Park Chan-wook, Thirst, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Tae-ju (Kim Ok-vin).
HAVING WALKED OUT OF OLDBOY (2003) AT CANNES—preferring a dinner with friends to the spectacle of watching someone swallow a live squid—and fallen asleep long before the halfway point of the DVDs of both Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Lady Vengeance (2005), I can’t call myself a Park Chan-wook enthusiast. Nevertheless, Thirst, the latest viscerally violent bloodfest from the Korean director dear to Quentin Tarantino’s heart, thrilled me head to toe, and I don’t mean that metaphorically. There’s a lot of digit-sucking foreplay in two lengthy, rough-and-raw sex scenes, which put the anemic, PG-13 yearnings of Twilight to shame. But my affection for Thirst has mostly to do with the performance of Kim Ok-vin as Tae-ju, a sullen household slave who’s transformed into a ravenous, punishing bloodsucker when her bodily fluids mingle with those of Sang-hyun, a vampire priest played by Korean megastar Song Kang-ho (of The Host fame). Not only does Kim, a recent beauty-pageant winner with almost no big-screen acting experience, hold her own against Song, she seems to have inspired her director to make up scenes for her on the spot, just to capture the split-second transformations of her pretty, slightly feral face as she ricochets between shock and glee, avidity and satiation.
After a perfunctory setup (in which Sang-hyun, a good clergyman with a taste for martyrdom, offers himself as a guinea pig to an African doctor testing a vaccine against a deadly hemorrhagic virus, contracts the gruesome disease, dies, instantly comes back to life, and then returns to Korea to be venerated as a saint and a healer), the film proper kicks into gear. Recruited by the self-aggrandizing Madame Ra to save Kang-woo, her spoiled, half-witted, cancer-ravaged son, Sang-hyun becomes smitten with Kang-woo’s wife, Tae-ju. One whiff of her menstrual blood and he can no longer deny his vampire urges. (Could Thirst be the first movie by an A-list director since Brian De Palma’s Carrie  that specifically connects female power to menstruation?)
But soon their passion turns into a power struggle replete with physical abuse. (I really objected to the scene in which he bashes her into the side of a concrete building and then drops her several stories onto her head.) The ostensible reason for the struggle: He’s a Catholic, she’s an atheist. He tries to suck just a little bit from his victims without killing them; she is intoxicated by her own power and wants revenge on everyone who has wronged her—beginning with her vicious husband. “Chop off their feet, hang them over the bathtub, and let them drain into the Tupperware,” Sang-hyun instructs her, resignedly, after the Grand Guignol climax of the rather meandering second act (in which they massacre most of her mother-in-law’s relatives and assorted friends). In this delirious but deeply committed battle between the bohemian vampires and the petite bourgeoisie, between a man trapped by the patriarchal church and a woman who wants to annihilate everyone and everything that stands in the way of her freedom and pleasure, the only camp element is the subtitles—and I don’t know whether they capture the tone of the dialogue or not. What I can tell you is that I hated the ending, but since Thirst, despite its baroque flourishes, is a fairly conventional vampire film, it couldn’t have been any other way.
Thirst opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, July 31. For more details, click here.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Lorna’s Silence, 2008, color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Publicity stills. Left and right: Claudy and Lorna (Jérémie Renier and Arta Doborishi). Photos: Christine Plenus/Sony Pictures Classics.
NO OTHER FILMMAKERS put pressure on the underprivileged young of mainland Europe as consistently as Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Among their works, La Promesse (1996), Rosetta (1999), and L’Enfant (2005) variously trace the steps of a compromised teen or twenty-something negotiating survival in the context of revved-up capitalism, a world in which nearly everyone is grubbing for money. The mood is generally bleak, but thanks to the Dardennes’ blending of Loachian realism with Bressonian asceticism, hope and grace are often attained.
On paper, Lorna’s Silence (2008), their latest film, isn’t a departure from this formula, yet it is deceptively different. In telling the story of Lorna (Kosovan actress Arta Dobroshi), an Albanian immigrant in Ličge who dreams of owning a snack bar, the Dardennes filter it through film noir. Although the movie turns into a thriller only in the last thirty minutes, and then only barely, the noirish ambience (if not style) underscores the heinousness of those who traffic in human lives for their own ends—a central tenet of the Dardennes’ work.
