Pee-wee’s Playhouse, 1986–1990, still from a TV show on CBS. Cowboy Curtis and Pee-wee Herman (Laurence Fishburne and Paul Reubens).


PEE-WEE’S PLAYHOUSE ran for five critically acclaimed seasons on CBS Saturday mornings from 1986 to 1990, producing a grand total of forty-five episodes. The third season was limited to two episodes by the 1988 Writers Guild of America strike. After the fifth season, burned out by the workaday grind of the production, Paul Reubens, the creator of the Pee-wee Herman character and star of the show, put the character on hiatus. (The attrition is even evident in the product—the series finale is a clips show!) When, in the following summer of 1991, Reubens was arrested for indecent exposure while leaving the XXX South Trail Cinema in his hometown of Sarasota, Florida, the widely circulated mug shot showed that he’d grown Pee-wee’s close-cropped black hair out long and ratty.

Reubens’s career as a children’s performer was ignominiously ended, and in the aftermath of his public yank, his show, winner of twenty-two Emmy awards, was unceremoniously yanked from reruns. Nevertheless, the dear, sweet, vulnerable children couldn’t be retroactively protected from the deviant entertainment that they’d already been submitted to, and the influence of the Playhouse on impressionable minds has in subsequent years proved to be inestimable. In 2010, Reubens returned to the stage as Pee-wee, playing for an audience undoubtedly comprising in large part of grown-up kids who he’d helped to raise, and in a recent Rolling Stone interview, he alluded to Pee-wee’s forthcoming return to the big screen. And now, courtesy of Shout Factory, the entire run of Pee-wee’s Playhouse is available with heretofore-unseen image quality on eight Blu-ray discs—a fresh opportunity to contemplate what a strange and remarkable thing this show actually was.

Shortly after the story of Reubens’s public humiliation broke, Dennis Miller, manning the desk of Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update,” cracked that “Pee-wee Herman finally reached puberty.” In his gray glen plaid suit and red bow tie, Pee-wee had the aspect of a boy who’d been dressed up as a little gentleman by some doting parent with a bizarre idea of decorum. He was, of course, a grown man, though his waxy make-up job gave him a preternaturally smooth complexion. (While removing a whipped-cream beard: “I’m shaving just like daddy.”) He lived in the titular Playhouse, where darn near every object from floor to chair to window was anthropomorphized, with no real adult supervision but with a pet Pterodactyl, Pterri, and Jambi (both John Paragon), a downright swishy genie in a box.

While Pee-wee was distinctly presexual, the show was rife with elements associated with gay camp. In a 2012 essay, “Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp,” the queer writer and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce places Pee-wee Herman in the category of “Subversive Camp,” alongside “Roddy McDowell’s Tam Lin” and “Brett Anderson of Suede.” In the first season of Playhouse, Pee-wee is keeping company with Dixie, a butch lady cab-driver; Mrs. Steve, a houseboat-sized neighbor woman made up like a drag queen (Shirley Stoler, star of family-friendly fare like Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties and The Honeymoon Killers), and an absolutely ripped pool boy named Tito, never seen with a shirt. (In the second season, when the show moved from New York to Los Angeles, he was replaced by the no-less-handsome-but-slightly-more-clothed Ricardo.) In the show’s 1988 Christmas Special, a veritable parade of gay icons stops by the Playhouse to pay homage to Pee-wee, including Joan Rivers, Grace Jones, Little Richard, and k.d. lang.

