SOME SOUNDS STICK WITH YOU, and three years after I last saw Robert Beavers’s masterful cycle My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure (1967–2002), the noise of fluttering pigeons is still madeleine material, a direct connection to the flapping birds in the Italy of the filmmaker’s tightly focused, mosaiclike works. Living abroad in the 1970s, Beavers documented old Europe through the lens of a young American, finding in its manicured gardens, crumbling facades, and handed-down craft techniques the problems of beauty, age, and artistic influence. In Ruskin (1975/1997), Beavers revisits the sites depicted in John Ruskin’s criticism, setting his film’s montages of Venetian stonework, Alpine peaks, and London statues against the sound of pages inexorably turning. In From the Notebook of . . . (1971/1998), based on the writings of Leonardo da Vinci and Paul Valéry, images of the filmmaker in his room in Florence intersperse with his handwritten notes for the film, at times anticipating sequences or camera movements to come, at other times appearing as retrospective descriptions.
Beavers has described his films as being built brick by brick, a comment that points as much to the meticulousness of their construction as to their static concretism; rather than narratives, they are precise assemblages, joined by formal or associative equivalence or by metaphors of suture. Work Done (1972/1999) compares the process of filmmaking to bookbinding and food preparation; in AMOR (1980) and The Hedge Theater (1986–90/2002), dressmakers’ stitching and sewing operate as stand-ins for the filmic procedures of editing and splicing. The idea of stitching, too, seems apposite to the feel of the films: their handmade quality, but also their refusal of sentimentality and poised manner of presenting the eroticism that runs throughout them. Shots of the naked torso of his lover, the late filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos, sporadically puncture the films’ visual austerity while clearly taking part in a rich system of allusions.
Markopoulos and Beavers left New York in 1967 and continued to work in isolation from the city’s avant-garde scene. Both artists limited screenings of their films—Markopoulos even requested that a discussion of his work be excised from P. Adams Sitney’s book Visionary Film (1974)—and Beavers’s films were not shown publicly again in the US until 1996. (Screenings of both filmmakers’ work are still rare, though dedicated pilgrims might venture to the Temenos, the once annual, but now irregular, screening in the Peloponnese of Markopoulos’s eighty-hour film cycle Eniaios [1948–2000], which Beavers and Markopoulos established in 1980 and which Beavers now runs.) The restoration of Beavers’s films, beginning in the late 1990s, brought out the Mediterranean’s blues and greens, the colors from his frequently used filters, and, particularly, the startling red of a vat of blood cooking in Work Done—emphasizing, though perhaps needlessly, the seriousness with which the filmmaker has taken the examination of beauty through the ages.
A METAPHYSICAL POET of film’s postwar avant-garde, Bruce Baillie fuses inner and outer space through a sensuous manipulation of photographic surfaces. In Castro Street (1966), images of chuffing trains peel off from physical reality like shed skins, remarried in carefully fluid superimpositions, and set to a soundscape that combines machine noises with natural murmurs. Juxtaposing rich 16-mm color stock with high-contrast black-and-white lends a ghostly air to the massive engines, occasionally punctuated by makeshift iris mattes created by Baillie’s hands cupping his camera’s lens. He achieves a similarly oneiric quality in Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963–64), again deploying deft multilayering, this time of eerily wordless city life alternated with observational moments that quiver on the edge of symbolism: A bearded biker charging across the Bay Bridge evokes fantasies of lost prairie warriors. A dreamlike synesthesia emerges more strongly in Tung (1966), a brief, ecstatic portrait of a female dancer set against a shifting pool of distorted organic colors.
Calling these lyric late-Beat films proto-psychedelic wouldn’t be far off. Baillie contributed significantly to the emergence of a distinctly West Coast sensibility in American experimental cinema of the 1960s and ’70s, one more unabashedly spiritual and lush than the scene’s frenetic New York contemporaries. He helped establish the long-standing Bay Area distributor Canyon Cinema and inspired a younger generation of filmmakers like Will Hindle and Scott Bartlett. Today, Jennifer Reeves and others cite his influence.
