Left: James Benning, Tulare Road, 2010, still from a three-channel-video installation in HD, 18 minutes. Right: Heinz Emigholz, Schenec-Tady I, 1972/73, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 40 minutes.


THE WIDESPREAD COMPLAINTS that the recently concluded Berlin International Film Festival was a dud must have come from attendees who, through professional obligation or simple masochism, had restricted themselves to the predictably lackluster official selection. Those who took the time to stray from the Berlinale’s designated high-profile premieres would have found some first-rate retrospective offerings (Fassbinder’s rare sci-fi TV movie, World on a Wire [1973]; three films from Yasujiro Shimazu, a Shochiku-studio mainstay of the prewar years) and an entire parallel festival unto itself in the ever-evolving form of the experimental showcase Forum Expanded.

An offshoot of the Berlinale’s Forum section, itself founded in opposition to the main event forty years ago, Forum Expanded (now in its fifth year) is devoted to exploring the intersection of cinema and the other arts and sprawls outward from the Forum’s home base of the Arsenal theater and into the city’s museums and galleries. The British artist Phil Collins devised an intriguing alternative space, the “Auto-Kino!”—an indoor “drive-in” cinema with fifteen secondhand cars. This year’s subtheme of “performance” meant an emphasis on “live cinema” events (involving readings, music, PowerPoint). There was also a major retrospective tucked away within Forum Expanded: an exhibition of Heinz Emigholz’s early films, titled “The Formative Years,” at the Hamburger Bahnhof. (All seven films in the show are available on a pair of DVDs just issued through the Arsenal label.)

Emigholz is best known these days for his meticulous, meditative architecture films (Schindler’s Houses [2007], Loos Ornamental [2008]), composed of stationary shots of a particular architect’s buildings. His early-1970s work, even more fastidious in its spatial and geometric precision, has clear affinities with the structuralist-materialist American avant-garde of the period. (He began his career in Hamburg before moving in the mid-’70s to New York, where he lived and worked for more than a decade.)

There’s an elemental logic as well as an OCD perversity to Emigholz’s project here, which is simultaneously to dismantle and reconstitute the illusion of movement, that most basic of cinematic optical tricks. Composed of thousands of single frames taken with a 16-mm camera according to an elaborate notation system indicating points on the tripod and zoom lens, these are landscape films that, in their utter fragmentation of space, discombobulate our experience of cinematic time. The convulsive time-lapse effect is by turns dreamy (the horizontally panned urban and rural landscapes of Arrowplane [1973/1974]), tense (the push-pull harborfront ebbs and flows of Tide [1974]), and apocalyptic (the onrushing woods of Schenec-Tady III [1972/1975]).

Seemingly reinvigorated by his recent shift from film to digital, James Benning cemented his mastery of landscape cinema with a new installation at the Akademie der Künste. The three-channel Tulare Road offers three fixed views, in three different seasons, of a stretch of asphalt in California’s Central Valley, the two-lane highway extending diagonally from the bottom-left corner toward a vanishing point. From one massive screen to another, visibility and weather conditions vary, as do the quality of light, the color of the sky and the ground, the amount of traffic on the road (a few cars and trucks roar into the frame or gradually emerge from its murky depths). Suggestive equally of existential zone-out road movies (Vanishing Point, Two-Lane Blacktop) and Renaissance perspective paintings, it’s a monumental work that commands attention and encourages contemplation.

Benning contributed another new piece to the Forum Expanded’s “performance” section, focused not on landscapes but faces. For Reforming the Past, an aesthetic and emotional reinterpretation of his 1991 film North on Evers, he refilmed a series of portraits from the earlier work, an autobiographical road movie, with an HD camera. Each portrait is reframed and slowed down, giving it the slightly ghostly quality of a Warhol screen test. (Some of these people, it turns out, are now dead.) Benning followed the silent, hourlong film with a live reading of the original text from North on Evers, a first-person account of a cross-country odyssey with a large supporting cast of old and new friends, lovers, and family members. The portraits are first encountered without context (we might recognize a handful of them, Willem Dafoe for one), and only later do we hear the string of events and names that goes with them. The separation of text and image means that this memory piece for the filmmaker becomes one for the viewer-listener as well. Quintessential Benning, in other words: a film to complete in your head.

