THE STARTLING AND OFTEN HARROWING STORIES of writer Paul Auster, ex-CIA assassin Dannion Brinkley, and others whose lives have been radically altered by close encounters with lightning strikes make for a suitably charged opening for the largest nonfiction-film festival in North America.
Act of God (2009), Jennifer Baichwal’s follow-up to Manufactured Landscapes (2006)—her meditative portrait of photographer Edward Burtynsky—is the first Canadian film ever to open Hot Docs, the seventeen-year-old documentary festival. A thematically ambitious and visually arresting rumination on the vagaries of fate, the possibility of divine intervention, and the electric systems that exist all around (and inside) us, Baichwal’s latest launches the festival on an adventurous note that the other notable selections have no trouble sustaining.
In fact, provocative new works are not hard to find in this year’s program. Among the films making their North American premieres is Episode 3: Enjoy Poverty (2008), actually the second in a planned trilogy of films by Dutch artist Renzo Martens and a blunt and often gallingly insensitive critique of attitudes surrounding African aid. As he travels through the most desperate parts of the Congo with a neon sign bearing the titular phrase, Martens presents himself as the ugliest of ugly Europeans. But through his outrageous actions—which included instructing Congolese photographers how to take their own pictures of starving children, thereby preventing Western photojournalists from getting all the business—he scores some damning points about the commodification of Africa’s woes.
A companion piece to the 2007 feature Nightwatching, Peter Greenaway’s Rembrandt’s J’Accuse (2008) courts a more genteel variety of controversy. At the invitation of the Rijksmuseum, the British director and Amsterdam resident delves deep inside the frame of Rembrandt’s most famous painting and believes he has discovered murder most foul. The director argues that the subversive old master used The Night Watch as an opportunity to publicize the nefarious doings of the seemingly respectable Dutch burghers who commissioned the militia painting. Viewers are invited to weigh the evidence in this highly stimulating and formally playful blend of art history and conspiracy theory.
Even so, no centuries-old cover-up could ever have the shock value of the endeavors of the photographer and filmmaker known as PD. Anna Lorentzon and Barbara Bell’s all too aptly named Graphic Sexual Horror (2009) examines the history and wares of insex.com, a website that PD created to cater to those who shared his extreme tastes in bondage and sadomasochism. His former models recount their experiences on camera, expressing varying degrees of awareness and discomfort about the power dynamics that inevitably complicated the supposedly “safe” context of the sex play.
With its explicit depictions of caning, hanging, and even drowning, Lorentzon and Bell’s film far exceeds the usual limits of cinematic representations of sex. But with its frank, savvy, and intelligent approach, Graphic Sexual Horror also avoids the sensationalistic tendencies of so many lesser provocations.
The Hot Docs festival runs April 30 to May 10 in Toronto. For more details, click here.
WHILE THERE HAVE BEEN numerous films celebrating the musical class of ’77—beginning with The Blank Generation, Amos Poe and Ivan Kral’s 1976 New York punk documentary that lends Blank City its name—the concurrent eruption of underground cinema (often made by and with the same downtown artists) has remained unexplored in its own medium. French first-time director Celine Danhier—former Sorbonne law student and member of La Compagnie Vapeur, an avant-garde theater group—seeks to fill this cinematic lacuna with this thorough, entertaining doc. Sampling liberally from little-seen No Wave and Cinema of Transgression films by Poe, James Nares, Beth and Scott B, Bette Gordon, Eric Mitchell, Lizzie Borden, Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Ahearn, Nick Zedd, Lydia Lunch, Richard Kern, and Casandra Stark, among others, and constructing an oral history using recent interviews with all relevant living participants, Blank City effectively evokes the bombed-out SoHo and Lower East Side of the late ’70s and the pungent, scummy artistic ferment that spawned both punk rock and what has come to be know as “independent film” in this country.
French New Wave, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, Warhol’s films, and the early films of John Waters all laid the groundwork for No Wave cinema, in which artist-hipsters armed with cheap Super 8 cameras launched an incestuous, collaborative, creatively promiscuous movement based on DIY resourcefulness, proud amateurism, and arty attempts at narrative. As musician/actor/director John Lurie puts it, “No one was doing what they knew how to do. Painters were in bands; musicians were making art or films.” The young Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, Steve Buscemi, Vincent Gallo, Ann Magnuson, and Jean-Michel Basquiat are frequent cast members in the films, all part of the glorious social-aesthetic cluster-fuck of the era.
Responding to the reactionary mood of Reaganite America, Zedd, Lunch, Kern, Stark, and others began in 1984 to make more brutally confrontational gutter films that trafficked in extreme sex and violence, dubbed the Cinema of Transgression after a pseudonymously penned manifesto by Zedd. The merits of some of these films are dubious, but recalling the cultural repressiveness of the ’80s, they seem in retrospect a necessary corrective. Beyond fueling the “mondo video” tape-trading network of the ’80s and early ’90s, one of the lasting legacies of the Cinema of Transgression is, for better or worse, alt-pornography. No Lydia Lunch, no Suicide Girls—or American Apparel.
