“THAT'S MY GIFT: VARIETY,” says Arthur Lee, leader of the genre-defying 1960s Angeleno band Love, commenting on his childhood sing-alongs to the disparate artists in his mother’s record collection. Interviewed in 2005 and 2006 by a pair of UK filmmakers for the first and perhaps only documentary on the legendary group (now that both Lee and his fellow songwriter Bryan MacLean have passed away), Lee seems tamped down—a lifetime of drug use and erratic behavior, plus nearly six years in prison, will do that—but proud of the ever-expanding cult of devotees that Love has attracted since the releases of its first three records, particularly 1967’s Forever Changes.
To trace the footsteps of Lee, indisputably the first black psychedelic musician, and his boundary-smashing, interracial, psych-folk-Latin-rock band, filmmakers Chris Hall and Mike Kerry drive with him from Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, where he excelled at basketball and track, to the Capitol Records building, where he sold his first R&B songs as a teen. They visit “The Castle”—the fabled Los Feliz mansion formerly owned by Bela Lugosi, where Love lived during the making of their second LP, Da Capo (1966)—allowing Arthur to reminisce while dissing the decor chosen by its current residents. With lead guitarist Johnny Echols, the filmmakers venture into the theater on Cosmo’s Alley where, in its heyday as Bido Lito’s, Love ruled the Sunset Strip with a nightly residency, inspiring the nascent Doors, the Rolling Stones, and countless other stars and freaks. They check in with MacLean, drummers Michael Stuart-Ware and Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer (now an amusingly self-deprecating posthippie nerd), Elektra Records CEO Jac Holzman, record producer Bruce Botnick, the Doors’ John Densmore, and other friends and fans.
Love Story is a fine introduction to the bittersweet career of an utterly unique band—newcomers will be piqued to dig deeper—and it’s likely nothing better will be made. But Hall and Kerry fail to coax Arthur into revealing more about the conception of Forever Changes—the closest analogue to a dense modernist novel that rock has ever produced—and they obscure some of the darker shades of Love’s image. Absent is any reference to the band’s erstwhile rhythm guitarist, Bobby Beausoleil, who became the first murderer in the Manson Family. And while the documentary briefly discusses the band members’ heroin use, it largely elides Love’s thuggish, downbeat reputation among fellow musicians: One of Janis Joplin’s sidemen even called the band Hate. Arthur was both a sweet soul and a tough, streetwise cat; the Smile-era Brian Wilson would have dubbed him a “mind gangster.” The paranoia and drug-fueled isolation that characterized Forever Changes and the demise of Love’s original lineup also deserve further exploration. Unfortunately, the genuinely redemptive vibe of Arthur’s postprison comeback, during which he is filmed, derails the filmmakers from presenting Love’s story in all its rich, contrasting colors.
Love Story is available now from Start Productions.
EARLY ON IN Man on Wire (2008), an entertaining documentary about high-wire walker Philippe Petit’s quest to “dance” between the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1974, not long after they were built, his then girlfriend, Annie Allix, reflects on their time together and concludes that Petit was a “megalomaniac.” We quickly learn how grand Petit’s delusions of grandeur really are: He describes his 1970s-era exploits—walking on wires strung up, for example, at Notre Dame Cathedral and the Sydney Harbour Bridge—as “conquering beautiful stages.” But the cloying theatricality of Petit’s talking-head moments is counterbalanced by director James Marsh’s judicious cutaways to playful reenactments and to breathtaking archival footage.
The story, which involves a cast of goofy characters that includes Petit’s childhood friends and people he met while performing on city streets around the world, is pitched as an epic quest. The majority of the film chronicles in great detail the elaborate preparations for the World Trade Center performance undertaken by Petit and Co. But this tale is as notable for its evocation of a prelapsarian New York as it is for Marsh’s ability to sustain interest in a story with a known conclusion. Viewers are reminded that this is the same gritty downtown in which, a year before Petit walked between WTC 1 and 2, Gordon Matta-Clark showered and shaved atop the Clocktower Building; in the early ’70s, there was no Department of Homeland Security. And so, on the evening of August 6, 1974, Petit and his friends are inside the buildings, eluding night watchmen, shooting an arrow from the roof of one skyscraper to the other, and stringing heavy cables between them. The next morning, as crowds of workers begin their workday, a black speck appears against the sky, and thoughts of anything else—even the infelicitous use of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédies as the sound track to the spectacle—fades away.
Man on Wire opens today at Sunshine Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York and on August 8 around the country. For more information, visit the film's website. To watch the film's trailer, click here, and to watch an interview with director James Marsh and star Philippe Petit, click here.
Bela Tarr, Sátántángo (Satan's Tango), 1994, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 405 minutes.
While hardly the first auteur to favor inordinately lengthy black-and-white shots of dour figures in rain-sodden locales, Bela Tarr nevertheless took this aesthetic to a new extreme in Sátántángo (1994). His is a cinema dominated by such an air of inertia that the flow of time seems to halt altogether. At various junctures in the masterpiece that earned the Hungarian filmmaker awestruck admiration and a certain level of infamy, viewers might feel stuck in the same boggy ground that stymies the characters, grim-faced members of a collective farming community located at what appears to be the edge of the earth.
