Adrian Piper, Funk Lessons, 1983, still from a color video, 15 minutes 17 seconds.
SHORTLY AFTER GRADUATING from Harvard with a Ph.D. in philosophy, Adrian Piper began to teach. She lectured, scribbled on chalkboards, and gave precise instructions: Here’s how you do the shoulder shrug and head nod; this is how you isolate your hips while thrusting your pelvis. Piper called these performance-lectures Funk Lessons, 1982–84, and she used them to address xenophobia, an issue increasingly central to her art. Under the guise of a “get down and party together” affair, she began to teach white, primarily art-world audiences about the histories of African-American funk and soul music. Yet the lessons also underscore that “at least some perceived racial distinctions are learned, and learnable, behavior,” as critic Holland Cotter notes.
A nearly fifteen-minute video directed by Sam Samore in 1983 shows Piper giving her lessons to a large and noticeably diverse audience at the University of California, Berkeley. The work is intercut with soft-focus shots from Soul Train, sound bites of the cheerful artist interviewed postlecture, and clips of singers like James Brown and Aretha Franklin that support Piper’s improvisational points (“What Chuck Berry was for Elvis Presley . . . Bootsy [Collins] was for the Talking Heads”). Meanwhile, didactic phrases like FUNK IS MODULAR and FUNK IS IMPROVISATIONAL are overlaid in static, character-generator-driven text.
Never light with her touch, it’s worth keeping in mind that ten years earlier Piper began more outlandish performances as her male alter ego the Mythic Being; not long before that she was covering her body in vinegar, eggs, milk, and cod liver and stinking up buses, among other public spaces, with her Catalysis works. By her mid-twenties Piper had conceived of her art as a much larger (and lifelong) project of consciousness raising, which she assiduously tracked in her self-critical essays. In Notes on Funk (1985), for instance, she writes that Funk Lessons offered a path to “self-transcendence and creative expression within a highly structured and controlled cultural idiom, in a way that attempt[s] to overcome cultural and racial barriers.” In the video, she describes it another way. When asked about stereotypes, particularly the one about why “whites can’t dance,” she replies (with a dash of skepticism): “It’s just a matter of practice.”
Funk Lessons and a selection from Piper’s Shiva Dances with the Art Institute of Chicago (2004) play at the Maysles Cinema on January 29 at 8 PM; a dance party will follow. Artist Monica Carrier organized the screening as part of her fellowship at AIR Gallery.
FEATURING SOME OF THE MOST UNHINGED parenting decisions ever made, brothers Josh and Benny Safdie’s semiautobiographical Daddy Longlegs is a moving, often hilarious, oddly buoyant tribute to a father who knows—and does—worst. Ronald Bronstein (director of 2007’s Frownland, a mordant look at social dysfunction) stars as Lenny, a wiry, wired, divorced NYC dad who has custody of his two sons, nine-year-old Sage and seven-year-old Frey (exceptionally spirited real-life siblings Sage and Frey Ranaldo), for two weeks. Lenny is often the perfect playmate for his kids, mainly because his sense of logic is about as developed as a fifth grader’s. Called into work unexpectedly and unable to find a sitter, Lenny, a projectionist, decides that giving his boys a third of a sedative is the perfect solution.
Much like Josh Safdie’s first feature, The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), Daddy Longlegs (originally titled Go Get Some Rosemary) succeeds by assembling a superb cast of weirdos orbiting around a main character, who, though profoundly flawed, is still affectionately drawn. “Only in the world of jokes are mosquitoes that big,” Dad reassures his concerned tykes during bath time at his Murray Hill tenement, though Lenny often doesn’t know when to leave the world of jokes for the real world of paternal caretaking. With their loose, freewheeling shots of New York, Josh and Benny Safdie, filmmaking vets at the ages of twenty-five and twenty-three, respectively, have been compared to Cassavetes and Jarmusch. But just as significant a touchstone in the brothers’ first feature collaboration is Truffaut’s Small Change (1976), a deeply empathetic portrait of schoolkids figuring out both the arbitrary rules of adult authority and the complex rituals of childhood. Key scenes of Sage and Frey without Lenny—in class, during recess, drawing comics while Dad’s busy in the projection booth—reveal a tender but never sentimental admiration for half pints. Made by two directors who’ve barely entered adulthood, Daddy Longlegs is expansive enough to look back fondly at the resilience of children while forgiving the outrageously imperfect grown-up who tried to raise them.