Dennis Lim

The sixtieth Berlin International Film Festival and fortieth Berlinale Forum ran February 11–21, 2010.

Jacques Audiard, A Prophet, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 155 minutes. Production still. César Luciani (Niels Arestrup) and Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim). Photo: Roger Arpajou/Sony Pictures Classics.


IT’S NOT HARD TO SEE WHY A Prophet has inspired such an outpouring of critical enthusiasm. In this hot-blooded prison drama, director Jacques Audiard builds scenes of queasy intensity and then fits them into a skillfully concocted, near-epic framework. This aesthetic ferocity registers most forcibly during the film’s lengthy opening movement, in which multiethnic Malik El Djebena (Tahar Rahim) begins his six-year prison term by falling under the sway of Corsican crime boss and jail-yard hotshot César Luciani (Niels Arestrup), who forces him to kill a member of the rival Arab faction in exchange for protection. As Audiard keeps his handheld camera close to Malik’s scar-lined face, he conjures a mood of tense inescapability, building inexorably to the nearly botched murder itself. When, in that sequence, the razor blade hidden in Malik’s mouth slips, a single bloody strand of saliva falls from his lips; even after the protracted struggle that results in the mark’s death, it’s this single indelible image that lingers in the mind. While nothing else in the film matches this scene’s potency, there’s occasional competition, such as a late, van-set assassination, during which the director’s skillful sound manipulation is made evident. Instead, most of the film focuses on Malik’s education and rise to power, as he plays the Corsicans and the Muslims against each other.

So why does A Prophet often feel like less than the sum of its parts? First, not all of them are created equal. For every image of a plastic bag over a man’s head turning him into a Munchian grotesque, there’s a string-slathered shot of an airplane wing set against the clouds, crudely invoking Malik’s desire for freedom; for every detail-driven set piece, there’s a poorly played fantasy intrusion in which Malik is haunted by the ghost of his dead prey. But more important, the film lacks sufficient context, which limits it to a simple story about the rise to power of a single individual. While Audiard gives us some sense of the greater activity of the criminal organizations, there’s little investigation of the larger implications of cross-cultural identity—just an increasingly overwhelming cast of ethnically diverse characters and the tease of a few stray pieces of religious symbolism. As a crime drama, A Prophet is an engaging enough piece of work; just don’t expect revelations.

Andrew Schenker

Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet opens February 26 in New York and Los Angeles.

Left: William E. Jones, Massillon, 1991, still from a color film in 16 mm, 70 minutes. Right: William E. Jones, The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography, 1998, still from a color video, 19 minutes. Images courtesy William E. Jones.


THE DYNAMIC OF WILLIAM E. JONES’S work lies in the tensions produced between, on the one hand, deep-running vortices of emotion and longing and, on the other, the angular severities of social control, unearthed and drawn out from the otherwise obscured historical matter of gay men’s subjective lives and shared fantasies. Among the source materials for his five long-form pieces, numerous short films, and printed publications are 1970s pornography, legal data, pop music, and personal memories: Extraordinary and unexpected facets emerge from the obsessive jewel-cutting that Jones performs on this raw ore.

Massillon (1991), Jones’s first feature-length film, revisits his hometown of Massillon, Ohio, represented in two dialectical registers: rigidly lensed shots of municipal buildings, tree-lined highways, and other local landscapes, and Jones’s voice-over, coolly measured and calculated, relating both autobiographical anecdotes and a history of antisodomy laws. Recalling a time when the distant glimmers of gay liberation made little impact on a boy coming of age in a declining Rust Belt city, Jones’s words evoke a process of sexual awakening that transpires within a thick cloud of unknowing, defined as a persistent search for information and enlightenment through subterranean clues, vague rumors, and covert networks. These range from lingering suspicions about two seemingly straight friends who openly joked about blowing each other to recountings of a furtive truck-stop fuck, for which the blunt odor of shit emerging from the hole-in-the-ground toilets bears a comparable weight to Proust’s madeleine—wafting through Jones’s memory not so much for any perverse pleasure but rather as a marker of our socially determined degradation.

