THE NEW DOCUMENTARY The Sun Behind the Clouds (2009) crystallizes a question that increasingly besets the half-century-old Tibetan struggle for independence: Is a more militant brand of activism possible when the leader of your movement is also a universal symbol of peace? Officially adopted in the late 1980s, the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” calling not for total independence but instead for cultural and political autonomy, has made no headway with Beijing, and seems more than ever like a dead end to many younger Tibetans.
In The Sun Behind the Clouds—a companion piece to their 2005 fiction feature Dreaming Lhasa, about a Tibetan-American documentarian working among Tibetan exiles in northern India—filmmaking couple Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin focus on the tumultuous events of 2008, a charged year for Tibet-China relations, with protests breaking out in Lhasa and a global spotlight trained on China, which had pledged to improve its human rights record in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics. Using that spring’s large-scale march through India to Tibet as its backbone, the film recounts the uprising and crackdown within Tibet (with some surreptitiously shot footage) as well as the demonstrations from Free Tibet activists and counterdemonstrations from Chinese nationalists as the Olympic torch made its way around the world. The degree of access to the Dalai Lama, interviewed at length, might suggest an unquestioning hagiograpy, but the filmmakers are acutely aware—as is the Dalai Lama himself, it would seem—of his defining dilemma: the perhaps irreconcilable difficulty of being both a spiritual and a political leader.
At the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January, The Sun Behind the Clouds suddenly became a diplomatic flash point when the Chinese authorities withdrew the most critically acclaimed Chinese film of 2009, Lu Chuan’s City of Life and Death, in response to the festival’s inclusion of Sonam and Sarin’s documentary. In a sly, nose-thumbing bit of metaprogramming, The Sun Behind the Clouds is playing as a late replacement at Film Forum for City of Life and Death, a chronicle of the atrocities carried out by Japanese troops at Nanjing in 1937, which was dropped from the program last month reportedly because of an unresolved deal between the producers and the American distributors.
City of Life and Death is the most high-profile of the films that have emerged around the seventieth anniversary of the massacre at Nanjing: The American documentary Nanking opened in 2007; the German-produced John Rabe, about the German businessman (a figure in City of Life and Death) who created a safety zone for civilians, is due in American theaters this spring. With his sober, harrowing, black-and-white war epic, Lu has given the Rape of Nanking, which the author Iris Chang termed “the forgotten Holocaust of World War II,” its own Schindler’s List (spiked with, in the clipped opening battle scenes, bits of Saving Private Ryan). Lu is a little less sentimental than Spielberg, and just about as accomplished a technician; while his movie induces some familiar unease around the representation of atrocity—the simplification of genocide and the fog of war to melodramatic plot points and stark moral conundrums—there is also a relative discretion and a haunting clarity to the filmmaking, especially in the largely wordless first act.
Lu, whose previous film was the Tibetan neo-Western Kekexili: Mountain Patrol, has stated that his goal is objectivity, which he sets out to accomplish mainly by making City of Life and Death an ensemble piece. The characters include a variety of heroic and not-so-heroic locals—a resistance fighter (Liu Ye), a teacher-turned-protector (Gao Yuanyuan), a traitor who redeems himself (Fan Wei)—as well as a Japanese soldier (Hideo Nakaizumi), who is both perpetrator and, gradually, horrified witness. This is a clear break from previous Chinese films about Nanjing, which have insisted on the monolithic evil of the Japanese, but it can also be taken as a reflection of the shifting relationship between China and its increasingly important trade partner Japan. (City of Life and Death went through a painstaking, and by all accounts minimally invasive, approval and censorship process.) While there’s room for argument over whether the film’s attempts at balance are bold and responsible or cynical and schematic, some Chinese apparently find Lu’s approach nothing short of treasonous: He has received death threats from those enraged by what they consider an unduly sympathetic portrayal of the Japanese aggressors.
Political maneuvering has created an unfair association between City of Life and Death (which for now still has no US distributor) and The Sun Behind the Clouds, but there are some links worth pondering here: one film in which China is portrayed as a victimizer and another in which it is portrayed as a victim, both in their own way fuel for the ever-burning fire of Chinese nationalism.
The Sun Behind the Clouds plays March 31–April 13 at Film Forum in New York. The filmmakers will be present at several of the screenings. For more details, click here.
Anne Bass, Dancing Across Borders, 2009, color film, 88 minutes. Production stills. Left: Sokvannara “Sy” Sar at the International Ballet Competition in Varna. Right: Sokvannara “Sy” Sar performing at the International Ballet Competition in Varna. Photo: Stoyan Lefedzhiev
IN 2000, American dance patron and philanthropist Anne Bass spotted a Cambodian teenager perform in a classical Khmer dance recital in Angkor. Impressed by his grace and charisma, Bass spirited the kid—Sokvannara “Sy” Sar, then sixteen years old—to Manhattan to study at the School of American Ballet. Thus begins Dancing Across Borders (2009), Bass’s documentary about Sar’s arduous progress and uneasy assimilation into the role nominated for him: a ballet prodigy, modeled after Rudolf Nureyev’s unconventional rise. (Nureyev, too, began his ballet training in his late teens.)