Daddy Longlegs screens at BAM on January 28 as part of Sundance Film Festival USA and will be released theatrically in the spring. For more details, click here.
IT CAN SOMETIMES FEEL like Toronto is Michael Snow’s city, and the rest of us are merely living in it. No other contemporary Canadian artist has made such a thumbprint on the civic landscape, whether through the many iterations of his “Walking Women,” the fiberglass Canada geese suspended within the Eaton Centre, or the gargoyle-like fans spilling off the walls of the Rogers Centre. He reached his peak of ubiquity with “The Michael Snow Project,” a multigallery exhibition in 1994. By that time, he’d even been forgiven for spending his most prolific years (1963–72) living with his late wife Joyce Wieland in New York. Like so many other peripatetic Canucks before him, he’s been thoroughly reclaimed and repatriated.
And like so many artists who find themselves enshrined in their own time, the ever-industrious eighty-one-year-old has remained better known to the hometown crowd for popular public pieces than for the unrulier work that he continues to make. The fact that most of the seven projected works in “Recent Snow”—his first exhibition at the Power Plant since “The Michael Snow Project”—have never before been publicly screened in Toronto may come as a surprise. Then again, Snow’s film and video works—always a cornerstone of a practice that also includes painting, sculpture, and music—long ago earned a reputation for being more admirable than accessible. Surely only the hardiest moviegoers would endure the 45-minute-long zoom in his landmark Wavelength (1966) or the 266-minute runtime of Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1970–74).
Yet the new and old Snow works now filling spaces in the city readily dispel that idea. One of the projections at the Power Plant, The Corner of Braque and Picasso Streets (2009), consists of a real-time shot of an intersection outside the gallery projected onto, and fractured by, a staggered series of rectangles, creating a sort of cubist movie screen. In Piano Sculpture (2009), Snow creates a piano quartet with himself playing all four parts in shots projected onto each of the walls. And in the equally jazzy though speechless That/Cela/Dat (1999), he fills three screens with texts in English, French, and Flemish that may be roughly identical in meaning but whose contents nevertheless refuse to stay in sync. Like the other works at the Power Plant, it’s remarkable for its ingenuity and playfulness, and Snow is once again delighted to confound received notions about word and image, meaning and reception.
Michael Snow, La Région centrale, 1971. Clip from a color film in 16 mm, 180 minutes.
In the coming weeks, other venues are presenting rare screenings of earlier works. TIFF Cinematheque offers the most monumental of the lot when La Région centrale (1971) plays January 28. Filmed over five days on a mountain peak in northern Quebec with a specially designed 16-mm camera that turns in almost every direction, the resulting three-hour work is less a serene study in landscape than an audacious exercise in disorientation. As he would do throughout his career, Snow reinvests the old business of watching moving images on a screen with an even older sense of awe and wonder.
Michael Snow speaks at the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on January 27 at 7 PM. La Région centrale screens at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall on January 28 at 7 PM. “Recent Snow: Projected Works by Michael Snow” continues through March 7 at the Power Plant in Toronto.
ANDRÉ TÉCHINÉ’S EIGHTEENTH FEATURE, a disclaimer notes at the end, is “a work of fiction inspired by true events”: the RER D (a Paris commuter line) affair of July 2004, in which a non-Jewish young woman falsely claimed to be the victim of an anti-Semitic attack by six men, whom she identified as Arabs and blacks. As in Téchiné’s previous film, The Witnesses (2007), about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the fiction surrounding the facts in The Girl on the Train too often branches off into a series of distracting plot threads. Writing with frequent Chabrol collaborator Odile Barski and Jean-Marie Besset, Téchiné overstuffs his putative observations on contemporary French society and politics with dizzying melodrama: Couples form, split, and reunite; old loves are revisited; rites of passage are undertaken.
The girl of the title, the unemployed, twenty-ish Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne, best known for her role as the eponymous teenage protagonist in the Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film, Rosetta), is constantly in motion: if not on the RER train that goes right by the house in the Paris suburbs that she shares with her widowed mother, Louise (Téchiné regular Catherine Deneuve, flourishing in another great maternal role), then on Rollerblades. Gliding through a park, Jeanne meets thuggish wrestler Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who becomes her boyfriend and sets up house with her, tending to a warehouse of stolen goods and smack. Louise urges Jeanne to apply for a secretarial position with Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a lawyer and Jewish activist, once in love with Louise, who specializes in hate crimes—and acts as intermediary between his son, Alex (Mathieu Demy), squabbling with his Orthodox ex-wife, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), about whether or not their son, Nathan (Jérémy Quaegebeur), should have a bar mitzvah.