On the inside the Playhouse looked like a cluttered vintage shop, on the outside, a roadside attraction. The show appeared in the midst of a Golden Age of weird Americana, when the symbols of 1950s car culture and suburban prosperity were reemerging in distorted form, a phenomenon which was occurring simultaneously in the gallery (the paintings of Eric Fischl) and the funny pages (Gary Larson’s Far Side). Playhouse arrived on the air in the year of David Byrne’s True Stories and Blue Velvet—when Pee-wee’s lip-synchs “So long and goodbye for now” to a scratchy record at the conclusion of one episode, he recalls nothing so much as Dean Stockwell in David Lynch’s picture. With Pee-wee, Reubens was doubling down on the inherent oddness of the Eisenhower-era kid’s show hosts that he’d grown up with—Pinky Lee most particularly—while adding an element of Jerry Lewis simpering and just a sprig of Mister Rogers’ Gayborhood.

The camp element was lost on child viewers, this author included, and probably many an adult as well. I’m not sure what my father, also a regular viewer, made of it, but I do remember that he impressed upon me the sheer amount of work that went into each episode, chock-a-block as they were with all manner of animation. The average Playhouse is a cabinet of curios, full of self-contained “features” like little drawers to be pulled out, their contents examined, and then closed again. Arranged as a sort-of variety show, each episode was a weekly history of animation techniques—“I wanted to try to use every kind of animation that was being done” says one of the show’s architects in an interview included in the Shout Factory set, and the contemporary fetish for the handmade and artisanal is very much present here. Pee-wee’s Ant Farm was rendered with a silhouette animation technique reminiscent of that created by Lotte Reiniger in the 1920s. The disoriented, possibly-sloshed King of Cartoons came by to screen 1930s animations by the likes of Ub Iwerks and Max Fleischer. When Pee-wee would visit to his “toy shelf,” he was greeted by stop-motion creations as disturbing as anything in the Quay brothers’ corpus, while a distinctly Ray Harryhausen–esque Dinosaur Family lived in the Playhouse wall. The recurring “Penny” skits, which illustrated the free-associative ramblings of six-and-seven-year-old girls in Claymation, were courtesy of England’s Aardman Animations, the home of Wallace & Gromit. There was even early computer animations: Pee-wee’s “Connect the Dots” adventures, courtesy Ellen & Lynda Kahn’s TWINART.

Reubens was the lynchpin of the show, but he surrounded himself with talent, and the Playhouse was in fact a workshop that brought together and activated a plethora of creative minds. Wayne White, who just ended his show “Invisible Ruler” at New York’s Joshua Liner Gallery, won three Emmys for his puppetry and design on the show, and voiced J.D. marionette bully Randy. (Spazz Pee-wee probably would’ve been a punching bag in the schoolyard, but Randy was the only threat at the Playhouse.) The underground cartoonist Gary Panter was honcho of the set design squadron, and created the Playhouse’s aesthetic of jaggedly clashing patterns and bric-a-brac business. The score was provided by a revolving cast of hip musicians—The Residents, George Clinton, Van Dyke Parks—with the reliable standby being Mark Mothersbaugh, who joined the show on a hiatus from his band Devo. (I still remember the wistful longing his closing theme created, signifying that you were now leaving Pee-wee’s world—you couldn’t wait until next week to come back.)

Reubens was an art-school kid who knew how to engender creative collaborations. He’d attended CalArts in the 1970s before joining the Los Angeles improv troupe The Groundlings, where he’d premiered the Pee-wee character and worked closely with Phil Hartman, who played sea salt Captain Carl on Playhouse before departing for SNL. Rounding out the show’s flesh-and-blood cast was future Law & Order star S. Epatha Merkerson as Reba the Mail Lady, seen to best advantage in the “Playhouse in Outer Space” episode, and Laurence Fishburne as Pee-wee’s best friend Cowboy Curtis—the concept is a little Gene Autry, a little Gene Nabors, and a little Warhol’s Lonesome Cowboys.

