Aki Kaurismńki, The Match Factory Girl, 1990, still from a color film in 35 mm, 70 minutes.
THE YEARS-LONG DENOUEMENT of May ’68 was at least as storied as the climax itself. As such, it’s hardly a surprise that, following the fortieth anniversary of “les ÚvŔnements,” we now find commemorations of the events that trailed in their wake. As “69,” a series running through December at Seattle’s Northwest Film Forum, amply demonstrates, it was the year after the manifestos and scuffles in the streets that saw some of the most radical films.
It was off-screen, at the level of festival organization, that May ’68 had its most immediate impact on cinema. Following Godard’s cry of “A la Grande Salle!” filmmakers took over the Palais in Cannes and brought the festival to a halt. An indirect result was the foundation of the Film Directors’ Society and, the very next year, the inaugural edition of a new sidebar, the Directors’ Fortnight. In Berlin, the 1968 edition of the International Film Festival, which took place in June, was no less rowdy, but the Germans couldn’t get themselves organized to effect any definitive change. The Berlinale limped unsteadily from one edition to the next, and it wasn’t until 1970 that the International Forum of New Cinema, a “parallel event on equal footing” with the main competition, became a going concern.
But there was just enough to it in 1969 to warrant a celebration this year. From July 1–5, “Dialogues with Films: Four Decades of the Forum” will present a slew of screenings, panels, and exhibitions to Berliners, though the life of the party can be experienced, at least to a limited extent, vicariously. The Forum has invited a few filmmakers with whom it has had close ties over the years to each select a film from the archives that has influenced his or her own work; they’ll present their selections along with a few (or in some cases, many) words of introduction, some of which can be read online.
This invitation inspired some intriguing match-ups: Angela Schanelec on Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) (Every Man for Himself, 1980), for example. Also Jasmila Žbanić on Aki Kaurismńki’s The Match Factory Girl (1990); Aditya Assarat on David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000); Bradley Rust Gray and So Yong Kim on the first two films in Bill Douglas’s childhood trilogy; and Sabu on Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Dust in the Wind (1986).
For years, cinephiles have counted on the Forum to present a challenging and wide-ranging selection of films at the Berlinale. Revisiting some of the highlights of nearly forty years of programming through the eyes of filmmakers reveals not only the Forum’s breadth but also its depth.
“Dialogues with Films: Four Decades of the Forum” takes place at the Arsenal–Institute for Film and Video in Berlin July 1–5. For more details, click here.
Left: Cover of Cinemad: Almanac 2009. Right: Bruce Conner, Valse Triste, 1977, still from a black-and-white film, 5 minutes.
A DECADE AGO, Cinemad was one of a small handful of publications chronicling new directions in visionary filmmaking—defined in the broadest sense by that staple-bound Xerox zine as anything on the fringes of independent cinema that struck the fancy of intrepid editor and writer Mike Plante. He espoused an unruly blend of sensibilities, equally indebted to the avant-garde and to the VCR-era cult, using little more justification than his own tastes to frame generously chatty interviews with artists and off-the-cuff videotape reviews. A few years back, Cinemad shed its paper identity, transmuting into a website and then a blog, while Plante became a programmer for Sundance.
Now, Plante has released what one hopes to be the first in a series of DVD compilations, Cinemad: Almanac 2009, which comes with a thick booklet of director chats reprinted from the original journal. Almanac includes works from years past by some Cinemad favorites, like Stephanie Barber’s 16-mm letters, notes (2000), a collage of lost communications told in found texts and photos; Kevin Jerome Everson’s Midwest tornado interlude Pictures from Dorothy (2003); James Fotopoulos’s distressed Brakhage-cum-Romero enigma The Sun (2000); and an excerpt from Jennifer Reeves’s penetrating post-9/11 interior drama The Time We Killed (2004). Deborah Stratman contributes something of a triptych: two atmospheric found-footage videos and a discerningly shot study of a fellow filmmaker’s home, The Magician’s House (2007); Stratman’s works are situated on the other end of the emotional spectrum from quasi-inappropriate appropriators Animal Charm’s Edge-TV with Animal Charm (2008), a montage of ’90s video wrongness punctuated by a tragically absurd segment from the talking-animal drama Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1992). Though the DVD era has recently been a boon to those engaged in reviving classic experimental fare, the Almanac instead focuses on exhibiting some of the most compelling contemporary artists—a welcome curatorial project that continues where Cinemad left off.