These epistemological challenges become centered around a more specific object of desire in Finished (1997): Quebecois gay porn star Alan Lambert, who committed suicide in a public square in Montreal in 1992 at age twenty-five, a few years after Jones first encountered his photo in a phone-sex ad and became inexorably drawn to his image. In hunting down and piecing together a biography for Lambert, Jones reconstructs him less as a person than as an incommensurate collection of evidence: magazine photo shoots, the frozen title sequences of his video releases (arranged alphabetically: Bare Bottoms, Beach Dreamer, Boot Camp, Boot Camp II . . .), footage shot at sites in Canada and Los Angeles where Lambert lived and worked, information gleaned from interviews with former coworkers (identified only by initial letters, like the subjects of old diary entries or Freud’s clinical essays), and Lambert’s rambling, semicoherent suicide note, written in the form of a self-aggrandizing socialist manifesto. Finished becomes ultimately about the impossibility of moving beyond these surface ephemera, but occasional flashes occur: Jones notes that the Lambert video A Matter of Size was released in France under the title La Folie de grandeur—a pun that can be translated back as “delusions of grandeur.”

Though Finished notably abstains from using footage of Lambert in action, Jones recuts porn films and videos to compelling effect in a number of other works. In V.O. (2006), he selects non-sex scenes from precondom titles as a means of reviving their documentary value, rereading the source materials as collusions between indexical records and utopian aspirations; similar operations reveal, more darkly, the politico-economic underpinnings of Eastern European productions of the ’90s in The Fall of Communism as Seen in Gay Pornography (1998). However, Jones goes hardcore in Tearoom (2008), an hour-long found object of bizarre but significant provenance: silent, color 16-mm police surveillance footage shot from behind a two-way mirror in a men’s room in Mansfield, Ohio, in the early ’60s, explicitly capturing a heated trade in sexual favors between everyday men from a range of classes and races. Captivating for both its historical rarity and its proto-Warholian cinematography, Tearoom is a Jones film degree zero, paradoxically exploring repression as both a brutal historical injustice and an incomparable formal device.

Ed Halter

“The Films of William E. Jones” runs February 26–March 4 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here. On Monday, May 24, William E. Jones will host Modern Monday at the Museum of Modern Art.

Juliette Garcias, Be Good, 2009, still from a color film, 90 minutes. Ève (Anaïs Demoustier) and Jean (Bruno Todeschini).


A HIGHLIGHT of the year’s “Film Comment Selects” series, Juliette Garcias’s first directorial feature, Be Good, is a tense thriller that gradually dispels suspicions of its affinities with the lovesick-teenager and demonic-babysitter genres to reveal its more unsettling subject as a study of the psychological effects of early sexual violation. Recalling vintage Chabrol in setting and tone, Garcias’s serenely composed images are both backdrop and foil to the quietly unnerving interactions between a disturbed young woman and the inhabitants of a provincial French village. It’s a sign of the film’s restrained approach to its subject that its most sensuous image is that of a delicate but insistent female hand plunging into a pail of live snails, probing and caressing the dark wet matter with erotic pleasure as the creatures slither into and out of their shells. The hand belongs to Nathalie, whose preference to be called Ève is the first sign of her displaced persona. As played by Anaïs Demoustier, her angelic prettiness, teary eyes, and desperately winning smile conceal a barely suppressed pathology. Everything about “Ève” and what she does denotes “stalker,” if not quite in the same league as the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction (1987), scary enough to make us cringe when an infant is placed in her care. We wonder why so young and pretty a creature has taken a job delivering bread to the locals until we see her spying on a married couple and learn that she had a relationship with the husband, Jean (Bruno Todeschini). Is Ève seeking revenge for having been seduced and abandoned by an older man? The more quietly she behaves, the creepier the prospects. We soon realize that Ève is after bigger game, and the closer she gets to her goal the more frightening—and the more pitiable—she becomes.

In one flashback, we see a low-angle shot of two pairs of hands playing piano, an older man’s and those of a very young girl. When the duet ends, the figures move offscreen. While the camera remains on the piano, we hear the man’s voice engaged in a very different lesson as he teaches his pupil how to gratify him sexually. Not until Ève confronts Jean directly, however, do we learn not only that he abused her as a child but that he is her father. Helpless against her fathomless intentions, Jean plays dumb even when Ève volunteers to babysit for him and his wife, Hélène (Nade Dieu), and decides to stay overnight. In the startling scene that ensues, Ève reenacts her childhood seduction, this time assuming the role of seducer. That it occurs in the parental bedroom in the presence of another oblivious mother suggests less the closing of a narrative circle than the irreparable corruption of Ève’s character. Afterward, before she leaves, she passes Hélène clinging to her baby as if to protect it and herself from the presence of evil. But if the long, silent stare between them implies that Ève is the destroyer of this false domestic paradise, the motherly protection Hélène embodies before she closes the door in Ève’s face is the very image of the paradise from which Ève herself was torn as a child. It is to Garcias’s credit that she allows these troubling, even contradictory connotations to resonate over the film’s final moments, including the final inscrutable image of Ève standing in the midst of a river facing the viewer.

