Jacob Ciocci, FREEDOM ISN'T FREE/I'M NOT CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, SOCIETY IS CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes.
THE WONDERFUL, HORRIBLE WEB 2.0 YEARS, with their bounty of image, information, and emotion, have been accompanied by the emergence of a pervasive satirical style whose basic tenets are overkill and gluttony. Like the parent who finds you with a cigarette and makes you smoke yourself sick on the whole pack, these are works that say “So you like garbage, huh? Well open wide, ’cause here comes the whole landfill!” Some of the more popular manifestations can be found in the Adult Swim aesthetic (exemplified and transcended by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim), the ZOMFG mashups of TV Carnage and Everything Is Awful, and the not-too-distant vogue for novelty records by the likes of Girl Talk and Dan Deacon. We might refer to the phrase “accelerationist aesthetics,” coined a few years ago by Steven Shaviro, who, amid a dense thicket of “neoliberalisms,” identifies the tendency in Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Gamer (2009) and an obscure Alex Cox film, works that display “enlightened cynicism” while “they also revel in the sleaze and exploitation that they so eagerly put on display.”
This brings me to videos that Jacob Ciocci will be presenting at the Microscope Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn this Friday night, work that is fraught, a little nerve-wracking, and certainly rich with the alluvium of pop junk. (That they revel in the detritus they present is undeniable, but that “cynicism” shoe doesn’t quite fit—he’s slipped off the ironic-sincere grid.) Ciocci has been around since the days of the Zip disk—beginning in 2000 he was active with the art group Paper Rad, making up the core of the loose coalition of collaborators alongside his sister Jessica and their friend Ben Jones. In addition to keeping up homepage paperrad.org, the IRL activities of Paper Rad—“an Internet art Wu-Tang,” per Cory Arcangel—included touring bands on the noise circuit and the publication of old-fashioned zines. Paper Rad’s existence as a collective entity tapered off sometime around 2008, though their candy-colored doggerelist publishing activities were given the posh hardcover treatment last year by the publisher Delema as The Zines of Paper Rad, and at least one of the affiliated bands labors on: Extreme Animals, comprising Ciocci and David Wightman, who’ve known one another since high school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Wightman also releases brilliant, nauseating mixtapes from deep-dive research into unfashionable subgenres under the pseudonym DJ George Costanza.)
Born of a scene which put a premium on difficult and forbidding work, Extreme Animals developed a hooky, insidiously accessible sound—among the influences they’ve cited for their combination of MIDI synch crunch and imperious chugga-chugga thrash are Andrew W.K. and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Ciocci is no gnomic obscurantist, nor is he a minimalist of any kind, as should be evident in the title of the evening of screenings at Microscope: “Inside the Box: People Don’t Actually Like Creativity aka F.E.A.R.=False Evidence Appearing Real aka Un-Boxing The Box from Within: Everyone Has Problems (55 likes and 43 shares) aka I’m not crazy, Society is Crazy: #hope #struggle #planetfitness #chipotle, aka This Is Dedicated To All The People Who Have Had Their Lives Wrecked by Computers, the Internet, or Social Media.”
Jacob Ciocci, The Urgency, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 33 minutes.
That final dedication is lifted from The Urgency, the centerpiece of the evening, a magisterial video-album suite of nine tracks/chapters first released on VHS by Thunder Zone Entertainment in late 2013, since which it’s been making the rounds. (It played BAMcinématek’s Migrating Forms festival in December 2014.) The strobing collage of found-footage images, which Ciocci refers to on his website as “my most recent attempt at grappling with life in contemporary USA,” is cut in tune to songs that try on and discard idioms including nu metal rap-rock, video game Bonus stage, and ’90s German techno. Throughout its thirty-three minutes The Urgency returns periodically to a vexed humanoid figure trapped in a red-and-blue dungeon cube suspended in space—all rendered with ultra-primitive computer graphics—while the album proceeds through various tracklist subsections (titles include “Surfing/Suffering” and “The Puzzle of Life”) which taken altogether have the character of a spiritual journey, impending breakdown, or both. Flashes of mall kiosk T-shirt sloganeering are accompanied by a soundtrack medley that includes appropriated and distorted snatches from Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” Drowning Pool’s “Bodies,” and Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R,” setting the tempo for a blizzard of crosscut or layered found-footage images, a regurgitation of undigested Internet from Angelfire to YouTube. In the disgorging you may recognize viral phenomena of years past—Torontonian nutter Steve Spiros’s on-camera rant to an aghast reporter (“All those people who called me a sleepwalker… I woke up”) and Tea Party Republican Christine O’Donnell denying her allegiance to Wicca during her Delaware senate campaign—alongside Ciocci’s cut-and-paste animated GIF paintings from his “New Expressions” series, clip art, and images of unknown provenance, like that of girl hiding under a blanket of MacBooks, which exude profound exhaustion and genuine pathos.