Cinemad: Almanac 2009 is now available through Microcinema International. For more details, click |www.microcinemadvd.com/
Paul D. Miller, Rebirth of a Nation, 2008, stills from a color film, 100 minutes.
SINCE ITS RELEASE IN 1915, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation has met with outrage, protest, and riot. As a gallant creation myth, the Civil War epic swiftly revived a defunct Ku Klux Klan—a recruitment film for generations of hatemongering. Griffith’s blithering mammies, jittering slaves, and impudent freedmen promoted an image of black depravity that continues to haunt America. Nearly a century later, Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky) tackles the revisionist narrative as historical object and living mantra. Applying “turntablist” techniques to cinema, Miller’s ambitious Rebirth of a Nation (2008) extends beyond the original’s racial implications to highlight how Griffith’s film defined the parameters of propaganda in moving images.
In silent film, music provides the most salient emotional framework. Enlisting composer Joseph Carl Breil, Griffith created a magniloquent score for The Birth of a Nation that, in part, manipulated popular standards. By 1915, songs such as “I Wish I Was in Dixie” and “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” were inextricably linked to white American selfhood, facilitating viewers’ identification with Griffith’s heroes and ideals. For his Rebirth, Miller eschews the familiar and communicates largely through absence. His replacement sound track, an electronic drone peppered with bluesy harmonica, rolling cymbals, moaning violin, and plodding drum, alludes to the African-American cultural contribution previously ignored, but more important, the underlying threat in Griffith’s imagery—the crowd as wrathful bees or brewing storm.
True to DJ form, Rebirth of a Nation was commissioned as a live performance for the Lincoln Center Festival in 2004. From behind laptop computers, Miller mixed audio and video on three screens, overlaying his heavily edited, though still chronological, footage with computer animations and contemporary video clips. Without the thrill of improvisation and multimedia barrage, however, the subsequent single-channel theatrical release, which screens this week at MoMA, feels lukewarm; the new sound track, its most notable remaining intervention.
In this version, an external narrator draws parallels to the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, finally asking the obvious question: Could the film’s story and our history have ended differently? Miller does not go far enough in suggesting these alternate possibilities; his appropriation remains too close to the object of his critique to be truly effective, leaving the nagging sense that there was more that could have been done. Maybe the onus of change can only rest on the viewers.
THE TITLE OF THE SUPERB British thriller Brighton Rock (1948) derives from a long, hard, sticky pink candy. With the word BRIGHTON imprinted across its length, the confection is a kind of civic talisman sold at the seafront of the southern English town that was once a mecca—part regal, part seedy—for London day-trippers. Graham Greene and the playwright Terrence Rattigan wrote the screenplay, though Greene said his original treatment was the basis for the film. It was based on his metaphysical 1938 novel, in which it’s implied that an informer is killed when a stick of the phallic candy is rammed down his throat.
Given the censorious climate of the time, Greene, the director, John Boulting, and his producer brother, Roy, naturally had to avoid the blatant double entendre, but the fraught sexuality of the novel crept into the film’s story. Repulsed by physical intimacy, the sadistic young gangster Pinky (Richard Attenborough) twitches with disgust when his besotted bride, Rose (Carol Marsh), embraces him.
Tense and puritanical, Pinky was probably influenced by the gynophobic priest and writer Baron Corvo and informed by a boy who tormented Greene at school. Having inherited a gang of inept racetrack “spivs,” Pinky murders the informer and spends the rest of the movie trying to avoid a blowsy middle-aged entertainer, Ida (Hermione Baddeley), who has pledged to bring him to justice. Learning that Rose, a waitress, stumbled on evidence that could convict him, Pinky marries her—they’re both Roman Catholics, both underage—and leads her toward hell. Although the movie depicts Brighton’s masses at play in the sun, its true world is that of film noir—of shadowy staircases, of a rain-swept pier at night, of a racetrack where thugs cut Pinky’s face and try to kill a harmless old member of his crew.