Demoustier is a persuasive vessel of deranged innocence, recalling the young Isabelle Huppert in demeanor, looks (freckles and all), and the smile that hides a multitude of enigmatic feelings. It is because of these qualities that her scenes with the couple’s baby carry not only diabolical potential but hints of herself as a child before betrayal and corruption. Nothing is more heartrending and horrific than when she quietly asks her father whether little Ana, his new child, will also grow up to be destroyed as she was. In her directorial debut, Garcias demonstrates control and subtlety, sustaining a sense of muted horror that disturbs even as it sustains the surface of everyday reality. She even manages to evoke the biblical paradigm: Ève might well conjure the first woman driven from Paradise, while the serpent responsible for her fall survives to continue his devilry within the safe haven of the family nest.

Tony Pipolo

Juliette Garcias’s Be Good plays February 21, 23, and 28 as part of the “Film Comment Selects” series at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. For more details, click here.

Rebel Rebel

02.17.10

Edward Yang, A Brighter Summer Day, 1991, still from a color film, 237 minutes.


“FILM COMMENT SELECTS,” now in its tenth year, seems conscious of its status as the New York Film Festival’s rebellious younger brother. This year, it opens with Jonathan Kaplan’s teens-gone-wild classic Over the Edge (1979) and includes a revival of another landmark film about adolescence, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (1991).

Philippe Grandrieux’s Un Lac (2008) raises the use of shakycam to a high art (as if the technique needed the flattery): Rarely has handheld camerawork been so expressive. Shot in French with a cast of Russian actors, Un Lac depicts a close-knit family living in the middle of a snowy forest. One day, a mysterious stranger arrives and joins the household. Grandrieux’s first two films, Sombre (1998) and La Vie nouvelle (2002), weren’t exactly devoid of tenderness, but sexual violence was a constant threat. Here, love abides without such menace, although that doesn’t mean everyone lives happily ever after.

The slight narrative often seems like a pretext for exploring film’s capacity for depicting extremes of light and darkness. Un Lac alternates between blown-out whites and images so crepuscular they’re barely legible. It would probably be unwatchable on DVD. Grandrieux’s shots pulse with vitality. It’s a shame that the director has made only three films, all featured in this edition of “Film Comment Selects,” in twelve years.

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Trailer for Soi Cheang’s Accident (2009).

The series’s Asian selections are a mixed bag. In Like You Know It All (2009), director Hong Sang-soo’s reliance on bifurcated plots about the misadventures of male artists at last seems to arrive at formulaic complacency. On the other hand, Soi Cheang’s Accident (2009) is a modern noir gem. Following a group of assassins who stage murders that look like accidents, it could pass for a work by Johnnie To (who produced it). Decorated with plumes of cigarette smoke and a constant downpour, it pushes Hawksian professionalism into a maelstrom of paranoia and mistrust. While it includes several thrilling set pieces, the narrative’s connective tissue is equally compelling.

The sole Middle Eastern entry in this series, Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains (2009), brings the Palestinian-Israeli director’s characteristic wit to the everyday slights suffered by Arabs under Israeli domination. After a present-day introduction, in which a cabdriver talks to a mute Suleiman while roaming the streets of Nazareth—the director’s hometown—the film returns to the 1948 founding of Israel. Although The Time That Remains employs some Suleiman trademarks—repetition, static shots in which an unmoving camera directly faces its subjects—it aims for an epic quality foreign to his earlier work. But the mixture of humor and anger never really gels and instead leads to a sense of weary resignation. Suleiman suggests that Israeli occupation has reduced Palestinians to silent observers of their own lives. Unfortunately, he doesn’t quite do justice to his own family’s story.