Now Baillie has made Castro Street, Mass, and Tung available on a self-published, limited-edition DVD, the first volume of a planned three. Baillie reports that their production was aided by a grant from one of George Lucas’s charitable foundations—and not coincidentally. Lucas first became interested in filmmaking by attending Baillie’s early Canyon Cinema screenings as a teenager. The disk contains two other films: All My Life (1966), an enigmatically minimal one-shot set to the song by Ella Fitzgerald, and Valentin de las Sierras (1968), a quasi-ethnographic portrait of rural Mexico told through intimate close-ups of hands, faces, tools, and other details, Baillie’s camera searching physical surfaces to elicit a more immaterial experience.
WHEN CHANTAL AKERMAN’S Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) debuted in the US in 1976 (a one-off at MoMA), few noted that the twenty-five-year-old filmmaker was precisely the age of Orson Welles when he made Citizen Kane (1941). More than three decades later, the coincidence figures prominently in many of the pieces heralding the film’s one-week revival (January 23–29), in a pristinely restored print, at Film Forum, where it had its first New York run in 1983. There is no better shorthand tactic for making you, dear reader, feel the urgency of getting your head out of your Netflix queue and running to the theater to see Jeanne Dielman than to invoke the sacred Kane.
Indeed, both films are not merely masterpieces but also landmark works, which by conjoining the radical achievements of their respective moments—not only in cinema but in the novel, the theater, the visual arts—reinvented cinematic language to become paradigm shifters, both aesthetically and politically. Jeanne Dielman, which counts among its influences Ozu, Bresson, Godard, Warhol, Michael Snow, the Hollywood genre of “the woman’s picture,” the French nouveau roman of Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, the postmodern dance of Yvonne Rainer, and just about everything in the Minimalist visual-art canon, in turn has inspired thirty years of what is termed “observational fiction cinema.” Among the American filmmakers who found the film revelatory: Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, and Jim Jarmusch.
Jeanne Dielman describes forty-nine hours (stretched over three consecutive days—from midafternoon on the first to midafternoon on the third) in the life of the title character (Delphine Seyrig), a widow who lives in almost total isolation, save for a teenage son with whom she barely speaks, in the middle of Brussels, Akerman’s native city. Her time is organized ritualistically around housework—cooking, scrubbing, dusting, making beds, shopping for groceries—and many instances of these activities are shown in real time, as they would be in an ethnographic film. One way to describe Jeanne Dielman is as an ethnography of the kitchen crossed with classical tragedy. Every afternoon, in precisely the time it takes to boil the potatoes for dinner, Jeanne takes one of several regular gentlemen callers into her bedroom, where she exchanges sex for money.
The film is split squarely down the middle of its nearly three-and-a-half-hour running time. The first half, the exposition, begins with the arrival of the first john and ends with the departure of the second. (What happens in the bedroom on these two occasions is unseen.) In the second half, Jeanne’s obsessively structured routine begins to go awry; the mistakes, droppages, and leakages signal a failure of the psychic mechanisms of compartmentalization and repression she has employed to keep what Akerman once referred to as “the problem of being” at bay. When the repressed returns, it is in an act of terrible violence, as shocking as it is inevitable.
A portrait film in the most radical sense, Jeanne Dielman dispenses entirely with two of the most basic tropes of film language—the point-of-view shot and the reverse-angle edit. The entire work is filmed with a somewhat wide-angle lens on a fixed camera, positioned, almost without exception, frontally and slightly below what is considered eye level. The point of view is undisguisedly that of the filmmaker—just as the point of view of a painting is unmistakably that of the painter—regarding her subject, Jeanne, who is almost always centered in the frame. The choice of lens is crucial: It makes us feel as if we are inside the space of Jeanne’s apartment—with its drably patterned wallpapers and draperies, its fussily positioned knickknacks, its yellow-tiled kitchen walls and black-and-white kitchen floor—and yet the absence of close-ups keeps us at a distance. We are allowed to observe this woman and perhaps identify somewhat, if not with her, then at least with the anxiety and rage she tries so desperately to keep in check. But, again, because of the subjacent angle and the absence of close-ups, we never feel as if we have power over her or superior knowledge of her experience. Indeed, the film is structured as much around information to which we are denied access as it is around that which is easily observable. In contrast to the extended duration of individual shots, the editing patterns are abrupt and elliptical. The edits are meant to shut us out, but they also, like Jeanne’s compulsion to turn off the lights when she leaves one room for another, evoke the psychic compartmentalization that is essential for her survival.