Brighton Rock was the first novel in which Greene wrestled with Catholicism. He achieved this through a dialectal examination of good and evil, represented by Rose and Pinky, on the one hand, and right-over-wrong, which steadfast Ida recognizes as the only moral truth, on the other. But the film censors weren’t prepared to allow even a subtextual morality play, and the script was “slashed to pieces,” Greene later complained, before production. The notion of “mortal sin” is present, however, and the petrified Rose uses that phrase when Pinky insists she commit a damning act.
The most famous change from the novel was the softened ending, which Greene wrote himself. “I am completely guilty,” he later said of the scene in which Rose is led to believe in Pinky’s love. There’s an ambiguity in that moment, as the farsighted viewer will perceive. Is Rose granted salvation, or is the “worst horror of all,” as Greene wrote in the book, merely suspended?
Brighton Rock opens at Film Forum in New York on Friday, June 19. For more information, click here.
ALTHOUGH THE NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL’S program notes are adamantly populist, the festival, now in its eighth year, has become most valuable as a showcase for maverick work like Jang Sun-woo’s Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (2002), a Taoist response to The Matrix (1999), and K˘ji Wakamatsu’s New Left docudrama United Red Army (2007). Japanese director Kanji Nakajima’s The Clone Returns Home (2008) fails to strike the same sparks as the festival’s past, more inspired, sci-fi choices. Doggedly solemn, the film conflates gravity with depth, using slow pacing and an avoidance of close-ups to keep its charged subject matter—the emotional and spiritual ramifications of cloning—at a distance. Although beautifully photographed, Pang Ho-cheung’s Exodus (2007) squanders an intriguing premise about a misandrist conspiracy on increasingly unfocused storytelling. By contrast, Min Kyu-dong’s Antique (2008) is a breezy delight. Set in a cake shop, the film offers up homoerotic tension with a tale of kidnapping, telling a complex story with graceful cinematography.
Sion Sono hasn’t yet found the kind of cult following enjoyed by, say, Takashi Miike or Kiyoshi Kurosawa, but if he continues to make films as exciting as Love Exposure (2008), it’s only a matter of time. The nearly four-hour-long film focuses on a teenager who photographs women’s panties to please his father, a priest who constantly prods him to offer up sins for confession. At times, Love Exposure, which is told from the perspective of several characters, feels like an elaborate teen comedy, one with a keen satiric eye for fraught subjects like spirituality and sex. Until the genuinely moving finale, it comes across as a goofy—albeit bloody—lark. For the moment, the film’s length seems to have scared distributors away, but it could be Sono’s American breakthrough; the hours, anyway, pass surprisingly quickly.
The New York Asian Film Festival runs at the IFC Center June 19–July 2 and the Japan Society July 1–5. For more details, click here
Slatan Dudow, Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World?, 1932, stills from a black-and-white film, 69 minutes. Left: Anni (Hertha Thiele) and Fritz (Ernst Busch). Right: Franz (Alfred Schńfer), Father B÷hnicke (Max Sablotzki), Anni (Thiele), and Mother B÷hnicke (Lilli Sch÷nborn).
A NEARLY FORGOTTEN INSTANCE of late-Weimar social realism, Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? (1933) is a strident anticapitalist drama built from partially documentary elements, directed by Slatan Dudow (a former assistant to Fritz Lang) and based on a screenplay by Bertolt Brecht and Ernst Ottwalt. The central plot concerns a working-class family, impoverished by the nation’s financial collapse and forced to move to a burgeoning tent city on the outskirts of Berlin, but the German people as a whole become the film’s ultimate protagonist. Influenced by Eisenstein’s experiments in montage and Walter Ruttman’s urban portrait Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927), Dudow’s film impressed contemporary viewers foremost for its then-unusual blend of fact and fiction. Brecht’s script conveys how economic forces inexorably warp social interactions: A man becomes unhappily engaged in order to avoid alimony and taxes, a jobless father accuses his similarly out-of-work son of laziness, and a woman attending a funeral for a suicide simply sighs, “One less unemployed person.” The culmination of socialist wisdom of crowds comes in a final scene, directed by Brecht himself, in which people on a train discuss a newspaper story on the absurd destruction of twenty-four million pounds of surplus coffee in Brazil, burned by the government in order to keep costs high: a plain example of international capital directly affecting everyday life.