Also on offer at the Tribeca Film Festival is a rare screening of Variety, a 1983 narrative feature by Bette Gordon that may be the first cultural artifact of “sex-positive” feminism. Scripted by experimental novelist Kathy Acker, Variety exposes the limitations of No Wave aesthetics when given proper equipment and something resembling a budget. Often ploddingly dull, the film is a ham-handed attempt at making a moody ’70s noir in the mode of The Conversation with (mostly) amateur actors and uninspired color cinematography. Following midwestern nice girl Sandy McLeod’s sexual self-discovery after she takes a job as a box-office clerk at a sleazy Times Square porn theater, the film is occasionally enlivened by the young Luis Guzmán (playing the theater manager) and the presence of photographer Nan Goldin (in a no-nonsense role as McLeod’s friend). I’m willing to bet that the abrupt, plug-pulling ending was due to the producers running out of funds and thinking they could spin it as some Antonioni-esque narrative strategy. As Blank City proves, sometimes the legend of the underground scene plays better than the work itself.
Blank City plays Monday, April 27 at 1:30 PM and Friday, May 1 at 6 PM at AMC Village VII in New York; Variety plays Wednesday, April 29, at 5 PM at the SVA Theater in New York. For more details, click here.
SOME CALL IT DREAMING; others deem it madness. Still others describe it as a rare ability to see beyond what’s real. During the late nineteenth century, this particularly tenuous state was given considerable attention by two distinct groups: psychiatrists and spiritualists. Though their methods and purposes differed, their research shared a dependence on vulnerable young women as subjects.
This overlap between science and the occult—and its impact on women—is the subject of Zoe Beloff’s Shadowland or Light from the Other Side (2000) and Charming Augustine (2004). Both black-and-white stereoscopic 16-mm films draw on historical records: Shadowland on the 1897 autobiography of a medium, Elizabeth D’Espérance, and Augustine on an 1870s case study from the Salpętričre Hospital in Paris, the domain of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who counted Sigmund Freud and Alfred Binet among his students. As the film conveys, Augustine was admitted there in October 1875 for a feeling of paralysis in her right arm and attacks of hysteria. Notes in her file indicate that she was the daughter of servants and had been sent to live for a time with a man—her mother’s lover—who repeatedly sexually assaulted her.
Beloff takes the Victorian Age as both subject and muse, using vintage filmmaking techniques, including a lurid, sweet voice-over and floating paper “specters” on barely concealed strings with costumes and props evocative of the era. But within her theatrical aesthetic and compelling storytelling, Beloff poses a knot of complex questions about the treatment of girls and women. Shadowland begins innocently enough, with Elizabeth as a child imagining—or perhaps seeing—visions, and Augustine melodramatically, with black-and-white photographs of the heroine on her spare hospital bed in the midst of convulsions, yet in each film the narrative unspools into a series of strange and disturbing events. Viewers are gradually made aware that the girls’ imaginations and identities were held captive to the whims of scientists and showmen-cum-philosophers.
It is difficult not to apply the lens of present-day perspectives to Beloff’s work: The diagnosis of hysteria has been refined, now understood as disassociation and an array of other discrete ailments, while pharmaceuticals and talk therapy have supplanted electroshock treatment and amyl nitrate; Elizabeth’s visions would still attract attention, but now she may well have her own reality show. But Beloff forces viewers to ask: Are we any closer to understanding these girls’ experiences? Are their symptoms or abilities an escape, an illness, a gift, or some combination?
Charming Augustine and Shadowland will screen at REDCAT in Los Angeles on Monday, April 27, at 8.30 PM. For more details, click here.
Song Hee Kim, Treeless Mountain, 2008, color film in Super 16, 89 minutes. Production stills. Left: Jin (Hee Yeon Kim). Right: From front to back: Bin (Song Hee Kim), Jin (Hee Yeon Kim), and Big Aunt (Mi Hyang Kim). Photos: Bradley Rust Gray/Oscilloscope Laboratories.
DIRECTED WITH SURPASSING TENDERNESS, SKILL, AND INGENUITY, So Yong Kim’s Treeless Mountain (2008) draws on the director’s own memories of her Korean childhood. Two sisters, six-year-old Jin (Hee Yeon Kim) and four-year-old Bin (Song Hee Kim) make the classic film journey from city to country when their mother, abandoned by the children’s father, can no longer pay the rent on their Seoul apartment. Trying to make the best of a desperate situation, the mother leaves the little girls with her sister-in-law, who lives in a small town. She promises to return when Jin and Bin have filled their red plastic piggy bank, never imagining that they would interpret her words as literally as a post-Duchamp Conceptualist. Left to their own devices by their alcoholic “auntie,” the girls set up their version of a lemonade stand. Their specialty: fresh-roasted grasshoppers. Having filled the piggy bank with the proceeds, they wait at the bus stop day after day for their mother to reappear. Instead, she sends a letter instructing her sister-in-law to take Jin and Bin to their grandparents, poor peasants who live entirely off the land in a remote rural area. But unlike the rough sister-in-law, the grandmother is as gentle as their mother, and the sisters bond with her, especially since working in the garden results in having something good to eat every day.
What makes this slight narrative compelling is that it is told entirely from the children’s point of view, synced to their perceptions and to the mercurial emotions that color them. The organizing consciousness is that of Jin, who was an A student in primary school and has been charged by her mother with taking care of her younger sibling. This responsibility, though far too weighty, keeps her from giving in to despair. It is, in a sense, her existential project, and through it the outlines of her adult future emerge. As the sisters chatter in their soft voices, bend their heads together over their magic piggy bank, and walk or run hand in hand through a world of grown-ups that barely notices them, another film comes to mind—Jean-Pierre Gorin’s documentary Poto and Cabengo (1980), about fragile twin sisters with similarly bowl-shaped hairstyles who speak to each other in what their family and the tabloid media believe is a “secret” language.