Ciocci has a knack for scooping up the effluvium of psychic disturbance that collects around the square-hole templates of various pieces of folk art: the so-called “digital vernacular” or old-fashioned community theater and arts-and-crafts. The Urgency concludes with a montage of direct-address videos in which multiple confessions of vague discontent (“Something’s not right… I’m failing… Screwed up… Alone…”), apparently culled from video diaries and anti-depressant commercials, build to a climactic psychic break/enlightenment, in which generic expressions of depression and repression gives way to generic expressions of liberation. Ciocci doesn’t disdain clichés, however—he’s fascinated by them, and the metaphor through which many of the speakers in The Urgency describe their entrapment, that of being closed into a box, is the same that he’s been reiterating and repurposing for years. In The Zines of Paper Rad, one can find several analog-pixelated “Box Eye Scrolls” ’toons by Ciocci dating back to 2001. (Sample dialogue: “YOU HAVE THE POWER… TO TURN SHIT INTO GOLD.”) A 2006 animated short titled How to Escape Stress Boxes (also playing Microscope) features two mischievous Troll dolls (another favorite motif) pulling a man from his meditation to lead him down a primrose path of Geocities junk and urge him to self-actualization via auto-decapitation. Finally, the 2015 essay “Some Thoughts on ‘Shadows, Boxes, and Computers,’” published on the platform NewHive, is a freewheeling rumination of fixed identity and “transformative rupture” that exemplifies Ciocci’s protean style.
The Urgency paradoxically envisions “transformative rupture” through stereotyped means of transcendence—i.e. red pill/blue pill, “Think Outside the Box”—not atypical of Ciocci’s peculiar deadpan kitsch-optimism, which routinely turns shit into gold. (A 2006 video set to a deconstructed version of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is also on the menu at Microscope.) However, one of the two new works that Ciocci is premiering on Friday, titled at the time of this writing FREEDOM ISN'T FREE/I'M NOT CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, SOCIETY IS CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, skirts straightforward pessimism. Over a spindly, repeated keyboard melody that recalls something out of a giallo, Ciocci, speaking in the style of intimate, late-night webcam confessional, mocks the prospect of rebellion. (“You don’t have to be a genius to realize that the more free you feel, the less free you actually are.”) The meandering speech is matched to the recurring image of a road at night, intercut with Internet ephemera, one recurring theme of which is large inflatable objects run amok: Camera-phone footage of a massive Minion rolling down a street outside of Dublin, a bouncy castle bounding along a beach, a velour Eeyore slowly losing air, or a mortally wounded Barney the Dinosaur flapping in the breeze at the 1997 Macy’s Day Parade while his handlers hold on for dear life. (The last-named clip has previously featured in a video loop by Ciocci called Why Are So Many Americans So Powerless?, titled after what looks to be a sidebar bit of targeted advertising used here.) The music swells and dies, the road arrives at its destination, a spreading forest fire, and all the while intertitles pose insoluble questions: “Who Really Has the Answers?” You certainly won’t find them here—just a powerful distillation of the present mania for apocalyptic thinking amid great prosperity.
Emile de Antonio, America Is Hard to See, 1970, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes.
THIS YEAR, the People (poor things) shall choose a new president. The attendant Grand Guignol will entail the usual insults to our collective intelligence. Now is the time for brayed assurances, spurious commiserations, mawkish appeals, winking threats, plagiarized bromides—a whole sloppy revue of cheap, bullying speech. And the stakes have been raised especially high this time, as Nixon’s “silent majority” finds its mouthpiece in a billionaire chauvinist who grasps—with an acuity that eludes the liberal elite—the sense of bitter abandonment that churns within the white working class. So this pied-piper of proletarian resentment sidles up to the very people once claimed and inspired—and later failed—by the Left.
Donald Trump, of course, comes from the land of TV. One wonders what Debord would think of all this: a fascist sprouting like a blister from a little crease in the Spectacle. So it’s with acrid timeliness that “Four More Years: An Election Special,” a series on now at BAMcinématek, offers us a chance to consider anew the relationship between electoral politics and the moving image. It’s a link made most explicit, perhaps, in Haskell Wexler’s marvelous Medium Cool (1969), about a cameraman who finds out his footage is being handed over to the FBI. (Wexler’s fiction ends with a documentary wobble, as he filmed his actors being tossed about by the actual riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.) And BAM has summoned a few canonical films for the two-week program—Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948), and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962)—which sit grandly among more obscure artifacts of direct cinema (Robert Drew’s Primary ) and guerrilla video (the TVTV collective of the 1970s). But one film from half a century ago—set amid the same events as Medium Cool—offers a strange, oblique insight into the current situation. It snipes at the present. After all, 1968 was another election year in which the primary season was flanked by clamorous social movements on the Left and the Right’s rising bile; and at the Democratic center, the conformism of political dynasty.