Lorna’s situation is revealed piecemeal, allowing the horror of her situation to percolate through the film. To become a Belgian citizen, she has married a heroin addict, Claudy (Jérémie Renier, from La Promesse and L’Enfant), the union arranged by the low-level mobster Fabio (Fabrizio Rongione), who plans to have Claudy OD so he can wed Lorna to a Russian mafioso. Lorna pushes through the film with a hard, tense face, saving her few smiles for her undeserving boyfriend, but her veneer cannot, in the end, withstand Claudy’s neediness. Her change comes too late to save him, but given the opportunity to preserve his memory she refuses to buckle, and the predators are thwarted.
Having resorted to genre, the Dardennes give Lorna’s Silence an unexpected, distinctly un-noirish twist. Whereas they usually strand their protagonists in punishing urban blight (that of their Belgian hometown Seraing), they finally send Lorna off into the woods; her attempts to light a fire in a hut are shown with as much loving detail as the carpenter’s joinery in the Dardennes’ The Son (2002). The sequence comes as a shock. It doesn’t promise that Lorna will be all right, but it certainly lifts the pressure from her shoulders.
Lorna’s Silence opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, July 31. For more details, click here.
VICE AND VULGARITY PLAY WELL IN AUSTRALIA. With the country's rum-corps origins and epic isolation, low-grade spectacle exuding illegality takes on a certain mythic quality. It’s hardly surprising then that the “great southern land” would have a rich and shameless history of bottom-line exploitation cinema, the glory days of which—the 1970s and ’80s—are affectionately chronicled in Not Quite Hollywood, a second-generation fan’s account of the rise and squall of the seedier side of the Australian film industry. Directed by Melburnian, gen-X music-video impresario Mark Hartley, NQH has no time for cultured, capital-C cinema. Peter Weir be damned. What we have here is the underbelly—cheap thrills devised to populate Australian, and eventually American, drive-in and grindhouse theaters.
The story begins with the explosive confluence of freethinking, ’60s radicalism, and a long-overdue slackening of severely repressive censorship laws. With the establishment of the R rating in 1971, the libidinal pressure of generational change popped the cork on local cultural expression with an intoxicating rush of bawdy, self-deprecating comedy (an old-school Aussie specialty). Stork (1971) and The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972), both semi-literate, balls-out, satiric offensives against pretense and social convention, were huge hits at the Australian box office. This emboldened despairing young filmmakers and industry hacks alike—previously indentured to the occasional American production that wandered into town—to take up the challenge of telling their own stories, with the express purpose of turning a buck. Inspired one-upmanship, low-budget innovation, smut, death-defying stunts, and horrific visceralia ensued.
Hartley’s proficiency at VH1-style narrative montage delivers a highly engaging visual joyride that is punctuated by often-hilarious anecdotal commentaries from key players. In addition to providing a loose but useful chronology of increasingly outrageous cinematic high jinks, the film serves as a kind of synecdoche for a period of intense transformation in Australian society and national character. Eschewing the old inward-looking embrace of hermetic resignation, the boomer culture industry surrendered to a yearning for individualistic latitude and international connection. In NQH, this process of maturation, if you will, moves quickly from the profoundly camp lampooning of “ockerisms” by national treasure Barry Humphries, whose witty eviscerations both on- and off-screen elicit some of the deepest belly laughs to be had here, to the unselfconscious anticipation of lowest-common-denominator taste by the likes of unapologetic T&A peddler John D. Lamond (“it’s contrived, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad”) and prolific storytelling stunt merchant Brian Trenchard-Smith (“action is the universal currency”).
Richard Franklin, Roadgames, 1981, still from a color film in 35 mm, 101 minutes. Pamela “Hitch” Rushworth (Jamie Lee Curtis).
Trenchard-Smith’s violent, muscle-car aesthetic—an Aussie staple—shifts gear with consideration of Kennedy/Miller’s Mad Max (1979), described in the film by George Miller as a “B movie with A-movie aspirations”—an objective spectacularly realized with the film's two sequels. While the trail to international acceptance for Ozploitation was most notably blazed by reputedly sleazy producer Antony I. Ginnane, who, in a bid for US market share and recognition, began employing washed-up Hollywood actors and developing placeless scripts, the success of Mad Max helped pave the way for a new, more worldly group of filmmakers harboring international ambitions. Yet, by the end of the ’80s, the genre-movie industry was beset by problems, principally: a rising tide of cultural self-consciousness (the downside of dressing for success), a tax-break driven glut of execrable movies, the sheer depletion at the reservoir of repression from which the industry had drunk, and the gradual decline of the drive-in theater.