Of course, viewers are permitted to escape—but only after seven hours. Sátántángo’s length has made it daunting for even the hardiest cinephiles. Due to the inevitable scarcity of screenings and the lack of a decent DVD edition (a 2006 UK set by Artificial Eye suffered from a subpar transfer), the film is better known than seen.
One surprise awaiting those who dig deep into Facets’s long-delayed but beautifully packaged four-disc set is that Tarr’s slow-motion epic is less a tragedy than the very blackest of black comedies. In this adaptation of the novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai (who wrote the script with Tarr), the hopeless farmers fall prey to the machinations of a devilish con man, though they’re more than capable of creating their own miseries. Certainly, the drunken doctor whose mutterings and fumblings fill much of an hour is his own worst enemy, as is the disturbed young girl whose roughhousing with a very unlucky cat makes for the film’s most discomfiting scenes.
It may sound absurd to say that a seven-hour movie has hardly a wasted moment—as famously insisted by Susan Sontag—but Tarr’s minimalism has maximum impact, especially when the film's satiric nature becomes more prominent in the final hour. Equally astonishing is Gabor Medvigy’s cinematography, preserved here after a restoration job that involved over five hundred thousand fixes. Facets spreads the film itself over three discs. The fourth presents supplemental material, including Tarr’s 1982 version of Macbeth for Hungarian television (rendered in two shots), a 1995 documentary in which Tarr and actor-composer Mihaly Vig revisit the Sátántángo shooting locations, a 2003 short for an omnibus film, and a featurette on the restoration. Since the demands of the film are now mitigated by the necessity of breaks (if only to change the discs), more viewers should discover that Tarr’s journey is its own reward.
Sátántángo is now available on DVD from Facets Video.
Left: The cover of Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor. Right: Stan Brakhage, Chartres Series, 1994, still from a color film in 16 mm, 9 minutes.
CANYON CINEMA: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor is Scott MacDonald's third history of a major US exhibitor and distributor of avant-garde film. Unlike the institutions that are the subject of his first twoAmos and Marcia Vogel’s Cinema 16 in New York (1947–1963) and Frank Stauffacher’s Art in Cinema in San Francisco (1946–1954), both of which promoted films for a profit, often returning less than 50 percent of revenues to filmmakers—Canyon was modeled on the New York Film-Makers Cooperative and its policy of “passive” distribution. While it published a catalogue of films for rent, “all filmmakers were considered equal, and no film or filmmaker was to receive more attention from the distributor than any other.” Revenues were split 75–25 in the filmmaker’s favor (although this has varied over the years), and unlike some co-ops, Canyon has earned a reputation for always paying monies owed to filmmakers.
MacDonald's introduction outlines the history of the organization from its origins in 1960 as an informal, community-oriented exhibition venue for nontheatrical films in Canyon, California, to its expansion into distribution in 1966 with anticommercial, cooperative ideals, to its eventual division in the late 1970s into an increasingly professional and successful distributor and a nonprofit exhibitor, the San Francisco Cinematheque, both of which are still going strong. Like MacDonald's previous institutional histories, the bulk of the book consists of documents. These are culled almost entirely from Cinemanews, a bulletin launched by Canyon in 1962 to circulate information about screenings, festivals, distribution and exhibition possibilities, and filmmakers’ projects. They are chronologically ordered in five sections covering the major periods in Canyon’s history, each of which contains a short introduction and (excepting the first) an interview with a notable figure of that period.
One wonders whether the almost exclusive use of Cinemanews as source was wise. First, because Cinemanews stopped publication in the early 1980s, the last twenty-five years of Canyon’s existence is covered in much less detail, even though its annual income grew from $28,841 in 1980–81 to over $179,000 in 2002–2003. Second, only a few documents directly address issues of relevance to Canyon as an institution, including an interview with Chick Strand and Chick Callenbach about its origins and Jon Jost’s 1972 proposal for dealing with some of the problems caused by its passive distribution policy. Facts that might have surfaced in other kinds of archival material—such as the bylaws, the names of filmmakers represented by the co-op, the names of board members, top-renting films, major renters, and so on—are thus largely absent. Indeed, in many ways the documents provide more of a history of Cinemanews than of Canyon itself, and those from the early years of the publication will interest only the most ardent student of avant-garde film, pertaining as they do to local, practical concerns. Things get more interesting in the late 1960s, when Cinemanews began to publish reviews, interviews with filmmakers, reports about filmmaking abroad, debates, and artistic statements, as well as letters vociferously protesting the increasing “intellectualization” of the publication. But it might have been better to omit, for example, reports by Bruce Baillie and Will Hindle about their filmmaking activities in order to make room for documents of more relevance to the organization and running of Canyon itself.
That said, this book, like MacDonald’s earlier ones as well as the work of other scholars about other institutions, such as Haidee Wasson's on MoMA’s circulating film library, fills a major gap in our knowledge of the history of avant-garde film. This history is determined not just by films that are made but by the extent to which those films are seen—and that, in turn, depends in major ways on distributors such as Canyon.