Emile de Antonio’s America Is Hard to See (1970) comports itself like any staid political documentary, built from talking-head interviews and public speeches. The film stands like an obelisk of partisan chatter. But this brisk synopsis of Eugene McCarthy’s failed bid to be the Democratic nominee—a process that saw Lyndon Johnson scuttle out, Bobby Kennedy stride in, and Hubert Humphrey win the nomination after Kennedy was killed—draws a perverse force from its blanched quality, its annulment of differences. De Antonio has instituted a clenched visual discipline: The shots are all frontal and fixed. The interviewees are squarely framed. And everyone who speaks—with the exception of a single McCarthy volunteer and a throng of young women shouting “Bobby! BOBBY!”—is a man.
Behold the world of American politics, mashed to a dreary paste. (The men, needless to say, are white.) The film, then, contracts into a study of the morphology of the political class: By the end, you find you’ve developed an eye and ear for the miniscule distinctions, the exquisite taxonomical gradations, in accent, style, grain of voice—as Johnson, Kennedy, J.K. Galbraith, Arthur Miller, and McCarthy himself wriggle around within the same stifling phenotype. So this is what power used to look like: a pomaded, Windsor-knotted, smugly smiling masculinity. A masculinity with a sonorous voice and an aphoristic reflex. McCarthy himself is graceful, even pleasant. His role as insurgent candidate—the first to challenge Johnson for the nomination—seems a mere extension of his drifting charm, his amused, patrician distance. Kennedy’s elocution is glittering and abrupt: He speaks from the top of his voicebox. And Johnson, drawling his self-exculpating lies about the Vietnam War, seems a kind of lolloping old dog, quickly banished from the house.
Banished, too, are any images of Vietnam itself: Hanoi stalks the film like a specter, part of the vicious outside world that limns the insular talk. De Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1968) is his direct handling of the war: Scenes of bombed villages and well-groomed Westerners are thrust together in an arranged marriage of dialectical opposition. But in America Is Hard to See, “American engagement” is reduced to glib rhetorical object, bounced along by a broken party machine. Vietnam was McCarthy’s platform, after all. He favored an immediate withdrawal, a position that let him harness the discontent spuming up from college campuses. The campaign was meant to be “an adult enterprise, not a children’s crusade” (odious phrasing, considering all the young men who died in the actual war), but McCarthy had the poor judgment to take the youth movement—and the tenets of liberalism—seriously. A simple disinclination to hypocrisy made him stumble amiably into a radical position, where he was caricatured by the “realists” and clung to by the kids.
Ibsen seems to have penned de Antonio’s final scene. Humphrey is put forth as the candidate, to the dutiful applause of apparatchiks—and just outside the Chicago Amphitheatre, the now-mythic riots at the Democratic National Convention are hacking their way into history. The irony is slicing, the doom inevitable, the Democrats—unmoved. De Antonio’s restraint vaults from formal exercise to tragicomic bliss as we observe this dense bundle of Party power, dreaming of ruling a burning world. The Siege on Chicago is taking place, but all de Antonio gives us is the clapping and the spotlight and the rousing speeches—and the obedient faces of the DNC, tense, grinning metaphors for a liberalism in distress. Soon they fade to black.
Leo McCarey, Love Affair, 1939, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.
DIRECTOR LEO MCCAREY was an on-set improviser, routinely jettisoning reams of screenplay to be replaced, he hoped, by happy (and funny) accident. When the muse was proving elusive, he would retreat to a piano he kept at hand for just such occasions, and tickle the ivories until the music coaxed her out of hiding. The atmosphere of collaborative creativity that he fostered during a career that began in the 1920s acted as an incubator to the star personas of Laurel and Hardy and Cary Grant and, in Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), got star performances from two less heralded names, Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. Orson Welles said of that film that it “would make a stone cry.” Kōgo Noda reportedly took inspiration from it for his screenplay for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Jean Renoir adored McCarey, once stating that he “understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.” McCarey was parochial and universal. His approach was, as the saying goes, “revolutionary,” though like more than a few revolutionary artists he found the prospect of actual revolution abhorrent. He was both devout Catholic and a right-winger—and a sharp satirist of the institutions which he held dear.
The Museum of Modern Art’s McCarey retrospective expresses the paradoxical personality evident in McCarey’s films in its title: “Seriously Funny.” One of McCarey’s signature moves is a stop-on-a-dime turn to sobriety, the discovery of a little patch of holy ground in the midst of light badinage: Bulbous butler Charles Laughton quieting a western saloon with his recital of the Gettysburg Address in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935); Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer’s inconsequential flirts, suddenly brought to a recollection of their immortal souls while kneeling in a chapel in Love Affair (1939). While the Criterion Collection’s release of Make Way for Tomorrow has gone some way toward redressing the shameful state of the availability of McCarey films on home video, there’s still much ground to cover, so in the meantime MoMA’s 35-mm-heavy program will have to pick up the slack.
McCarey was born in 1898 to an Irish-Catholic family in Los Angeles, but he only joined the local Industry after failing as a lawyer, copper miner, vaudeville songwriter, and middleweight slugger. (His father was the ballyhooed boxing promoter Thomas J. McCarey.) He entered the picture business through an apprenticeship with the director Tod Browning, who would shortly distinguish himself with a series of ghoulish Lon Chaney pictures, while McCarey found his own métier at Hal Roach Studios, a factory for short-subject comedies, where he cut his teeth writing gags for Sunshine Sammy, Farina, and the rest of Our Gang.