Steven Erickson

“Film Comment Selects” runs February 19–March 4 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. For more details, click here.

Jessica Hausner, Lourdes, 2009, still from a color digital video, 99 minutes. Christine (Sylvie Testud).


AS BEFITS A FILM both set in and titled after a city where five million hopeful pilgrims journey every year, Jessica Hausner’s Lourdes revolves around an act that seemingly partakes of the miraculous. When Christine (Sylvie Testud)—a young woman with multiple sclerosis whose searching gaze contrasts pointedly with her completely immobilized body—tours the eponymous town as part of a group of pilgrims, the heady atmosphere appears to do its work. Halfway through the film, she arises from her bed, apparently cured. But unlike other contemporary “miracle films” like Carlos Reygadas’s Silent Light (2007), the alleged marvel is attended by a certain ambiguity—as a doctor explains, the result could be only temporary, a part of her disease’s normal fluctuations—and by placing it in the middle of the film, Hausner makes it a starting point for inquiry rather than the closed-off, Ordet-derived payoff of the Reygadas.

Still, Lourdes conjures a world in which the miraculous seems nearly ordinary. Fixing her characters in static, almost-too-exact compositions, Hausner gives her mise-en-scène a hushed, peaceful quality, often deliberately shutting out background activity—the gossiping of fellow pilgrims, the flirting of volunteers—by muting sound and focusing the camera’s gaze intensely on the shot’s subject. When such an approach is enlivened by a repeated eye-of-God establishing shot, a way of filming even drab halogen lights with a heavenly glow, and the musical accompaniment of Ave Maria and Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (the latter not coincidentally the theme from Tarkovsky’s Solaris), the result is a world thrown open to otherworldly possibility.

After the miracle, the focus shifts. As Christine imagines a potential future for herself, Hausner turns her attention to the needs and dissatisfactions of the film’s other characters: a priest who views Christine principally as an instructive example, the superfluous woman who used to push her wheelchair with proprietary satisfaction, and two skeptics who wonder why a seemingly secular woman is healed while other more pious pilgrims remain unaffected. In a final tour-de-force sequence, as Christine enjoys a tenuous postmiracle dance, the camera visits the other characters in turn, foregrounding their longings and frustrations as they brush up against the viewer’s gaze. The mysteries of life (which some call God) may remain unknowable, but in Hausner’s remarkable film, the needs and doubts of mankind are made all too clear.

Lourdes has its US theatrical premiere at Film Forum in New York, February 17–March 2. For more details, click here.

Andrew Schenker

Frederick Wiseman, Meat, 1976, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 112 minutes.


IT’S ACTUALLY A FULL HALF HOUR into Meat (1976) before the camera even reaches the hacking-and-packing floor of the Monfort meatpacking plant in Colorado. But that’s only one surprise in what is sometimes mistaken for the most brutally simple of Frederick Wiseman’s institutional documentaries. In fact, the run-up to the assembly-line centerpieces demonstrates the filmmaker’s overlooked creativity and versatility with his material. Just witness the western-echoing shots of ranchers silhouetted against the flaring sun, the almost pointillist extreme long shot of cattle heads in a sprawling pen, or the bizarre, estranging interlude of a Japanese tour group questioning a company guide. And before any aproned butchers, we see the plant’s salesroom, full of guys on telephones cajoling and mollifying clients. (“Maybe you got a cold,” one deadpans to a complaint about flavor.)

Part of MoMA’s yearlong Wiseman retrospective, Meat is programmed alongside his heartrending look at a battered-women’s shelter, Domestic Violence (2001), giving an astonishing summary of the director’s range. But when the cutting starts, Meat becomes the most linear of treatments—though it is no less rich for it. Once cows are bolt-gunned and hung on hooks, the process of flaying, slicing, and butchering unfolds in long, mesmerizing stretches. Thanks to the distanced stance, the transformation from cow to meat turns quickly from disturbing demo into a pure play of forms. The screen is populated with and emptied of bovine bodies; electric knives and clippers subtract skin, hooves, innards. The torsos, so uniform in black and white, glide by looking oddly like Venus de Milos, at one point even getting draped with classically contour-hugging coverings. In the flattening wash of the ambient industrial noise, it’s like some hybrid vision of the afterlife: heavenly floating bodies, hellishly disassembled, moving inexorably forward.