Reviewing Kuhle Wampe for a French publication, director Marcel CarnÚ wrote that it “gives witness to the true face of a struggling, suffering nation. Made by four thousand unemployed people, it never aims to be a work of art but simply aims to portray . . . workers whose youthful energy is going to waste.” Some of this excess energy is burned off in the woods outside the tent city, where a voice-over tells us young lovers enjoy furtive meetings, and also in the activities of a socialist brigade, shown organizing rallies and athletic competitions. The latter sequences presage the unfortunately superior work of Leni Reifenstahl—a reminder that Kuhle Wampe was finished mere months before the rise of National Socialism, whereupon it was quickly banned from public view.
The Goethe Institute New York presents Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World? June 17–18 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.
NOT YET FORTY and with only five features to his name, the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul already occupies a central place in cinephile culture: a multiple Cannes prizewinner, a shape-shifter who straddles the worlds of art-house cinema and installation art, and—if we are to take at face value the wide-eyed puzzlement so often assumed by his admirers and detractors alike—a veritable mystery inside an enigma. In the cornerstone essay in Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the latest in an excellent series of critical studies by the Austrian Film Museum and the first English-language publication devoted to this essential filmmaker, the book’s editor, James Quandt, identifies an obfuscating tendency in reviews of Apichatpong’s work. Confounded critics routinely refer to his films as “mysterious objects” (invoking the title of his first feature, 2000’s Mysterious Object at Noon), and even his most enthusiastic fans resort, as Quandt puts it, “to locutions of bafflement, of succumbing and surrender, the invocation of cosmic enigma and poetic unreason, of the indeterminate, ineffable, and oneiric.”
This is perhaps not surprising. Apichatpong (it is customary to refer to Thais by their first names) is a sui generis artist, and the critical discourse has been slow to catch up. The book’s recurring theme, in fact, is a reflexive one: the difficulty of describing, let alone comprehending, a body of work as singular—and, in some ways, as elusive—as Apichatpong’s. Critic and programmer Tony Rayns acknowledges that “it’s hard to write about Apichatpong’s films without relying on the vocabulary of doubt.” Bangkok Post writer Kong Rithdee describes the conundrum that Thai critics face in championing an internationally acclaimed artist who draws deeply on the indigenous culture and yet remains an outsider at home (“I wonder why we have to keep reminding readers that Apichatpong doesn’t make movies to satisfy the intellectual demands of foreigners”).
Apichatpong’s hybrid background and his omnivorous range of influences provide much fodder for analysis; needless to say, they also complicate the picture. Born in Bangkok and raised by his doctor parents in the northeastern village of Khon Kaen, he still considers the pulpy Thai genre films of his youth an important influence. Most of his films are autobiographical—he has said that he draws above all on personal memories—but they are also precise and rigorous in their formalism. He studied architecture in Thailand before getting an MFA in filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he discovered art-house cinema as well as experimental work by Andy Warhol, Bruce Baillie, and others.
Quandt, senior programmer at the Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto and a frequent contributor to Artforum, does much of the heavy lifting in this volume. His capacious essay, which includes a detailed film-by-film analysis (as close and concrete a reading as these movies have ever received), situates Apichatpong within the larger contexts of Buddhist belief, local politics, Thai culture, and international art cinema. Quandt’s coconspirators round out the picture: Rayns, in a typically lucid and insightful piece, emphasizes the Buddhist concept of “voidness.” Kong Rithdee and political scientist Benedict Anderson provide valuable on-the-ground accounts of receptions to Apichatpong’s work in Thailand. Karen Newman, curator at FACT in Liverpool, traces connections between his film and installation work. (The book was published to coincide with Apichatpong’s latest work, Primitive, a multiplatform project consisting of interrelated video installations and short films that premiered earlier this year at the Haus der Kunst in Munich.) Apichatpong is very much a presence, too, in two extended interviews with Quandt, and in his own writings on censorship in Thailand and his formative film-going experiences. There’s also a detailed filmography, spanning features, shorts, and installations, compiled by Simon Field, a producer of Primitive, and Alexander Horwath, director of the Austrian Film Museum.