THE MOST CELEBRATED MOMENT in Jacques Tati’s 1971 film Trafic is a wonderfully choreographed multivehicle highway accident. It’s a madcap ballet of scraping bumpers, caroming wheels, and gasping engines that ends with a bunch of dazed motorists emerging in sync from their cars and walking it off. The sequence may be more interesting, though, for what it isn’t: the even more famous pileup from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Week End. With that apocalyptic wreck, revealed over the course of a nearly ten-minute tracking shot, Godard seemed to be saying that civilization had hit a terminal point—and that the bloody carcasses spilling out of car doors deserved it. Tati, you could say, had less road rage.
A former music-hall mime, Tati kept the tradition of the great silent comedies alive in the sound era until Woody Allen picked up the baton. The actor-director’s heroes were Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Mack Sennett; the best known of the six feature films he directed is Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (1953), a featherlight satire of life at a French seaside resort. Then, with Mon Oncle, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1959, Tati addressed the absurdities of mechanized modern life head-on; Playtime (1967) and Trafic did, too, albeit with less commercial success.
The last film to feature his beloved alter ego, Mr. Hulot, Trafic is also the only one in which Tati’s bumbling and impeccably mannered naïf has a real job. He designs cars, and the film’s fume of a plot has him escorting his newest one, a tricked-out model designed for camping trips, from Paris to an Amsterdam auto show along with a diffident factory-hand driver (Marcel Franval) and an airheaded publicist (Maria Kimberly). Every conceivable thing goes wrong en route, and Hulot is fired on arrival. In other words, there’s a happy ending.
For a good part of the film, however, Hulot fans may wonder whether Tati’s delightfully oblivious comic creation has strayed a bit too far into the mainstream. Though Hulot goes through Trafic in his signature trench coat and high-water pants, in many scenes the impractical pipe is gone. He interacts with his fellow humans more effectively and takes charge of situations with less fidgeting. In the earlier films, he made messes; in Trafic, he cleans them up.
As in Playtime, Hulot’s role here is somewhat marginal. Was the older Tati growing tired of his mannerisms or was he pushing a wider critique of modern society? Whatever the case, Trafic advances what Tati once called the “evolutionary” goal of his comedies: not necessarily to make audiences roll in the aisles, but to “turn regular life into a gag.” Tati got the idea for the film when, standing on a highway overpass on a beautiful Sunday morning, he noticed that no one who drove by was smiling. Trafic is full of other keen observations: There’s a priceless montage of people absentmindedly picking their noses at the wheel, and a superbly funny bird’s-eye shot of car salesmen peremptorily popping open trunks, hoods, and doors all at once. The pacing is admittedly awkward, and the characters hard to grasp, but rarely have elaborate gags blended so seamlessly with slice-of-life revelations. Tati shot documentary footage for his traffic and auto-show scenes; like Buñuel, he delivers most of his punch lines straight-faced, and many of his jokes are buried deep within his long shots. Needless to say, Trafic rewards repeat viewings.
The two-disc Criterion set includes an enlightening 104-minute documentary by Tati’s daughter, Sophie Tatischeff, that draws heavily on the filmmaker’s articulate explanations. The first disc’s supplementary materials include the gimmicky original trailer and two worthwhile but incompetently conducted interviews that originally aired on French TV in the ’70s. In one of them, an interview with the Trafic cast, Franval says: “When you know Tati, you notice all the incredible stuff happening in the street.” Only Tati himself, though, could have turned all that honking, lurching, roaring, yawning, and skidding into such a clever assemblage of scrap metal.
Trafic is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.
Left: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Trans-Europ-Express, 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Elias (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Right: Alain Robbe-Grillet, L'Homme qui ment (The Man Who Lies), 1968, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Jan Robin/Boris Varissa (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Maria (Sylvie Bréal).
IT IS HARDLY SURPRISING that Alain Robbe-Grillet should have moved from his particular conception and practice of the French New Novel to the cinema. In literary works such as The Voyeur (1955) and Jealousy (1957), this nouveau romancier delighted in patterned descriptions of nature so plastic as to appear at first reading entirely devoid of any subjective point of view or psychology. In a series of essays ultimately collected under the title For a New Novel (1963), Robbe-Grillet argued for a view of the world that abjured interiority in favor of a formal, almost mechanical technique that looked only at the surface of things in order to establish their exteriority and independence from mankind. In Jealousy, for instance, the narrator painstakingly describes the wooden balusters in the terrace railing in front of him. Eventually, a closer look at descriptions like this reveal that they are in fact more maniacal than mechanical—products of deranged psyches, obsessively displacing their neurotic impulses onto objective correlatives. Thus, a Scutigera of average size squashed on the dining-room wall, described at first in anatomical terms, morphs twenty pages later into a “‘spider-centipede,’ . . . so called because of a native belief as to the rapidity of its bite, supposedly mortal,” and later still becomes “enormous: one of the largest to be found in this climate,” as big as a “dinner plate,” suddenly coming alive and ready to spring.¹ These and other more disturbing transformations correspond precisely to the progress of the narrator’s surrender to increasingly unbearable fits of jealousy to which he can give no other expression than these obsessive images. It is no doubt ironic that the very style that Robbe-Grillet vigorously defended in his 1958 essay “Nature, Humanism, Tragedy” as antihumanist and antimetaphoric would be reframed by the author only three years later as the inevitable product of a character “always engaged . . . in an emotional adventure of the most obsessive kind, to the point of often distorting his vision and of producing imaginings close to delirium.”² It may indeed be precisely because of the inescapably subjective and maddeningly metaphoric nature of language that the New Novelist turned increasingly to the cinema, with its potentially unmediated representation of nature.