Pee-wee’s Playhouse isn’t P.C.—Pee-wee’s pen-pal letters from around the globe all riff on national stereotypes, and there is a slanty-eyed eggroll with a Fu Manchu moustache in his freezer box—but the cast is, in an offhand, no-big-deal way, quite diverse. (I almost wrote “for the time,” before realizing that very little has changed. In an interview on the set, Fishburne confirms that this diversity existed on the behind-the-camera crew as well.) On revisiting the show, what is striking is its embracing, absolute decency—a decency that’s in no way at odds with the happy perversity bubbling under its surface, and which in fact makes the very thought of such a dichotomy seem absurd. Reubens, whose shyness when out-of-character has only been exacerbated by legal harassment, doesn’t appear on-camera for any of the boxed set features. Which is to be regretted—but then, he’s already given us quite enough.

Nick Pinkerton

Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Complete Series is now available on Blu-ray from Shout Factory.

Camp Camp

10.18.14

Peter Sattler, Camp X-Ray, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 117 minutes. Ali and Cole (Peyman Moaadi and Kristen Stewart).


SO MUCH OF CAMP X-RAY, writer-director Peter Sattler’s first feature, is so thuddingly didactic and yet morally obtuse that my writing anything else about the film beyond this sentence may be a further violation of the Geneva Convention. But as bad as this dubious project might be, the two performances at its center elevate it: Kristen Stewart as Cole, a soldier stationed as a guard at Guantánamo Bay, and Peyman Moaadi as Ali, the detainee she befriends. Both actors impressively shade impossible roles with alert nuances.

Before it descends into facile metaphors, Camp X-Ray begins with startling, astute clarity. As a newscaster narrates, in Arabic, the events of 9/11, with footage of the burning twin towers behind her, a man (whom we will later learn is Ali) begins to pray in his apartment. His salat is interrupted by blurry figures who approach him from behind and place a black hood over his head. This chaotic action is immediately followed by a shot of a trio of similarly shrouded men, who are also shackled and wearing orange jumpsuits and noise-canceling headphones, being transported by motorboat to the infamous US-military prison where they will be beaten and encaged.

The scathing critique of Guantánamo so forcefully laid out in these first few minutes is then inexorably undermined by Sattler’s outrageously flawed feel-good premise: that Cole and Ali have something to teach each other and, more broadly, are in equivalent situations. Even worse, Ali serves as the catalyst for his captor’s moral awakening; Cole’s time at the detention center might as well be the extended, east-Cuba stop for “Oprah’s The Life You Want Weekend” tour. “I wanted to do something important,” Cole tells Ali through the narrow, rectangular, thick glass pane of his cell, explaining why she enlisted in the army. “Yeah, I understand,” replies the man who’s been locked in a room no bigger than a veal-fattening pen for the past eight years, stripped of all liberties without ever being convicted of a crime.

And yet, even as Camp X-Ray builds to its preposterous final scene, Stewart and Moaadi remain fascinating to behold. This is the actress’s first role since the conclusion of the Twilight series in 2012; Moaadi has enjoyed international exposure on a much smaller scale, playing the irascible husband in Asghar Farhadi’s multiple-prize-winning Iranian marital drama A Separation (2011). Far removed from their earlier personae, both performers display a deep commitment not just to their shabbily sketched-out characters here but also to the push-pull dynamic between them. While Cole tries to make sure her flinty composure never drops during her patrol of D block, Ali—who, during one of their initial encounters, flings a cup of his shit at her—lures her in with his incessant questioning and haranguing. Throughout these cycles of repelling and attracting, and even during the more risible scenes, when the divisions between the two characters magically disintegrate, Stewart and Moaadi imbue each moment with agile reflexes: holding pauses just long enough, stiffening or relaxing postures to convey more about their characters’ backstories than Sattler’s prolix script ever does.

Melissa Anderson

Camp X-Ray is now playing in New York; it opens in Los Angeles on October 24.

Dead Alive

10.15.14

Bill Morrison, Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, 2014. 35 mm color, sound, 39 minutes.


OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, Bill Morrison—a man whose ability to conduct archival footage like Toscanini could a symphony orchestra was never in doubt—has emerged as one of our premier screen historians, matching his established interest in film as the fading physical representation of collective memory to single historical milieus and events. This new stature is largely based on the strength of two short features, The Miners’ Hymns (2011) and The Great Flood (2013), the latter of which had successful theatrical engagements in New York and Los Angeles earlier this year.

Today Morrison’s visibility has never been higher, his films never more accessible. This September, Icarus Films released a five-disc set of his Collected Works 1996 to 2013, which includes sixteen films packaged together on DVD, and, beginning this week, the Museum of Modern Art is hosting the retrospective “Bill Morrison: Compositions.” (Morrison’s last New York stand was a weeklong run at Film Forum in February 2012.) In addition to screening the material compiled on Collected Works, MoMA’s program will include films having their domestic premieres and three live musical performances. Jazz guitarist and composer Bill Frisell will accompany The Great Flood live with a four-piece band, and Dave Douglas and Keystone will play along to Morrison’s 2010 Spark of Being, a retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein stitched together from sundry bits of archival footage, including images from Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition of 1915. (The subject matter—using dead matter to create new life—just happens to be matched to the technique.)

The live performance aspect is crucial, for Morrison’s background is in multimedia—most of his early 16-mm shorts were created for New York’s Ridge Theater group, which he joined in 1990, and were intended to play a part in a live productions. MoMA has arranged the shorts programs according to format, and so the 16-mm works of 1990–96 will screen together. In them, you can see early manifestations of what will be Morrison’s ongoing preoccupations. The Death Train (1993)—created to accompany John Moran’s opera The Death Train of Baron von Frankenstein—draws out an extended visual analogy between analog moving picture and railroad technology, rhyming spinning reels and spinning wheels in much the same manner that Morrison will match footage of film lab drying racks to whirling dervishes and Persian rug spinners in his Decasia (2002). Lost Avenues (1991) also has something of the quality of a requiem for a disappeared industry—images of harpooners at sea suggest the whaling industry as a subject, although it’s difficult to say for certain, for Morrison is already besotted with the particular textures of the film image in various states of decomposition, riddled with lacunae. This fascination with the imperiled image appears again in Morrison’s twelve-minute The Film of Her (1996), in which an unsung Library of Congress clerk recounts his having saved the library’s paper print collection from almost certain destruction. (The short is among Morrison’s most-beloved works, but it’s nearly undone by the corny voice-over performance.)

Morrison’s interest in the preservation of film history—or, conversely, with its ruination—would result in Decasia, a film comprising nitrate film images succumbing to spectacular putrefaction. Watching it flicker by, one descries all manner of patterns and textures in the riot of rot: fingerprint whorls, swirls of smoke, coral reefs, baked desert plains, networks of cracks like those on an Albert Pinkham Ryder canvas. Upon its release, Decasia was greeted with the sort of reviews that few filmmakers could hope to see in their lifetimes, let alone those working in non-narrative idioms. Morrison’s film appeared at precisely the right time for film culture, at a moment of unprecedented proliferation of archives and archivists, as an end-of-the-millennium obsession with the Death of Cinema had reared its head—both phenomena that continue to this day.

Composer Michael Gordon’s score for Decasia is a harried affair, like a sonic expression of the act of passing time chipping away at the integrity of film stock; more recently, however, Morrison has been sounding the elegiac note. The Miners’ Hymns opens with a flyover of the closed-down coal collieries of northeast Britain, while on-screen text gives their birth and death dates. (Morrison still avoids contextualizing dialogue or voice-over.) The director-editor has the help of some remarkable “collaborators” on this film—anonymous British cameramen shooting film for the National Coal Board in the 1940s and ’50s, in glistening black-and-white that gives working-class existence a luster worthy of Von Sternberg. Moreover, the film features a score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson—the most poignant that Morrison has ever featured—which is divided into distinctive movements like the film itself, and reaching a marvelous emotional climax in the reproduction of the annual processional to Durham Cathedral as part of the Miners’ Gala.