Without a doubt, this is a film by a brilliantly talented artist with a rigorous intellect, a formal sophistication, and an emotional empathy astounding for someone her age. But it also involved an extraordinary collaboration among three women: Akerman, the cinematographer Babette Mangolte, and the actor Delphine Seyrig, who represses every trace of the sensuousness that made her a star, taking on the frozen mask, the rigid bearing, and the anesthetized gestures that Akerman borrowed from her memories of her own mother.
Jeanne Dielman is one of the first films I reviewed, and it is the only film in thirty-plus years of writing about movies that I was dead wrong about. The mixed review, which ran in the SoHo Weekly News below the unfortunate head “A Woman’s Tedium,” is a painful memory. I ascribe my blindness and misreading to my identification of Jeanne with my own mother and my inability to reconcile the character’s final horrific but life-changing act with anything my mother would do. I apologize. Jeanne Dielman is the mother of us all.
John Hofsess, Palace of Pleasure, 1966/67/68, stills from a color film in 16 mm, 38 minutes.
THE VALUE OF John Hofsess’s Palace of Pleasure (1966/67/68) as a trippy time capsule of Canada’s nascent ’60s film underground would be apparent even if it didn’t include the sight of a young, shirtless David Cronenberg slipping into bed with a nude man and woman. The future director of Videodrome (1983) and Crash (1996) was one of several Ontario students cast as actors in Hofsess’s ambitious scheme to fashion an appropriately mind-bending and taboo-busting cinematic response to the era’s tumults, one that was directly inspired by a 1966 appearance at McMaster University (where Hofsess went to school) by the Velvet Underground and the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.
Along with poems by the not-yet-famous Leonard Cohen, the fuzz-laden death rattle of the VU’s “European Son” is a key part of the aural accompaniment to Hofsess’s thirty-eight-minute film, which will have its first public screening since 1968 at Cinematheque Ontario. (The program pairs it with Ronald Nameth’s 1967 document of another EPI extravaganza.) While there’s not much shock value left in its juxtaposition of grisly Vietnam War footage, kaleidoscopic abstract imagery, and shots of Hofsess’s classmates performing erotic, vaguely Crowleyite rituals, Palace of Pleasure nevertheless retains a raw vitality. With its vibrant color palette, use of multiple projectors, and rapid cuts, Hofsess’s film still induces the intended sensory overload.
Long thought lost, the work was recently restored by film scholar Stephen Broomer after a print was discovered in the archives of the Canadian Film Institute. When it first began to circulate in 1967, Palace of Pleasure was an early triumph for the country’s independent film community. At the time, it screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and represented Canadian film at a presentation at the National Film Theatre in London; there were also short theatrical runs in Los Angeles and Chicago. Jonas Mekas and Gene Youngblood even cited it as one of the best films of the year.
Back home, the film’s more risqué imagery earned it great notoriety, foreshadowing the furor that would greet Hofsess’s next filmmaking effort, The Columbus of Sex (1969), a sexploitation mockumentary that would incur obscenity charges for its makers. Hofsess later became a film critic for Maclean’s magazine and wrote the first book-length study of Canadian filmmakers. But his own achievement with Palace of Pleasure went underheralded, as the few prints disappeared into archives or were lost altogether. Its resuscitation serves as strange and startling evidence that even a sleepy campus in Hamilton, Ontario, wasn’t safe from the fiery energies of youth in revolt.
John Hofsess’s Palace of Pleasure screens along with Ronald Nameth’s Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto on Saturday, January 24, at 8:45 PM. For more details, click here.
Eija-Liisa Ahtilla, Missä on missä? (Where Is Where?), 2009, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 55 minutes.
In her previous films, the Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila has progressively expanded her methods for weaving disparate narratives into a unified, if fractured, whole. Her latest movie, Missä on missä? (Where Is Where?, 2009), an ambitious and operatic tale, deftly draws on a batch of techniques familiar to Ahtila—split screen, digital effects, episodic storytelling—along with newer methods, to sketch an incisive, dreamlike expanse.