It is even more ironic that the film for which Robbe-Grillet will doubtless be remembered is the film he did not direct. When, after his success with Marguerite Duras on Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Alain Resnais turned to Robbe-Grillet for a film treatment, the latter responded with a “direct shooting script” for L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), a “shot-by-shot description of the film [with] corresponding dialogue and sound.”³ Robbe-Grillet’s overly detailed scenario left Resnais so little creative space that the director claimed he “often had the impression of merely serving as an electronic robot in the making of the film.”⁴
Their collaboration seems all the more bizarre given the intensely modernist approach to the relationship between trauma and memory in Resnais’s first films. By contrast, Robbe-Grillet’s text is rigorously postmodern, involving a series of images of three characters, X, A, and M (Giorgio Albertazzi, Delphine Seyrig, and Sacha Pitoëff, respectively), in a Baroque chateau whose labyrinthine corridors mirror the logical impasses of its mazelike narrative. X’s compulsive attempts to persuade A that they met last year (or some other year) in this (or some other) chateau are greeted with incomprehension and evasiveness. No single coherent version of this story can possibly be identified, only a series of simulacra, or repetitive variations that admit no fixed origin or authenticity. Given the New Novelist’s preference for a “perfect labyrinth of false trails, variants, failures and repetitions,”⁵ captured in what he called the eternal “present tense” of the cinematographic image, it is impossible to discern any narrative logic or purpose to Robbe-Grillet’s script.
For those familiar with Resnais’s work both before and after Marienbad, it is clear that the director of Night and Fog (1955), Muriel (1963), and La Guerre est finie (1966) could not entirely sanction such a postmodern, playful, and utterly open-ended film, especially one that contained a gratuitous rape scene. Resnais cut this sequence and added subtle but powerful visual details to his film that allow the viewer to see the work as a meditation on memory and trauma. An unmistakable reference to Ibsen’s Rosmersholm (1886), with its themes of incest and madness, constituted just enough of a subversion of Robbe-Grillet’s obsessional undecidability as to give the film the sorts of interpretative possibilities that the scenario had so rigorously excluded. The ambiguities resulting from this dual authorship have provided the grist for a spirited debate about the importance and meaning of Last Year at Marienbad. The film was intriguing enough, certainly, to garner the Golden Lion at the 1961 Venice International Film Festival.
Left: Alain Resnais, L'Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), 1961, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 94 minutes. A (Delphine Seyrig). Right: Alain Robbe-Grillet, L'Immortelle (The Immortal Ones), 1961, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. L, the Woman (Françoise Brion).
Perhaps sensing that he had lost control of this first go at cinema, however, Robbe-Grillet decided that in the future he would direct his own films. L’Immortelle followed two years after Marienbad and was shot in Istanbul, primarily because the film’s producer had identified a source of funding that could only be used in Turkey. Robbe-Grillet was no doubt pleased to return to the city where he had first met his wife and collaborator, Catherine, but that pleasure turned out to be short-lived. The author’s idea for his film involved a much more rigid series of variations on what one might label postcard scenes of N (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) and L (Françoise Brion), often motionless in windows or doorways, an approach unable to generate any narrative development other than a kind of formal patterning with little or no psychological depth. The way Robbe-Grillet edited these nearly static images freed them from any chain of narrative causality. He would later complain that it was the recalcitrance of his technicians that had ruined the film. Nevertheless, the first-time director was willing to admit that his method of creating this “structural game of fantasies” ended up being “too ambitious because the viewer does not readily identify these elements.”⁶ Although the film won the Louis Delluc Prize in France, it was a flop at the box office and today looks merely flat and contrived.
In 1966, Alain and Catherine Robbe-Grillet joined Jean-Louis Trintignant and Marie-France Pisier as actors in Robbe-Grillet’s second directorial effort, Trans-Europ-Express, surely the most popular and accessible of his films. Twelve years earlier, in “A Novel That Invents Itself” (later included in For a New Novel), Robbe-Grillet had written approvingly of fellow New Novelist Robert Pinget’s characters:
Their existence . . . is merely a process without purpose, subject from sentence to sentence to the most extravagant mutations, at the mercy of the least thought passing through the mind, of the least word in the air, of the most fugitive suspicion. Yet they make themselves. . . . [T]he world around them is merely a secretion—one could almost say the waste product—of their suppositions, of their lies, of their delirium. . . . The story, in this regard, can only turn in circles, unless it stops short, unashamedly turning back on itself; still elsewhere it branches off . . . into parallel series which . . . destroy each other.⁷
One might argue that Robbe-Grillet successfully adapted this strategy for his second film. Trans-Europ-Express puts into play an errant filmmaker, Jean (played by Robbe-Grillet himself), boarding the Paris–Antwerp Express, hoping to discover a subject for his film. He encounters Trintignant on the train and wonders whether this well-known actor might be right for his project. But Trintignant is already cast in the film as Elias, a drug smuggler and soon-to-be rapist. These and other characters constantly invent their situations as they go, moving endlessly between different fictional and real levels, repeating scenes or starting over entirely. The film has an easy, humorous lilt to it that viewers found quite appealing on its release in Paris cinemas. Robbe-Grillet was happy first of all to be able to insert the rape scene cut from Marienbad and, second, to introduce a triple pun as the film’s nucleus: One character is carrying a book titled Transes (it conceals a gun), and both Jean and Elias purchase copies of L’Express, which Elias uses to provide cover for a nudie magazine, Europe. But, sadly, such lighthearted use of pornography was to become the central, and deadening, focus of all the director’s films after 1970. Trans-Europ-Express’s MO (and much of its success) was replicated in Robbe-Grillet’s next film, L’Homme qui ment (The Man Who Lies, 1968), in which Trintignant now plays a Resistance fighter who compulsively reinvents his stories, leading his listeners ever further from any possibility of coherence. Robbe-Grillet’s liar doesn’t necessarily lie; he simply builds and rebuilds his reality in obsessively repeated and inverted versions of himself.
