absconds into the jungle with a young soldier. As Dinesen follows her deeper into  the country,  rumors persist that an ex-soldier, Zuluaga, has gone mad and gone “native”, slaughtering the Europeans he comes across.  Fugitive signs of Ingeborg emerge and dissipate, but Dinesen trudges on into something like madness. He is like Ethan Edwards in his metastasizing hatred of the indigenous population, and the obsessive chase for his lost girl that is less an act of courage than of bloodlust. The deformity of the European colonial project seems to alter the landscape as well as his body, from watery shores crenellated with rock formations, to the dried out gray of the mountains. By the end Mortensen is a ragged wandering ghost, led by an undernourished dog to some kind of afterlife. The ending is a time-and-space shifting mystery that lays beyond my grasp, images of a fecund forest overgrowing the past, drawing me back in.


April 22, 2014


From the beginning documentary filmmaking was synonymous was artifice. For Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty re-staged scenes of an Inuit family at home, complete with an igloo constructed for the shoot. Getting to truth through fiction was an accepted practice for that non-fiction pioneer. It was a common sense approach, using all the filmmaking tools available to capture as much of a multifarious reality as he could. Today the model, best exemplified by An Inconvenient Truth, is that of a TED talk, in which a pre-determined position is supported by talking heads, explanatory slides and jaunty animations. Most of these message documentaries, well-intentioned or not, have no need for moving images at all.  Flaherty’s model has survived, but it lives at the periphery of the film world, in academic contexts like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), or documentary boot camps like the yearly Robert Flaherty Seminar, which programs formally innovative non-fiction work by a rotating cast of curators. Programmers Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes have gathered the tendrils of these non-fiction experiments into the definition-expanding series “Art of the Real”, which runs through April 26th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.


Lim and Rakes make wide-ranging connections, from the ethnographic experiments of Jean Rouch (Jaguar, 1954/1967) to the SEL (which receives its own sidebar). Rouch practiced what he called “ethno-fiction”, and with Jaguar, he took an anthropological film he had shot in 1954 in Niger, and asked its subjects to dub a commentary over it thirteen years later, where they try to recall their on-screen conversations and get sidetracked with jokes and digressions. The SEL similarly foregrounds the apparatus of filmmaking, as in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (now in theaters via Cinema Guild), which takes a series of 16mm portraits of worshippers and tourists as they ride a cable car up the mountains to a temple in Nepal. Each rides runs the length of a roll of film, and contain a parade of micro-dramas, from the fate of a sacrificial chicken to that of a melting ice cream cone. The SEL was founded in 2006 to revive a Flaherty spirit in documentary, that “promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography”, as they say on their site. Spray is also represented by her 2009 ethnographic hangout film, As Long as There’s Breath (2009). It is the third in a series of videos she made of a Nepali family, and she has achieved such a laid back rapport it has the deadpan humor and tempo of a Jim Jarmusch movie. It’s a series of conversation sketches about the parents’ depression over their empty nest (the kids have all moved out), and the village women’s state of sexual satisfaction (low). Spray shoots them in silhouette against the mountainside, an image of aestheticized distance. But these ladies are no exotic other, and proceed to assert their agency by debating the relative merits of wooden and rubber dildos.


They have adapted to performing to Spray’s camera and turned into delicate and often hilarious performers. Three other documentaries in the series take performance as their theme: Davi Pretto’s Castanha, the Closing Night film Actress (2014). João Carlos Castanha is an aging actor in Porto Alegre, Brazil. He takes gigs all over town, from bit parts in TV dramas to a drag queen MC at the local gay bar. He’s seemingly born to entertain, though he’s never ascended past the local scene. Pretto emphasizes the small spaces of his dressing rooms, smoke filled squares that are not reminders of failure, exactly, but of a dulling inertia. Castanha lives with and cares for his mother, who spends her time swearing at the condo manager at coddling her grandson Marcelo, a drug addict. The film sways between Castanha’s endless pre-show rituals, the layers of makeup and small talk with other actors, with the rush of performance, his energy refracted in the disco ball light. Pretto takes advantage of Castanha’s performativity by inventing melodramatic scenarios to graft onto his life, turning Marcelo’s story into one of violence and mystery, allowing Castanha to pose as a gangster. In an interview with Ela Bittencourt in Guernica Mag, Pretto states his approach to capturing reality:

Our lives are marvelous constructs, caught between the real and fiction. We are always inventing fictions. We create our own roles and stories that we then interpret to our friends and colleagues. And I’m not the one who came up with this idea; it’s been around for a long time. In Jung, for example. But in the end, only the fictions can heal us. Only fiction shows us a way of dealing with the strange and absurd reality in which we are presently living.


Brandy Burre’s life is another marvelous construct. The subject of Robert Greene’s Actress secured a recurring part on The Wire before giving up acting to raise her children. She moved to Beacon with her boyfriend, and devoted her life to her family. As Greene picks up her story, the relationship is falling apart, and Burre is eager to return to the stage or the screen. Where Castanha is quiet and reflective, Burre is open and in the moment, talking herself through her insecurities and anxieties. It is rare for a documentary, or any film for that matter, to record so closely the everyday life of a woman above the age of 25. The joys of motherhood are all mashed together with career regrets and the mounting difficulty of a woman of her thirtysomething age to make a comeback in show business. She remembers how she was twenty-seven on the set of The Wire, while all the men were in their late thirties. She is not allowed to age gracefully, or balance her life and her work. The institutions of motherhood and show business both seem to conspire against her. Greene is well aware that Brandy is a star, and lights her like one, interrupting the handheld camera of daily life with vignettes of delicate soft focus close-ups, an upstate New York Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich. Brandy is stumbling her way through a life she is trying to get out of, with empathy and fragility, turning herself into her own crowning performance.


Mati Diop’s A Thousand Suns mourns one of Africa’s greatest performances, and charts an alternate history of its actor. Diop films Magaye Niang as he watches himself in a public screening of Touki Bouki (1973) in Senegal. A classic of the African cinema, it was about two Senegalese grifters who try to con their way out of Africa on a ship to France. It was directed by Mati Diop’s uncle, Djibril Diop Mambety. Niang is older now, introduced rustling cattle with a sewn on star on his shirt, the High Noon theme song on the soundtrack. He is a cowboy, a relic. When he tells kids at the screening that he is the actor in the movie, they don’t believe him, and say he must be dreaming. In this film Diop envisions another life for Niang, one in which he adopts the life of his Touki Bouki character and flees Senegal. The film becomes the dream the children accused Niang of living in, where the border between film and life, and life and dream, disappears as a fade to black.


Philipp Hartmann would admit he’s no great actor, but he’s an engagingly neurotic guide to the digressive essay film Time Goes By Like a Roaring Lion. The title is an odd phrase by Hartmann’s grandmother, conveying the violence and speed of time. Hartmann objects to getting old, and the more time passes the more he gets sucked into the past, like a time traveler. His triggers are not as poetic as Proust’s madeleine – he is set off by banal objects like a soccer magazine or a matchbook, sparking reminiscences on players’ birthdays and lovers’ faces. He uses his revulsion at his incipient death to hopscotch from the atomic clock in Braunschweig to a train graveyard in the Andes, on which an impermanent graffiti is scrawled, “The only thing that happens here is time.” When Hartmann returns to the train, the graffiti has been washed away by the rain. Through bull sessions with his friends, about Einstein’s Twin Paradox and their eternal adolescence, he looks for ways to outrun the clock, but he repeatedly encounters those driven mad by chronophobia:”Time would kill him at some point if he wasn’t faster.”