Quandt cautions that the conclusions reached in this book are likely to be premature. Apichatpong seems to be approaching a turning point. (He has said, for one thing, that his next feature will depart from the bifurcated structure that has become something of a trademark.) In any case, when it comes to what its editor calls the “hard work of interpretation,” this excellent anthology is a major step forward.
Robert Kenner, Food Inc., 2008, stills from a color film, 94 minutes. Left: Joel Salatin. Right: Eric Shlosser.
PORTIONS OF FOOD INC. have a familiar aftertaste: In an otherwise blistering expose of the chemical, industrial, and economic underpinnings of the global food supply, the segments pertaining to fast food—involving inhumane animal treatment, abysmal nutritional value, and questionable employee relations—have already been reported in more vivid detail in the pages of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. But what Food Inc. lacks in revelation, it makes up for in intellectual rigor. The weight of Robert Kenner’s documentary stems from its comprehensive approach in its full-fledged analysis of systematic decay, pointing to a food industry stretched to the breaking point.
Food Inc. closely parallels the structure of another smart and scathing documentary, The Corporation (2003), which chronicled the ways that corporate America exploits and destroys the world’s natural resources, all the while bribing its way out of adequate monitoring and regulation. That, too, was a film steeped less in provocation than in insight and analysis, stringing together a series of detailed case studies to advocate a central thesis.
So it is with Food Inc., as Kenner—joined by a cadre of journalists and activists—dissects the vertical integration occurring within the food industry, methodically navigating such controversies as nutritional diversity, labor standards, and farmland economics. A cornerstone of the discussion involves factory farms (though cameras are repeatedly denied access to the buildings housing livestock), as Kenner links inhumane living conditions in these overcrowded pens to a surge in food-borne illnesses. At independent farms, meanwhile, the prospect of autonomy is increasingly distant, as companies like Monsanto have taken to patenting soybean seeds, regulating access, and thereby redefining the economics of the family farm.
Following the supply chain from farmland to factory, another set of issues arises. Food processors have started exploiting illegal labor, turning to hourly workers who fear complaining about unsafe working conditions, resulting in a good amount of tainted food reaching the grocery store. Similarly distressing, when defective products are routinely discovered and recalled, Food Inc. depicts companies solving the problem with a batch of chemicals rather than by correcting their processes. The government, Food Inc. claims, is not only unable to shut down unsafe food companies, it is reluctant to mandate detailed consumer labeling that would point to cloned, chemically altered, and genetically engineered foods.
The conversation is dense and positioned to educate more than to entertain. Food Inc. argues convincingly that the present system of crops, livestock, processing, shipping, and inspection is unsustainable—if not broken entirely. For all those who have already been questioning the origins, preparation, and protection of their food supply, Food Inc. is a devastating reinforcement of the fear that consumers are being misinformed, if not misled, about the food they are putting on the dinner table.
Food Inc. opens Friday, June 12, at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
IF JAPANESE FILMMAKER Shohei Imamura could have been anything else, he might have been an anthropologist or even an entomologist. He often positioned the camera at high angles, as if observing the behavior of an ant colony; a researcher as well as a reporter, the director assiduously studied social anthropology when not making films. Sensual rather than clinical in his approach, Imamura was interested in the “juicy” side (as he described it) of Japanese identity. Loners, misfits, gangsters, pimps, and prostitutes were his paradigmatic heroes and heroines. Their lives, driven more by superstition than religion, more by carnality than romantic love, offered, he felt, a more “authentic” representation of Japanese culture. His exploration of the outer limits of Japanese identity sought a kind of “truth” on film that he thought had never before been exposed.