Undeterred by frustrations during Sar's first SAB audition (he is judged too old, too untutored, and too monolingual), Bass engages Olga Kostritzky, the founder of the school’s boys’ division, for Sar’s private instruction. Three months later, he enrolls in the school and, after another six years, is promoted to the corps of the Pacific Northwest Ballet. In the interim, he struggles with his technique, with alienation and estrangement, and with an ambivalence toward his place in ballet—an ambivalence that is certainly his alone. He also turns out splendid performances, many of which feature in Dancing Across Borders—alongside interviews with such ballet notables as Jock Soto and Peter Boal, and sessions documenting his dazzling apprenticeship under Kostritzky, initially intended as video reports to Sar’s parents. These videos record the maturation of an astonishing gift as well as the theft of a youth’s sense of belonging. Midfilm, we follow Sar back to Cambodia, where he performs solos from Le Corsaire and “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” before a bewildered audience that includes his parents, to whom his talent is both unmistakable and incomprehensible. At such moments, Sar seems to embody the absolute subjection required by genius—even when the genius is actuated by someone else’s conviction. Yet if Dancing Across Borders is Bass’s dream, it remains Sar’s extraordinary movement, grace, and leap of faith.
Abbas Kiarostami, Close-Up, 1990, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.
“A TRUE ARTIST is someone who is close to the people,” says Hossein Sabzian, whose trial for impersonating the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the subject of Abbas Kiarostami’s documentary-cum–neorealist drama Close-Up (1990). This common enough sentiment resonates in Close-Up as a bold thesis for a cinema that is not merely populist but thoroughly and originally democratic.
Newly divorced and, like a quarter of Iranians in 1990, chronically unemployed, Sabzian lives only for cinema. He adopts the identity of his hero, Makhmalbaf, out of a need for self-worth. His victims—the middle-class Ahankhah family, whose overeducated and underemployed sons Sabzian promises will star in his next vérité film—likewise take comfort in imagining their banal sufferings as the stuff of Art. Close-Up realizes their shared dreams, albeit differently than they had envisioned: After Sabzian was released from prison, Kiarostami had the two parties reenact their ill-fated charade for his camera. These beautifully-shot reenactments are so seamlessly mixed with documentary footage that, on first viewing, it can be impossible to tell what is staged and what is not, especially once it becomes apparent that the “documentary” sections themselves are not without elements of creative distortion.
The confusion of aesthetic forms doubles the confusion of social hierarchies, of law and morality, truth and deceit, and art and life. Yet the audience never feels stranded in a mire of postmodern uncertainty. Lighthearted and entertaining throughout, Close-Up is cinema as reconciliation—human reconciliation as well as the reconciliation of incongruous realities. The making of the film is an act of forgiveness: The reenactments bring together culprit and victims to negotiate their differences outside the epistemology of the courtroom. Class antagonists come together as artistic collaborators in an assertion of their equality as creative beings—homo aestheticus—that in turn provides the impetus for interrogating and critiquing social inequalities. When Makhmalbaf makes his inevitable appearance at the film’s conclusion, his figure threatening to impose order on the film’s messy social and aesthetic egalitarianism, a (supposed) equipment malfunction mutes the conversation between the great director and his doppleganger, leaving the audience to imagine what is said. With this sublime, culminating gesture, Close-Up hands it off to the audience to continue the elusive hunt for truth.
Close-Up plays March 26–April 1 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Laura Poitras, The Oath, 2010, still from a color film, 90 minutes.
THERE’S NO OPPORTUNITY for the viewer to position himself comfortably in The Oath. Like many of the best documentaries, Laura Poitras’s film places the audience in an ambiguous and untenable relationship with the movie’s subjects, particularly its central figure, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and current Sanaa-based cab driver Abu Jandal. Drawing on a diverse array of footage, Poitras presents the sly and charismatic Jandal through direct interviews, television appearances with both the American and Arab press, footage the filmmaker shot of Jandal interacting with his son or meeting with young followers, material gleaned from a semihidden camera in his cab, and the words of his testimony before the FBI following 9/11.