“I never met such a submissive girl,” Franck says of Jeanne, whose motives for her unconscionable act Téchiné maddeningly insists remain unknowable; indeed, the character is a nearly mute blank amid the voluble hysterics around her. By the time Jeanne finally confesses to Bleistein, the larger questions of anti-Semitism, racism, and media frenzies have been buried underneath a pileup of mini–soap operas. Though shot by cinematographer Julien Hirsch with exceptional visual immediacy and fluidity, The Girl on the Train derails, unable to carry its heavy load.
The Girl on the Train opens Friday, February 19 in Los Angeles.
MOST MOVIES ABOUT HISTORY—whether personal or social—depict the past as an orderly string of highs and lows, every piece of the puzzle neatly adding up to a whole. But not A Room and a Half, Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s surrealistic half-fictional “autobiography,” which follows in the footsteps of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007) and Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (2008) to suggest that the defining episodes of our experience are less etched in stone than drawn in sand. Realism, one could easily imagine Khrzhanovskiy saying, has no place in tales of memory.
Juggling fiction and nonfiction, Khrzhanovsky, an acclaimed animator, employs archival footage, stills, animation, and scripted dramatic material to tell the life story—and evoke the deep heartache—of Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-Jewish-American poet who was expelled from the USSR in 1972; he subsequently received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987 and became America’s poet laureate in 1991. Brodsky’s banishment fueled much of his written work, and no doubt fans of the poet will be surprised to find A Room opening with an adult Brodsky (played by Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy) boarding a boat on an imagined sail home to mother Russia. Along the way, the writer recalls his younger days on the streets of Saint Petersburg, a freeform mélange of memories that highlights his formative experiences while also underscoring the ways that fact, fantasy, and nostalgia intertwine.
A young boy fantasizes about a cartoon cat that occasionally takes control of the story in a series of animated vignettes. An older boy, unaware of the anti-Semitism that surrounds him, mourns the loss of the family piano, even as Khrzhanovsky depicts that piano taking flight with all the other instruments that have been discarded by Jews in the city. An adult Brodsky returns to his childhood home and sits down to dinner with his parents—a haunting, fictional event that never actually took place.
Alternating between declarative historical footage that recreates the Russian Jewish struggle of the 1950s and ’60s and ambiguous flights of fancy, Khrzhanovsky subtly obscures the edges between reality and fantasy. What remains is a thoroughly subjective history, molded out of memories that are imprecise, prone to delusions of grandeur. This isn’t Saint Petersburg, but Brodsky’s Saint Petersburg, and this may not be the life Brodsky led, but perhaps it’s the life he felt he led.
A Room and a Half opens January 20 at Film Forum. For more details, click here.
THE NEW YORK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL is literally all over the map, although films from Europe and the Middle East dominate the selection. There are movies that excavate history and two historic excavations: the 1935 Yiddish Cinema classic Bar Mitzvah, directed by Henry Lynn, and the 1951 East German Holocaust drama The Ax of Wandsbek, based on the novel by Arnold Zweig. Two films from the Middle East, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami and Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open, were critical favorites at Cannes. Both are scheduled for theatrical runs in New York, and both are early contenders for my 2010 best films of the year list. (Sorry, list making became obsessive last month and I can’t shake the habit. And it’s such great shorthand for saying you should not miss these films.)
Codirected and coauthored by a Palestinian (Copti) and an Israeli (Shani), Ajami is largely set in the titular beachfront Yaffa neighborhood, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians live together in an atmosphere of gnawing anxiety and explosive anger. Encompassing a novelistic array of characters and relationships, the film is divided into overlapping chapters. After the somewhat baffling in medias res opening, each segment doubles back to fill in the gaps in what we’ve already seen. The narrative structure is designed to make the audience hyperattentive to detail; it also slows down the rush toward the climactic violent confrontation, thus adding a sense of tragic inevitability to the outcome. The snarelike plot reflects the economic and political situation—the more the characters struggle, the more tightly they’re bound. The adult characters are burned out, corrupted, or operating on the brink of madness. Empty machismo passes for power. At the heart of the film are three fragile Arab teenagers, desperate to save their families even at the cost of their own lives. Cast largely with nonprofessionals and shot with handheld camera sensitive to both action and inner life, the film has a sense of reality and of being made from the inside that very few movies dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have achieved.