At a time when Godard and Truffaut were bucking the conventions of classic French cinema and taking to the streets of Paris, Imamura experimented in parallel. His audacious, definitive collaborations with cinematographer Shinsaku Himeda employed documentary-style filming and a high-contrast expressionistic aesthetic to investigate social reality. Freeze frames, deep focus, flashbacks, and dream sequences also became characteristics of his early visual style.
Loss of innocence and brutal determination were his narrative model, the rejection of the conventional his guiding light. Artistically and technically, his films were a counterattack against the 1940s and ’50s studio dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, and Kenji Mizoguchi, and along with filmmakers such as Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, and Hiroshi Teshigahara, Imamura helped launched the Japanese New Wave.
Shohei Imamura, Intentions of Murder, 1964. (Trailer)
“Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes,” Criterion Collection’s newly issued boxed set of three Imamura films—Pigs and Battleships (1962), Insect Woman (1963), and his early masterpiece Intentions of Murder (1964)—offers insight into some of the key themes the director developed throughout his career: sex and criminality, feminine resilience, incest, the social fissures of postwar Japan, and the aggravated acts of outcasts in a tightly battened culture. Included in the set are incisive interviews with Imamura from Japanese television. “Insects, animals, humans are similar in the sense that they are born, they excrete, reproduce, and die,” he notes. “I ask myself what differentiates humans from other animals. . . . I don’t think I have found the answer.”
“Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes” is now available on Criterion DVD. For more details, click here.
Philip Trevelyan, The Moon and the Sledgehammer, 1971, stills from a color film, 65 minutes. Left: Kathy Page and Jim Page. Right: Pete Page.
An obscure gem—or prize scrap—from the golden age of cinema veritÚ, Philip Trevelyan’s 1971 documentary The Moon and the Sledgehammer goes down a rabbit hole and comes up face-to-face with one of the most bizarre and captivating families ever filmed. The Page clan lives without electricity or running water, on a six-acre woodland plot outside London that’s littered with ancient machine parts. They hunt forest creatures and otherwise get by on what the two grown sons earn fixing ancient steam engines.
The sons, Peter and Jim, work in grubby suits and collars. Peter (who believes his country should run on steam because “there’s no oil wells in England”) has an edge, while Jim’s a cheerful dreamer: “You are my garden of roses / Kissed by the morning dew,” he warbles, as his sister Kath cuts flowers. And he claims to know a thing or two about the stars, having viewed them through a telescope he made from “ordinary, usual bits of stuff that you would find in a scrap yard.”
Trevelyan (son of Julian Trevelyan, the painter) delves into this tumbledown time capsule with enthusiasm, filming nature—human specimens, mainly—in microscopic detail. While airplanes roar overhead, the Pages are down in the sawdust with beetles, spiders, and their pet peacock. With the exception of Kath (the more outgoing of the two sisters) and Jim, the family doesn’t seem to get along particularly well; Trevelyan tends to film them separately, and almost everything they say is directed outside the frame.
Mr. Page, the aging patriarch, wanders about in a trilby and grease-stained trench coat. He’s got a bit of Lewis Carroll in him; he wouldn’t mind having a kangaroo, he explains, because kangaroos eat bread and butter and “pick up a cup off the table and drink out of it, and things like that.” When the film briefly saw the light of day almost four decades ago, Philip Oakes of the Sunday Times called the Pages “intensely English”—which is probably true, albeit in the way that the Beales of Grey Gardens are “intensely” American.
Trevelyan’s marvelously offbeat tragicomedy takes less than seventy minutes to present an indelible microcosm, complete with ditties banged out on the family’s wheezing harmonium and out-of-tune piano, which Kath plays standing up. The women are desperate to escape the junkyard they inhabit, a prospect that doesn’t seem to have crossed the minds of their father and brothers. When, in the last shot of the film, the blokes take one of their smoke-belching juggernauts for a roll down the highway, it’s almost as if they’re daring the world to call them obsolete.
The Moon and the Sledgehammer plays Friday, June 5, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.
Jia Zhang-ke, 24 City, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Su Na (Zhao Tao).