This is almost equaled for cumulative impact by the shot of dancers bumping and grinding to gutbucket blues at the close of The Great Flood. Morrison had previously harvested footage of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 for the last segment of his 2006 The Highwater Trilogy, and the historically catastrophic deluge, which sent thousands of displaced African-American sharecroppers to the cities of the north, including Morrison’s hometown of Chicago, is the subject of this, his longest film to date. The Great Flood, whose effect is appropriately submersive, is a mournful montage showing the destruction and displacement wrought by the flood—and the endemic racism which reflected in every aspect of the crisis response—and while the film ends on a mass forced migration, the shambling score always finds its way back home to “Ol’ Man River” (Morrison had twice used Frisell’s tracks on previous films, on The Film of Her and 2003’s The Mesmerist, but this was their first full collaboration.)

If Decasia, to many, announced Bill Morrison as the natural heir to Stan Brakhage, his newer work suggests that he has a dash of Ken Burns in him as well. Indeed, Morrison is among the more crossover-ready figures to emerge from the American avant-garde in recent memory—“Decasia is that rare thing,” J. Hoberman wrote in the Village Voice in the spring of 2003, “a movie with avant-garde and universal appeal.” He is more convincing when plumbing the sentimental associations of disinterred archival footage than when he employs it in schematic, formalist exercises, like the split-screen experiments in Outerborough (2005) and Release (2010), and has found a new clarity in drawing his material from a single period and place. One of the works making a stateside debut at MoMA is Beyond Zero: 1914–1918 (2014), spun together from (barely) surviving nitrate film shot during WWI. Ghostly figures move across a canvas pocked and rutted like a no-man’s-land, primitive tanks lugubriously lumber through a scrubby forest, and, in the final image, a lone parachute jumper swinging like the clapper of a bell is matched to a distant, keening knell. From the distance of a hundred years, Huns and Doughboys can be seen still scramble into their trenches, fighting a losing battle against the ravages of time.

Bill Morrison: Compositions” runs through Friday, November 21, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art.

Nick Pinkerton

Laura Poitras, Citizenfour, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 114 minutes. Edward J. Snowden.


LAURA POITRAS’S CITIZENFOUR is an electrifying countdown to an epoch-altering event, unfolding in an antiseptic all-white room. Poitras had been working for at least a year on a documentary about the surveillance state—the final installment of her trilogy on the US post-9/11—when she began receiving, in January 2013, encrypted e-mails from someone who warned, “Assume your adversaries are capable of one trillion guesses per second.” Her correspondent signed off as “Citizenfour,” the alias of Edward J. Snowden, whom Poitras, along with journalist Glenn Greenwald, would meet in the mall of the Mira Hotel in Hong Kong on June 3, 2013. To watch the footage Poitras shot for the next week of Snowden in his cramped quarters at the Mira—incidents that constitute the middle of Citizenfour and make up roughly half its 114 minutes—is to have the extraordinary, dizzying experience of witnessing a man in the final moments of his anonymity before he changed the course of history and, in the process, became this country’s most wanted fugitive.

According to George Packer’s profile of Poitras in the current issue of the New Yorker, the director “filmed Snowden for some twenty hours” at the Mira—footage that I wish I could see every second of. Despite Snowden’s insistence early on that he’s “not the story,” it’s difficult not to be transfixed by every detail, no matter how seemingly banal, revealed in Citizenfour about this slight, pale, twenty-nine-year-old (“I go by Ed”); in the forty-eight hours since I’ve seen the documentary, I haven’t been able to shake the image of the small birthmark on the underside of Snowden’s right arm or his long nails as he types on his laptop while seated on a rumpled chalk-colored duvet. Abundantly on display here, Snowden’s preternatural calm and his speech-filler-less eloquence in explaining his decision to leak a trove of damning NSA documents will be familiar to anyone who watched the Poitras-shot twelve-and-a-half-minute video of the whistleblower that was posted on The Guardian’s website on June 9, 2013, the day his identity was revealed. (In Citizenfour, we see what essentially amounts to a dress rehearsal for this momentous clip.) When his equanimity breaks, however slightly—he softly mutters goddammit when his close-cropped hair, despite multiple squirts of gel, won’t behave as he tries to alter his appearance before leaving his hotel room—the moment has a seismic effect, underscoring this young guy’s inconceivable vulnerability.