Located entirely in a closed, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, Eyes Wide Open is similarly revelatory. A story of forbidden love filled with yearning and passionate, albeit discreetly shot, gay sex, it involves a married father of four small children who runs a butcher shop inherited from his father. One day a wandering Jew—that is to say, a beautiful young man with a gossip-worthy past and no family ties of his own—takes refuge from the rain in the butcher’s tiny, glass-front store. The butcher, who is not unaware of his own homosexual desires, takes him on as an assistant, rationalizing this dangerous decision as a way of proving himself. “The closer to the sin, the closer to God,” he explains. One never doubts his sincerity, nor that desire will win, regardless how tragic the consequences. Soon the “purity police” come banging on his door. In his feature-directing debut, Tabakman is fearless in his pacing (the film is slow but never too slow), and his attention to tactile detail (hands slinging a side of beef, hands fingering a prayer shawl, fingers brushing against each other as if by accident) rivals that of Claire Denis.
Haim Tabakman, Eyes Wide Open, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.
Among other compelling movies in the series, two involve the real-life stories of women of exceptional courage and conviction. Based on the memoirs of Russian poet Evgenia Ginzburg, who was stripped of her Communist Party membership and spent ten years in a Siberian gulag on trumped-up terrorism charges, Marleen Gorris’s Within the Whirlwind is an intelligent film—one that makes you think twice about how anyone who had a choice in the matter could have supported the CP once the Stalinist purges began. It also confirms the impossibility of depicting one of the twentieth century’s greatest horrors in a realistic yet audience-friendly manner. Gorris’s mise-en-scène is absurdly tasteful. Still, the film is worth seeing for the radiant resolve in Emily Watson’s performance.
A more eccentric and privileged independent woman, Pannonica Rothschild, a child of the British wing of the Rothschild family, flew planes for the Free French before coming to New York, where she fell in love with bebop. She recognized the genius of Charlie Parker and was an even more devoted and crucial supporter of Thelonious Monk, who lived out the final reclusive period of his life in the New Jersey house where she also cared for hundreds of stray cats. (Monk was not fond of the cats.) In The Jazz Baroness (2009), documentarian Hannah Rothschild fashions a portrait of her great-aunt “Nica,” whom she met only in the last years of her life. Rothschild had an inside track to her own well-insulated family (the Rothschilds believed that one should be mentioned in the papers only at one’s birth and death), and the details of their extraordinary wealth and how it did not save the Hungarian branch of the family from the Holocaust are jaw-dropping when recounted by Nica’s older sister Miriam, already in her nineties when she allowed her niece Hannah to videotape her. There are terrific bits of performance footage and lively interviews with members of Monk’s family and various jazz luminaries. A movie fashioned from scraps goes a long way toward fleshing out the complex and unquestionably platonic relationship between Monk and Nica. She was a woman of taste and spirit, and I adore her as much for her devotion to her felines as for that to one of the geniuses of American modernism.
The New York Jewish Film Festival runs January 13–28 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. For more details click here. Ajami plays February 3–13 at Film Forum in New York, and Eyes Wide Open begins its run at Cinema Village on February 5.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 7915 Km, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.
IN PRIPYAT (1999), Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary about postmeltdown Chernobyl, a policeman refers to his beat as a “dead zone.” A handful of elderly residents remain, but most, like a cheerful plant manager and the technician who sneaks the filmmakers into the ruins of her old apartment, now commute to Chernobyl from the outside. In this still-functioning wasteland, radiation clings invisibly to everything, from mushrooms to clothing to abandoned helicopters—the last a poignant image of the state’s helplessness in the face of a disaster it helped create.
It’s a sad survey, but withered landscapes like this one are where Geyrhalter (who filmed Pripyat in black and white) thrives. The Austrian director burrows into parts of the world normally walled off from more privileged eyes, marginal territories we don’t (want to) know much about.
