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.


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.