Aussie exploitation came a long way in two decades. Despite the comparatively diminished output, Hartley’s generation of film producers now speak of a new wave, represented most forcefully in NQH by Wolf Creek (2005) director Greg Mclean and the very first talking head we encounter—Quentin Tarantino—who goes on to enthuse, madly, throughout. As a pitchman for B-movie validity, Tarantino is gold, and although his performative rhapsodizing often smacks of film-junkie perversity, he makes a convincing case for the expulsive pleasure of sensationalist entertainment. Comically offset here by the blanket, baritone dismissals of Australian author, screenwriter, and critic Bob Ellis—a curmudgeonly caricature of the cultural commentator (pardon the alliteration, it comes with the territory)—the nostalgically starry-eyed underpinnings of this postmodern generation’s appreciation ensure the adoption of this material as a master code for future riffing and homage. In the end, Not Quite Hollywood is for the most part more rewarding than its subject matter, much of which is, despite (spent) moments of delirious purgation, flashes of allegorical brilliance, and earnest attempts at rehabilitation in cultural studies circles, now best consumed in small, well-chosen bites.
Not Quite Hollywood opens Friday, July 31 in Los Angeles and New York.
Roy Andersson, You, The Living, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes.
ROY ANDERSSON’S EYE IS SO STEADY, his scenes so static, that audiences could be excused for mistaking his stare for utter detachment. In his films, urban existence initially seems inert and exhausted, a modus operandi in which people cram themselves into apartments, pubs, subways, and high-rise boardrooms, leading lives that are seemingly always under pressure. But as a viewer becomes accustomed to Andersson’s peculiar rhythms, what become salient are the small spontaneities that interrupt the routines—unpredictable, life-affirming asides that are both joyous and heartbreaking.
An acquired taste to be sure, Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor (2000) cynically illuminated the tribulations of everyday life. The world was coming to an end, hope was running thin, and while there were some laughs to be found in one city’s attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy, it was, at most, dark humor. His newest work, You, the Living (2007), is freed from the confines of that bleak backdrop. A teary-eyed teacher arrives for work at her elementary school and is consoled by her class as she remembers that morning’s argument with her husband; the husband, meanwhile, confesses his agony to two surprised customers at his carpet store. We see one man annoy his neighbors by playing his tuba in his apartment, just as another musician across town bangs on his marching drum. Only later do we see these same two men in a parade, bringing music to the streets, their hidden passions on display for all to see.
You, the Living is a mosaic of soft vignettes set in the cool, hard city. By framing each moment with a motionless, unbroken shot, Andersson emphasizes the actions that deviate from the norm. A typical trip to the barber goes horribly wrong as the customer and proprietor argue. A routine family dinner devolves quickly—and hilariously—when one guest destroys all the good china. A business meeting erupts into chaos. This shattering of decorum can be both funny and—as a distraught woman tries in vain to help her mentally ailing mother remember her life—tragic. But Andersson seems convinced that it is these moments, both bright and bleak, that electrify our days. (For Andersson, that magic is felt most strongly in the first night spent at home by two newlyweds.) “This is what you get for your sins, you homeless bastards,” rumbles a bartender—the film’s disgusted, benevolent, and hopeful savior—to a smattering of late-night customers. “We’re taking last orders now. Tomorrow is another day.”
You, The Living shows at Film Forum July 29–August 11. For more information click here.
Ulrich Seidl, Import/Export, 2007, still from a color film in 16 mm, 141 minutes.
FEW DIRECTORS MAKE THE FRAME seem more like a prison cell than Ulrich Seidl. Confined to their airtight chambers, his characters lead empty, repetitive lives consisting of cruel, pointless relationships. His camera rarely shows signs of life.
In Seidl’s documentaries, which have drawn controversy for their staged elements, the subjects sometimes look back into the camera. The girls in Models (1999) lean toward it to check their makeup. The earnest, somewhat pathetic Christians in Jesus, You Know (2003) train their eyes just above it, as if praying for a bolt of lightning—or something, anything—to emerge from the lens.