After 1970, Robbe-Grillet turned to color film and simultaneously succumbed to an obsession with submitting naked women to humiliating and grotesque varieties of sadomasochistic games. Lending the cachet of art cinema to these exercises in adolescent fantasy, the director introduced serial structures, citing Arnold Schönberg’s variations on and inversions of the twelve-tone scale as the model for these works (although the films rarely remain faithful to this system). The set of films from L’Èden et après (Eden and After, 1970) on could easily and appropriately be grouped under the title of the third film in this series, Glissements progressifs du plaisir (Progressive Slippages of Desire, 1974). The use of obsessively repetitive “generative themes,” the flattening out of screen depth, the elimination of psychological and/or political meanings—all lead to a type of cinema that offers the spectator little relief from either the crudeness of the sexuality or the maddeningly abstract patterning of the images. The reaction to these later films, condemned by various critics for being “puerile,” “ponderous and repetitive,” “mere pornography to excite sado-masochism,” or, at best, “tame porno under the guise of art,” put Robbe-Grillet repeatedly on the defensive. At one point, he attempted to have his interviewers believe that subjecting a series of naked women to various forms of violence constituted a “feminist” cinema (!), but ultimately, when pressed hard by one interviewer, he candidly confessed, “I am simply not concerned about that.”⁸
In the end, Robbe-Grillet will be best remembered as an artist undaunted by the charges of sexism leveled against him, undaunted by his failures at the box office, and entirely focused on freeing cinema from its reliance on comfortable stereotypes and narrative assumptions. It may well be that his work can only be appreciated in its particular historical and cultural contexts; but considered in that way, he will be admired for his unabashed experimentation. And while we shouldn’t condone the slippery prurience of his later work, we may yet respect his insistence on undermining accepted meanings, his focus on replacing familiar narrative signposts with patterned figures and serial progressions, and his substitution of pure artifice in place of accepted acting styles. If, in the process, he allowed his own films to be condemned as incomprehensible or, at times, simply uninteresting, we might nevertheless applaud his efforts in extending the boundaries and possibilities of the cinema.
This article appears in the summer issue of Artforum. For notes, see page 464 in the magazine. “The Immortal Alain Robbe-Grillet” runs at BAMcinematek in Brooklyn from July 10 to 15. “Memory/Montage/Modernism: Alain Resnais & Alain Robbe-Grillet” runs at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto from July 25 to August 30.
IT IS DIFFICULT to separate the form of Gregory Markopoulos’s Eniaios, his eighty-hour magnum opus, from his idiosyncratic biography. At the vanguard of the American experimental film scene in the 1950s and ’60s, Markopoulos emigrated to Europe in 1967 and withdrew his films from circulation. Two weekends ago, and sixteen years after Markopoulos’s death in 1992, the second installment of the film, cycles three through five of the twenty-two-cycle work, was projected, for the first time, at the site outside his ancestral village of Lyssaraia in the Peloponnese specified by him as the only suitable location for the viewing of the work—what he called the Temenos, after the classical term for a sacred space delimited from the everyday.
Nearly two hundred film pilgrims (filmmakers, film buffs, curators, critics, and scholars) arrived on three consecutive evenings from the nearby village of Loutra, following a curving dirt donkey path to the site as the sun set behind the mountains of Arcadia. There they discovered Markopoulos’s cinematic vision radically altered from that of his early years. Eniaios, whose title indicates both the “singularity” and the “uniqueness” of the film, reedits many of Markopoulos’s early films around his conception of the single frame as the basic filmic unit. While many of the original films included a sound track, the whir of the projector and the occasional insect provided the only accompaniment here. Reduced to lengths of a few seconds or even a single frame, cinematic fragments extracted from complete films—some of which, never having been printed, were literally respliced, their previous incarnations discarded—present the filmmaker’s oeuvre as a ruin or as an incomplete archive.
The Temenos site, an expanse of trimmed grass mowed, gratis, by a local resident, mysteriously sustains a cooler microclimate than its surroundings, and many viewers came equipped with blankets and even sleeping bags. While Markopoulos’s classical themes always looked toward his Hellenic roots (we still catch a glimpse of Taylor Mead, as Prometheus’s avian tormenter, scaling the rocks of a Long Island beach), his later imagery, of ancient, Roman, and Byzantine monuments, aligns—as does the screening site—with his “homecoming.” (Markopoulos was born to immigrant parents in Toledo, Ohio.) Honoring Markopoulos as a local son, Lyssaraia donated the buses that shuttled the visitors to the outskirts of the town and back each night, and hosted an outdoor dinner on the evening before the screenings began.