The film opens with a red, hand-drawn animation—a bird perches on a branch, a map of North America floats into view, and a clock spins out of control; when the cartoon curtain lifts, we find ourselves in a world at once similar to our own and uniquely different from it. The story that unfolds derives from a real incident that occurred during the Algerian War of Independence, when two young Algerian boys killed their French playmate. This history is seen through the eyes of “The Poet,” a present-day European woman; the two trajectories intersect when the boys’ narrative literally enters the present, via a story in a foreign language emanating from the walls in the Poet’s home. “The sentence splits me in two,” she exclaims, as time and space rupture. From here, Ahtila spins the threads into a narrative web, highlighting the existential and ethical question that is central to this work: What is our culpability—for war, for death, for things seemingly beyond our control?
The film’s four-channel split screen is initially unnerving, like looking through a security camera. But this device allows Ahtila to show multiple perspectives at once while infusing her sumptuous imagery and poetic language with unmistakable anxiety. Although the inciting incident transpired in the 1950s, it’s impossible not to see the event refracted through the prism of contemporary Western-Arab relations. When, near the end of the film, one of the young boys tells his baffled and surprisingly gentle interrogators that he killed his friend because Europeans were killing Arabs, one can’t help but map his turmoil onto that faced by contemporary Palestinian or Iraqi youth.
Through this mesmerizing filter, Ahtila takes up some of today’s most complex moral, political, and philosophical questions—no small task, to be sure. But she capably knits the film’s various divagations into a powerful and unabashedly lyric challenge to complacency and omniscient pretenses; there may be no answers, Ahtila suggests, but the questions must be asked.
An installation of Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s Where Is Where? was recently on view at the Musée de Jeu de Paume in Paris. The film version of Where Is Where? screens at the Sundance Film Festival on January 17, 18, 20, and 24. For more information, click here.
SHARON LOCKHART’S LATEST FILMS depict employees at the Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine. Lunch Break (2008), at eighty-three minutes the longer of the two, is notable first for the artist’s decision to set the camera in motion, something she has not done in any of her previous films. (Exit , a related forty-one-minute study of repetition and difference that depicts workers leaving the facility on five consecutive days, maintains a fixed camera position.) In a long, uninterrupted tracking shot, the camera in Lunch Break traverses at midday what appears to be the spinal cord of the shipyard—a long, uninterrupted passageway—as several dozen employees eat, read the newspaper, and talk in small groups. Most of the workers (all but one are men) do not engage with the camera, perhaps a result of the fact that, as with Pine Flat (2005), Lockhart’s study of children in a small California town, the artist spent considerable time conducting quasi-ethnographic research to familiarize herself with the “community” of shipbuilders, electricians, welders, and pipe fitters before capturing it on film.
Though the camera moves, the footage it gathers has been slowed down dramatically: Six minutes pass before the first figure is beyond the frame, and another seven elapse before the camera reaches the next trio of relaxing employees. As it progresses, every detail of the claustrophobically hemmed-in environment is revealed in sharp focus: dented garbage cans and putty-colored lockers, some adorned with stickers; olive-green tool chests and brightly colored plastic coolers; gauges that cling to pipes stretching from floor to ceiling; and tubes and hoses that extend every which way, all beneath drab, uniform fluorescent light. The dilatory pace emphasizes the sheer amount of material (and visual detail) packed into this place and highlights how successfully 35-mm film can capture that plenitude. But the unhurriedness also imparts a monumental solemnity to each of the workers’ gestures, which can undercut the film’s tight structure in both negative and positive ways. A man sitting to the left of the aisle with a water bottle in hand, momentarily looking at the floor, becomes, when slowed down, a despondent ruminator seemingly lifted from one of Bill Viola’s histrionic video installations. On the other hand, when, midway through the film, another man reaching above the lockers pulls a bag of popcorn out of an unseen microwave, the humor of his banal action deflates the portentousness that can cloud such snail-paced scrutiny.