As in her equally rigorous and empathetic debut feature, In Between Days (2007), also focused on a girl—this one a teenager—who has been displaced and abandoned by a parent, Kim eschews melodrama and sentimentality. And unlike other films that manipulate the audiences by suggesting that sooner or later in the narrative a child will die—David Gordon Green’s overvalued George Washington (2000) is a prime example—Treeless Mountain keeps us in the present moment, with a camera that stays tight on the sad but determined faces of Jin and Bin as they struggle to cope with and make sense of the indifference of adults and the harshness of living in poverty. Since the thought of death never enters the girls’ heads, it doesn’t occur to us, either. There are heartbreaking moments, as when Jin asks to borrow a stranger’s cell phone to call her mother, only to discover that the number has been disconnected. But there are also moments when we marvel at their pleasure in the taste of a sweet bun or in the discovery of a bug under a leaf.
If Treeless Mountain is a more immediately appealing film than In Between Days, it’s in part because Jin and Bin have not yet learned to cover their yearning with the diffident mask that the heroine of the earlier film presents to the world. And unlike the raw visual style of In Between Days, Treeless Mountain, shot on Super 16 by Anne Misawa, has a delicate pastel beauty that underscores the girls’ physical and emotional fragility. While close-ups dominate the handheld camera strategy, they are punctuated by precisely composed ultralong shots, in which the tiny figures of the sisters seem painfully isolated within the forbidding landscape. (Bin is always dressed in a bedraggled baby-blue fur-collared princess gown and rose-colored jacket, simply because no one has the money to buy her anything more appropriate.) But what’s most amazing about the film are Jin and Bin. At age four, Song Hee Kim is too young to do anything that could be considered acting. Her performance is the result of her sweet face and sturdy stance and a lot of extremely creative editing. (We think we see more of her than we actually do.) Hee Yeon Kim, who, as Jin, carries the entire film on her thin shoulders, displays, however, a talent for acting far beyond her years. The collaboration between her and the director is a thing of wonder.
Treeless Mountain runs April 22–May 5 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
THE WORK OF FRENCH SCIENTIST-DIRECTOR Jean Painlevé defies pigeonholing, which may explain why he’s relatively obscure in the United States. Are his shorts documentaries, educational films, or avant-garde experiments? Most of the time they’re a blend. Criterion’s three-DVD set brings together twenty-three of his shorts—he made more than two hundred—along with The Sounds of Science (a cycle of eight films set to a 2001 score by Yo La Tengo) and a lengthy documentary on Painlevé.
Scott MacDonald’s otherwise comprehensive liner notes remain mum on Painlevé’s sexuality, but it’s worth noting his films’ insistence on denaturalizing conventional ideas of gender and sexual orientation. The Sea Horse (1934) shows a male seahorse giving birth, while other shorts depict hermaphroditic animals and asexual methods of reproduction; although subtly and gently expressed, there’s a queer sensibility at work. The view put forth in his movies is relatively jovial; even The Vampire (1945), made under German occupation and widely interpreted as an anti-Nazi allegory, takes a sardonic glee in the snacking of a vampire bat on a guinea pig.
Painlevé's tendency to make parallels between his animal subjects and human behavior may be out of fashion, but it’s hard to argue with the results. Sea Ballerinas (1956) and Acera, or the Witches’ Dance (1972) create dances from extreme close-ups of swimming animals; particularly in the latter, it’s hard to believe their movements aren’t choreographed. The director divided his work into “popular” and “research” films; the former used jazzy scores, while the latter were more austere and aimed at an audience of scientists. Nevertheless, Painlevé’s use of music often adds to his films’ drama without dumbing it down. From the 1920s through the early ’80s, the director made a wide range of work, including films as abstract as Liquid Crystals (1978). Science Is Fiction brings a substantial survey to American audiences.
ANTHOLOGY FILM ARCHIVES, which failed to include a single film by Shirley Clarke when it assembled its Essential Cinema collection in 1970, has programmed a five-evening retrospective of her film and video work. A pioneering American artist, Clarke began her career as a dancer and choreographer. When she focused her energies on filmmaking in the early 1950s, she brought a dancer’s awareness of how movement defines space, an appreciation of performance, and an enthusiasm for collaborative work. Her early short films were fairly conventional, but her first feature, The Connection (1962), put her on the maverick map. For her adaptation of Jack Gelber’s play of the same name—about a bunch of junkies hanging out in a cruddy downtown loft waiting for their dealer to show up—Clarke kept most of the cast of the original Living Theatre production intact, and they brought to the screen a sense of heroin time that I suspect was the real reason the film got into trouble with the censors. (The official explanation for the ban was that Clarke refused to bleep out the word shit, spoken numerous times.)
Clarke’s groundbreaking films The Cool World (1964) and Portrait of Jason (1967) are New York time capsules that seem as radical today as when they appeared. The first fiction film to be shot entirely on location in Harlem, The Cool World was based on a novel by Warren Miller adapted for the screen by Clarke’s frequent collaborator Carl Lee. It stars Hampton Clanton as an African-American teenager who, heartbreakingly, gets caught up in a culture of gangs and guns. The film is as much a document of street life in Harlem just before Black Power as it is an early landmark in the history of American neo-realism. Portrait of Jason, Clarke’s (successful) attempt to outdo Warhol at his own game, is a hundred-minute portrait of Jason Holliday, a gay African-American hustler who harbors a fantasy of becoming a cabaret drag performer. Clarke filmed Holliday over the course of a single night as he desperately tried to take advantage of the camera’s presence to live out his dreams of stardom. About Portrait of Jason, Ingmar Bergman remarked, “The most fascinating film I’ve ever seen.”