For his most recent film, 7915 Km (2008), Geyrhalter didn’t just go to the Sahara and western Africa whenever; he went during the Dakar Rally, an overland race that’s hugely popular among gearheads and joyriding Europeans. To many Africans, it resembles an alien visitation. One girl explains she named her goat Rally because it was born the day the foreign drivers came through her village. But the race, inevitably, also stirs resentment and tears up roads; the dust, once kicked up, seems to linger, the residue of a drive-by moment that encapsulates, for Geyrhalter and many of his subjects, the glamour, elusiveness, and cruel disregard of the near but distant West.
Pointedly, the only images of the rally proper in 7915 Km come from revved-up publicity materials and European TV programs. Geyrhalter and his crew purposefully fall behind the pack, training their sights on other subjects. In Senegal, a local carpenter speaks of the demand for “boats of death” hired by would-be immigrants. In Mali, young African men who haven’t already left for Europe wait around at Western Union all day for allowances from relatives abroad; night after night, they watch the same European porn film at what has to be one of the world’s saddest movie theaters.
The film’s final segment, shot in an airplane that Italian immigration authorities use to patrol their borders, ends with a grainy image of African refugees being intercepted at sea. It’s an effective juxtaposition: the Africans’ slow, easily captured boats and the European’s speedy jeeps, trucks, planes, and rally cars.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Our Daily Bread, 2005, still from a color digital video, 92 minutes.
Geyrhalter is no less astute when approaching the land of plenty these refugees are so desperate to access. In his best-known film, Our Daily Bread (2005), the director offers an unflinching, unsettling view of Europe’s food-production industry. Whereas American films like Fast Food Nation (2006) and Food, Inc. (2008) take to the pulpit, Geyrhalter’s nearly wordless documentary depicts slaughterhouse horrors with the cold precision (an Austrian specialty?) of a Haneke thriller.
The emotional response Geyrhalter cultivates is more profound and subtle than outrage. If anything, his technique highlights the system’s genius and efficiency. The compositions emphasize machinery, as Geyrhalter’s Steadicam charts seemingly endless corridors of crops and chicken boxes. He and his longtime editor, Wolfgang Widerhofer, hold shots just long enough to achieve a mesmerizing sense of day-in, day-out repetition.
The rhythms of this ultra-rationalized industry contrast starkly with the natural processes it supplants. Bulls are interrupted midmount to capture their semen, squeaking chicks are shot out of tubes like tennis balls, olive trees are throttled by machines until they spill their fruit, and pigs and fish are corralled along conveyor belts to their death, then stripped and disassembled by automaton-like workers.
All this for human sustenance. But the spotless food-production facilities so clinically depicted in Our Daily Bread have mastered the vagaries of the life cycle in a way that suggests that the cycle itself will someday be obviated. These, too, are dead zones.
FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD MIA is the clenched, invisible daughter of a self-obsessed mother grasping at her mislaid youth. Warehoused in an Essex council estate, Mia (Katie Jarvis) escapes the banal violence of her daily life through hip-hop dance, which she performs secretly in an abandoned flat. Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s new boyfriend—easy in his skin and disarmingly kind—is the first person who really sees her. The long, slow fuse of their attraction burns to inexorable catastrophe, as such attractions will.
Even if Fish Tank (2009), writer-director Andrea Arnold’s second feature, traverses somewhat hackneyed narrative territory, it is a bracingly unsentimental and utterly controlled film. Her remarkably restrained hand leads, happily, to remarkable ferocity. Anchored by humane, intelligent performances from Jarvis and Fassbender, Fish Tank maps the often ambiguous hunger that draws damaged people together. Jarvis is particularly mesmerizing; as Mia, her brittle, carefully cultivated carapace of nonchalance is threatened at every turn by her vulnerability and her devastating anger.
Robbie Ryan’s meticulous camera work—intimate but also clinical—underscores the nebulousness of the boundary between the wild and the contained: between rage and need, desire and love. The Essex borderlands, where industrial plants and housing estates meet the mudflats of the Thames estuary, seem to contain the entire mystery of postmodern life, in which an overpass of the A-16 shelters a talismanic white horse and a gypsy camp of Irish Travellers.
Arnold has been hailed as the heir apparent to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. And Fish Tank, with its echoing canyons of tower blocks and concrete wastelands, is firmly embedded in the tradition of social realism. But the film is ultimately—and refreshingly—less interested in revealing or commenting on ills of the British class system than it is in modeling the contours of one young woman’s awakening.