Lockhart’s deadpan gaze, it should be noted, is in fact far removed from Viola’s schmaltzy recent work. Lunch Break is more closely related to films such as Tacita Dean’s Kodak (2006), a poker-faced threnody that memorializes the last days of the factory in France where Dean’s preferred film stock was made, and Mark Lewis’s Children’s Games, Heygate Estate (2002), in which the camera glides seamlessly along an elevated walkway through a South London housing project, capturing children at play on the sidewalks below. All three infuse sharply delineated formal parameters with content extraneous to that structure. (As Michael Ned Holte has noted elsewhere, Lockhart does not make strictly structuralist films; the same can be said about Dean’s and Lewis’s rigorous work.) Lunch Break is described as being part of Lockhart’s new series “about the present state of US labor,” but the film discloses little concerning this ambitious remit. (For example, nowhere is it explained that Bath Iron Works’ labor is put to very particular ends: The company is part of the General Dynamics conglomerate and a major supplier of destroyers to the US Navy.) The employees’ idleness might be seen as a metaphor for the way in which our economy has ground to a halt, but Lockhart remains a better portraitist and formalist than analyst or polemicist.
The same can be said of James Benning, who is perhaps the single greatest influence on Lockhart’s moving-image corpus and who edited Lunch Break and helped supervise its sound. (For example, RR , his wondrous latest film, is diminished somewhat by its didactic sound-track selections.) He has, with composer Becky Allen, given Lunch Break a deep, consistent, ambient industrial drone (similar to Dean’s Kodak), punctuated occasionally by the clang of metal against metal. Snippets of conversation and, at one point, a Led Zeppelin song bubble up to the surface of the mix as the camera passes by plausible sources for the sounds. The disjunction between edited sounds seemingly played at normal speed and a slowed-down image helps articulate the constructed nature of Lockhart’s elegant, if seemingly transitional, film.
Sharon Lockhart’s Lunch Break and Exit were recently on view, alongside new photographs, at the Secession in Vienna. Lunch Break screens at the Sundance Film Festival on January 16, 17, 21, and 24. For more information, click here. For some contextual notes from the author on this review, click here.
Carlos Reygadas, Silent Light, 2007, production still from a color film in 35 mm, 136 minutes. Marianne and Johan (Maria Pankratz and Cornelio Wall Fehr). Photo: Palisades Tartan.
THE MEN AND WOMEN of Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007) are souls trapped on the horizon—bound to earth as they obsess about the heavens. As the film’s title suggests, this is a tone poem bathed in light—and solitude—but the souls at the center of it all are hardly silent. Watching the faithful farmers engage in their first meaningful battle with doubt, one gets the sense of lives arriving at the brink.
An unmistakable homage to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s transcendent Ordet (1955), not only in the sense of plot (Ordet’s characters similarly find their faith put to the test) but also in its rigorous, minimal approach, Silent Light surveys the fallout of two families upended by three star-crossed lovers. We meet one of the married couples, Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) and Esther (Miriam Toews), as they preside silently over breakfast and morning prayer in a remote Mexican Mennonite community. It is an image of calm, contemplative purity—a family of nine breaking bread as the seconds tick by (literally—each punctuated by the tick of a clock). But when Mom packs up the kids and heads into town, Dad sits back down and begins to bawl.
Johan has fallen hopelessly in love with Marianne (Maria Pankratz), a wife and mother of another God-fearing family. It’s an affair that has thrown his life into chaos. As Johan confesses his adultery to his father, even Dad seems stumped. Johan’s theistic framework is heart-wrenchingly impossible: He knows God has bound him to Esther, but how can it possibly be serving the will of the master to turn away from a love that seems so holy? These conflicted emotions begin to flow when Johan and Marianne meet one day in a wide-open field, the setting sun shining through them as they hold each other in secret. That intimate, ecstatic moment is in sharp contrast to a later scene in a different field, when Johan and Esther—to whom he has confided everything—finally accept their relationship’s undoing. As she clings to a tree in a downpour, Reygadas pushes closer with his camera, extracting from Esther the guttural cries of a woman who has lost not only her love but the foundation of a pious life.
Death changes everything. A rhetorical debate about love and faith becomes disastrously tangible, and for Johan, the guilt rushing up from within is clearly staggering. The setting, once warm and hopeful, grows harsh and claustrophobic. During one late embrace, a character reaches up to blot out the sun, shielding the two from judgment by the heavens.
Those unfamiliar with Reygadas may not realize the degree to which Silent Light is a change of pace for the young director. The richly stylized Japón (2002) captured Mexico’s social ills with the story of a suicidal artist and an uneducated country woman who teaches the former a thing or two about character. The provocative Battle of Heaven (2005) was startling precisely for its lack of narrative, as well as performances that were utterly stripped of expression—not to mention the film’s explosive, gratuitous sexuality. The wholesomeness of the setting in Silent Light—cowinner of the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival—defies the director’s previous work, though his progression toward a more austere style of filmmaking has reached an apotheosis in these vast vistas.