Jandal emerges as both a captivating figure and a difficult one to come to grips with. A likable man, struggling to earn a living to take care of his young son while wracked with self-doubt, he’s given up his terrorist past, but his level of commitment to the jihadist cause remains uncertain. With minimal direct authorial interference and a seemingly passive role in interviewing her subject, Poitras lets Jandal shape his own image, and the fascination lies in the moments when that ever-cautious man lets on more than he perhaps intends. In a discussion with a young associate, he argues that 9/11 (which he had no involvement with and officially condemns) was a success, while on Arabic TV, he’s placed in a tight spot when asked whether his loyalty oath to bin Laden still holds.
A counterpoint to Jandal’s segments is the slightly less ambiguous narrative of his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, a Guantánamo detainee: Upon winning a Supreme Court case granting his freedom, Hamdan was immediately arrested under a freshly created law. Seen only in grainy footage of his 2001 arrest, Hamdan’s story is told through his letters, his defense council’s passionate news-conference exhortations, and Jandal’s words. While it’s easy for the viewer to side with Hamdan, his level of involvement in Al Qaeda remains unclear, with his brother-in-law suggesting that he may have been more than the simple paid employee his lawyer claims he was. It’s this constant uncertainty as to the nature of truth—compounded by Poitras’s dense web of material and her strategic withholding of information—that gives the film its dizzying charge and serves as a welcome antidote to the damaging simplicity of the official us-versus-them narrative.
Part of the annual New Directors/New Films festival, The Oath plays Friday, March 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Sunday, March 28 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details on the festival, which runs Wednesday, March 24–Sunday, April 4, click here.
ROGER GREENBERG (Ben Stiller), like the hyperarticulate, acid-tongued narcissists who precede him in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s oeuvre—Bernard Berkman in The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot in Margot at the Wedding (2007)—repels and attracts. Recovering from a crackup, the forty-one-year-old sometime carpenter, vowing to “do nothing” for a while, arrives in Los Angeles from New York to house-sit for his wealthy brother, Phillip, on vacation with his family in Vietnam. Frequently bedecked in a Steve Winwood T-shirt, the resolutely Gen-X Greenberg reminisces with his pal Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a former bandmate now struggling to keep his family together; writes angry letters to Starbucks, Hollywood Pet Taxi, and Mayor Bloomberg; and commences a dizzyingly passive-aggressive courtship with Florence (Greta Gerwig), Phillip’s twentysomething personal assistant.
“Hurt people hurt people,” according to one of the pop-psych bromides uttered more than once in Greenberg—its banality later revealed to have resonance even for Stiller’s bilious, cranky know-it-all. Baumbach’s fifth feature, unlike Margot at the Wedding, does more than just marvel at the noxious cruelty of its protagonist; Greenberg, though self-absorbed and self-pitying, shows the faintest signs of kindness and compassion when he’s with Florence. Her task isn’t to redeem him but to make him realize when he’s behaving outrageously.
Stiller may have the title role—and gives one of the best performances of his career—but Gerwig, awkwardly radiant, serves as the movie’s emotional ballast. Best known for her roles in mumblecore films like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008), Gerwig opens Greenberg driving down Sunset Boulevard as the Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” plays on the sound track—a moment of casual ebullience similar to the scene of Gary Lockwood tooling around LA in his MG in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), which, like Greenberg, is its director’s first film set in Los Angeles. While Greenberg offers the satisfaction of seeing Stiller’s stardom being tweaked, it provides the greater pleasure of witnessing Gerwig’s stardom on the rise.
Greenberg opens March 19 in New York and Los Angeles.
WHEN INGMAR BERGMAN said of Andrei Tarkovsky that he had invented a cinematic idiom “true to the nature of film,” what did he mean? Of course, the “true” nature of cinematic language itself remains—quite rightly—the subject of sharp, perennial debate in film theory. At the very least, Tarkovsky’s body of work can be said—in just seven examples—to have informed those polemics with compelling purpose. The Anthology Film Archives’ “Tarkovsky X 3” program presents three films at the core of the director’s (already compact) oeuvre—a primer of sorts to his best-known feature-length films.
In both its religious subject matter and its thinly veiled paean to artistic freedom, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, tested the boundaries of Brezhnev-era aesthetic imperatives. Notorious problems plagued the film’s production; it went through several edits and various iterations before finally being screened in the Soviet Union in 1971 (a different version won a prize at Cannes two years earlier, as, in turn, would Solaris ). Yet despite Tarkovsky’s embattled dodging of Soviet censors, he is perhaps not the consummate countercultural dissident that Western critics or historians might make of him (especially given the increasing shortage of “subversive” Soviet cinema since the fall of the iron curtain). As the art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson recently noted in his volume on Moscow Conceptualism, Tarkovsky enjoyed decided approval among the Soviet intelligentsia. Imbued with a mystical and somewhat wistful melancholy, Tarkovsky’s immersive long takes often match in style his films’ absorptive thematics. That absorption is not, to be sure, solely the domain of medieval archaisms, as in Andrei Rublev; one of the most notable scenes in Solaris—the more cerebral Soviet answer to American science fiction—is a highway drive, by turns hypnotic and anxious (with a nervous sound track to boot). The Mirror (1975) renounces a strict narrative for more paratactic, personal evocations, loosely stitched in a kind of cinematic stream of consciousness.