A retrospective of the films of Shirley Clarke will be on view April 22–28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Michael Sucsy, Grey Gardens (detail), 2009, color film in 35 mm. Production still. “Big” Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessia Lange) and “Little” Edith Bouvier Beale (Drew Barrymore). Photo: Peter Stranks/HBO.
NEW YORK IS ABOUT NOTHING if not the gamble of promise, the stakes that can put people in the jackpot or in bankruptcy. Stories unfolding here, however many their convolutions and fine points, are mainly pulled along by that idea of possibility on which the city was founded. What the characters Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale, play out is the fear, constantly bracing New York, that to move away is to cut oneself off from possibility, to leave the dream stunted. But that is only partially the truth. There is a greater fear the story taps: that the dream is only a fantasy, that promise is only an intoxicant, and that one is driving inebriated to an end in which, to be perverse, shards of the dream get lodged in the head like windshield glass.
The story clearly resonates. It has, after all, been told many times and in many ways, facilitating something of an industry. Most famously, the Bouvier Beales themselves told it, in 1974, for the documentary Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles, earning them permanent places as “Big Edie“ and “Little Edie” in whichever realm spawns Halloween costumes and drag personae. It has since been told in a second film by the Maysles brothers, in a memoir written by a Bouvier Beale acquaintance, in several picture books, in countless fashion collections, and in the requisite Broadway musical. Now there is Grey Gardens, the HBO drama. Starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. A prequel, of sorts.
This, again, is a story of withdrawal, and the new movie tracks the forty years that the original imparts only in pieces. Phelan Beale gets a Mexican divorce from Big Edie, a would-be singer, leaving her to live with her accompanist in the house in East Hampton, Grey Gardens. Her inheritance from her father dwindles (the sum had been reduced after she attended her son's wedding in opera costume) along with the affections of her accompanist, who eventually leaves, too. Big Edie calls Little Edie, a would-be star of stage or screen, back from New York, where she has been living at the Barbizon, planning “to audition,” and seeing a married man who happens to be secretary of the interior. Here the clock stops, in 1952. The house falls past the point of quaint disrepair, into condemnation. After a public to-do, Big Edie’s niece, who happens to be Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, donates several thousand dollars to the cause of renovation.
Michael Sucsy, Grey Gardens (detail), 2009, color film in 35 mm. Production still. “Big” Edith Bouvier Beale (Jessia Lange) and “Little” Edith Bouvier Beale (Drew Barrymore). Photo: Peter Stranks/HBO.
Which is around where the Maysleses’ cameras enter, and around where the thrust of the HBO narrative ends (though scenes reenacting the documentary’s filming are intercut throughout). The two Edies, wound tight around each other, are at this point passing their days feeding their menagerie of cats and raccoons “luncheon,” bickering and listening to old recordings of Big Edie, holding up one memory against the other, trying to make an attractive picture. In a light harder than that which fades Long Island shingles gray, the two might be Blanche and Baby Jane Hudson. Having lacked the objective view for decades, they are now an assortment of idiosyncrasies, best illustrated by Little Edie’s “costumes”: towels or scarves wrapped around her head to cover her thinned hair; shorts under fishnets under skirts that can, she reveals, double as capes.
The path that Grey Gardens, in its many incarnations, has followed is that ironic tract that is our cultural digestive system, the same cycle that recently put Frank and April Wheeler up on screen as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. In this instance, two women find their spirits cracked enough that they can become not only the stars they wanted to be, at least versions of them, but also characters eagerly pursued (if we trust the interviews) by two much more popular stars. And it is unnerving the extent to which, in the HBO movie, these characters have been inhabited, particularly Big Edie by Jessica Lange. The way she carries the mannerisms through scenes that have no parallel in the original (which is where her counterpart is best, in studied mimicry) is shocking. This production is not about “interpretation” but about immaculate reflection.
It is actually quite a production, for all the prosthetics, vocal coaches (to teach that New York-by-way-of-Farmington dialect), and set dressers. There are the brass coffee tables and the floral wallpapers, the chipped dressers and the oriental rugs. The piano duets and the parties and the highballs in mason jars. The lit lamps, the set tables. All the familiar things that would give way to the animals infesting, the walls and ceilings crumbling, the sixty-year-old English ivy growing over the windows, thriving dry. This new movie insists on that dramatic trajectory, seeming meant to satisfy our need to know, as with any sad scenario, what went wrong where, and how does the story diverge from our own.
