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.


September 13, 2011

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Two sixty-something masters of their domain have new work showing in the U.S. John Landis, a dean of the low farting arts, has his morbid comedy Burke and Hare playing cable-on-demand services and a limited theatrical run. Harun Farocki, of the high brow-furrowing arts, has a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art entitled Images of War: At a Distance. Landis has been tagged with artistic decline, something Hollywood directors have to deal with as soon as they sprout their first grey hair (Burke is his first narrative feature since 1998, was financed and made in the U.K., and released there in Oct. 2010). This kind of ageism doesn’t appear in the gallery world, where Farocki is now being embraced after decades as an experimental video artist. The MoMA exhibition is running his most recent work on a loop, Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010), but also providing nearby monitors that are showing nearly all of his previous videos (which they acquired for their library). As artists, they are similar mainly in their dissimilarity, but both have a deep and playful sense of film history.

Burke and Hare tells the frequently adapted tale of the two eponymous Williams, who murdered 17 people in Edinburgh during 1827-1828, and sold the corpses to an anatomy lecturer.  It is a production of Ealing Studios, that venerable institution of British comedy (famous for Alec Guinness’ multiple personality marvels like Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)). Landis takes full advantage of the studio’s connections by hiring some of the great British stage and screen actors to fill out his cast. The leads are semi-familiar faces Simon Pegg (Burke), Andy Serkis (in the flesh this time as Hare) and Isla Fisher (Ginny Hawkins), but small roles are enlivened by Ronnie Corbett (from BBC’s long-running sketch show “The Two Ronnies“), stand-up comic Bill Bailey, Stephen Merchant, Tim Curry and Christopher Lee.

These casting decisions are not marketing filler, for each of these faces fills a particularly exaggerated space in Landis’ palette of caricatures. Serkis purses his lips to bring out the frogginess of his features, with the battered top hat adding to the impression of a dissolute Mr. Toad from Wind in the Willows. His Hare is the insatiable id of the duo, pushing them onward to more profitable indignities while remaining dutifully horny towards his equally greedy wife (Jessica Hynes). Burke is the apparently sympathetic one, Pegg’s kindly weasel features reluctantly acceding to Hare’s plans, as it’ll give him the cash he needs to wrangle Ginny, who wants to put on an all-female version of Macbeth. Isla Fisher is the most conventionally attractive, but her disconcertingly manic energy, and bizarre artistic ambition, place her with the freaks.

The supporting actors all provide comic accents to this unfortunate quartet. Corbett plays Captain McLintoch, of the Edinburgh militia, who is in charge of wrangling the local body snatchers. At 5′ 1″ and 80 years old, he waddles in front of his young recruits like an asthmatic Napoleon. His face squeezes into helmet and uniform reluctantly, jolly rolls of wrinkles unwillingly curling down his neck. Corbett is delightfully game, berating his charges with drill sergeant anger, and eager to flash his superiors a disarmingly adorable grin. He plays it straight and walks away with the movie. Then there is Tim Curry’s tortoise-headed scientist, Stephen Merchant’s stork-like dope, and the blustering Christopher Lee, who is no animal but simply himself, which is enough.

Landis lovingly arranges his menagerie into cleanly executed frames of clean executions (Bill Baily plays the sarcastic hangman and narrator). The jokes move swiftly, and the actors maintain a jittery pace that injects life into the material even when it sags. It’s the best comedy I’ve seen this year.

Harun Farocki’s videos aren’t funny, per se, but they are certainly playful. The centerpiece of the MoMA exhibition is Serious Games I-IV (2009-2010), which focuses on the military’s use of video games, but I immediately latched onto a few other video works. The first is On the Construction of Griffith’s Films (2006). This simple but brilliant short (2min. 30 sec.) splits D.W. Griffith’s use of shot-countershots into two screens, so you can see the eyeline matches line up next to each other. It begins with an example of a one-shot scene from The Lonedale Operator (1911), where “a door connects two shots, or separates them.” Then five years later Farocki broke down the varying camera angles and setups that Griffith innovated in Intolerance (1916), where there was “an exchange of glances, instead of words.” With close-ups and shot-countershots, actors could convey emotion without the use of inter-titles. Doorways still connect shots now, but the space has become elastic. Farocki shows a scene between Mae Marsh and Robert Harron, and a repeated sequence of shot-countershot. Farocki writes how cinema creates “structures of its own making, parallel worlds.” As you watch Marsh and Harron glance at each other in their little boxes, it’s possible to see Farocki’s fascination with two-channel video pieces, giving him the ability to have his parallel worlds communicate simultaneously, instead of the cuts made necessary in single-screen narrative cinema.

He brought this two-screen conversation to the fore in Counter-Music (2004), his version of a city symphony, set in Lille, France. This densely allusive piece uses Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera and Walter Ruttman’s Berlin, Symphony of a City as comparison points against a modern metropolis. Instead of footage shot on the street, he re-purposes footage from a sleep study lab, security cameras, heat maps and CG modelings of car and train traffic. These are images made without a cameraman, capturing the daily life of the city without the intervention of an artist. It is, Farocki contends, something Ruttman and Vertov dreamed about.

One of the early connections Farocki makes is inspired by test footage pushing forward inside a sewer pipe, checking for the integrity of welds. In a deadpan voice-over, he he has “recollections of a film with Raquel Welch”, of the ship flying through a human body in Fantastic Voyage. To him, this shot of the sewage pipe shows, “man as a world, the city as a body”. These systems and constructions are extensions of human thought, and therefore our body. But what kind of body have we created?

This multiplicity of images would have stunned Vertov and Ruttman, but not the sterility of their content. In one evocative passage Farocki runs a clip of some of Vertov’s textile workers on the left channel, working balletically around a giant machine, while on the right channel a single modern office worker sits silently in front of a glimmering screen. The man and his world have been overtaken by his body. Another comparison: between circling traffic and loitering teens. As industry jobs decline, Farocki opines, we circulate to instead of sitting about, and whoever doesn’t move makes themselves suspicious. Sitting still is a kind of revolutionary act. Near the end, a boy in a sleep study, covered in sensors and wires, struggles awake and waves to the camera, happy to be conscious.

These are wildly divergent artists, but both draw from their obsessive cinephilia to fuel their art. Landis mines the history of British comedy to sculpt the physical comedy of his cast of grotesques, while Farocki uses Intolerance (and Fantastic Voyage) to define his approach to cinema and to the cities that we inhabit. Go see both, and ignore their brows.