Tarkovsky’s subsequent collaboration with Tonino Guerra, as well as his marked influence on directors such as Sergei Paradjanov, naturally remain outside the parameters of this tight program. But the range of his subjects and narrative approach in even these three works betray the unflinching cinematographic sensibility—with equal attention to the autonomy of images and the rhythmic momentum of narrative—for which Tarkovsky remains a legend.
“Tarkovsky X 3” runs March 19–21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.
MID-AUGUST LUNCH (2008) is an easy film to underrate. Its considerable charm lies on its surface; less immediately apparent, but underpinning the whole of the film, is the terror of grappling with the loneliness of aging. Italian actor/writer/director Gianni Di Gregorio demonstrates his multivalent talent, but not in a way that calls attention to itself. The actors, mostly nonprofessionals, are remarkably natural. At times, one can imagine Mid-August Lunch as a documentary.
A fifty-something bachelor, Gianni (Di Gregorio) lives with his ninety-three-year-old mother. The manager of Gianni’s condo solicits him to let his aunt and mother stay with Gianni and his mother; subsequently, Gianni’s doctor requests the same favor for his mother. Gianni winds up cooking and looking after four elderly women for several days. On paper, this sounds like sitcom material, but as filmed by Di Gregorio it flows like a well-crafted ’60s pop song. Mid-August Lunch treads a fine line between naturalism and cloying cuteness, thankfully keeping largely to the former. It’s hard to picture a contemporary American movie being so unself-conscious about its protagonist’s smoking and heavy drinking. Gian Enrico Bianchi’s cinematography has a golden glow, and indeed, the film captures the look and mood of summer in the south of Europe.
Di Gregorio has worked with the filmmaker Matteo Garrone as both a screenwriter (Gomorrah) and an assistant director (First Love; The Embalmer). Garrone, who produced the film, has been one of the few recent signs of life in Italian cinema, but after Mid-August Lunch, one can add Di Gregorio to the brief list of promising Italian directors.
Mid-August Lunch is available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films beginning October 5, 2010. For more details, click here.
Axelle Ropert, The Wolberg Family, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 80 minutes. Production stills. Photos: Carole Bethuel.
“LET ME DOWN EASY,” Bettye LaVette begs, in the searing 1965 soul nugget that opens The Wolberg Family, Axelle Ropert’s trenchant, aurally dazzling debut feature. The plea, sung to a lover right before a breakup, could just as easily be the appeal overbearing Jewish paterfamilias Simon Wolberg (François Damiens), a proud small-town mayor, makes to his wife and two children, who, fed up with his grandstanding and prying, insist that he change. This small, modest film explores, with persistent acuity, one of life’s thorniest struggles: how to carve out an identity wholly separate from one’s kin.
In her screenplay for La France (2007), directed by frequent collaborator Serge Bozon (he plays Simon’s brother-in-law in Wolberg), Ropert gloriously reimagined both the war movie and the musical. Wolberg, which Ropert also scripted, fulfills an even greater challenge: reinvigorating the nuclear-family drama, one of cinema’s most shopworn genres. “Family isn’t sexy,” Simon’s daughter, Delphine (Léopoldine Serre), a few weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday, announces at the dinner table to her father, a man who insists that what defines a family is its lack of secrets (though he himself is hiding something). Simon’s wife, Marianne (Valérie Benguigui), must also constantly discredit his desperate, suffocating ideas about closeness: “We all have our own private world.” With these pithy pronouncements, Ropert shows that movies about what Susan Sontag once referred to as “that claustrophobic unit” need not constantly erupt into hysteria (cf. Rachel Getting Married) or relentlessly catalogue simmering grievances (cf. Revolutionary Road). What distinguishes Ropert’s celluloid clan is their ability to honestly articulate the complexity—and enormity—of their emotions. Like LaVette, Sam Fletcher (whose “I’d Think It Over Twice” is one of Marianne’s beloved 45s), and Wilson Pickett (whose framed head shot, along with those of other ’60s legends, adorns Simon and Marianne’s bedroom), the Wolbergs stir the soul.
The Wolberg Family screens March 20 and 21 at New York’s Walter Reade Theater as part of “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.” Axelle Ropert will be present at both screenings. For more details, click here.