The films that make up “Art of the Real” supply an eclectic alternate history to non-fiction filmmaking, one that takes advantage of the full expressive potential of the medium. This week there is also a program of avant-garde work, including A New Product, in which Harun Farocki turns a corporate meeting on ideal workspaces into an absurdist essay on the impenetrability of neoliberal market-speak. Or if you’re in a more observational mode you can still catch  Castanha and Actress (sold out, but you can always go standby). Instead of flicking on the latest “issue” documentary on Netflix, head to Lincoln Center and see what artists are moving the form ahead by going backward – to Flaherty and beyond.


February 25, 2014


Since 2001 the Museum of Modern Art has hosted “Documentary Fortnight”, a series devoted to formal innovations in non-fiction filmmaking. It’s where talking heads go to die. This year’s edition includes twenty features and a passel of shorts from twenty countries, covering a wide range of styles and subjects. I was taken with two documentaries that take wildly different approaches to the observational form. The Mother and the Sea is an immersive ethnographic study of pioneering Portuguese female fishing captains, while Campaign 2 (non Will-Ferrell division) is a run-and-gun vérité portrait of a Japanese city council election.  Running through February 28th, Documentary Fortnight is a one-stop-shop to witness the future of the non-fiction form.

My most anticipated title was The Mother and the Sea, the latest ethnographic deep dive from Gonçalo Tocha. At the beginning of his 2011 documentary It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, he promises to “to film everything we can” of the Portuguese island of Corvo, the westernmost point of Europe. That 3-hour epic captures the past in the present, as the history of the island emerges through dying out traditions and the reminiscences of its oldest inhabitants. Corvo was once a major whaling outpost, as well as the repository of local wisdom ranging from cheese mongering to hat knitting. Tocha tries to extend these traditions and incarnate memories through his patiently wandering camera, where static portraiture of residents conjures up whole histories in a glance. In The Mother and the Sea he takes a similar approach to the small coastal Portuguese village of Vila Chã, though with a narrowed focus. Tocha is  fascinated by the group of 1940s women who became captains of small fishing boats. He claims they were the only women in the world to captain their own ships at the time, their ages ranging from 16 to 60. He can only find scraps of published memory in the library stacks, consisting of a few articles and one heroic photo of the women standing at attention.


To get a fuller sense of their world Tocha docks at Vila Chã and chats with the locals. His interlocutor is Gloria, the last of the fisherwomen. At its height the town housed 120 boats and 17 women of the sea. Now there are 9 ships, with Gloria the last female skipper. She is Tocha’s key to unlocking the memories of the other villagers, triggering their sense memories of when the town was abuzz with activity. She is a living link between past and present, and so Tocha, who acted as a protagonist in It’s the Earth, is more in the background here. Gloria takes center stage, interviewing daughters of the captains, as well as her own mother. The daughter of Ines de Chula, framed against a window opening upon the sea, remembers how her mother “went to sea” after her dad abandoned the family. The term “went to sea” takes on a sacred tone whenever it is uttered, akin to taking on the raiments of priesthood.


So despite the economic necessity of these ladies’ decisions, once they “went to sea” they were loathe to come back, as if they were given a taste of heaven and then had it retracted, as with some who were forbidden to continue after they were married. Their fishing licenses are filmed in silence, as if holy writ, physical proof of their transitory transcendence. Tocha shoots his film with equivalent reverence, the villagers posed in static compositions like saintly icons.

The men continued in the job as long as they were physically able, one 91-year-old speaking of it as an addiction, feeling the urge to tug at fishing line as habit forming as a pull of nicotine. The town’s top evangelist of the sea is Guilherme “Pilo” Sales, who claims he can speak to the sea. He has three daughters, none of whom took up the family business, for which he exhibits a twinge of regret. His love for the water will pass away with him.