In Seidl’s so-called feature films, it is impossible to tell the actors from the nonactors. He has been criticized for exploiting the latter in particular, but it’s never quite that simple: The most grotesque scene in Dog Days (2001)—an elderly housemaid performing a strip tease for her dwarfish employer—is also arguably its most affecting. And the scenes of deranged hospital patients in his latest, Import/Export (2007)—mainly unscripted and unstaged, one presumes—do the most to convey, and by extension protest, the indignity of aging in a culture that leaves the old and infirm in the indifferent hands of the state.
Import/Export tells parallel (but not, as has become trendy, intersecting) stories of Olga, a young Ukrainian woman in Austria, and Paul, a young Austrian man who makes his way to Ukraine. Seidl’s mise-en-scčne (here shot by veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman) is as drab and sterile as ever, with snow-blown, garbage-strewn Eastern European housing complexes adding a layer of dystopian gloom. Still, as several critics have pointed out, Seidl’s latest examination of modern man’s inhumanity is his most sympathetic.
Austrians—depicted as misogynists, shrews, bores, spoiled brats—bully their economic inferiors on both sides of what was once the iron curtain. In the film’s most resonant metaphor, Old Europe is literally rotting away in the geriatric ward where Olga, trained as a nurse in Ukraine, finds work as a cleaning lady. “Stinks!” one patient cries out in the dark. Then, in more of a whimper, “Death.” But there’s a glimmer of hope that fed-up youth might punch a hole in the hellish little existence their forebears have boxed themselves into.
A retrospective of the work of Ulrich Seidl runs July 24–30 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Seidl’s Import/Export will have its New York theatrical premiere July 31–August 6, also at Anthology Film Archives. Cinematographer Ed Lachman will introduce the final screening of Import/Export on August 6 at 9:15 PM. For more details, click here.
Akira Kurosawa, Kagemusha, 1980, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 162 minutes. Left and right: Shingen Takeda/Kagemusha (Tatsuya Nakadai).
KAGEMUSHA (1980) DOESN’T SO MUCH BUILD TO A CLIMAX as unwind into the inevitable. It takes nearly three hours for the film to arrive at the darkly picturesque denouement—the collective death rattle of a pulverized army, the sea of blood that spans the horizon—that constitutes one of the great battlefield scenes in cinema. Akira Kurosawa punctuates this eerie epic, as he did others throughout his career, with visual asides that are both bleak and beautiful. An army marches into battle and then retreats, in front of the same setting sun. A circle of elders meditate stoically in a closed-door meeting, all the while looking up to a leader who is, in fact, an imposter. This may be Kurosawa’s most cynical samurai story, a rebuke of the samurai code that suggests that it is not our honor, but sheer luck, that ultimately decides our fate.
Kagemusha translates as “Shadow Warrior.” Tatsuya Nakadai plays the story’s central “shadow,” a petty thief in sixteenth-century Japan who bears a startling resemblance to Shingen, the warlord of one of the nation’s most powerful factions. He is brought into the clan’s inner sanctum to serve as the master’s double, and when the original Shingen is killed, the replacement Shingen is taught how to comport himself to fill the vacancy and preserve order among the ranks. The master’s son finds this insulting; he feels slighted that an imposter has taken his rightful place on the throne, and he appears confused by the multiple body doubles who've managed to earn his father’s trust. Indeed, for the first third of the movie, it’s difficult to tell which characters on the screen are look-alikes and which are the real McCoy.
This confusion is most certainly intentional. Unlike many of Kurosawa’s early samurai spectacles, in which characters fret over issues of duty, Kagemusha calls into question both the legitimacy of the figureheads to which these warriors devote themselves and the massive divide that separates the paeans on the battlefield from the elites in the inner sanctum. After the death of the real warlord, nearly every scene in Kagemusha is fraught with the danger that the fake Shingen, who is leading the army, will be found out. He, too, becomes aware of this dark contradiction—that as a placeholder in a war his value is vast but as an original he’s decidedly unremarkable.