Introducing the event after dinner, the filmmaker Robert Beavers, Markopoulos’s lifelong companion, assured us that the Temenos was “a gift.” In the months preceding the screenings, Beavers, with the help of a tiny cadre of organizers, had sought out economical accommodations and complimentary transportation for the assembled visitors—anyone who had joined the “Temenos 2008” Google group—and refused any notion of an entry fee or ticket. The restoration of the films and the organization of the event itself relies on donors and the occasional outside grant. The erratic time frame of the screenings (the last was in 2004) is determined, mostly, by the arrival of funds (it will cost around one million dollars to print and restore the film in its entirety). The one hundred titles—which Markopoulos did not live to see projected—have come unglued, requiring arduous reconstruction, a task accomplished by Beavers and a few dedicated filmmakers. Citing the difficulty in attracting interest from large archives, Beavers explained the necessity of “fanatical efforts.”
The initial reel of night one, a “dedication” to Herakles, makes the boldest use of entirely white or black frames, whose modulated rhythms point to the lyric and gestural potentials of the medium. The lengths of clear and black leader do not obey a strict structural program, but rather prepare the viewer for the epic scale of Eniaios and set up the dream space of the afterimage. Projected against the night sky, the black screen matched the dim blue glow of the Milky Way overhead, while the piercingly bright white frames extinguished the surrounding landscape and, when they preceded a fragmentary image (of the tumbled stones of the Pyre of Herakles), threatened to blot out their content entirely.
But Eniaios is not purely an experiment in erasure. After the minimal flashes of the dedication, we were presented with the cropped compositions of Gilbert and George, whose matching tweeds and stiff postures elicited giggles from the local children who had gathered at the edge of the field. I recall, especially, George Passmore raising a cigarette to his lips, a gesture shattered into several staccato sections through the introduction of black tape between fragmentary flashes of motion. The gesture is dissected, frozen, and repeatedly delayed. If, as Giorgio Agamben tells us, “in the cinema, a society that has lost its gestures seeks to reappropriate what it has lost while simultaneously recording that loss,” we might think of Markopoulos’s insistence on “film as film” as preoccupied with nothing other than this dual etiology/eulogy of the gesture.
Kent Mackenzie, The Exiles, 1958–61, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 72 minutes. Left: Yvonne (Yvonne Williams). Right: Tommy (Tommy Reynolds).
MISSING FROM AMERICAN independent-film history for over forty years, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1958–61) follows a group of Native Americans, residents of the warrens of wooden houses that once covered downtown Los Angeles’s Bunker Hill district, through a night of drinking, gambling, brawling, and abusing women. Shot on 35-mm black-and-white film and digitally restored by the UCLA Film Archive, the film is startlingly beautiful—its blacks as lush and grays as detailed as in the classiest Hollywood noirs. Which, by contrast, makes the behavior of the characters all the more ugly.
While a student at USC in the mid-'50s, Mackenzie made a short film about an Apache who “relocated” from the reservation to Los Angeles. The Exiles, which grew out of that film, was an attempt to depict a marginalized subculture—the Indians of the relocation period, ten years before the civil rights movement gave birth to the concept of Native pride—barely surviving in a city where they had hoped to find a better life.
The film also belongs to an exceptionally creative moment in American independent-film history. Viewed today, The Exiles, despite the anomaly of its refined cinematography, has much in common with independent films made during the period—Robert Frank’s Pull My Daisy and John Cassavetes’s Shadows (both 1959) in particular, as well as films by Shirley Clarke, Jonas Mekas, Sidney Meyers, Lionel Rogosin, and Morris Engel. These filmmakers were staking out the terrain of an American neorealism, using nonprofessionals or fledgling actors who played characters very like themselves. The blend of fictional and documentary elements applied to every aspect of production. The shoestring-budget films were often shot documentary-style, with handheld cameras; their scripts were written or improvised in collaboration with the actors. Because it would have been difficult and costly to record synchronous sound, most dialogue was rerecorded and postsynchronized, resulting in the hollow sound, a distinguishing characteristic that The Exiles shares.
The Exiles opens with Yvonne (Yvonne Williams), a pregnant woman in her twenties, shopping for groceries. Yvonne, her husband, Homer (Homer Nish), and, to a lesser degree, Homer’s friend Tommy (Tommy Reynolds) are the only characters in the film who have any discernible interiority. Mackenzie edited interviews he recorded of the three actors discussing their own lives into voice-over monologues. As Yvonne shops and then climbs the steep stairs to the cramped apartment she shares with Homer and a half dozen of his friends, we hear her musing about how trapped she feels and how none of her prayers have been answered. At home, Yvonne cooks dinner for the men, who lie around drinking and watching TV. As is his habit, Homer drops off Yvonne for a night at the movies alone (Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is glimpsed on one marquee) while he goes off with his friends. From then on, the film sticks mostly with the men as they drink their way through the night, occasionally cutting away to Yvonne, alone in a nearly empty movie theater or wandering through downtown looking at shopwindows. The worst of Homer and his friends’ behavior is directed toward women: Not only do they grab and maul, they mooch money off their wives, girlfriends, and any woman stupid enough to come within arm’s length.