Fish Tank opens Friday, January 15, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.
IN 1984, at the age of twelve, Charlotte Gainsbourg, wearing only a blue oxford and panties, lounged on a mattress with her shirtless father for his video of their duet “Lemon Incest”; twenty-five years later, she would give herself a clitoridectomy with rusty scissors in Lars von Trier’s Antichrist. As the only child of a legendarily decadent union—the great French desiccated dandy/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and British actress/singer Jane Birkin—Charlotte was born with scandal imprinted on her DNA. But as the nine films in the French Institute Alliance Française’s tribute to the gifted actress make clear, Gainsbourg is more than a provocatrice; her Modigliani face and frame show the subtlest shifts of pain and pleasure, grief and joy.
Her formidable talent is immediately evident in Claude Miller’s L’Effrontée (1985), the third film Gainsbourg made after beginning her career in 1984 and her first starring role. Playing Charlotte Castang (one of three instances in the series in which the performer and her character share the same first name), who rages at the misery of being a teenager stuck in a sleepy town, Gainsbourg appears in every scene. Her adolescent mood swings—one minute erupting into frustrated tantrums (“I wish I wasn’t me”), the next staring with moon-eyed wonder at girl-crush Clara, the visiting thirteen-year-old piano prodigy whom Charlotte hopes to run away with—are agonizingly raw yet expertly calibrated. It’s a stunning, fearless performance (for which Gainsbourg would win a César, France’s equivalent of an Oscar, for Most Promising Actress) that hints at the emotional boldness she would display in Antichrist.
If Gainsbourg’s on-screen collaborations with her father provoke a certain unease—two years after the “Lemon Incest” video, she starred in Serge’s film Charlotte for Ever; they play inappropriately attached dad and daughter—the two films that she’s made with her longtime romantic partner, Yvan Attal, the mediocre writer-director of My Wife Is an Actress (2001) and Happily Ever After (2004), invite other discomfiting questions about where autobiography ends and fiction begins. Attal and Gainsbourg play spouses in both movies, but they are primarily narcissistic vehicles for Attal’s overwhelming insecurities, if not outright hostility about his partner’s success. And yet even in the circumscribed, one-dimensional roles Attal has created for her (particularly as the cipher of the title in My Wife Is an Actress), Gainsbourg finds grace, depth, and humor.
In fact, Gainsbourg is at her best when struggling against bad object choices, enmeshed in impossible romances. As Gael García Bernal’s crafts partner (they play with cellophane strips and cloth ponies) in Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006), Gainsbourg touchingly, tentatively invites the man-child’s affections and wearily stands up to his passive-aggressive attacks. Beyond the delight of watching Gainsbourg beautifully navigate this awkward flirtation is the immense pleasure of listening to her, as her tongue glides from French to English. This aural intimacy is magically showcased in her most recent film, Patrice Chéreau’s Persécution (2009), during a transatlantic phone call Gainsbourg’s character, Sonia, makes to Daniel (Romain Duris), her difficult boyfriend of three years. “You took me as I am,” Sonia tearfully explains to Daniel when he demands to know why she fell in love with him. Charlotte fans have done the same for nearly three decades.
“Charlotte Forever” runs January 12 through February 23 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. For more details, click here.
James Benning, Ruhr, 2009, still from a color film in HD, 121 minutes.
JAMES BENNING is as synonymous with observing the evolving American landscape as he is with 16-mm filmmaking, so it makes perfect sense that his first feature-length work in high-definition video would be an investigation of a German territory largely unfamiliar to the artist. In many ways, the construction of Ruhr, 2009, will be familiar to Benning’s followers: For each of seven shots that constitute the two-hour work, Benning’s frame remains fixed, allowing events—often subtle and frequently located at the threshold of wilderness and industry—to unfold before the camera in “real” time, unhurried by the narrative expectations of mainstream cinema.
In fact, for most of his forty-year career, the duration of Benning’s takes has been limited to the just over ten minutes of footage afforded by a four-hundred-foot roll of 16-mm film shot at twenty-four frames a second. (For example, the artist’s extraordinary Ten Skies and 13 Lakes, both 2004, are composed entirely of ten-minute takes.) After a suite of six shots, ranging from eight to eighteen minutes each, Ruhr concludes—spoiler alert—with a stunning, dirgelike image of a coking plant’s belching smokestack that slowly fades to postsunset blackness and lasts exactly one hour.