A PAINTER WHO ENROLLED in the Whitney Program before migrating to Columbia Film School, Kathryn Bigelow is something of an anomaly in Planet Hollywood. Combining an affinity for the frenetic rhythms of the thriller with a taste for subversive genre-bending that recalls her “high art” beginnings, Bigelow is a consummate technician whose balletic action sequences remind us how cinematically pure the language of violence can be. Her latest film, Strange Days (1995), is a tech-noir set in a Los Angeles on the brink of the millennium, where conflicting visions of rapture and revolution divide the collective psyche, and the apolitical insulate themselves by getting high on other people’s lives.
With a script by director James Cameron (True Lies, 1994) and writer Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, 1993; The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988), Strange Days—a cyberpunk extrapolation of the archetypal noir—recasts Chandler’s mean streets as paramilitarized zones where tanks roll by impassively while wasted youth bludgeon Santa Claus on the curb. Scurrying through the back alleys of a decadent underground like an oiled rat, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) peddles other people’s realities preserved on MiniDiscs through the magic of SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), a technology that records and plays back human experience “straight from the cerebral cortex,” allowing the user to be anyone this time around, for a price.
Nero has broken the first commandment of the Dealer’s Credo—“never get high off your own supply”—and has be come a memory addict, hooked on a feedback loop of happier times with a femme fatale who has gutted his life by the time the film begins. When he gets a snuff clip of his friend’s murder, he reluctantly assumes the mantle of Philip Marlowe, and enlisting the aid of Mace (Angela Bassett), an Amazon Warrior moonlighting as a chauffeur, becomes embroiled in a conspiratorial web with enough red herrings to rival The Big Sleep.
Like Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Strange Days is no less noir for being in color. Bigelow’s blacks are black, and her light, what there is of it, is dark cyan, a visual correlative to the creeping rot eating away at her characters. And, as in her last three studio releases (Near Dark, 1987; Blue Steel, 1989; Point Break, 1991), Bigelow is no slave to the fast cut. Strange Days, her best film to date, closes with a sequence that leaves us rattled long after the credits roll. The camera lingers on the bloody face of a racist cop. Gun drawn, he drags his suicided partner along by his own handcuffs, attempting, one last time, to effect his Final Solution as confetti falls from the night sky like acid snow.
ANDREW HULTKRANS: It’s quite a leap from Conceptual art to the culture industry.
KATHRYN BIGELOW: It does seem like a departure. I was studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and one of my teachers put me up for the Whitney Program, so I went. This was ’73 or ’74, when Conceptual art really came to the fore. I did a couple of videos with Lawrence Weiner, and I worked with Art & Language, an artists group who were critiquing the commodification of culture. So I was very influenced by them, and my concerns moved from the plastic arts to Conceptual art and a more politicized framework. And I became dissatisfied with the art world—the fact that it requires a certain amount of knowledge to appreciate abstract material.
Film, of course, does not demand this kind of knowledge. Film was this incredible social tool that required nothing of you besides twenty minutes to two hours of your time. I felt that film was more politically correct, and I challenged myself to try to make something accessible using film, but with a conscience. I still work off that foundation. So I shot this short piece called Set Up .
I was matriculating in film history and criticism. I was reading Freud, which led me to the philosophy department. I was working on Semiotext(e). I had Peter Wollen as a teacher, and Edward Said—extraordinary thinkers. So naturally I was influenced by them, which ironically pulled me back into the art world. Structuralist thought is hopelessly out of fashion now, but it’s what led me to The Loveless , my first feature-length narrative film. I was still resisting narrative; that film is more like a meditation.
Then I ran out of money again and got a teaching job at CalArts, out here. I was forced to move for economic reasons; I had no intention of The Loveless being a calling card to the industry. Working in the art world, of course, you have nothing but disdain for Hollywood.
AH: The Loveless is a series of period tableaux; there are scenes where there’s hardly any sound, certainly no dialogue. Most of your films contain visceral action sequences, but also these contemplative pauses to examine the mise-en-scène. Is this something you retain from your intellectual roots, or is it your natural rhythm?
KB: Well, I don’t see Strange Days as a pure action genre piece. I think of it as a character-driven piece. It’s got a tremendous amount of dialogue and story—at one point we thought of it as science fiction as if written by David Mamet. The pauses in Strange Days are motivated more by story and character than by the need to linger on the mise-en-scène. That’s not to say we don’t fill every frame; your eye wanders outward to this complex environment that the principal characters don’t bother to acknowledge. They take it for granted that there’s an ad hoc revolution taking place, a civil war.
AH: A police state.
KB: Exactly, yet life still goes on, the hustle is still happening, the clubs are still open, and you gotta eat dinner.
AH: Though the social ills extrapolated in Strange Days are all too real in today’s LA, your version of the city is also an interzone between the LA of the present and the future LA of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. What is it about this town that makes it such a primary source text for pre- and postapocalyptic urban environments?