Unlike other slice-of-life films of the period, The Exiles is located within a milieu of abjection, a milieu of which the director, despite his years of research, was not a part. Frank was a participant in the Beat culture of Pull My Daisy; Cassavetes was intimate with the Times Square bohemia of Shadows. Their insider positions result in a discernible, though not always coherent, critique of the culture depicted on the screen—and of the act of representation itself. This is not the case with The Exiles, where the question of who is looking and to what end is barely posed, let alone answered.
I have no doubt that Mackenzie was committed to honestly documenting a ghettoized, desperately impoverished minority that a wealthy city chose to ignore, as well as to finding moments of wild poetry in the experience of people with whom he empathized. Still, I could not help but notice that what was on the screen was in fact a bunch of drunken Indians—not Indians acting drunk and pawing at women but, well, the real thing, aided and abetted by the film’s director. I didn’t need to read in the production notes that “8% of the budget went for alcohol” to understand what I was seeing. At the time of its original release, The Exiles was treated with great respect by critics and cinephiles. (Pauline Kael wrote that 1961 was likely to be remembered in film history as the year of The Exiles.) The veneration of the rerelease has been even more over-the-top. I can only look at the screen and wonder, What’s wrong with this picture?
Jean Eustache, The Mother and the Whore, 1973, still from a black-and-white film in 35mm, 215 minutes. From left: Alexandre (Jean-Pierre Léaud), Marie (Bernadette Lafont), and Veronika (Françoise Lebrun).
MUCH CAN BE LEARNED about how French filmmakers saw themselves by how they saw Jean-Pierre Léaud. In the young actor’s movies for his original mentor, Francois Truffaut, Léaud made a specialty of vulnerable, conflicted, but essentially charming lads who never quite become men. For Jean-Luc Godard, Léaud’s characters were more combative, like the hectoring Maoist in La Chinoise. And Léaud is an appropriately quixotic hero as he wanders through the metaphoric mazes of Jacques Rivette’s Out 1.
In Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore—the 1973 masterpiece that launches “Bad Company,” a traveling retrospective that arrives at Toronto’s Cinematheque Ontario on July 11—Léaud is best described as an outright prick. A Parisian pseudo-intellectual who flits between his long-suffering girlfriend (Bernadette Lafont) and a sexually liberated but mostly dour nurse (Françoise Lebrun), the lead character is as callow as he is loquacious, representing as he does his oh-so-promising generation’s turn toward solipsism after the ruptures of May ’68. He also serves as a self-directed j’accuse for his creator, as Eustache vents his own feelings of malaise and misogyny through Léaud with devastating results. Such is the film’s toxicity that Eustache’s ex-girlfriend, Catherine Garnier, who worked on the film crew and was his model for Lebrun’s character, killed herself after seeing a rough cut.
Eustache himself died by his own hand in 1981, thereby securing his reputation as one of French cinema’s most dolorous figures. That image is unfair, not least because of the vibrancy and vitality in the seemingly improvised (yet actually carefully calibrated) manner of his work. Despite his penchant for self-laceration, Eustache’s films are not without their tender side. The second of his three feature-length dramas, Mes Petites Amoureuses (1974), is a sharply observed coming-of-age story set largely in the countryside of southwestern France in the 1950s. Given the somewhat detached air he displays in the face of his pubescent tribulations, Daniel (played with great sensitivity by Martin Loeb) may very well grow up to be Léaud’s louses in The Mother and the Whore and Santa Claus Has Blue Eyes, an acerbically comic 1966 short. But in the most delicate moments of Mes Petites Amoureuses, Eustache seems to hold out a little hope for the kid, inspiring us to do the same.
“I WANTED to explode like a rocket,” wrote Yukio Mishima, “light the sky for an instant, and disappear.” It’s a personal manifesto he lived out to the sensational end. In 1970, at the age of forty-five, dressed in full military uniform, he committed seppuku (ritual suicide), staging his death as a sort of public theater.
Paul Schrader’s unusual and original biopic, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), is the centerpiece of a newly released Criterion three-disc set. Mishima was Japan’s most renowned writer—a colorful, contradictory, and controversial public figure who inspired such a deep ambivalence in his homeland that the chief response to him in the years since his death has been, simply, silence.
The central question for Mishima, as it emerges in the film through his own words, was how to reconcile beauty and life, aesthetics and the body. Already a prodigiously gifted writer in his teens, he became a “monstrously sensitive” aesthete who harbored a hatred for his physical self. But experiencing a revelation after a trip to the Greek isles, he furiously took up a “will to health,” becoming obsessed with bodybuilding. His own body became the signal artistic work of his life. At the peak of its beauty, before aging and natural decay would have a chance to set in, he automemorialized it with his ceremonial death.
How does a Western artist approach a culture as elaborately and dauntingly formalized as Japan? In The Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes warned that he wasn’t writing about the “real” Japan, but instead a fictive nation that he had devised, a system of signs he had constructed inspired by his travels and observations. Rather than “explain” Japan, he poetically recorded and described some “forms” of its culture.