MoMA has divided the surviving products of McCarey’s Roach period among five different shorts programs. One is dedicated to Charley Chase, a spry, bow-legged, lean-sided Baltimorean silent comic unjustly forgotten today, who was something of a mentor to McCarey. Their “Gift of the Magi” goof Mighty Like a Moose (1926), which features a post–plastic surgery couple obliviously cheating on each other with each other, is a scream, and features on an opening-night program with recently rediscovered short The Battle of the Century (1927), starring the Anglo-American duo whom McCarey is sometimes credited with first teaming, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In fact there’s very little that McCarey didn’t have a hand in at Roach Studios after he became director-general in 1926—so even if the Max Davidson short Pass the Gravy (1928) bears the imprimatur of one Fred Guiol, the masterful control of tempo with which it builds its central dinner table set-piece speaks of McCarey’s serene conductorship.
Davidson, a diminutive Berlin-born comic who specialized in playing threadbare Old World Jewish patriarchs whose shiftless New World offspring drove his eyebrows into extraordinary contortions, has a much-overdue showcase in MoMA’s program. These films belong to a period in American entertainment characterized by free, rough ethnic humor, before the Production Code Administration tamped things down—the Marx Brothers got their start doing immigrant burlesque, but only Chico kept his Italian shtick up into the pictures. McCarey directed their maddest movie, Duck Soup (1933), as he was moving over to features at the start of the ’30s, a period otherwise represented at MoMA with proto-screwball Part Time Wife and Let’s Go Native (both 1930), a Broadway-revue-stranded-on-a-desert-island yuk-fest with Jeanette MacDonald and Jackie Oakey.
Leo McCarey, _Ruggles of Red Gap, 1935, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes.
Ruggles of Red Gap is a kind of laughing gas turnaround of the Henry James transatlantic itinerary, bringing Laughton’s manservant and his ex-employer, the shy, stammering Earl of Bumstead (Roland Young), to the not-quite-tamed American west c. 1915, where they get swept up in the egalitarian ho-down. Ruggles has its antic moments, but here McCarey’s approach is more observant, revealing nuances of character in small-scale set-pieces, like Young accompanying Leila Hyams’s dancehall chanteuse on drums as she warbles “Pretty Baby.” The Awful Truth (1937) is generally classed with screwball comedies, but McCarey has no interest in setting a land-speed record for snappy wisecracks—he just wants to kick back and watch Grant and Dunne go at it, and especially watch the fond pleasure that they take in one another’s mortification, as when a sparklingly spiteful Grant looks on while Oklahoman Ralph Bellamy galumphs Dunne around a Manhattan nightspot. (Remember the on-set piano: Music is always key for McCarey, as is love, a matter of shared harmony.) It was released in the same year as Make Way for Tomorrow, a film that moves at a pace appropriate to its pokey, elderly protagonists, a long-married couple divvied up between their adult children, waiting for a reunion that they know will never come, failed by a family safety net eaten away by self-interest. By the time McCarey’s Love Affair arrived there was no-one working who could balance the spiritual and carnal, not to speak of the saccharine and sublime, with such seeming ease.
Much of McCarey’s critical reputation rests on this hot-hand run through the 1930s, cut short by a 1940 car accident that took him off the set of Grant-Dunne reunion My Favorite Wife and left him temporarily wheelchair-bound. Like the old gag goes, his big concern was playing the piano again, but he regained use of his left hand and bounced back with his biggest mega-smash to date, Going My Way (1944), which introduced fellow Roman Catholic Bing Crosby in the character of crooning hip priest “Chuck” O’Malley, returning in the following year’s sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s paired with a nun played by Ingrid Bergman, working together to save an inner-city school while simultaneously quashing an unstated romantic yearning.
By McCarey’s own testimony, Bergman’s character in Bells of St. Mary’s was inspired by his aunt, Sister Mary Benedict of the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood, who died in a typhoid epidemic. Far from an impersonal studio clock-puncher, McCarey was a relentlessly personal filmmaker, with all of the foibles and excesses that that implies. (In a day when many commentators praise fan-service above personal vision, the idea that an artist’s strengths and weaknesses could be inextricable from one another is increasingly foreign.) Anti-Communist drama My Son John (1952) is the film that linked McCarey’s rowdy democratic vision to McCarthyite bughouse paranoia, a work that his reputation has struggled upstream against ever since. (It isn’t included in MoMA’s program, but is available on various streaming services.) For about half of its runtime, when educated-above-his-station college boy snoot Robert Walker visits mom and dad (menopause-flustered Helen Hayes and jingo buffoon Dean Jagger), it’s prime McCarey—but then a Make Way for Tomorrow–esque study in familial dysfunction doesn’t survive the sharp pivot into a defense of same hearth and home.