When the civil war comes to a head and the Shingen clan sets out to battle a rival, Kurosawa films the final clash from a safe distance—the same perspective taken by Shingen’s son, sitting on the sidelines. And it is here, in the final, suicidal charge of a lone warrior after the meaningless mass slaughter of his comrades, that the identity crisis tormenting Shingen’s double finds its most salient context. These men, bound by duty, have hardly died with honor. For years, Kurosawa made movies that celebrated a heroism constituted by blind loyalty; the second half of his career was dedicated to stories, like Kagemusha, that considered the darker implications of such allegiances, of what it must have been like to live a life in the shadows.
David Yates, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 153 minutes. Production still.
LET ME COUNT THE WAYS I love the Harry Potter movies, although this new one, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, not quite so much. First, I love the Potter movies because they (the movies, not the books, which are a wee bit overwritten) remind me of growing up enthralled with English childhoods—not British but English childhoods, meaning that no matter how much a character felt like an outsider, she or he had skin as white as Jean Simmons in Great Expectations. (Some examples that come to mind are Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden  and Noel Streatfeild’s Theater Shoes  and Ballet Shoes .) English children always survived terrible loss (usually of one or, like Harry, both parents) by discovering they had a passion for something or other (ballet dancing, auto mechanics, nurturing a sickly friend) and becoming experts in whatever it was, thereby gaining the approval of their enigmatic adult mentors, who would bestow on them the only reward worth having, a hearty “Well done!”
Harry, having earned a great number of well-dones in the preceding five installments, is ready, by the end of HP and the H-BP, to embrace his role as the “Chosen One,” he who alone has the passion and expertise in magic to defeat the Dark Lord, Voldemort, who killed his parents and now casts his shadow over not only Hogwarts Academy but, appropriately, in this last year of the first grim decade of the twenty-first century, the entire world. Harry’s final confrontation with Voldemort will not take place until 2011. (Warner Brothers has chosen to milk every possible dollar out of its most profitable franchise by splitting the last novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, into two movies to be released in the successive summers of 2010 and 2011.) By then, the other Chosen One, he who proudly bears the legacy of the colonized as well as the colonizer, will have put us on the path to full employment, the reversal of global warming, and world peace. Or, at least, so we hope. Which brings me to the second way in which I love the “Harry Potter” movies: They are just boring enough, especially during the overly extended set pieces (Quidditch, anyone?) to give you space and time for your own free associations, most of them provoked by the elemental but timely configurations of the “Potter” narratives and characters themselves.
I don’t love the clumsy special effects in the “Potter” series, although I suspect the opening sequence of this one—the Death Eaters swooping over London like Nazi bombers during the Blitz—is more exciting in IMAX 3-D. (The fifteen minutes of this nearly three-hour-long “Potter” that was shot in IMAX 3-D—as well as in 35-mm 2-D—was unavailable for press preview, probably because Warner Brothers knows how unimportant critics are to the movie’s grosses.) Nor do I have much affection for the production design, although director David Yates uses the vaulted, shadowy corridors of Hogwarts like Laurence Olivier used those of Elsinore in his Hamlet (1948)—to allow his hero to eavesdrop on those plotting against him, thereby goosing the plot with dramatic irony.
David Yates, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 153 minutes. Production still. Professor Severus Snape, Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley, Harry Potter, Professor Minerva McGonagall (Alan Rickman, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, Maggie Smith).
But mostly I love “Harry Potter” for the actors, although my favorite among them, Gary Oldman, who gave probably the most romantic performance of his career as Sirius Black, was dispatched in part 5. (It may be more than you want to know about me, but for several years a Sirius Black action figure has counted among the fetish objects on the shelf behind my desk.) With Sirius gone, I have displaced some of my admittedly perverse yearnings onto Alan Rickman’s Professor Severus Snape, looking more than ever like a formaldehyde version of John Cale in his Velvet Underground days. Rickman is a genius at allowing conflicting thoughts and impulses to flicker across his face while keeping most of what he’s up to under wraps. He is also the winner of a tough competition with Maggie Smith (as Professor Minerva McGonagall) over who can deliver the most plumy version of dry wit; he bridges the second and third words of a three-word sentence with a full five-second pause. Missing almost entirely is Ralph Fiennes’s Voldemort, presumably resting up before going one-on-one with Harry in the next two movies. In his stead, Helena Bonham Carter, as the totally bonkers eternal goth girl Bellatrix Lestrange, turns up just often enough to add her familiar but still electrifying jolt of evil to the proceedings.