BABIES DEAD FROM MELAMINE in their milk, Rem Koolhaas’s Beijing hotel up in flames, earthquake victims protesting lax construction standards, workers rioting as the tiger economy tanks: Chinese officials may have pulled off the vast, falsifying spectacle of last year’s Olympics, but the corruption and sheer haplessness of their regime now leaves the country uneasy and teetering. Jia Zhang-ke, chronicler and bard of the new China with his densely poetic films about the dislocation and anxiety caused by Deng Xiaoping’s market “reforms,” had already captured the arrogating power of spectacle in a country intent on erecting a pristine facsimile of late civilization over the drowned villages, polluted skies, and broken hopes of its populace. In Jia’s The World (2004), the hermetic artifice of a gleaming global village, pared down to its touristic high points to create a Baudrillardian theme park outside Beijing, represents the China made by post-Mao functionaries—a vast “show,” as the director called it, meant to divert attention from the immense social costs of the abrupt shift from collectivism to a rapacious form of laissez-faire.
Jia’s latest film, the equally prescient 24 City—which opens in New York on June 5—recounts the abandonment of a once thriving factory, foretelling China’s new hordes of unemployed (ironically now celebrating the Year of the Ox, symbol of hard work). Jia uses the erasure of a symbolic locale—Factory 420, a former Communist aeronautics and munitions plant built in Chengdu in 1958, now being demolished to make way for the eponymous complex of luxury hotel and apartments—to signify the official expunging of history, much as the Three Gorges Dam swallowed up the past in Jia’s last masterpiece, Still Life (2006). Whether longing for the security, communal values, and stability of pre–free market China (a variant on East German Ostalgie) or contemptuous of the grasping, heedless nature of his country’s market economy, Jia presents the state-owned factory as a lost utopia. The director culled from 130 interviews with the plant’s former workers five individual remembrances, which coalesce into a group portrait, a collective history of a secret and self-sufficient world, separated from the surrounding city, with its own dormitories, cinema, and swimming pool. Forced decades later to convert to the production of consumer goods, the factory first downsized and finally was sold to a private company. In an early sequence that brilliantly captures the rank insincerity of the “ceremony for transfer of land,” a crowd of rose-cheeked former employees sing in celebration of “our motherland, as she prospers and grows strong,” even as they individually face the prospect of much the opposite.
If in his previous documentary, Useless (2007), Jia lost control of his meaning—the film misconstrues its admiration for its subject, fashion designer Ma Ke—in 24 City the director exerts a formal and thematic control poised between the intricate and the overwrought. Scored less with his trademark pop songs than with elegiac music— a mournful bugle, plaintive strings that suggest Barber’s Adagio—and evocatively shot, 24 City alternates slow lateral tracks that traverse the deserted factory with artfully fixed compositions, notably several frontally composed friezes of workers and a close-up of a pressure gauge, its face and curlicue cable isolated in the frame by billowing steam, packing the graphic potency of early Ivens or Antonioni. Employing frequent fades to black, the film incorporates into its pristine images a number of texts and documents: exhortatory signs and banners (observe safety, treasure life), official records (staff canteen pass, regulations for a social center, identity card), and excerpts from poems, some Chinese, some by Yeats. With an eye for found symmetry— an early image abstracts two lines of workers, one horizontal, the other ascending a staircase, into a right-pointing arrow—and a propensity for statement and refrain, Jia returns to images, objects, and settings: an overhead shot of a stairwell with a lone security guard; a monument comprising several fighter planes; a roomful of mah-jongg players; and, most insistently, the factory’s entrance, at first swarmed by workers, eventually desolate, its sign dismantled and replaced.
Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia encourages the incursion of reality into fiction, and vice versa, allocating the last half of 24 City, ostensibly a documentary, to fabrication: The film controversially includes scripted monologues performed by four actors, interpolated as actual interviews. Jia says the strategy was intended to give the film emotional force and complexity, but three sentimental tales of loss, performed with conspicuous modesty by a trio of China’s leading actresses, Joan Chen, Lu Liping, and Jia’s muse Zhao Tao, prove less affecting than the authentic reminiscences of real exworkers earlier in the film. Rather than disguise his gambit, Jia emphasizes its provocation: Joan Chen, shot in long take, her side profile framed in a bifurcated mirror, plays a worker originally from Shanghai known as “Little Flower” for her resemblance to the character of the same name in a classic, starring none other than Joan Chen. (We later see a clip from the old film playing on a television set.) The almost parodically modernist apartment in which a fourth faked interview was conducted, with a young plant manager (played by Chen Jianbin), indicates both its occupant’s nouveau riche stature and the artifice of his participation in the film.
24 City eloquently extends the central concerns of Jia’s cinema—the obsolescent lives, throwaway traditions, broken or vanished ideals mourned in a dancehall song in his short film In Public (2001): “The laborious and courageous Chinese people, marching with vigor into a new age.” Chengdu joins Jia’s other abject cities, such as flooded Fengjie in Still Life or derelict Datong with its unfinished highway in Unknown Pleasures (2002), in which the eternal and the ephemeral seem interchangeable, temps forever perdu as the “new age” arrives, in the obliterating form of a dam, bridge, road, or hotel, ceaseless in its ruination.
This article is reprinted from the May 2009 issue of Artforum. 24 City opens at the IFC Center in New York on June 5. For more details, click here.
Megumi Sasaki, Herb and Dorothy, 2008, stills from a color film, 89 minutes. Left: Herbert Vogel, Pat Steir, and Dorothy Vogel. Right: Herbert Vogel and Dorothy Vogel.
“EVERY CULTURE NEEDS ITS VOGELS,” says Lawrence Weiner near the end of the documentary Herb & Dorothy (2008). “They’re friend collectors, not collector collectors,” clarifies another artist. Not long after they purchased a small, untitled sculpture by John Chamberlain in 1962, the pint-size duo recognized that what they were buying was better than what they themselves were making as “wannabe artists.” So they lived frugally on her librarian’s salary, bought art with his earnings at the post office, and spent all their time in artists’ studios, galleries, and museums.
The Vogels aren’t chatty subjects, so first-time director Megumi Sasaki interviews a cavalcade of those they’ve collected over the years, including Sylvia Plimack and Robert Mangold, Chuck Close, Robert Barry, Lynda Benglis, and Richard Tuttle. All testify to the intensity of Herb’s looking and his insatiability, and to Dorothy’s sensible handling of finances—the couple always worked on the installment plan and rarely missed a payment. Their rules? The work had to be affordable, and it had to fit into their rent-controlled Manhattan one-bedroom apartment. By the time the National Gallery of Art, as a gesture of courtship, trucked everything to DC to be inventoried, the art crammed into that space filled five full-size moving vans.
It’s clear from the film’s structure and its B-roll footage that Sasaki isn’t familiar with the art world, so art-savvy audiences who know the Vogels’ story will focus on piquant details: Dorothy kept a small Carl Andre copper sculpture in a chocolate box; the couple made weekly phone calls to the artists they were close with; they often paid in cash and left with their purchases tucked under their arms. Yet fascinating stories lurk just beneath the surface. One answers the first question invariably asked by journalists: “How could they afford to be major collectors on government salaries?” In the ’60s, when no one else was buying art by young Minimal and Conceptual artists, the Vogels supported them with their (relatively inexpensive) purchases. After the market drove prices up, it seems, artists supported the Vogels, discounting their work to civil-servant prices. This is acknowledged implicitly when, during a visit to James Siena’s studio, everyone decorously agrees to discuss prices off-camera, and it’s acknowledged explicitly in a comment Dorothy makes: “The collection was built on the generosity of artists.”
In an age of speculative purchases via JPEG image, the rapport such generosity implies is cause for nostalgia. And, of course, it paid off. The Vogels understood themselves as caretakers of the art they owned, conscientiously draping their framed, light-sensitive drawings with blankets and then, in 1992, donating several thousand works to the National Gallery. The museum, to thank them, set up an annuity to supplement their retirement income. What have they done with it? Bought more art, of course.
Herb and Dorothy is available on DVD from New Video beginning December 15, 2009. For more details, click here.