Plagued by chronic aches and a painkiller habit that had lingered since his accident, as well as a longtime fondness for the bottle, McCarey worked sporadically for the rest of his life. An Affair to Remember (1957), a DeLuxe Color auto-remake of his own Love Affair that uses Grant and Deborah Kerr, is for some the last surfacing of his old talent, though for all its significant pleasures it feels like a holding pattern, whereas cracking suburban satire Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) is something new and exuberant, a true comeback sans proper follow-up, in which McCarey is seemingly revitalized by young stars Tuesday Weld (a babysitter with beatnik vocabulary), Joanne Woodward, and Paul Newman, who plays a rip-snorting, chandelier-swinging drunk scene. These were a new breed of American actor, or so the papers were saying, just as a new breed of filmmaker was soon to bring an unprecedented emotional candor to the screen in the likes of John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959), and everyone forgot about old red-baitin’ Leo McCarey working off-the-cuff, noodling away at his piano. I’ve never heard any description of the sort of melodies he played during those moments of take-five repose, but imagine them as meandering, sweet, sometimes maudlin, a little bit of barrelhouse and a little bit of church, the entire effect ineffably charming.
HIROKAZU KOREEDA’S OUR LITTLE SISTER provides more than a few picturesque views—though at bottom it’s about the torturous process that needs to be gone through before those views can be enjoyed, of letting down a fixed smile long enough to relieve a jealously guarded core of anger. The film is set in a family home populated entirely by young women, people who are honestly fond of one another to the point of being mortified at the prospect of causing each other pain. Nary an unkind word that’s said between them isn’t almost immediately regretted, and the presence of aggrieved masculine ego that added a few tense moments to Koreeda’s last film, Like Father, Like Son (2013), is largely missing in this female-centric movie. It isn’t until the film’s second half, when the women’s absentee mother shows up, that anything like a real fight even occurs. To find an American film as conflict-averse you’d have to look to the recent output of Richard Linklater, who’s cultivated a laid-back, specifically Texan front-porch equivalent to the Japanese mono no aware.
Three sisters are the lone occupants of a big, old, airy family house in the seaside town of Kamakura, Japan, an inheritance from their deceased grandmother, the last relative who thought to provide for them. Through bits of conversation accompanying the women’s quotidian domestic undertakings, we begin to assemble the circumstances behind their menage. Their father, whose death they’ve just received word of as the film begins, abandoned the household to shack up with another woman years ago, and their own mother has been gone for nearly as long. From the way that she scolds her younger sisters for their table manners, it’s evident that the eldest sister, Sachi (Haruka Ayase), has become accustomed to playing parent to both youngest Chika (Kaho) and middle sister Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa). Sachi soon has another responsibility, for her father left a fourteen-year-old daughter born of his deceased second wife with his widow, the third wife. After meeting their half-sister—the sweet, self-contained, mannerly, and seemingly unwanted Suzu (Suzu Hirose)—at his funeral in the northern province of Yamagata, the sisters impulsively invite her to come and live with them.
Though the perspective of Our Little Sister isn’t exclusively aligned to that of Sachi, she has a certain gravity that makes her stand out from her siblings: While they express their joy and sorrow with more freedom, her smile struggles against an omnipresent anxiety, a waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop vexation. In Suzu she sees something of a kindred old soul who has never enjoyed the luxury of being sheltered. Suzu nursed their dying father, while Sachi is starting a job at the new terminal ward in the hospital at which she works. These parallels between characters would be obvious even if they didn’t talk about them—Koreeda has the ability to compress an enormous amount of expression into parsimonious reaction shots—but they talk about them nevertheless. There is a fair amount of dialogue of the sort that screenwriting textbooks pejoratively refer to as “on-the-nose,” though as someone who has had quite a few on-the-nose conversations, I was never certain why this was a problem, per se. The sense is that of people who know one another backwards and forwards, in the quirks that allow them to indulge the little games of family resemblance that are such an essential aspect of the mythology that is family.
A Japanese viewer might know these characters intimately from the get-go, for Koreeda’s screenplay adapts Umimachi Diary, a popular josei manga (comics aimed at a female readership) from the writer/artist Akimi Yoshida which has been on newsstands since 2006. Yoshida serves as Koreeda’s guide into a world where men are tangential: The absent father, or the married doctor coworker (stone-faced Ryôhei Suzuki) with whom Sachi carries on a discreet affair, all the while living in mortal terror that something of her father’s fecklessness has worn off on her. While unique in its largely feminine milieu, Our Little Sister is in other respects very much in keeping with the fifty-four-year-old Koreeda’s body of work. He shows off signature moves that include a fondness for briskly hopping between interior and exterior coverage of the same scene; framings that skirt the obvious (summer fireworks are only shown reflected in the water and in a partially obscured views from a neighboring rooftop); a preference for looking at the aftermath of ugly and traumatic experiences rather than the ugly and traumatic experiences themselves, which leaves him open to charges of fastidiousness; and seemingly static set-ups which upon closer observation reveal a slight panning motion, as though registering the turning of the earth. Like several of Koreeda’s recent films, including Like Father, Like Son—of which Steven Spielberg is planning an American remake—his latest has at its center an abandoned child, though this is hardly a subject unique to him in cinema, a medium often used as a babysitter and which consequently hosts a preponderance of orphans.