Though this all might suggest Nikolaus Geyrhalter (or Damien Hirst), Wiseman doesn’t press for an aesthetic; as for artistic dialogue, he’s very often his own interlocutor. Meat rhymes with his other animal films (Primate [1974], Racetrack [1985], Zoo [1993]), his assembly-line narratives (Basic Training [1971], Welfare [1975]) and scenes (the fish factory of Belfast, Maine [1999]), and even the desert long-shot photography in Sinai Field Mission (1978) and corporate-meeting eavesdropping in The Store (1983). And in perhaps the film’s greatest formal coup, Meat talks to Meat: After beef, the entire process is replayed—with sheep. Are we to be horrified, numbed, curiously comparative? For one thing, we meet one of Wiseman’s most notorious “characters”: the Judas goat, which leads sheep in orderly fashion into the plant (and which the filmmaker has described in interviews as looking rather pleased with himself . . .).

Wiseman allows for the expected dehumanization critique of factory labor, through iterative compositions of workers, the relentless movement of the line, and other echoes. But a union negotiation in a manager’s office is characteristically complex in its back and forth between craft and capital, and lecturing is banished by reserve and humor, as with a pitch meeting for a ludicrous “egg tube” reconstituted from at least a dozen yolks. For the final shot, one more western riff—instead of a rancher riding off into the final shot’s morning sun, it’s a big rig full of prime cuts.

Nicolas Rapold

Meat screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Wednesday, February 17, and Sunday, February 21, as part of a complete Frederick Wiseman retrospective running through December 31. For more details, click here.

Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, October Country, 2009, still from a color film, 80 minutes.


FREED FROM THE CONSTRAINTS of chronology—and emboldened by an enviable degree of access—October Country positions a real family squarely under the microscope and then ratchets up the magnification. Codirector Donal Mosher is the family member who long ago fled his rural suburban hometown in upstate New York, returning often to the ghosts of his past through his photography projects and nonfiction writing. Joining forces with filmmaker Michael Palmieri—best known for visuals in music videos for groups like the New Pornographers and the Strokes—Mosher heads home to reexamine his origins, on video. Recording the Mosher family over the span of a year, beginning and ending on Halloween night, October Country uses ghosts, curses, and hauntings as metaphors for a family trapped in a state of limbo, weighed down by the mistakes of the past.

Focusing less on the quotidian than on the emotional epiphanies of a year spent treading water, the directors capture the persistent anxiety of Mosher’s father, a cynical war veteran coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. In Mosher’s mother, we see a woman led astray by her misguided optimism, caught in a naive cycle of hope and disappointment. There is the estranged Wiccan aunt who spends her nights wandering cemeteries, looking for fulfillment in touching the supernatural, and a sister who jumps between abusive relationships, depressingly aware she is repeating her mistakes and putting her young children in danger.

Mosher has the access and the insight, but it is Palmieri’s visual flair that elevates October Country to an impressionistic, hypnotic spectacle. When Mosher’s sister says, “I’m still a kid, too; you can’t play Mommy if you’re not grown up yet,” it floats on the evening breeze; the filmmakers construct elaborate montages to suggest that the issues plaguing this family are poisoning the wider community. Talking-head interviews are sharply, didactically, juxtaposed with images of the family out and about: Mosher’s sister, who gripes about bad men, is subsequently shown on the job at a biker bar where she must flirt with the clientele. Mosher’s mom, who fears for her abused daughter, giggles at the sight of chipper teenage boys trick-or-treating as battered women. The directors see in this family a unit that’s been broken by its economic and social conditions, and Palmieri has helped his colleague make universal the specific miseries of one broken home.

October Country plays February 12–18 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.

S. James Snyder

Oral History

02.03.10

Left: Andy Warhol, Blow Job, 1964, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 35 minutes. Right: Andy Warhol, Kiss, 1963, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 58 minutes.


“[WARHOL] PUT DESIRE forward more explicitly at the beginning of his film and fine-art career than he would virtually ever again have the guts to do,” Wayne Koestenbaum writes in the slim but invaluable biography Andy Warhol, with a particular interest in two early odes to oral pleasures: the classic Kiss (1963), which grants viewers the opportunity to observe the smooching prowess of several different couples, and Blow Job (1964), featuring a thirty-five-minute close-up of a man’s face as he is fellated below the frame.