But part, a major part, of what drives the original Grey Gardens is all that is missing. What can the facts of this history tell us, anyway? What could possibly lead a mother and a daughter to retreat into a house for decades, away from everybody? What could lead a young woman to dance all day to the Virginia Military Institute march? “Divorce” wouldn’t justify that. Neither would a mother’s loneliness. The flaws of the Edies that are tragic are not really literary, however much they recall, say, Miss Havisham, because the characters are elliptical to the core; they are repositories of broken images, broken memories, misidentifications. The refrain of “Tea for Two.” The soft-shoeing in the parlor. The hyperbole, and apoplexy. (“The most disgusting, atrocious thing ever to happen in America.”) When in the dramatization Little Edie returns to New York for the Grey Gardens premiere and throws her bouquet of white roses into the audience, we pass the scene off as typical Hollywood closure, which it is. But there the incident is found, in the newspaper archives. Little Edie’s cabaret act at Reno Sweeney seems the too-obvious finale to this vaudevillian performance. But that happened, too. When Big Edie declines comment to a newspaper reporter, saying, “It’s all in the movie,” we can only roll our eyes. But that one, I think, was written up somewhere as well. We come away knowing that these are people born of screen, and that is where their tragedy lies.
Grey Gardens premieres on HBO Saturday, April 18, at 8 PM. For more information and other showtimes, click here.
NIBBLING ON FREE PIE at the 22nd Images Festival, Toronto’s annual springtime showcase of contemporary moving-image culture, I realized that I had never attended a series that combined solid programming of experimental film and video with such a gracious welcoming of artists and audiences. Most of the screenings were held, curiously, in the auditorium of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health on Queen Street West, giving the festival an occasional Titicut Follies–like ambience that simultaneously belied the actual calm and orderliness of the festival’s proceedings and underscored experimental work’s potential to blow your mind.
Though Isabell Spengler’s video The Pitch (2007) isn’t particularly accomplished visually, the work’s logorrhea is fascinating to listen to. An off-screen voice—a hard-to-place Teutonic-Texan twang—recapitulates the loopy details of an idea for making an “Easy Rider for girls” to a fleshy woman in sunglasses and a fur hat. As the plot descriptions become crazier, involving “Diet Coke cans on their pussies” and “nanotechnology fingernails,” The Pitch achieves bonkers verbal virtuosity. Similarly, Loren Hartman’s video Holy Smokes! (2007) might also be called How to Do Things with Words, featuring several bilious, audacious rants that seem inspired by the vicious faggotry of Leonard Frey’s Harold from The Boys in the Band (1970), who makes a ghostly appearance.
The phantom menace was also present in Mary Billyou’s haunting video 1–9 (2008), which consists of early-twentieth-century footage of convulsing figures that have been whited out, eerily ministered to—or further harmed?—by tweed-suited men. Filmmaker Louise Bourque, the subject of this year’s Canadian Artist Spotlight, has spent most of her twenty-year career exploring the haunting effects of the past on the present, returning again and again, in works such as Imprint (1997), to the exterior of a home, a little girl running to the porch. Beautifully manipulating the image through hand tinting, hole punching, and negative printing, Bourque awakens the primal memories of childhood.
More provocative evocation of the past was found in Duncan Campbell’s video, one of the strongest titles at Images, about the Irish activist Bernadette Devlin, who in 1969, at age twenty-one, became the youngest member of British Parliament. Opening with fragmented, black-and-white shots of the floor of a cell, a foot, and a hand before proceeding to an assemblage of archival footage of the pint-size, gap-toothed firebrand, Bernadette reclaims a revolutionary hero without attempting to lionize or explain her (as Aisling Walsh’s upcoming biopic The Roaring Girl, with Happy-Go-Lucky’s Sally Hawkins as Devlin, will almost certainly do). As interpreted by Campbell, Devlin remains an elusive star in her own clip reel.
Freedom fighters of a far different sort are the focus of Deborah Stratman’s superb film O’er the Land (2009), which, in fifty-one minutes, captures, as the artist herself put it, “iconic representations of how nationhood is defined.” That nation would be the USA, home of French and Indian War reenactments in Kokomo, Indiana; high school football games in Arlington Heights, Illinois; machine-gun festivals; and border policing—both to the south and the north, with a long take of Niagara Falls having a near-hypnotic effect after so much firepower. Yet whereas borders are vigilantly guarded in Stratman’s work, the Images Festival excels by doing precisely the opposite: presenting ten days of challenging work while always seeking to engage, never shut out, its audience.
The 22nd Images Festival ran April 2–11 in Toronto.
STYLISHLY PACKAGED IN LEATHER BLACK AND FACTORY SILVER, 13 Most Beautiful . . . Songs for Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests arrives as the first official DVD release devoted to films directed by Warhol, produced in collaboration with the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The selection culls a baker’s dozen from the 472 silent, single-reel 16-mm portraits Warhol shot at his studio between 1964 and 1966, inspired by the artist’s own “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Boys” and “The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women,” two ongoing exhibition concepts for which Warhol chose different reels each time they screened.
Warhol’s subjects included both the haute-celebrity and the unknown: Archivist Callie Angel’s catalogue raisonné of the project chronicles personalities ranging from Bob Dylan and Salvador Dalí to an anonymous sitter merely labeled “Boy.” 13 Most Beautiful favors names central to Warhol lore, including screen tests for Edie Sedgwick, Lou Reed, Billy Name, Nico, Mary Woronov, Jane Holzer, Paul America, and Ingrid Superstar, throwing in for good measure Dennis Hopper, who appears in Warhol’s 1963 film Tarzan and Jane Regained . . . Sort Of. The remaining four beauties appear to be chosen for the formal properties of their tests: Ann Buchanan achieves the format’s stock-still ideal, staring directly into the camera as a lone tear crawls from her left eye; Susan Bottomly’s severe bob blends in with the background under harsh light, leaving a fragment of her face floating in quarter wedge against the void. Freddy Herko, too, nearly slips away into the darkness as he yawns and smokes a cigarette, presaging his demise: He notoriously danced out of his apartment window months after his shoot, his mind addled with amphetamines. Young Richard Rheem’s portrait pulses with camera fuck-ups and lens twiddlings. Flutters created by film stuck in the gate, probing zooms, and sudden reframings and refocusings all combine to give Rheem’s Screen Test a proto-structuralist feel, like a Michael Snow experiment in miniature.