Andrew Sarris once wrote of François Truffaut, author of the prototypical abandoned-child film The 400 Blows (1959), that he was “always tempted to be touching.” The same might be said of Koreeda, but the thing is, his films really are very touching. He may come off like a softie next to the young Truffaut, not to speak of, say, the mauling Maurice Pialat of L’Enfance Nue (1969)—even next to his younger self, perhaps—but no emotion in Our Little Sister seems dishonest, and if we can routinely praise artists who whittle down their means of expression with the passage of time, why should those who take a turn for greater openness and accessible clarity be held guilty of commercial concession? Is the quintessence of artistic progress really a kind of drying up and blowing away?
Not the least touching aspect of Our Little Sister is how it fits into a lineage of low-key Japanese domestic dramas stretching back beyond the prewar days of old hands like Yasujirō Shimazu—and the impulse to reattach severed lines of family tradition runs through the movie. The departed (dead and still living) are present in both the household shrine and memorial ceremonies, but perhaps most palpably felt when brought rushing to sense-memory through a familiar recipe, in which the film abounds: whitebait on toast, homemade plum wine, fried mackerel. There is a great deal to be said for simple dishes, prepared well.
Our Little Sister opens in select US theaters on Friday, July 8.
Alexander Hall, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, 1941, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 94 minutes.
KICKING BACK AND CHILLING in an undisclosed concrete-reinforced location, you would be hard pressed to corral two vintage Hollywood comedies separated by a deeper chasm of sensibility than Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). However the gleaming new Blu-ray editions of them disclose certain endearing and disconcerting affinities. With their blatant aerial motifs and cloud-dappled intimations of afterlife (or radioactive half-life), inadvertent themes and stammering anxieties—transferred à la the bomber-refueling ballet that so memorably opens the latter—feel like they were paid forward C.O.D. from Mr. Jordan to Dr. Strangelove.
The comical payload of Alexander Hall’s crowd-pleasing Mr. Jordan is fanciful-supernatural, amazingly sentimental, and militantly escapist: a cockeyed parable of love-conquers-all reincarnation, wherein the error of an apprentice guardian angel must be rectified by transplanting a boxer’s soul into a millionaire’s body. And having served its plot function, that body is conveniently traded in for another boxer’s, so our hero can fulfill his destiny to become world champion (a typically tortured piece of Hollywood Preordination). God doesn’t play dice with this studio universe—he plays musical chairs.
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of nuclear mordancy is equally deterministic, though the moral antithesis to Jordan: Strangelove is caustic, schematically demented, politically sacrilegious, and about as heartwarming as a mushroom cloud. Still, a loopy eschatology runs through them both, a river Styx where death is navigated by boatmen disguised as slapstick bureaucrats, gesticulating generals, mad physicists, or butter-tongued apparatchiks. Released a bit more than a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and less than two weeks before the Beatles landed in America, Dr. Strangelove deployed a drill-team array of precision ironies like commandos parachuted behind (or between) the lines of Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy and the John Birch Society’s lunatic tracts. Its all-out irreverence amounts to an assault on military-industrialist platitudes not seen from Hollywood since the Marx Brothers’ dropped Duck Soup (1933) in America’s lap.
The nation was busy pretending it could sit out the second World War (even as Germany was finalizing plans for the Final Solution) when Mr. Jordan, in the preternaturally dapper, authoritative form of Claude Rains, arrived to save the day like an angelic fixer from some assembly-line heaven. (His flustered, inexperienced factotum, played to a characteristic high-dither tee by Edward Everett Horton, meanwhile demonstrated that accidents and glitches could happen even in the most failsafe sanctum sanctorum.) It’s a propaganda film in search of—and in denial of—a war: simultaneously lachrymose and optimistic, promising everything will work out according to benign cosmic efficiency scheme in the end. Jordan is swathed in a halo of whitewash whereas the tougher nuts of Strangelove go in for crazed domino effects of purposeful miscalculation rippling across the Cold War chessboard like a military schoolboy tantrum.
Strangelove’s sarcastic deployment of the sentimental WWII chestnut “We’ll Meet Again” repurposes Jordan’s controlling metaphor, but the marriage of mournfully celebratory pop song and the mandala-like forms of atomic detonations occupies an equivocal no man’s land between denunciation of mass destruction and secret rapture at that prospect.
Both these films operate in the shadows of undeclared war, rendering death (singular elimination or mass annihilation) as a point of departure on the road to—what? Everlasting mystical love in Mr. Jordan and, for those lucky Washington bigwigs in Dr. Strangelove’s War Room/bunker, a survivalist “adventure” in nation-repopulation and -rebuilding. “Two girls for every boy,” Jan and Dean promised in “Surf City” (1963), but Strangelove insisted the patriotic ratio should be ten to one—a veritable chorus line of a “silver lining” for the all-male command team. In Mr. Jordan, the afterlife is all sleek silver-lining cloudland, where the newly deceased file past a clipboard-checking administrator onto celestial planes that will transport them to their final destination: In jaundiced hindsight, they could as easily be headed for Nazi death camps as heaven.
Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 95 minutes.
Of course Mr. Jordan is all about the legerdemain of substituting the innocuous for the fatal, whether in the manner its dim, lovable pugilist-saxophonist-pilot Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) is plucked unharmed from an aeronautic tailspin or dropped into a murdered man’s shoes to temporarily reanimate the heartless bastard as a munificent sweetheart. Montgomery personifies the definition of the word “palooka,” while everyone else besides the omniscient Rains is operating on the most basic level of telegraphed emotion and either broadly demonstrative or wanly insipid response. Jordan’s crafty employment of slapstick schizophrenia, befuddled people hearing voices, or having delusions materialize in front of them, sketched the template for every supernatural sitcom centered on a witch-genie-ghost-Martian.
Except that it has this potent inchoate strain of yearning that is almost pre-romantic, or perhaps just pre-sexualized: a fiercely chaste desire for absolute, eternal union. Strangelove, as that oh-so-Freudian name attests, is all about the other thing, “thinking the unthinkable” (props to Rand Corp. nuclear strategist and role model Edward Teller) and That Which Cannot Be Named: the Death Instinct of humanity as finally embodied by supremely irrepressible cowboy Slim Pickens, riding that bovine H-Bomb straight to movie-history Valhalla. With hip-cult writer Terry Southern in tow to do a six-week rewrite, Kubrick staked out the first cinematic beachhead of countercultural comedy—that pent-up eruption of so-called “sick” beatnik humor that had flowered in nightclubs and record albums, but hadn’t made the jump to movies. Coming off of the devilishly sardonic Lolita—a similarly pioneering work of tragi-satire—the director was on a roll. There’s no distance here between Kubrick the artist, with his Citizen Kabuki sense of exacting ritual, deep-dish visual design, and actors’ faces hovering in taut space, and Kubrick the producer-ringmaster who rides herd on an unpredictable, magnetic ensemble of performers who erase the lines between comic and dead serious, realistic and over-the-top behavior.
Two out of the three roles Peter Sellers played were fairly low-key stuff (the stiff-upper Brit officer and the hand-wringing Adalai Stevenson–type president, whose one-sided phone conversations with Russian Premier Kissov resemble a Bob Newhart routine), while Generals Turgidson and Jack D. Ripper are played by admirable, gloom-squad actors George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden with the wild-eyed abandon of gift horses jumping an electrified fence. Kubrick’s handling of interiors, abetted by Ken Adams’s production design and Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography (mixing formalized shadow-and-light tableaus with bobbing and weaving handheld work), made sets into virtual characters unto themselves. The War Room is the most daring example, half high-tech cathedral and half primitive amphitheater, but it’s the inside of the B-52 that makes Strangelove hum: an extremely detailed, ant-farm panorama of claustrophobic switches, gauges, straps, meters, compartments, and buttons. Intimate yet wholly depersonalized, these confining/defining spaces reduce their inhabitants to guinea pigs (the B-52’s forlorn, just-following-orders crew) or super-caffeinated lab rats (Strangelove taking charge in his underground Ark—a regular Dr. Noah. Or, considering the collateral corpses, Dr. Shoah).
Here Comes Mr. Jordan is for the most part visually threadbare, with an ambling-in-place stasis consisting of saxophone-tootling reveries sandwiched between chunky expositions and hyperventilated double-takes. Even in its own time, Jordan represented a great leap backward from the freewheeling attitudes, gum-snapping cynicism, and innate ingenuity of screwball comedy. Jordan prized sincerity and affable simplemindedness above all. But it had that damn indefatigable hook—love as a womblike sensation of déjà vu, an amniotic amnesia whose cloud-cover the hero (and audience) want to bask in forever.
Thus Jordan may have outmaneuvered Strangelove in terms of lasting influence: Kubrick’s film is enormously revered across as broad a cross-section of critics and Hollywood professionals and film fanatics as any work you could name, but Hall’s movie set down rules of engagement the industry still plays by. It got into the bloodstream and still evokes a practically Pavlovian response: Robert Montgomery clomping after his destiny like a lovesick mooncalf triggers a bittersweet conditioned response—a sappy brand of recovered/implanted memories. (Even if you’ve never seen it, it’s probably lodged in the depths of your emotional DNA.)