Outside of a few outbursts by his nonprofessional Mennonite actors—all speaking Plautdietsch, a German dialect used by only a few sects around the world—Reygadas strips this universe of emotional extremes. Other than a handful of intimate close-ups and directorial flourishes (a leaf mysteriously falls from a bedroom ceiling after Johan and Marianne consummate their love; Johan and his father walk out of a building into a Mexican landscape covered inexplicably by snow), his camera remains fixed in the background. This is a not a movie that puts the audience into the middle of the action; rather it regards these characters, this community, and this bucolic landscape from afar, patiently diagramming an endless campaign of self-flagellation and redemption.
Jean-Luc Godard, Made in USA, 1966, still from a color film in 35 mm, 90 minutes. Paula Nelson (Anna Karina).
“ONE GOES TO the latest Godard prepared to see something both achieved and chaotic, ‘work in progress’ which resists easy admiration,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1968. Uneasy chaos certainly typifies Made in USA, a 1966 feature by the director that—ironically enough for its titular claim—has heretofore been rarely screened stateside. Made as a side project to Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1967), in response to his producer’s need for a quick cash influx, Made in USA doesn’t share its sister film’s essay structure, but rather continues Godard’s ongoing disintegration of cinematic narrative, now venturing far beyond the genre-bending of Alphaville (1965) or Band of Outsiders (1964).
Though ostensibly based on a pulp crime novel by the late Donald Westlake (who successfully sued to halt the distribution of the film in the US), Made in USA offers a constellation of actors who appear only loosely in character. The protagonists dart about a French provincial town—playing the part of “Atlantic City”in name only—zigzagging through a set of plot vectors that Godard has idiosyncratically remapped onto the real-world murder of left-wing Moroccan politician Mehdi Ben Barka. Densely referential, the film is thoroughly spiked with allusions to contemporary politics, old Hollywood, literature, and philosophy. Paula Nelson (played by Anna Karina, the director’s then-recent ex-wife), clad in a Bogart-style trench coat, seeks traces of her perhaps-dead boyfriend Richard P . . . ; when spoken, his name is always obscured by jet noise, telephone bells, or other interference, and in fact he later appears only as an audio tape, loudly reciting leftist speeches. En route, she encounters foppish gangsters with unlikely names: “Richard Nixon,” “Donald Siegel,” “Robert McNamara,” and the Japanese folk chanteuse “Doris Mizoguchi.” (The inclusion of Marianne Faithful, however, is the real deal: She croons an a cappella version of the Stones’ “As Tears Go By.”)
While the plot twists into Gordian knots, Raoul Coutard’s wide-screen cinematography never skimps on visual pleasures. From its red, white, and blue titles (which conveniently reference the national hues of both France and the States) onward, the unabashedly Pop-era Made in USA presents an unsettlingly bright film noir en couleur—or as one character puts it, “Walt Disney with blood.” Dressed in her mod ensemble, Paula kills a man with her high-heeled shoe, leaving only a tasteful dot of lush red. Later, she searches for clues in a movie-marquee poster factory, wandering among oversize paintings of glowing families and glowering Nazis. The total effect is of a France invaded by Yankee pop culture and cold-war intrigue—itself a “work in progress”—mutated into a Franco-American hybrid, both vibrant and violent, but unsure of its destiny.
Left: Bertrand Normand, Ballerina, 2007, still from a color film, 77 minutes. Ulyana Lopatkina. Right: Maurice Tourneur, The Blue Bird, 1918, still from a black and white film in 35 mm, 81 minutes. Tytyl and Mytyl (Robin Macdougall and Tula Belle).
CAMERAS AND DANCING BODIES would seem a match made in heaven. Just look at the collaboration between Isaac Julien and Stephen Galloway in the former’s bewitching film Fantôme Afrique (2005) or at the sublimely magical choreography of animated forms in Fantasia (1940): Not for nothing is the film business known as the “motion picture” industry.