According to the liner notes by Andy Warhol Museum curators, the concept behind 13 Most Beautiful exemplifies the institution’s mission, which includes “re-contextualizing Warhol’s work in ways that resonate in contemporary culture.” To this end, the museum commissioned sound tracks for each Screen Test from musicians Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips, who perform as Dean & Britta and formerly worked together in the ’90s indie-rock band Luna, heir to Wareham’s earlier outfit Galaxie 500. According to Wareham, the duo also selected which Screen Tests to include. The results, however, play awkwardly at best. Mostly a mixture of Velvet-y guitar drones and ham-fisted lyrics (Sedgwick’s includes the line “They said you belonged on the silver screen,” crooned in gravelly voice), even the least obtrusive of Dean & Britta’s efforts disarm the haunting drag time of the Screen Tests, flattening their profundity into mere music-video wallpaper. Warhol himself was hardly a purist; after all, he threw images of Screen Tests behind Velvet Underground concerts, played Dionne Warwick records to them when he showed them to friends, and once even used them as background for a magazine fashion shoot. Nevertheless, 13 Most Beautiful will play most beautifully with the sound system off, allowing the viewer to savor Warhol the filmmaker, who masterfully exploited the mechanism of the camera in its capacity to preserve the hollow shape of time.
Amie Siegel, DDR/DDR, 2008, still from a color video, 135 minutes.
SUCCEEDING THE NEW YORK UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL after its fifteen-year run, “Migrating Forms,” organized by former NYUFF programmers Nellie Killian and Kevin McGarry, continues the late festival’s focus on recent experimental film and video while widening its international scope. The festival name, borrowed from filmmaker James Fotopoulos’s skeletal tale of sex and cysts, also alludes to the programmers’ desire to relocate moving-image work originally developed for gallery audiences into the context of cinema.
Several films structured around the unraveling of national memory clearly benefit from the uninterrupted viewing possible in a cinema setting. Phil Collins’s Zasto Ne Govorim Srpski (na Srpskom) [Why I Don’t Speak Serbian (in Serbian)], 2008, originally commissioned for the Carnegie International, probes the anxieties surrounding the Serbian language among both ethnic Albanians and the Serbian minority living in Kosovo in the aftermath of Serbian oppression and the Kosovo War. Amie Siegel’s “ciné-constellation” DDR/DDR, 2008, shown at last year’s Whitney Biennial, combines vérité interviews with staged dialogue to excavate East German traumas associated with both the Socialist state and reunification. Siegel’s lens finds filmic lessons, too, in her analysis of Stasi information operations and her inquiries into the suppression of psychoanalysis in the DDR. Lying on a daybed in what was formerly a Stasi director’s office, Siegel intones a series of equivalencies into the camera: “Psychoanalyst as Stasi; Stasi as psychoanalyst; filmmaker as psychoanalyst; filmmaker as Stasi; Stasi as filmmaker.”
“Migrating Forms” also includes a number of films—most of which were made just before the current financial crisis—that address the global marketplace. Lucy Raven’s jerky photo animation, China Town (2008), follows copper ore from Nevada mines to the Yangtze, where the ore is smelted and the metal spun into the wire that conducts electricity from the Three Gorges Dam. City of Production (2008), directed by Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix, describes a Pearl River Delta factory in terms of post-Fordist production. And, in the six-minute video 0% Down, 2008, Josephine Meckseper desaturates and reedits American car-commercial stunts into a steady, high-speed stream of slick, monochromatic surfaces and sweeping desertscapes laid over a sound track of satanic musician Boyd Rice bellowing, “Do you want total war?”
The 2010 “Migrating Forms” festival runs May 14–23 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here. In addition, Amie Siegel’s DDR/DDR plays at Anthology Film Archives May 7–13, 2010.
AS PART OF A SCREENING TOUR of his solo and collaborative work from the late 1990s through 2005, Darrin Martin recently presented a sample of his single-channel videos at the MassArt Film Society. Martin’s joint ventures with Torsten Zenas Burns, such as Recall (1998) and Volcanica (various dates), intermix archival footage—’70s pedagogical videos for aspiring psychologists, horror films, and hippie happenings—with staged performances involving the artists themselves. At the core of Martin’s solo work, by contrast, is a sustained evocation—visual, aural, and phenomenological—of his struggles with hearing loss over the past decade. After a series of medical interventions, Martin’s skull was outfitted with a device that sends vibrations to a hearing aid in his unaffected ear. The frequent imbalances and dissonances resulting from this measure, its consequences for the artist’s body (and his sense of embodiment), form the subject of pieces such as Other Turbans (2007) and Monograph in Stereo (2004–2005).