Befitting its less-than-scintillating status as filmmaking, Criterion’s packaging of Here Comes Mr. Jordan is only serviceable: more curio or tchotchke than objet d’art. But this edition of Dr. Strangelove is packaged with an eye for detail worthy of Kubrick’s own obsession with presentation and marketing: the “Top Secret” folder replicating the one he originally distributed press materials in, the Playboy parody reproducing the movie’s classic blink-or-you’ll-miss-it centerfold gag (a copy of “Foreign Affairs” used for strategic fig-leafing, as good a metaphor as it is a joke), and an enjoyable (if not absolutely reliable) reprint of a Terry Southern memoir of working on the picture. The Blu-ray supplements also give a refreshingly nuts-and-bolts perspective on how it was assembled—you could use them as a study guide to the movie, not in academic terms but in the context of how things really get done, the whole swirl of planning, chance, adversity, and last-ditch resourcefulness that goes into a Dr. Strangelove. Especially considering that Kubrick originally envisioned a big-budget movie with top stars (and Robert Montgomery as Secretary of Defense): instead he was “stuck” with Peter Sellers, who had optioned a novel by Terry Southern, then one chain reaction led to another…
Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb are now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Zachary Treitz, Men Go to Battle, 2015, color, sound, 98 minutes. Henry Mellon (Tim Morton).
NOTWITHSTANDING ITS SOMEWHAT GRANDIOSE and perhaps misleading title, Zachary Treitz’s Men Go to Battle is an earnestly conceived, modest achievement. The screenplay, cowritten by Treitz and Kate Lyn Sheil, no doubt speaks for the lives of many lost and alienated young men in mid-nineteenth century rural America for whom enlistment in the Civil War may have seemed a temporary reprieve from their mundane lives. Not that the movie overtly declares such a message. On the contrary, it strives, almost too self-consciously at times, to avoid preaching, melodramatics, and explicit psychologizing, as well as such conventions as dramatic buildups and soul-stirring music to underline every important point. A looser grasp of the directorial reins might have made all that seem less calculated than it feels and also given a greater sense of directorial self-assurance—but this is, after all, Treitz’s first feature film. He uses his considerably appealing and talented actors well, as he does local habitats in Kentucky, where the tale is set. Even more impressive is Brett Jutkiewicz’s finely shaded cinematography, as rich in textural atmosphere with day and night exteriors as it is with candle-lit interiors. He and Treitz, are especially partial to handheld camera movements, à la Malick, which not only convey a strong physical sense of a time when many people traveled by foot, but later come to resonate with poignant thematic force.
Brothers Henry (Tim Morton) and Francis (David Maloney) live together in a tiny shack in unnervingly close quarters. Francis is the more outgoing while Henry is something of an enigma. It’s telling that the movie’s first shot is of the sleeping Henry awakened unwillingly by Francis calling his name, as if to waken him to the world and the movie. Most of what occurs between them and in their sketchy interactions with others is understated or implied. We learn little of their past or how they came to live in Small Corners, Kentucky in 1861, or exactly why they must sell their farm. Talk is minimal and is generally about things on the surface. So when Francis accidentally injures Henry while roughhousing, any underlying aggression is muted. Given Henry’s personality, it’s not surprising, following his efforts to overcome his shyness by abruptly kissing a friendly young woman and is roundly rebuffed, that he disappears from the scene for a while. A man of few words and estranged from everything, we learn later that he has joined the Union army, which, like most everything he does, is hardly prompted by passion or patriotism.
The war itself is a mere backdrop, the stormy issues that caused it both unknown and of little consequence to inarticulate, everyday Joes like Henry. This is stressed as we see both sides charging across a battlefield in utter silence as the blasts of guns and canons are displaced by Henry’s monotone voice dictating a letter to Francis. Skepticism over the need for the war is implied through a nicely rendered vignette in which Henry, patrolling a river that separates Union and Confederate forces, is asked by a Reb on the opposite bank if he’s willing to exchange coffee for a pouch of tobacco. “Sure,” says Henry, as each tosses his bounty across the river before walking away.
If Henry’s face fails to register the anguish and fear soldiers suffer before and during combat, it is no less blank when, emerging from under the body of a dead comrade, he and we scan the recently vacated, still-smoking battlefield and realize that he is the sole survivor. He picks himself up and begins the long walk home, discarding his uniform, and falling into deserter mode as easily as he joined up. Stealing new duds off a clothesline, he is invited to eat and stay the night by a woman whose husband is at war and who, after putting her three children to bed, bathes unashamedly as Henry looks on—an episode almost certainly inspired by Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, soft candlelit interior and all.
But the most striking thing about Henry’s long walk home is not his resilience and persistence, but the fact that “home” is not really his destination. The more Jutkiewicz’s camera precedes Henry, as landscape after landscape recede in the distance, the more the theme of running away, not toward, is reinforced. Intentionally or not, the movie suggests that this was and will remain Henry’s prevailing mode. Just as he ran from home to enlist, and now runs as a deserter, he will be forced to continue. Reconciled with Francis and his new wife, he stays the night, rises at dawn, takes a little money from a drawer—like an invading stranger—and walks out into the dead of night as the screen turns black. In a sense, the movie seems less about the effect of war than about the many lost souls whose peculiar, heartbreaking aptness and ultimate disposability have perpetually fed the war machines of many centuries and nations.
Men Go to Battle has its New York theatrical premiere Friday, June 8 through Thursday, July 14 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.