KB: It’s the template, isn’t it? Perhaps because there’s so little history here, there’s a fragile balance, an inherent tension. Also, it’s not a city. There is no center. And in its lack of identity it has a kind of poly-identity: It’s whatever you project onto it, a faceless place that harbors a multitude of identities, all blurred into one. That’s not to say the city isn’t a microcosm for the rest of the country. LA’s culturally polyglot society is critical to the flashpoint world of Strange Days, but I don’t think it’s atypical of the US, it’s just in sharper relief here.
AH: Prowling the grim precincts of LA 1999, Strange Days gives us a damaged antihero, Lenny Nero [Ralph Fiennes], who is fiddling—jacking off, or in, as the case may be—while LA burns. He caters to a populace that has given up on changing social reality; instead, it withdraws into solipsism through his SQUID disks—slices of people’s personal experience recorded through a new technology and offered for sale. More than a satire on escapist entertainment, your SQUID idea involves a commentary on cinema, on scopophilia, on addiction to the image, on the notion of a truly “captive” audience.
KB: Yes, and Jim Cameron, the piece’s originator, has been thinking about those ideas for a long time too. The desire to watch, to experience vicariously—as our environment is increasingly mediated, so are all of our experiences. There’s a tremendous gluttony for images right now; that hunger to experience somebody else’s life instead of our own is so palpable. It’s pure escapism, but it seems fundamental. What else is the appetite for cinema?
AH: But in Strange Days, the environment is getting too real, and really brutal. You’d think that people living in such an environment wouldn’t want experience, they’d want cinema as we know it today: true escapism, in which nothing can affect you viscerally, at least not literally. The disks, though, deliver the real thing—real experience.
KB: The disks deliver pure sensation, but it’s risk-free sensation. You’re allowed to have the experience without the experience’s potential limitations and dangers. Cinema audiences are demanding increasingly more intense experiences, so it’s a necessary extrapolation to make: to break that fourth wall, to go that extra step to the truly experiential. The direction is well paved. We’re obviously not there yet, but once you have it, what is the future of cinema? Ultimately it becomes—
KB: Then cinema becomes obsolete.
AH: Although, as Faith [Juliette Lewis] says in Strange Days, movies are better because you know when they’re over. Except that you do know when the disks are over, and that’s the problem: they pixelate out and you’re back in your grim apartment.
KB: But they offer you this window into another world, this tear in society’s fabric, which cinema also offers. That’s what’s so attractive, because, as you say, our own realities seem so grim or pedestrian by comparison. We’re all looking for out-of-body experiences, which is what the disks provide.
AH: But a lot of the disks the film shows us are not typical Hollywood fantasies. They’re set in the kind of urban milieu that people generally try to escape.
KB: You go from one grim reality to another grim reality, but one of them is safer. And the disks don’t have to be grim; it’s just in the nature of the thriller genre that grimness is what we focus on. Certainly whatever you ask Lenny for, he will provide.
AH: Except death.
KB: Except death, because he doesn’t deal in death. Death is a way out, and Lenny’s mired in his past, he’s caught in a feedback loop.
AH: “Like a gerbil on a wheel,” as Max [Tom Sizemore] says. The ultimate noir fall guy.
KB: But the noir fall guy is an inexorable downward spiral. Lenny’s stuck in a loop. And unlike the noir hero, he taps into a redemption motif, with the help of Mace [Angela Bassett].
AH: You don’t ridicule the media in Strange Days—there are no parodies of ads or news. You’re critiquing not a society of the spectacle but a postspectacular society that places a primacy on real experience. Yet the film’s crucial SQUID disc—the record of a slaying—takes us back to the power of mass broadcast, because there is the threat of riots if it is released to the public.
KB: The SQUID disks offer pure experience, unmediated. They’re “pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex”; you can’t get more unmediated than that. It’s important how they’re used; there’s no such thing as neutral technology, it’s all in its application. But that still brings us back to the individual, as opposed to the media. Ultimately Strange Days addresses the question of responsibility to the truth. I’m sure five years from the time frame of the movie there would be a technology by which you could adulterate the contents of a disk and have anything happen, but certainly the murder disk is a smoking gun, and it’s critical how that information is disseminated. It’s pure and truthful information, and as such it reveals the inadequacies of the media and the news.
AH: So do the disks make the media irrelevant? The media are marginal in Strange Days—there’s a little talk radio, a couple of TV news clips, but they seem like today’s news and talk shows.