The longest interview Gloria conducts is with her mother, Maria Ramos Canito, who “went to sea” at 17 and continued through her life. Maria is a born storyteller, polishing anecdotes to a high sheen. Her most memorable involves one of her first journeys into the sea, when she was caught in a storm with her captain Norberto. When all was thought to be lost, she kept the faith, navigating them home to safety when hysteria was taking over. Tocha’s time-traveling reels the 1940s fisherwomen into the present, and conveys the spirituality in which these fishermen and women approached their task. For the women it started as necessity, the only way to make a living on their own, as they were shut out of so many other professions. But just like the men in town, they became hypnotized by its imperturbable beauty. The film ends with Guilherme talking to the waves, thanking the sea for giving him the only life he desired.


There is not much of a spiritual side to local Japanese elections, at least not in Kazuhiro Soda’s Campaign 2. In a system which limits its nominees from debating political issues in public, the candidates are reduced to standing at transit hubs and shaking the hands of rush hour passersby. This was the fate of Kazahuki Yamauchi in the first Campaign (2007), in which he had the support of the Liberal Democratic Party machine and won a seat on the Kawasaki City Council. The circus of handshakes, loudspeakers and touring vans is documented in intimate fashion by Soda, who uses a first person observational style, jutting his camera in as close as possible to the action.  It’s a run-and-gun style that motors on adrenaline. It could be wearying, except that Yamauchi is an irresistible subject, an excitable idealist motormouth with absolutely no filter. Soda knew Yamauchi from their time at Tokyo University, so there is a familiarity that breaks down any PR barriers.


Yamauchi lost his city council position in a 2007 party shake-up, and then he spent the next four years as a house husband, raising his son Yuki while his wife Sayuri paid the bills. Yamauchi was enraged by the political standstill over nuclear power following the tsunami and Fukushima reactor disaster in 2011, motivating his 2011 run as an independent. This time, however, he refused to engage in the usual campaigning. Instead he invests only in posters and postcards, spending $850 total. Despite a minuscule chance at victory, the mischievous Yamauchi is downright giddy as he cruises past his miserable looking competitors as they don sashes and bow deferentially to every customer cruising out of KFC. As he says, “The 3/11 disaster has changed Japan but not the politicians.” The radioactivity levels in water and vegetables are a daily story, but no politician seems prepared to challenge the hegemony of nuclear power. Yamauchi’s is a noble cause, but he seems to enjoy needling his competitors more than advancing his platform, which he does only once – at an isolated intersection the day before the election. Soda is recognized far more than Yamauchi, the original Campaign having been a success in Japan. Some politicians cozy up to Soda’s camera, one Democrat decrying the banality of their election season in damning terms before wandering right back to his election team and bowing to every commuter – who ignore him completely – a microcosm of the election at large.



January 14, 2014


Last week Manohla Dargis complained about the overwhelming glut of films released in New York City. The New York Times has a policy to review every new release, and in 2013 they published 900 reviews, seventy-five more than the year before. Worthwhile indies like Computer ChessThis is Martin Bonner and Museum Hours are subsumed in a flood of dreck, which rent out screens to fulfill contractual obligations before limping onto VOD. So vanity projects with deep pockets eat up theater space, rendering word-of-mouth success almost impossible, since most titles are forced out in a week. The day after Dargis’ complaint was published, the third annual “First Look” series kicked off at the Museum of the Moving Image (January 10 – 19), a program of forward-thinking work, almost none of which has distribution. These are the films left behind by the broken distribution system in the United States, a freewheeling mix of handcrafted oddities, personal essays, and deeply researched documentaries.

Even though it’s only in its third year, “First Look” has become one of my favorite yearly rituals, its cherry picking of the bleeding edge of world cinema innovation the kind of thing I’d otherwise read about with green-faced envy in a globe-trotting dispatch in Cinema Scope.  They alerted me to new films from old masters like Chantal Akerman (Almayer’s Folly) and Philippe Garrel (That Summer) as well as young talents like Goncalo Tocha (It’s the Earth Not the Moon), Jang Kun-jae (Sleepless Night) and the riches of Berlin School filmmakers Thomas Arslan and Christoph Hochhausler. They’ve continued in the celebration of the small this year, in a program populated with intensely personal visions made with a DIY spirit, from the opening night’s handmade childhood idyll Little Feet to the closing night whimsy of The Rendez-Vous of Deja Vous, a bit of strained screwball shot on the streets of Paris. Bereft of big name directors (aside from a Rohmer short), this year’s “First Look” encourages exploration – better to go in without program notes and hope for the shock of the new.