I also love the newcomers: Jim Broadbent, a match for Rickman at playing conflicting impulses, as the literally weak-at-the-knees blowhard Professor Horace Slughorn, and the young actors Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane, playing the bad seed Tom Riddle at the respective ages of eleven and sixteen, already on his way to becoming Voldemort. With his coterie of adolescent boys, Slughorn suggests another legendary aspect of English public school education, previously missing from the screen. And when, in flashback, Slughorn melts under the velvet gaze of Dillane’s Riddle, even the kiddies will feel that something unspeakably enticing is afoot. I’ll stop now, lest I preempt the penetrating queer critiques sure to come. But it is a sexy, chilling moment.
As for Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson, who play our heroes, they’ve been unfairly slagged by critics in high places for doing exactly what they were selected nearly a decade ago to do: grow up to be attractive young adults with excellent facial bones and an ability to move gracefully and with conviction, actors who know better than to project any distinctive personality traits that would interfere with the pictures of the characters that fans of the books have formed in their imaginations. It is not Watson’s fault that screenwriter Steve Kloves hasn’t given her any interesting scenes. Grint’s Ron has some wonderful comedic moments, particularly when he reacts to a love potion as if he were Titania swooning over Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And Radcliffe’s limitation in conveying emotion inadvertently enforces the Obama comparison. Yes, it would be nice to see a bit more passion from him, but what should not be undervalued is his ability to move the movie forward in scene after scene. A hearty “Well done!” to them all.
Al Reinert, For All Mankind, 1989, detail of a still from a color film, 79 minutes.
IN THE SPRING OF 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would send a man to the moon by the end of the decade. It was an act of hubris: When he spoke, the country’s astronauts had logged only twenty minutes in outer space. Billions of dollars and a little more than eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong hopped off a lunar module nicknamed Eagle and pronounced the occasion “one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Live television images beamed back to Earth’s surface transfixed the nation, momentarily stitching together a public torn apart by the Vietnam War, violent inner-city unrest, campus protests, and much else besides. The achievement seemed not only a victory in the country’s war-by-any-means-but-war with the Soviet Union—the USSR’s own unmanned lunar explorer crashed into the moon while Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were there, asleep in their landing module—but also to augur a grand age of space exploration and scientific breakthroughs. Yet the last human to set foot on the moon’s pockmarked surface, Eugene Cernan, did so less than five years later, at the end of 1972.
The fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission offers an opportunity for reconsideration of the Apollo Program; even Aldrin has gotten into the act, publishing Magnificent Desolation, his second memoir. Criterion has contributed to the effort by releasing on DVD and Blu-Ray Al Reinert’s magnificent 1989 documentary For All Mankind. To make the film, Reinert, a journalist with no prior filmmaking experience, trolled through millions of feet of official Apollo 16-mm footage, then combined his selections with audio recordings extracted from hundreds of hours of interviews with astronauts. The lunar missions are collapsed into one epic journey, from preflight training to command-module splashdown, narrated in the southern drawls and flat midwestern accents of the men who rocketed out of Earth’s orbit.
The figures on-screen and those recounting their experiences are never properly identified, a decision that aims to emphasize the communal nature of the entire lunar enterprise. This directorial sleight of hand ensures that the focus remains on the images, which cannot be matched by the descriptions offered by those who captured them. But it also effaces the huge effort required to make the footage possible. Not only were there ten Apollo missions prior to Armstrong’s fateful step, but also hundreds of men and women who worked at the command center in Houston, and thousands more who dedicated millions of hours of labor to create, ex nihilo, the physical infrastructure necessary to get Armstrong and Aldrin to the moon’s ash-colored surface. For All Mankind, then, is hampered by its narrow focus. But what magnificent footage it presents! There is the slow-motion infernal blaze of engines propelling rockets into the air and the still uncanny sight of flashlights, slices of bread, and other everyday items floating languidly in zero gravity. There is Earth seen from a distance and rising above the moon’s horizon, an image that helped spark a nascent environmental movement; there are the astronauts themselves, snow-white Michelin men bouncing and stumbling giddily across the knobby, lifeless gray expanse.