In singling out this section of Citizenfour, I don’t mean to discount what precedes or follows it. Before the Snowden scenes, we are introduced to other vital activists and experts who have been speaking out against the government’s breaches of privacy for years, including William Binney, who resigned from the NSA in October 2001 after more than three decades of service at the agency. The post–Mira Hotel portion of Poitras’s documentary includes a number of equally revelatory moments, including one shot taken, at some distance, this past July showing Snowden and his girlfriend, whom he had last seen in May 2013, cooking dinner at his home in Moscow, where he has been living at an undisclosed location since fleeing Hong Kong. By virtue of Citizenfour’s comprehensiveness, Poitras, whose reporting on the NSA, along with that of Greenwald and two other journalists, received the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, honors Snowden’s emphasis that he’s “not the story”—or at least not all of it. Taking us into that Hong Kong hotel room during that pivotal week, Poitras unforgettably shows us why Snowden was motivated to act: his belief that anyone, anywhere with a cellphone or an Internet connection was unwittingly—and illegally—the story.

Melissa Anderson

Citizenfour, which made its world premiere at the 52nd New York Film Festival on October 10, opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 24.

Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Maria Enders and Valentine (Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart).


“IT’S A MOVIE in which you never forget you are watching these actresses,” director Olivier Assayas said at the press conference following the screening of his magnificent Clouds of Sils Maria, a film that explores the unstable boundaries between performing and being. “These actresses,” who were seated stage right from Assayas, are Juliette Binoche, who plays Maria Enders, an internationally renowned star, and Kristen Stewart, as Valentine, Maria’s personal assistant. Maria, who’s “sick of acting on wires in front of green screens,” is considering whether to star in a revival of the stage drama that launched her career twenty years ago, in which she played a cunning ingénue who seduces, abandons, and then drives to suicide her older boss. In the remounting, Maria is to portray the spurned middle-aged lover; the part she originally inhabited is offered to Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising phenomenon with a Lindsay Lohan–like penchant for scandal and self-destruction. Though Valentine’s position requires constant deference to her employer, the helpmate, when not glued to her iPhone, iPad, or BlackBerry (“Maria Enders will not be doing Jakarta”), doesn’t hesitate to challenge her boss. In one crucial scene, she offers a passionate defense of blockbusters, the well-reasoned words emerging from the mouth of the young woman who, in real life, starred in one of the biggest movie franchises of all time.

Throughout Clouds of Sils Maria, the ingeniously cast performers refract and reflect their own offscreen personae—so much so that when Assayas, Binoche, and Stewart appeared onstage at the Walter Reade Theater, a line of dialogue from another sublime hall-of-mirrors production popped into my head: “I seem to have lost the reality of the reality,” says Myrtle Gordon, the mercurial stage actress played by Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’s Opening Night (1974), one of several key predecessors for Assayas’s movie. My disorientation during the Q&A ended, however, when I noticed, right around the time that Stewart said that Assayas’s script “was an interesting commentary on the world I live in,” a brawny bodyguard standing vigilant in the wings.