Addressing the artist’s warped perception of sound—particularly when reverberated in the corners of rooms—the latter work intercuts footage and tones from his hearing tests with literal corners scattered in bucolic landscapes. The video’s poetic displacements and its distortions of color and pitch evoke unsettling disjunctions between space and objects, highlighting the ways sound and language mediate the two. The voice of the artist offering commentary alternates with that of a computer—further alluding to the partial mechanization of his own body. The Knocking (2001–2007) combines footage of Eastern-bloc countries immediately following the dismantling of the Berlin Wall with the recurring motif of a single, cloistered individual at a table. Martin transferred his original Super 8 footage to an analogue processor, coloring and manipulating the recordings in various ways. The resulting imagery—striated, faded, and often set into reverse motion—montages urban views with what seems like a vaguely narrative thread, perhaps shot through with personal memory. One frame sets the rocking back and forth of a table to the chugging of a train—a simple convergence of sound and motion, its confluence remarkably different from the rest of the video’s more anarchic miscellany.
Martin avails himself of the protean faculties of the filmed image—by turns flattened and perspectival, monochromatic and multicolored, whole and montaged, embodied and abstracted—to explore the relationship between hearing and other senses. The videos make strange the relationships between physical cause and acoustic effect; we seem to witness someone trying out a new sensory faculty with caution and apprehension. To that end, they draw the viewer into the artist’s own phenomenological rebirth, in all its pains, peculiarities, and strange lyricisms. Martin’s imagery is often knotty and opaque; its perplexities verge, at times, on the solipsistic. But the extent to which such effects are rooted in gratuitous tropes, or else in a self-conscious evocation of sensorial disorientation, remains productively unclear.
Darrin Martin’s solo and collaborative work from the late 1990s through 2005 is currently touring the country. His work will show April 15–19 as part of the Migrating Forms festival at Anthology Film Archives in New York and May 10 at the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles. For a complete list of dates and venues, click here.
A CONSIDERABLE PART of what’s most fascinating and enjoyable about Jim McBride’s early films is also what’s most dated and therefore forgotten about them. So it seems pertinent that McBride’s first two films, David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and My Girlfriend’s Wedding (1969), an especially (and provocatively) dialectical twosome, are available on a DVD released in the UK by Second Run (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes) but can’t be found on their home turf.
The first of these movies virtually launched the American pseudo-documentary long before postmodernist skepticism ungracefully redubbed the form “mockumentary” (and only a couple years after Peter Watkins’s more earnest pseudo-documentaries Culloden  and The War Game , made for the BBC). The title hero (L. M. Kit Carson)—a compulsively diaristic filmmaker who offers his own life for inspection, scaring away his girlfriend in the process—is, like McBride himself, smitten with the textures of the present moment, which ultimately makes him a doomed figure. Some 1960s audiences found him so compellingly believable that they could even accept Holzman, in the final sequence, having lost his Éclair and Nagra, reduced to recording his face and voice in a penny arcade—even though it is left unexplained how these abject substitutes could get conveyed to us on film. By way of contrast, My Girlfriend’s Wedding, a genuine cinéma-vérité documentary with some of the characteristics of fiction, records McBride’s delight in his recently attained English girlfriend, Clarissa Ainley, who contrives to remain in the US by marrying someone else whom she barely knows. And its forty-five-minute sequel, Pictures from Life’s Other Side (1971), funded and then suppressed by the American Film Institute, follows Clarissa (now pregnant), her preadolescent son Joe, Jim, and a pair of dogs on a very countercultural cross-country trip.
Later the same year, McBride returned to fiction by directing a sci-fi script. Written by Lorenzo Mans (a Cuban friend with a memorable scene of his own in David Holzman’s Diary) and polished by novelist Rudy Wurlitzer, Glen and Randa—an absurdist, postapocalyptic parable about a hippie couple trekking west in search of Metropolis—was filmed as if it were an ethnographic study. But this time, McBride’s casting of the title roles with a real couple imported from Hair (Steve Curry and Shelly Plimpton) was so “of the moment”—unlike the remarkable and multidimensional performances of Woody Chambliss and Garry Goodrow as two wizened older characters, who offer relief whenever they appearthat it made any future setting impossible to accept. Similarly, over a decade later, the only era apparent in McBride’s remake of Breathless (1983) isn’t the late ’50s, when Godard’s original was shot, but the early ’80s, and the deliberate inversions (e.g., an American hero and French heroine for Godard’s Belmondo and Seberg) and changes in setting only strand McBride further from his model. (In fact, Glen and Randa comes much closer to being a tribute to Godard, Les Carabiniers  in particular.) For a delightful recapitulation of his countercultural zest and zeitgeist, McBride turns to soft-core porn and returns to the East Coast in Hot Times (1974), enlisting most of his friends in the process.
“Pictures from Life’s Many Sides: The Films of Jim McBride” runs April 8–13 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Jim McBride will appear in person, in conversation with director Jonathan Demme and actor L.M. Kit Carson, on Friday, April 10. For more details, click here.
“FILMS ARE THE ONLY THINGS by which to look inside people, and that’s why people are so fond of movies and why they’ll never die,” Jean-Luc Godard once said about the seductiveness of cinema. This maxim holds true of films about Godard himself, especially of the JLG in USA DVD, available in the current Film Issue of The Believer. Assembled by Jacob Perlin, a film programmer at BAMcinématek and founder of the Film Desk, a small distribution company, this fascinating anthology of Godard’s travels in America, spanning 1968 to 1980, consists of three short documentaries, a slide show, and an appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. This unearthed collection of Godardiana shows the filmmaker as a patient interviewee partial to gnomic answers, an anxious fund-raiser, and a wearer of too-snug swimming trunks.