But these perfect unions are surprisingly, frustratingly rare, as underlined by a smorgasbord like “Dance on Camera,” presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Dance Films Association at the Walter Reade Theater. This year’s festival features thirty-nine films organized into fourteen programs and including experimental shorts, oldies but goodies, and documentaries of such luminaries as the Russian ballerina Diana Vishneva and the flamenco master Antonio Gades. Topping it off, Hollywood musical magician Busby Berkeley will be feted in two programs that will surely be among the festival’s top tickets.
The French filmmaker Maurice Tourneur might not have Berkeley’s name recognition, but his 1918 silent film The Blue Bird, made during his time in America, ravishes: a shadowy black-and-white Neverland that manages to be both delicate and homespun, and deeply, piercingly strange in a way that few such films for children are these days. The story, based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s symbolist drama, follows two young siblings in their search for the bluebird of happiness. They are accompanied by their anthropomorphized pets and household things and must confront such nasties as the Wan Sicknesses. (Wizard of Oz, eat your heart out.) Here, dance is fully, theatrically integrated, giving life to indescribable states of being. The soul of fire is rendered as a sensual, masculine form that evokes Nijinsky. Isadora Duncan–like dancers populate the natural world, cavorting, hand in hand, in diaphanous frocks.
It is, perhaps, unfair to compare Tourneur’s lush visual innovations with the shorts commissioned by the Experimental Media Performing Arts Center. But it is hard to see the meaningful experimentation in works like Joby Emmon’s Kino-Eye (2008), which plays with static, slow-motion divided screens and other such clichés to little effect, despite the presence of the powerful dancer Elena Demyanenko. More pleasing is David Fariás, Carla Schillagi, and Maria Fernanda Vallejos’s PH Propriedad Horizontal (2008), though its reliance on skewed perspective in filming dancers maneuvering along a narrow passageway is a thin trick. The EMPAC winner is Nora (2008), Alla Kovgan and David Hinton’s biographical sketch of the commanding Zimbabwean-born dancer-choreographer Nora Chipaumire. Brief bursts of dance drive much of the narrative, with Chipaumire morphing between the important figures in her life.
A far more comprehensive but, in the end, somehow stunted portrait emerges in Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About (2008), an American Masters documentary of the Broadway and ballet choreographer. Directed by Judy Kinberg and written by Robbins biographer Amanda Vaill, the film is too structurally formulaic to ever truly take off, and nothing here will surprise those familiar with the artist.
Still, the historical footage is delightful, as are the film snippets. Can one ever tire of West Side Story (1961)? Robbins might not be quite the unadulterated genius that this unabashedly celebratory film makes him out to be—but he knew how to make dance shine on the screen.
“Dance on Camera” runs January 7–11 and January 16–17 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater in New York. For showtimes and more information, click here.
Gary Hustwit, Helvetica, 2007, still from a color video, 80 minutes.
THE TYPEFACE HELVETICA, known for its neutrality, clarity, and apparent emptiness, makes for loaded subject matter. Investigating the history, politics, and application of the world’s best-known typeface, Gary Hustwit’s documentary Helvetica (2007) is about more than typography or graphic design—it is also an engaging exploration (itself performed with an almost winking impartiality) of late modernism’s inexorable impact, for better or worse, on our daily lives.
Through interviews with some of typography’s most notable designers and historians of the past fifty years, Helvetica soberly and scrupulously charts three familiar, but still fascinating, chapters of aesthetic development since the font’s inception in 1957. Hustwit speaks with Helvetica’s creators, as well as some of its earliest enthusiasts—Massimo Vignelli (“high priest” of modernist design), Wim Crouwel, and Matthew Carter—who passionately and eloquently defend Helvetica’s claim to being the most modern and rational typeface. Underscoring their arguments’ idealism, Crouwel emphatically states, “Creating order is typography.” Vignelli introduces opposing arguments with amused disdain: “There are people that think type should be expressive. . . . There are people who, when they write ‘dog,’ think it should bark.”