Many people, reflecting on the dubious cold-war inspiration for NASA, or lamenting its ratio of cost to demonstrable benefit, or chastising the always malfunctioning, dangerous shuttles that arrived in Apollo’s wake, will use this anniversary to criticize the entire enterprise. Their claims are often legitimate. But the blank velvet amplitude of outer space, the backdrop for most of the film, reminds viewers of one Apollo Program legacy still to be puzzled out. The inky, airless expanse that is so palpable a presence in For All Mankind is an indication of the deep ontological shift represented by traveling so far into the unknown. Irrespective of politics or science, forty years later the mind still stutters when trying to grasp precisely what it means to have been to the moon and back.
For All Mankind is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. For more information, click here.
ROBERT KRAMER'S POLITICAL RADICALIZATION, like that of so many of his generation, coincided with the tumultuous period known as the '60s. Kramer became one of the most innovative chroniclers of the era, a fact that will surely be fleshed out in a substantive retrospective, his first in nearly a decade, at Anthology Film Archives. (The retrospective will be almost entirely limited to the seven films he made before moving to Europe in 1979, with the period afterward represented by his epic road movie Route One/USA ). Organizationally and aesthetically affiliated with the avant-garde, Kramer was a vital contributor to at least two important movements in underground cinema. The first was Newsreel, the left-wing filmmaking collective he helped form. Kramer’s The People’s War (1969) features raw footage of North Vietnam’s struggle against the United States and includes narration from fighters and educators serving the North Vietnamese cause; the film epitomizes Newsreel’s mission of offering a militant perspective on current events diametrically opposed to said events’ portrayal in the mainstream media.
Kramer identified with the determination and focus of the North Vietnamese (his Milestones  is dedicated to them), which he contrasted with the confusion, violence, and misdirected rage that plagued his fellow radicals in the US. In the Country (1966) marks the first of his critical fictional depictions of alienated revolutionaries from white, middle-class backgrounds; in this case, the protagonists are an isolated couple who painfully incriminate each other for abandoning their principles, much in the style of Ingmar Bergman’s marital wars of attrition. Filled with obsessive, purposely oblique dialogue evincing a passive-aggressive impotence, In the Country would set the contemplative, hand-wringing tone for The Edge (1967), which imagines the unraveling of an underground left-wing organization that is forced to confront its members’ lack of commitment when one of them assassinates the president.
In casting friends and cohorts, Kramer was, in his own way, working on the edge of documentary and fiction. By the late ’60s, the liminal space between these two cinematic realms was fertile ground for exploration, and Kramer was at the vanguard. Ice (1969) welds quasi-improvisational sessions captured in tense, vérité-style long takes to a narrative that explores just how far a network of radicals will go in taking up arms; group debates and personal misgivings mirror the real left’s ongoing attempt to define its values. Boundaries collapse further in Milestones (which Kramer directed with John Douglas), the film widely considered Kramer’s masterpiece. Interweaving different modes of address and multiple story lines about his generation’s move toward spiritual and familial pursuits, Milestones plays on a theme evident in earlier Kramer films: the idea of revolution as a living process.
Fernando Eimbcke, Lake Tahoe, 2008, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 85 minutes. Left: Lucia and Juan (Daniela Valentine and Diego Catańo). Right: David and Juan (Juan Carlos Lara II and Diego Catańo).
IN FERNANDO EIMBCKE’S MOVING SECOND FILM, mourning becomes eclectic. Beginning with a crash (heard, but not seen) of a red Nissan into a telephone pole, Lake Tahoe follows the encounters the teenage driver, Juan (Diego Catańo, who costarred in Eimbcke’s 2004 debut, Duck Season), has with various oddballs to get the car fixed over the course of a day. As the polite, bashful young man listens to the increasingly maddening advice of a grumpy old coot, a punk-loving adolescent mother, and a Bruce Lee–worshipping mechanic, the source of Juan’s grief becomes clearer—as does his need for these fleeting, though transformative, connections.
Filmed in Progreso, Yucatán, Mexico, Lake Tahoe consists of a series of fixed shots, in which the movements of the characters are subordinate to their framing. The mise-en-scčne both enhances the torpor of the town where Juan searches for the needed car part and refreshingly suggests that the teenage protagonist belongs to a world much larger than himself. In contrast to Duck Season, in which the action is almost completely confined to an apartment where two fourteen-year-old boys have a memorable pizza party, Lake Tahoe expands its slightly older main character’s universe to include a near-deserted highway, a run-down movie theater, and the homes of his newfound friends—locations that serve as respite from Juan’s own traumatized household. Juan must run away from home, however briefly, before he can return and not be crushed by the profound sadness within it. By shifting the focus to coming to terms rather than coming of age, Lake Tahoe becomes something remarkable: a film about an adolescent that’s free of solipsism, a minimalist story about big emotions, a portrait of immeasurable loss that’s frequently funny, a collection of idiosyncratic characters who are never defined solely by their tics.