KB: Except for the information they’re talking about. Bear in mind, it’s only four years from now. Think back four years, what’s different? Your computer has gotten smaller and more people have cellular phones. You think that in the year 2000 there’ll be this radical transformation, but the most that will happen is your computer will sit in the palm of your hand and you’ll be able to speak to it. On the other hand, I do think the turn of the millennium is going to be a huge cultural event, a merchandising and media extravaganza of nightmarish proportions. I also think there’ll be a spiritual component, because you’ll have a lot of people expecting the Rapture. You’ll have this need to embrace the unknown.
AH: What’s the history of Strange Days?
KB: Jim Cameron had been working on the idea for nine or ten years. He presented it to me almost four years ago, and I thought it was tremendous. These two characters on the eve of the millennium, with one character trying to get the woman who loves him to help him save the woman he loves. It’s this great emotional matrix. And then, through a series of dialogues, we developed the political element, this particular society. The edginess, the grit, was something I kept striving for; ironically, Jim’s thrust was the romantic element and mine was the harder edge, so it was kind of reverse gender. Jim wrote a treatment as a result of our dialogues, and then he and Jay Cocks turned it into a script.
AH: You incorporated the Rodney King incident, through both the subplot of racist cops and a beating that quotes the King video.
KB: That story was unfolding as we were working on the treatment, and I thought it was part of the cultural history of the landscape here. So there’s a character in the film who’s brought down not by what he says but by the misuse of power and a traffic stop—a purely random event that causes a catastrophe. Also, the riots were a real emotional time for anybody living here, and I participated in the cleanup. Being on the streets with burned-out shells of buildings and the National Guard milling around suggested a lot of the film’s visual basis. You became inured to it very quickly.
AH: Both Mace and Lenny have personal tragedy in their pasts. How does Mace resist the urge to withdraw into solipsism, to use the disks?
KB: Mace is the narrative’s moral center, so she’s simply capable of resisting. Whereas Lenny, being morally decentered, is floundering in his own narcissistic tide pool, which he doesn’t seem able to escape. It’s not until two-thirds of the way through the movie that we realize his potential for change. Mace is the film’s unblemished hero; Lenny is an antihero. That’s interesting in an action context, where the heroes are often inarticulate but glib. It’s different to have a hero who evinces feeling and is therefore construed as weak. These are clichés that desperately need subverting.
AH: Race is heavily coded in the film; of the two main characters, one is black and one is white. And disk abuse seems to be largely a white pursuit; African-Americans aren’t into it. Does this have anything to do with the way the African-American community often bears the burden of representing the “real” in American culture? The discourse of the real is incredibly overdetermined in hip-hop, for instance. In the film, black characters advocate reality, while the white community represented by Lenny and Max signifies—
KB: Escape and fantasy and duplicity and hidden agendas. The racial component was conscious in the film, and Mace’s earthbound tendency was fundamental to it, and a nice sharp contrast to Lenny. She does represent a hard-edged, reality-based component, whereas Lenny is in fantasy. You could look at it from a gender viewpoint as well, because the SQUID disks tend to highlight male fantasies, not female ones.
AH: Another race-based issue: The white characters seem stuck in the past, like Lenny, or nihilistically, concerned with the present, like Max. But the African-Americans are concerned with a revolution in the future. We hear a black talk-radio caller who’s saying, “2K [the year 2000] is coming, its going to be revolution.” So you get opposing views of the millennium: All the black voices are saying 2K is a new beginning, and all the white voices are saying its the end of the world, the Rapture, judgment Day.
KB: The white characters aren’t forward-looking like Jeriko [Glenn Plummer]. Jeriko and Max are the film’s ad hoc philosophers. Max’s philosophy is nihilistic and cynical and present-day; Jeriko’s rhetoric is black revolutionary. That was certainly intentional but it was by no means intended as an indictment of American white males.
AH: We see thrill-seeking adrenaline addicts in all your films.
KB: Thrill-seeking adrenaline addicts have always fascinated me. The idea seems to be that its not until you risk your humanness that you feel most human. Not until you risk all awareness do you gain awareness. It’s about peak experience. For me, also, it’s about cinema as a cathartic medium. In order for cinema to be cathartic, you need to create a crucible by which a character comes to define himself. In Point Break , trial by fire became part of the subject.
AH: Anther trope you use is the infantilized male who depends on a woman for emotional, psychological, and, in the case of Caleb in Near Dark , even physical sustenance. One of the subtexts of your films, I think, is the weaning process.
KB: In order to have self-realization. It’s weaning, but it’s also searching for androgyny. Man and woman become fused.
AH: The man takes the woman into himself?
KB: Exactly. Or the strength that the relationship provides. I think of it as a fusion, a taking advantage of the catharsis that union provides, quite literally in Near Dark and psychologically in Strange Days, where, as opposed to having Mace’s blood coursing through Lenny’s veins, she helps him realize that he lives in real time, not playback.
AH: Do you see Strange Days as a genre film?