Kiss, shot as a series of short films from September through December 1963, was, as Steven Watson notes in Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, the first of Warhol’s movies to be publicly shown; each three-minute segment played at the beginning of screenings organized by Jonas Mekas at the Gramercy Arts Theater. Girls kiss boys and boys kiss boys (sapphic bussing is absent), some osculators displaying aggressive tongues, while others simply lock lips. Among the more ardent kissers are Naomi Levine and Jane Holzer, two of Warhol’s earliest Superstars, though the technique of each participant, no matter how bashful, never fails to captivate as erotic ethnography.

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Andy Warhol, Blow Job, 1964. Excerpt.

We cannot evaluate the techniques deployed in Blow Job, only their effect on the handsome recipient, named by several sources as DeVeren Bookwalter, a Shakespearean—and occasional porn—actor. (In his memoir of the sixties, POPism, Warhol remembers, “We wound up using a good-looking kid who happened to be hanging around the Factory that day, and years later I spotted him in a Clint Eastwood movie.”) Consisting of nine three-minute rolls with white leader in between, Blow Job, like Kiss, runs at silent-film speed, or sixteen frames per second. Time is extended: Our hero fidgets, his pleasure seemingly deferred (Watson identifies the fellator as Willard Maas, the experimental filmmaker and poet; in POPism, Warhol says five different boys performed the act). And then, climax: Bookwalter’s face contorts into grimaces of agony and ecstasy, and it is at this moment that the movie becomes, in Koestenbaum’s words, “a film of almost unbearable intimacy.” Moments later, he appears to zip up and rebuckle before lighting a cigarette. He is the precursor of many butch Warhol studs to follow: Paul America, Joe Spencer, Joe Dallesandro. But none would ever display such naked vulnerability.

Melissa Anderson

Kiss and Blow Job, accompanied by live sound tracks from Carl Craig and nsi., screen at the Walter Reade Theater in New York on February 5. For more details, click here. Blow Job is also on view in “Denim,” a show curated by David Rimanelli at 80 WSE Galleries in New York. For more details on the exhibition, click here.

Jim Finn, The Juche Idea, 2008, still from a color film, 62 minutes.


THE FILMMAKER JIM FINN is best known for the subtle wit of his quasi-documentaries, which appropriate traditional documentary filmmaking techniques to explore socialist/communist ideologies and to parody totalitarian regimes. On Monday, February 1, Finn’s most recent feature, The Juche Idea (2008), will screen as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Modern Mondays series spotlighting contemporary film artists. The Juche Idea, written by Kim Jong-il, is North Korea’s official doctrine on philosophy, theology, and art; it expounds on self-reliance, a trait to which any North Korean filmmaker must aspire if they want to be considered a good artist and an effective arm of the state. (For Kim, these two qualities are indissociable.) The Juche Idea turns its namesake dogma on its absolutist head, mixing scenes that revolve loosely around a South Korean woman’s artist residency outside Pyongyang and that collectively explore Finn’s signature territory of wooden documentary fantasy.

Finn will also present two recent shorts, Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell (2009) and la loteria (2004–05). The former uses images of children skating on a frozen (and thawing) river to allegorize the collapse of constitutional liberties traceable to the eponymous ex-VP. For la loteria, Finn, a militant romantic, created a medley of seventeen mini–music videos mixing home movies (often featuring the filmmaker) with television footage of subversive political figures (Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Donald Rumsfeld, etc.) and imperialist spectacles (Major League Baseball, episodes of The OC), which he then matches with songs that alternate between sweet, near-mythical desire and unruly, pan-American folksiness.

As Finn says of Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell, “Impunity is not just the stuff of autocratic dictatorships in the third world.” Likewise, the filmmaker’s “utopian comedies,” as they have been called, reveal as much about the savage follies of democratic societies as they do the despotic governments they claim as subjects. Even if it is more obvious to a public enlightened by the Bush years that democracies and dictatorships share at least one foundational attribute—a vulnerability to systemic abuse of power—Finn’s work (made during that enervating era) plumbs ideology for absurdity, elevating concerned cynicism to a form of philosophical activism.

“Utopian Comedies: The Films of Jim Finn” runs May 27–June 2, 2010 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Kevin McGarry