Schrader’s response to the challenge of representing Japan is to seize on its very source of difficulty—forms, their ubiquity, and their resistance to meaning making—and create a hyperformalized work that, wisely, rather than “revealing” Japan, instead makes it recede. The film is designed in three interleaving layers. The first is an account of the last day of Mishima’s life, as he fastidiously dons his military uniform, meets up with some members of his private army, drives to an army garrison, and carries out his suicide with the media in attendance. The second is a narrative of his life adapted from his memoir, Sun and Steel. The third is a staging of key episodes from three of his novels, these sections being titled “Beauty,” “Art,” and “Action.”
The three intercut lines of the film are stylistically individualized to the extreme. The day-of-the-suicide sequences are shot in quasi-documentary, vérité style, inspired by Costa-Gavras’s Z, with frequent use of a handheld camera; the biographical segments are done in black-and-white with deliberate and measured camerawork. But the most arresting parts of the film are the literary adaptations. Each novel gets its own supersaturated color palette, and the film’s coup is the fantastical theatricality of the set design by artist and poster designer Eiko Ishioka.
Included in the DVD set is the only film Mishima ever directed, the half-hour-long Patriotism (1966), and it’s a shocker. In it, a naval officer and his wife make love and then commit seppuku for the sake of the emperor. The film features no dialogue and narrates its story through calligraphic writing in the credit sequence. The sets are Noh-like, severe and minimalist, with blazing white walls. When the unrelenting whiteness of the images is finally relieved, it is with violent sprays and splashes of black, the color of blood in this black-and-white film. On his death, Mishima’s widow ordered that all prints of Patriotism be burned, but she spared the negative. Decades later, following her death, the film can now be appreciated by a wider audience.
The DVD package overflows with useful documentary supplements. Among the most interesting of these is an interview with scholar Donald Richie, who recounts the story of going out to dinner with Mishima a few weeks before his death. At the occasion, Mishima repeatedly and insistently spoke of the historical legend of the last samurai. Later, when he heard of Mishima’s death, Richie realized that he had been deliberately “chosen” by the writer to propagate a modern version of this legend. Not just in death but beyond it, Mishima was fashioning and installing new versions of his mythic self.
Lawrence Weiner, Water In Milk Exists, 2008, color digital video, 22 minutes 52 seconds. Production still.
LAWRENCE WEINER WAS apparently pulled out of adult-filmmaking retirement to make the new skin flick Water in Milk Exists. I can’t imagine he would have needed all that much coaxing from Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer and photographer Noritoshi Hirakawa (the movie’s producer), who both instigated the project. After all, this nonnarrative porn is full of twenty-somethings fucking, sucking, playing, and masturbating in the Swiss Institute’s SoHo loft and a Chinatown photo studio. Scenes alternate between often-thrilling hardcore porn and contrived and tedious philosophical musings about “personal definitions of reality” and “string theory.” Like a switch flicked too soon, stimulation teasingly turns on and off.
The materiality of conjoined bodies begets the materiality of language—or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, the stress is on materials from which one can build structures. Flesh and sex make up the landscape in which Weiner presents text and graphics from the 2006 children’s book he made for his grandson, Henry the Navigator in a Sea of Sand, which presents his hopes for the child to build a structure to protect him from the elements. But when the book’s central rhyme—“Patty cake, patty cake, builders plan, build us a structure as best as you can”—is repeated as a chant egging on sex, Weiner seems to ask what constitutes a structure at all, whether physical or psychological, and implies that an orgasm can be seen as a material and an erection as a structure. At its best, Water in Milk Exists builds hardness and wetness in the viewer, structures of desire and pleasure that embody, contra Henry the Navigator, vulnerability, disclosure, entry, intimacy, and exposure.
The title may suggest liquidity and wetness as a body’s primary motivation and aspiration. There are certainly enough blow jobs in the twenty-two-minute film to suggest that water may be spit and milk could be cum, one mixed up with the other. The idea of getting the juices flowing and moving bodies into one another circulates, as undulating red arrows superimposed over scenes of sex describe the directional movement of blood flow, action, energy, stimulation, and visual interest. We see the gleam and hear the sounds of bodies getting wet. Combining the pornographic and the discursive, wetness serves as a metaphor for being turned on (physically and intellectually engaged).
Water in Milk Exists wants to offer discourse as a turn-on of its own. Structurally, the film sets up dialectical exchanges between wet and dry, liquidity and solidity, hot and cold, turn-ons and turnoffs. Unfortunately, the mannered dialogue inserted amid scenes of fucking left me dry. But a deeper, richer structural tension is at play on the level of language between literalness and metaphor. Surely the literal is at work when actors question each other midcoitus (“Is this specific or general reality?”), but its more compelling function here is to emphasize Weiner’s proposition that the sexually explicit and the linguistically explicit are flip sides of a political act of exposure. Despite Weiner’s professed antipathy for metaphor, which he has characterized as a politically regressive mode that takes for granted dominant value structures in order to be understood, I consistently access his work on the level of the metaphoric, the poetic, the imagistic, the enigmatic, and the suggestive. Like riddles, his language thrives on its metaphoric possibilities. The movie’s closing voice-over, layered in repetitions of Weiner’s baritone voice, ends on a distinctly melancholic note of poetry: “There’s a woman in the window with a candle shaped like her . . . such is the sadness of life.”