The difference between digital and celluloid images is not simply the difference between the “purity” or indexicality of photographic grain versus cold, clinical pixels: Ruhr suggests that, for Benning, the true promise of HD lies in its capacity to capture images at durations that push the limits of the viewer’s attention toward an almost-inhuman scale of time—albeit in a physical way that an all-too-human viewer, seated in the theater, will surely register.
Benning has long been among the most patient of artists, and therefore his work increasingly seems at odds with an attention-deficient culture. Yet, his films—and, well, video—reward an equally patient viewer and listener. Sound plays a crucial role in Benning’s work and often provides more information than the visual component. (The artist’s initial digital foray was in assembling the lush sound for casting a glance, 2007, his film of and around Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.) The third shot of Ruhr frames the woods at the edge of the Düsseldorf airport, and over the course of eighteen minutes five airplanes take off—we hear them before we see them—and zip through the frame; each passing plane is followed several beats later by the surprisingly violent rustling of leaves.
Similar devotion to detail also informs shots of a man sandblasting graffiti or the mechanized fabrication of steel cylinders—both pointing to the Ruhr Valley’s industrialization. In another shot, Benning’s camera is positioned behind the congregation in a Muslim ceremony, at the sight line of a man kneeling in prayer, and much of the image is occluded—and then revealed—by the repetitive mass supplication. Throughout Ruhr, Benning eschews beginnings and endings in favor of ongoing processes and cycles, whether natural, industrial, or religious.
Not long ago, I found myself seated a few rows away from the filmmaker at a screening of early films organized by cinema historian Tom Gunning. Following a screening of D. W. Griffith’s The Country Doctor, 1909—a pioneering example of parallel editing—Benning wryly noted that Griffith’s construction of cinematic (story) time, and a related set of narrative expectations, was “insidious.” I laughed but understood what he meant: Only a few years after cinema’s invention, many of its lasting codes had already been established, and old-fashioned storytelling became cinema’s dominant mode. Benning, as Ruhr and other works imply, wants to explore other possibilities that were always available to cinema but generally neglected—namely its ability to record what the camera observes, over time, without much intervention. Or, simply put, he wants his viewers to “feel” time rather than forget about it, while looking at and listening to the world around them. In the obsolescence of the celluloid medium, it remains to be seen whether digital technology offers a truly new way of seeing the world or just a more spectacular version of familiar movie “magic”—James Cameron’s Avatar seems to urgently push this question to the foreground—but somehow it’s not surprising to find Benning on the frontier.
KELLY REICHARDT’S extremely promising debut feature, River of Grass (1994), suggested that she, unlike her protagonists—a pair of wannabe outlaws, too hapless and depressed to escape their Broward County backwater—was capable of a big move. Instead, she retreated from theatrical feature filmmaking for more than a decade, explaining that she found the experience of dealing with crews and financing alienating. The melancholy indie two-hander Old Joy (2006) was hailed as her comeback, as tough and tender in its revision of the “bromance” as River of Grass was of the road movie. She followed with the even finer, more wrenching Wendy and Lucy (2008).
With Ode (1999), Then a Year (2001), and Travis (2004), the three short films that she made during her hiatus from features, Reichardt returned to her experimental roots. She shot all three herself, using a Super 8 camera, producing images of lush, ephemeral beauty by exploiting the limited contrast ratio, low resolution, tendency toward overexposure, and Impressionist splotched color of the narrow-gauge film stock. Ode, the most ambitious of the three, is based on Herman Raucher’s novelization of his own script for the 1976 Warner Brothers movie Ode to Billy Joe, which was inspired by the more familiar 1967 Bobbie Gentry hit single “Ode to Billie Joe.” Despite the discrepancy in spelling, the titular B. J. is in both song and movie a teenage boy, surname McAllister, living in rural Mississippi, who commits suicide by drowning. The reasons that “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” (that should jog your memory) are not disclosed in the song, and the mystery may be the reason it exerts whatever hold it has had on the imagination. (It’s number 412 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.) It has been speculated that Billie got his girlfriend, Bobbie Lee, pregnant and the object they were seen tossing into the river was a stillborn or aborted fetus; another theory has it that Billie Joe was black passing as white, which made his romance with the sixteen-year-old daughter of conservative Baptist parents doubly forbidden. Raucher, after interviewing Gentry (who herself never offered any public explanation), wrote a screenplay in which Billy Joe, frustrated in his attempts to get Bobbie Lee to go all the way, gets drunk and has gay sex in the woods with the boss of the sawmill where he works. Given that it was produced by a major Hollywood studio in the mid-’70s and starred teen idol Robby Benson, Ode to Billy Joe seems a ripe object for someone’s gender-studies thesis, but I have never read any serious analysis or, for that matter, encountered the movie itself.