Lake Tahoe plays July 10 through 16 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.
Left: Colgate University. Right: Pawel Wojtasik, Autopsy, 2008, still from a color video in HD, 23 minutes.
AN ANNUAL WEEKLONG MARATHON of thematically connected screenings and discussions, the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, which held its 55th edition at Colgate University from June 20 to 26, has a long and storied history as a testing ground for filmmakers and a battle zone for ideas about their work. But it is also not what most people think it is. Despite its namesake, the seminar is not devoted solely to documentaries (Flaherty, best known for Nanook of the North , is generally considered the father of documentary filmmaking); narrative filmmakers have been spotlighted over the years, even though the emphasis is on nonfiction and experimental work. Despite the intensive screening schedule, it differs from almost all film festivals in privileging ideas and debate over novelty and buzz. And despite the abundance of academics, it’s more rambunctious—and less removed from the real world—than the average scholarly conference.
Founded in 1955 by Frances Flaherty, Robert’s widow and collaborator, who used to host the event at her farm in Vermont, the seminar adheres to a cardinal precept of “non-preconception.” Although some guest artists are announced ahead of time, program details are withheld from the 150 or so participants, a mix of scholars, programmers, critics, and filmmakers (some of whom are presenting work), all housed in university dorms. Each highly regimented day features six or seven hours of screenings and four or five hours of discussions (much more if you count the conversations over cafeteria meals and late-night drinks). At the seminar’s beginning, discussions tend to meander and sputter, but hot spots and fault lines eventually emerge. Alternately invigorating and infuriating, the Flaherty is, above all, a truly collective experience. By midweek, you realize that the group, as if by some alchemical process, has become its own living, breathing (and increasingly sleep-deprived) organism.
This year’s guest programmer, Irina Leimbacher, the former artistic director of the San Francisco Cinematheque, brought together more than forty works, ranging from shorts to features to installations (and even documentations of those installations), under the rubric “Witnesses, Monuments, Ruins.” (Full disclosure: I will be serving as the guest programmer for the 2010 seminar.) Leimbacher’s charged theme ensured that historical trauma was a constant. All week, questions surfaced about the responsibility and reliability of the filmmaker as witness; the power and pitfalls of direct address and the first-person form; the loaded notions of culpability, victimhood, and forgiveness. Many works revolved around what often remains unseen and unheard: the joys and trials of daily life in occupied Baghdad (Kasim Abid’s moving, if somewhat shapeless, two-part domestic chronicle Life After the Fall); the Indian subcontinent’s history of sexual violence against women (Amar Kanwar’s immersive eight-channel video installation The Lightning Testimonies); the hidden recesses of the human body (Pawel Wojtasik’s wondrous, Brakhage-referencing memento mori Autopsy).
Heavy on overlooked and underappreciated artists, this year’s seminar afforded plenty of opportunities for discovery and rediscovery. It was a treat to see the all too rarely screened film-poems of the veteran avant-gardist Chick Strand (suffering from terminal cancer and unable to attend) and the lyric documentaries of Saint Petersburg’s Pavel Medvedev, whose almost Tarkovsky-esque sensibility would likely have made him a festival darling by now if he worked in the feature-length format. At the Flaherty, of course, discovery means not just new films but also new connections, sparks that come from provocative juxtapositions and from encountering relatively familiar and established filmmakers, like the Paris-based, Mali-born Abderrahmane Sissako, in an unexpected context. Sissako’s 2006 feature, Bamako, a fantastical polemic that puts the World Bank and the IMF on trial for Africa’s economic woes, crystallized many of the seminar’s bubbling concerns. An act of testimony and of symbolic justice, here was a film that affirmed the power of the spoken word even as it revealed the limits of language.
“Flaherty at MoMA: The Films of Abderrahmane Sissako” runs at the Museum of Modern Art through July 2. The monthly Flaherty NYC series, featuring selections from this year’s seminar, begins in September; for more details, click here.