Enter the “expressionists,” designers we now associate with the ’80s—David Carson, Stefan Sagmeister, and Paula Scher—each of whom takes umbrage with, among other things, Helvetica’s corporate appeal. Hustwit illustrates their point via montages of iconic logos: Con Edison, Toyota, Crate & Barrel, Target, Verizon, MUJI, Jeep, Sears, Greyhound—all somehow different and immediately identifiable, yet all designed with Helvetica. They note the alacrity with which governments and institutions adopted Helvetica as the typeface of authority. Scher goes so far as to derisively call Helvetica the font of the Vietnam War. And so in response, the expressionists infuse their work with all things un-Helvetica: the handwritten, the experimental, the stylized, the emotional, the do-it-yourself—or, as designer Michael Bierut calls it, “grunge typography.” Hustwit reminds us that this typographic free-for-all roughly coincides with the advent of desktop computing, which, while it enabled more people to get in on the game, didn’t necessarily foster more talent. (On this point, even the modernists and postmodernists agree.)
In true thesis-antithesis-synthesis fashion, the film culminates with a third, less rigorously contrarian wave of designers, who, while not rejecting the criticisms of the previous generation, embrace Helvetica on their own terms. Danny van den Dungen, of Experimental Jetset, speaks specifically of a reinvestment in early modernism’s subversive intentions through the use of Helvetica's late-modernist form. As a designer of this generation, I, too, cannot imagine rejecting such a ubiquitous, sophisticated tool. Could an architect reject the elevation? This is the extent to which Helvetica is the embedded language of graphic design. Perhaps van den Dungen says it best: “It is almost like a natural mother tongue. . . . It is almost in our blood.”
Helvetica has its US television premiere on PBS beginning January 6. For local station times, check here. Gary Hustwit’s latest documentary, Objectified has its premiere in March 2009; a trailer of that film can be found here.
Nicholas Ray, Bigger than Life, 1956, still from a color film in 35 mm. Ed Avery (James Mason) and Richie Avery (Christopher Olsen).
JUST AS THE WHEELERS fetishize Paris in Revolutionary Road (2008), posters depicting France and Italy fill the Averys’ suburban home in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger than Life (1956). The decor announces, and perhaps also sublimates, the desire of Ed Avery (James Mason) to broaden his life. Households are torn apart in both films, and no one makes it to Europe. Controversial in its time as an apologue on drug addiction, Nicholas Ray’s midcentury melodrama actually speaks more to the hidden manias of its staid decade than to the dangers of pharmaceuticals.
Ed, a small-town teacher, complains to his wife, Lou (Barbara Rush), that their life is “dull.” But when his doctors prescribe an experimental drug for his artery inflammation, he turns into a raving tyrant. Raging against the “atmosphere of petty domesticity” around him, he resolves to drag his school out of its student-coddling mediocrity. He bullies his young son into improving at math and football, then decides he would rather kill the boy than allow him to slouch complacently toward the undifferentiated life.
Mason, famous for his sinister charm and kingly baritone, is an odd casting choice. Yet Bigger than Life puts forth a vivid critique of, a Nietzschean assault on, Rockwellian banality. Ray was reportedly reluctant to identify the drug behind Ed’s madness by name. After all, the dangerous side effects associated with cortisone (according to the New Yorker article that inspired the film) had, thanks to dosage adjustments, more or less disappeared by the time Bigger than Life came out.
Cortisone, then, is a mere catalyst. Similar to the barium that Ed swallows in one scene so that doctors grouped around an X-ray monitor can examine his plumbing, the drug facilitates a certain transparency: It enables Ed to see through the scrim of habit while simultaneously exposing his own inner workings. Of course, it also transforms him into a despot. Ray’s French admirers rushed to interpret Ed’s metamorphosis in positive terms. “He is literally possessed by a sort of demon of lucidity,” Eric Rohmer wrote. François Truffaut’s reading was even more romantic: “[Ray’s] hero is an escapee from the hell of logic.”
American audiences greeted the film with somewhat less enthusiasm, and although Bigger than Life makes it clear that Ray’s socially conscious oeuvre hasn’t aged as well as that of, say, Elia Kazan or Douglas Sirk, the film showcases the director’s pioneering use of color. Ray’s chromatic sensibility is perhaps more celebrated in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), but the hues are just as brilliant here, as is his knack for the glorious sprawl of CinemaScope. Ray, a trained architect, once described the horizontal line as “the most obvious influence” of his earlier apprenticeship with Frank Lloyd Wright. You can see it in Bigger than Life, a window on a boxed-in era.