Reichardt fully embraces the gay-teen suicide angle. The narrative is told in an extended flashback through the eyes of Bobbie Lee, who falls head over heels for Billy Joe, despite the fact that everyone in town thinks he’s weird. (For starters, he wears one gold earring and looks like a lankier version of the young Todd Haynes, whose support is noted in the end credits.) While it is Billy Joe who dies, it is Bobbie Lee who has our sympathy, for she will have to live with the trauma of a first love that ends in death and the irresolvable question of whether Billy Joe loved her for herself or was merely using her as a beard to prove to himself and the world that he was what he was not.
At fourteen minutes and twelve minutes respectively, Then a Year and Travis marry fragments of texts recorded from radio and/or TV “documentary” programs with images that are abstracted from narrative meaning. In Then a Year, the images are of nature at its most lyric (a waterfall glimpsed through deep summer foliage, a bright red bird perched on an electric wire), and the text, taken from a “true crime” special, suggests that a woman has been murdered—perhaps by her lover, her husband, a one-night stand, an unknown intruder . . . who knows which. What matters is the connection of sex and violence. In Travis, the visuals are entirely abstract—moving color fields created by unconventional camera placement or focus. The audio comes from an NPR program in which an anguished woman describes the experience of learning that her son has been killed in Iraq. Delicate and emotionally harrowing, both films evoke a condition of the psyche in which images and words, separated from narrative cause and effect or concrete references, are repeated in an endless loop to defend against the full realization of loss and horror.
Digital transfers of Ode, Travis, and Then a Year are screened continuously between 12 PM and 5 PM on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays until February 11 at Esopus Space, 64 West Third Street in New York. For more details, click here.
A FILM OF SUBTLE SHIFTS and slowly dawning disclosures, Sweetgrass documents with dispassionate rigor the two-hundred-mile journey undertaken by a group of sheepherders across Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth mountains. Eschewing narration, interviews, or any explicit intrusions of directorial viewpoint, filmmakers Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor fix their toiling subjects in exactingly framed, frequently static compositions set off against the backdrop of the varied, occasionally majestic landscapes of the herding trail.
In any nonfiction film that feints Wisemanian objectivity, the shaping of the material assumes principal importance, and in Sweetgrass the relative straightforwardness of the narrative—thirty minutes of shearing and lambing followed by a linear account of the journey—obscures several important focal shifts. In the early, preparatory scenes, the emphasis is strictly on process: the way an ewe is made to feed a newborn, how a row of hands shave their charges. The men themselves are beside the point; if any faces emerge from the mechanical process, it’s those of the sheep, striking dryly humorous expressions. But as the party sets out on its trek, the film’s attentions gradually transfer to the workers and, as the group begins to dwindle, to the two increasingly harried herders charged with tending the flock the rest of the way.
While any project that pits perfectly framed landscapes against the plight of the working poor has its ethical work cut out for it, Sweetgrass makes a virtue of the potentially thorny setup. By juxtaposing a frustrated worker’s profanity-laced tirades with some of their most heart-stopping visuals, the filmmakers make the audio/visual contrast sufficiently explicit so that, while foregrounding their own (and the viewer’s) privileged position, they’re able to evoke the opposing roles the landscape plays for audience and subject.
After the journey, the film makes a final shift into elegy: Just before a closing title informs us that the Montana trail is now closed, the camera fixes on one of the workers riding shotgun in a pickup truck. As he slowly, haltingly ponders what to do next, his words fade into the steady gravel roar of the country road and then into silence. Who would have thought it would take a formalist project about sheep to burrow so deeply into the secret sorrows of the working class?
Sweetgrass has its theatrical premiere January 6–19 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.