Mark Woodcock’s Two American Audiences was filmed April 4, 1968—the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, though neither Godard nor the NYU grad students who ask him questions about La Chinoise (1967), intercut throughout Woodcock’s film, knew that at the time. In a suit and tie, Godard responds to each earnest interlocutor with bemused calm, wryly noting that Anne Wiazemsky, who plays one of the student radicals in La Chinoise (and who married Godard in July 1967), was “not as good a Maoist as I am.” JLG continues to display his unflappable disposition on a 1980 appearance on The Dick Cavett Show, promoting his latest, Every Man for Himself. “How important is spelling to you?” asks the host, noting with indignation the misspelling of despair in one of the subtitles. Godard casually shrugs it off, later poignantly noting, “It’s a huge relief not to be anguished anymore.” Some of that agitation is on display in Ralph Tranhauser’s 1970 Godard in America, which traces JLG and Jean-Pierre Gorin, his collaborator in the radical Dziga Vertov Group, touring US campuses to secure funding for a film on Palestine. In a symposium led by Andrew Sarris, Godard condemns Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970) as “nothing.”
The closest “look inside”—or rather, outside—Godard is found in Ira Schneider’s priceless eight-minute video from 1979, A Weekend at the Beach. Squeezed into a garishly patterned swimsuit that can barely accommodate his hairy, middle-aged belly, Godard, donning a sun hat, splits a plum with Gorin, as Alice Waters sunbathes and Wim Wenders strolls into the frame wearing suspenders. The master filmmaker, vacationing at San Diego’s Del Mar Beach, has rarely looked so relaxed—and, at the same time, so vulnerable.
JLG in USA is available in the 2009 Film Issue of The Believer, which is on newsstands through the end of April.
NO MAJOR FIGURE IN POSTWAR JAPANESE CINEMA eludes classification more thoroughly than Nagisa Oshima. The director of twenty-three stylistically diverse feature films since his directorial debut in 1958, at the age of twenty-six, Oshima is, arguably, the best-known but least understood proponent of the Japanese New Wave that came to international prominence in the 1960s and ’70s (though it is a label Oshima himself rejects and despises). Given the size of his oeuvre and the portions that remain virtually unknown in the West—including roughly a quarter of his features and most of his twenty-odd documentaries for television—the temptation to generalize about his work must be firmly resisted.
But to grasp at least how Oshima situates himself, 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, the fifty-two-minute documentary he made for the British Film Institute in 1994, provides a helpful start. That he was offered this assignment at all is comical, given his oft-expressed and unyielding hatred of Japanese cinema as a whole, including his own films. He expressed this aversion in his first major interview in Cahiers du cinéma in March 1970, when he told his interlocutors that Europeans who praised Japanese cinema for its formal beauty should speak more about its content. At the time, one should note, these critics had only recently learned how to love Kurosawa in addition to Mizoguchi (whom they had championed since the ’50s), without having yet discovered Ozu or Naruse. Oshima detested all four. A quarter of a century later, offering a leftist and almost exclusively content-driven survey of his subject in 100 Years, he chose to mind his manners—even if he restricted Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Kurosawa to I Was Born, But . . . (1932), Osaka Elegy (1936), and No Regrets for Our Youth (1946), respectively, and omitted Naruse entirely. In covering the period that encompasses his own career, he obligingly switches from third to first person in his narration, and the eight titles he cites from his own filmography—Cruel Story of Youth (1960), Night and Fog in Japan (1960), Death by Hanging (1968), Boy (1969), The Ceremony (1971), In the Realm of the Senses (1976), Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983), and Max, Mon Amour (1986)—constitute (apart from the last item) a credible rundown of his greatest directorial achievements. (Since then, he has made one more feature, arguably another aesthetic high point—1999’s Taboo, a haunting and dreamlike tale centering on a beautiful, androgynous, and narcissistic merchant’s son recruited to become a samurai warrior in the Shinsengumi militia, a nationalist legion assigned to protect the shogun.) In 100 Years of Japanese Cinema, Oshima claims that his principal contribution was to introduce new kinds of subject matter relating to politics, war, and sex into the national cinema.
Oshima suggests in the documentary that Max, Mon Amour, shot in Paris with a European cast, may not even be Japanese. Cowritten with Jean-Claude Carričre and produced by Serge Silberman (the two had together famously teamed with Luis Buńuel on his French and Spanish films of the ’60s and ’70s), this comic tale about a British diplomat’s wife (Charlotte Rampling) having a fling with a chimpanzee mostly registers as a failed attempt at Buńuelian whimsy. But the film’s internationalism relates to Oshima’s point: The last line in his commentary equates the future “blossoming” of Japanese cinema with its capacity to “free itself from the spell of Japanese-ness.” And considering how preoccupied with Japan he remains—his ambitious work The Ceremony is virtually an attempt to psychoanalyze the country over a quarter of a century, as Maureen Turim, his most astute American commentator, has implied—this sounds like a classic case of a filmmaker turned against himself. He often comes across as a man who hates Japan almost as much as he hates Japanese cinema yet is hard put to come up with any other sustaining topic.
This is the beginning of a longer essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum on Nagisa Oshima, which appeared in the October 2008 issue of Artforum. To read the rest of the piece, click here. “The Cruel Stories of Nagisa Oshima,” a retrospective of his work will run at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn April 1–14. For more details, click here.