But let’s start with the old. Rohmer in Paris is a charmingly obsessive study of the New Wave director’s filmic ambulations around the city of lights. Director Richard Misek begins when Rohmer’s wanderings intersect with his own – Misek was unknowingly an extra in Rendezvous in Paris. He noticed himself crossing the screen while idly watching Rendezvous on TV, which then triggered his OCD, and he began mapping Rohmer’s characters as they wandered around Paris. The movie is a topographical map of these walks, layered on top of one another as if tracing the neural network of Rohmer’s mind. He also catalogues and inventories glances, staircases and doors, the first step toward an encyclopedia of Rohmer ephemera. Misek stumbles when he begins to interpret these repetitions – tracing them all back to the Spanish Quarter, and declaring that Rohmer was haunted by the New Wave and always trying to return to its bosom. This ignores how engaged Rohmer was with the present, in everything from fashion to music, and that if anything Rohmer’s films are suspended in an eternal “now” rather than looping in a return to his days at Cahiers. But this detracts little from the film’s multifarious pleasures, and the overwhelming need to re-watch his entire corpus from start to finish once you leave Misek’s headspace.


The other standout documentary is David Cairns and Paul Duane’s Natan, which re-inscribes the French-Romanian film impresario back into film history, after he was erased in the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Natan was a pivotal figure in France’s transition from silent to sound filmmaking. Charles Pathé was skeptical of talkies, so Natan stepped in, became a partner in the company (rebranded Pathé-Natan), and produced some of the most spectacular films of the early French sound era, including Raymond Bernard’s Wooden Crosses (available in the Criterion Collection). He had rebuilt the French film industry following WWI, and his adaptability to new technologies kept it relevant and popular against the onslaught of Hollywood’s vast resources. But with the fall of France to Germany and the installation of the anti-Semitic Vichy regime, the Jewish Natan was subjected to a debilitating whisper campaign that insinuated he was an actor in pornographic films, a charge that has been repeated to this day, despite its virulent origins. He was stripped of his citizenship and sent to Auschwitz, where he died sometime in 1943. The Natan name was scrubbed from Pathé history, and his name is nowhere to be found at the sound studio he built. A work of barely suppressed rage that is also a fine piece of scholarship, it’s the rare talking head documentary that I’d recommend without reservations. You should also check out David Cairns’ movie blog, Shadowplay, which is unfailingly lively and intelligent.


The only director in the series that I had seen work from previously is the Quebecois director Denis Côté, whose dour black comedy Curling (2010) I had enjoyed a few years back. His new feature, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, is a more mysterious and withholding film, while retaining his off-kilter humor. It follows the post-prison life of Victoria (Pierette Robitaille), who moves in with her invalid uncle in a rural Canadian town, enduring the prying eyes of her probation officer while rekindling a relationship with her girlfriend Florence (Romane Bohringer). Florence has a past of her own, however, that shows up with a bloody vengeance. Unfurling like a fissured fable, Victoria uses her forest retreat to tame her insecurities and find whatever self she has left – but that self is invested in Florence, whose life is more out of a Richard Stark novel. In his droll, dreamy long takes Côté establishes that their love is in the past but not behind them, a curse they can’t rid themselves of, as dangerous as the psychotic gangster Jackie and her mute henchmen who’ve got a thing for breaking Flo’s limbs. It’s a love story and a death story which turn out to be the same thing.

There is much more to uncover at this year’s “First Look” showcase, including a history of the electronic Ondes Martenot instrument, Wavemakers, that I’m keen on seeing. But the pleasure of the series is going in blind and encountering the unexpected. Here’s to more surprises in First Looks to come.