Another kind of “commentary on the world” that pivots on an actor completely effacing his celebrity, Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind stars Richard Gere as George, a homeless man bouncing from a squat in Queens to Bellevue to a Brooklyn shelter. The film boasts a dense aural collage—sounds range from an offscreen voice braying the words “vanilla half-caf soy latte” somewhere near a Lower Manhattan park to the unmistakable friction-generated noise of a guy jerking off during lights-out at the shelter—but George himself is largely silent. Though it was hard for me to suspend my belief, seeing only Gere the silver fox when I should have been caught up in his character’s abject plight, many passersby during filming, apparently, had the opposite experience: According to the actor, no one recognized him during the shooting of the scenes that show George begging for change on Astor Place. At the postscreening press conference, Gere, clutching a stainless travel mug, held forth eloquently on his role and his work on behalf of the homeless. The actor, in fact, gave a considered response to all questions, even the one posed by the journalist who stupefyingly demanded a “quick compare and contrast [between George and] Julian Kaye from American Gigolo.”

Melissa Anderson

The 52nd New York Film Festival runs through October 12.

Clouds of Sils Maria is scheduled for release in March 2015. Time Out of Mind screens as an encore presentation at the festival on October 12.

Paul Thomas Anderson, Inherent Vice, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 148 minutes. Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix).


AT ONCE IRREPRESSIBLE AND DOLEFUL, Paul Thomas Anderson’s terrific THC-laced comedy noir Inherent Vice, which screened for the press just hours ahead of its world premiere at the New York Film Festival on Saturday, concerns both high times and end times. Based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name—the first of the author’s works to be adapted for the screen—Anderson’s seventh feature marks a return to the roistering, nutter-dense ensemble that defined his 1997 breakthrough, the porn picaresque Boogie Nights. But the director’s ambitions are much greater in Inherent Vice than in the earlier film, capturing an epoch, and a country, on the verge of nervous collapse.

It’s 1970 when Inherent Vice opens, just a few months after the Manson Family murders. The savage butchery that took place on Cielo Drive is merely one of several events responsible for the pall that has descended over Gordita Beach, the SoCal doper’s paradise where longhair private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is based. (The first word of this fictional location, reportedly modeled on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived at the end of the 1960s, is Spanish for fatty—an accurate descriptor of the monster joints the hippie investigator smokes throughout the movie.)

Like those of many of the best noirs, the plot of Inherent Vice—involving possible kidnappings, a drug cartel, unholy alliances, rampant police corruption, and the “long, sad history of LA land use,” in the words of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), the movie’s sage-moonchild narrator—is deliriously convoluted and largely beside the point. The thick fog of conspiracies, in which even pizza parties double as sinister gatherings, betrays the era’s rampant paranoia—delusions that aren’t always the result of ingesting psychoactive substances (agents from COINTELPRO make an appearance). That these nefarious activities are often punctuated by sight gags or droll one-liners only enhances, rather than diminishes, the film’s deep melancholy. As he did in Inherent Vice’s immediate predecessors, There Will Be Blood (2007) and The Master (2012), Anderson has created another intimate epic about the failed utopias, broken promises, charismatic charlatans, and enormous contradictions that defined so much of the US in the twentieth century—a heavy noir trip that we’re still coming down from today.

Another film on national character and recent history, Gabe Polsky’s Red Army, part of the festival’s “Spotlight on Documentary” sidebar, traces the rise and fall of the Soviet Union’s hockey team, the powerhouse squad defeated by the US at the 1980 Winter Olympics. A breezy gloss on the outsize importance of sports during the Cold War, Red Army stops lobbing even softball questions at its main interlocutor, Slava Fetisov, the Soviet team captain, about his career off the ice. (Putin appointed the star player Russia’s Minister of Sport in 2002.) But the wholly reverential treatment shown Fetisov by Polsky could hardly be said to be reciprocated: The subject’s occasional displays of disdain for his director—to one question, Fetisov keeps his middle finger firmly extended while scrolling through his phone for messages with his other hand—prove to be Red Army’s most illuminating moments.

Melissa Anderson

The 52nd New York Film Festival runs through October 12.

Inherent Vice is scheduled for limited release on December 12; Red Army, which will have an Oscar-qualifying run beginning November 14, will open in January 2015.