KB: Playing with genre is both conscious and unconscious, because I don’t think you’re ever immune to genre. Even if you choose not to use it, that’s a loaded decision in and of itself. But I have a desire to subvert and redefine. Genre exists for that purpose. It’s a great interlocutor with the audience, a way in, a language they understand and that makes them comfortable. Once you touch base in a genre you can go in any direction. It’s interesting to do a vampire western like Near Dark, to create a hybrid, but I’m not always cross-pollinating genres strategically.
AH: It’s not, “I’m going to do a tech noir today”?
KB: [Laughter] Ironically, as we started to develop Strange Days, we did talk about it as a tech noir.
AH: So you’re a fan of film noir?
KB: Are you kidding? Film noir is probably my favorite genre. That’s how I moved from art to film, so to speak: I went through Fassbinder on my way to noir.
This interview originally appeared in the November 1995 issue of Artforum.
Niels Arden Oplev, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 152 minutes. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) and Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist).
AS A PERSON OF SWEDISH DESCENT and somewhat dark sensibilities, I was piqued by the idea of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a Swedish adaptation of the first novel in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, a posthumous publishing smash that spread the reputation of Nordic noir around the globe. As someone who rarely, if ever, reads contemporary mysteries, I had managed to avoid said publishing smash and hoped to get a taste of the Larsson phenomenon through the film, which has already won a smorgasbord of Swedish awards and was Europe’s top-grossing movie of 2009. I can’t say whether it is particularly faithful to the much-loved source novel, but the film is a serviceable potboiler, though given Sweden’s near-arctic winters, we might call it a potsimmerer—and simmer it does, for a good two and a half hours.
Much like the Scream franchise’s cannibalization of horror-movie history, Larsson laced the novels in the Millennium Trilogy with copious references to classic mystery fiction—Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Sue Grafton, and others—so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by how derivative the film’s plot is. A disgraced investigative journalist is hired by an aging member of the wealthy, secretive Vanger clan—old-money Swedish industrialists who live on a remote island—to look into the decades-old disappearance of his niece, whom he suspects was murdered by one of their relatives. Enlisting the help of a young woman (the titular girl with tattoo), an antisocial cyberpunk hacker who has suffered the abuse of men all her life, the journalist moves into a cottage on the Vangers’ island and begins digging into the long-buried past.
The tableau of a prominent Scandinavian family being rent apart by suppressed secrets seems lifted from Thomas Vinterberg’s Danish Dogme 95 gem The Celebration (1998) (the secrets are the usual suspects—incest, sex murders, Nazism); the multiply pierced, coldly violent hackstress is a dead ringer for Molly Millions from William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (and other Gibson stories); the beleaguered detective in the frozen rural North recalls a better version of Nordic noir, Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Insomnia (1997); and there’s even some cryptic biblical hoo-ha that smacks of The Da Vinci Code. Larsson (and the screenwriters) weave these borrowed elements gracefully, but this still doesn’t account for the film’s rapturous reception in Europe.
Besides the stark, magic-hour beauty of the Vanger clan’s island and Michael Nyqvist’s understated, empathetic turn as the investigative journalist, the film is primarily distinguished by the taut, thoroughly credible performance of newcomer Noomi Rapace as the young, sexually abused female hacker. As a motorcycle-riding Valkyrie exacting harsh vengeance for every woman and girl who has been raped, molested, or harassed by men, she is the heart of the film, and Rapace owns the part. The novel and film’s original title was Män som hatar kvinnor (Men Who Hate Women), and the story is really more about her than the twisted Faulknerian shame of the Vanger family. Note to Hollywood: If Neuromancer ever gets out of development hell, the producers should give Rapace a call.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo opens Friday, March 19.
I FELL HARD for the films, novels, plays, and essays of Marguerite Duras roughly thirty years ago and then spent the decades between then and now resisting the sensuous beauty of their imagery, the tough-minded, spare elegance of their prose, and their rigorous morality. When I complied with the ridiculous ritual of drawing up for various publications lists of the greatest films of the twentieth century, her masterpiece, India Song (1975), did not appear. It should have been among the first five.
Duras’s subject is primal—eros and death; her fragmented, elliptical narratives, whether fact or fiction, are located in the quicksand of the psyche. To revisit her films is to be again overwhelmed by her languid femmes fatales, her wandering madwomen, her lovesick outsiders, everyone in exile whatever their gender. They are characters in a personal mythology of longing and loss, of the history of colonialism and the failure of all political programs and ideologies. Merely to reencounter the names—Anne-Marie Stretter; Michael Richardson; the Vice-Consul from Lahore; Aurelia Steiner; Lol V. Stein, present only in the novel named for her, Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, and significant for her absence from the films (Lacan wrote about her name and her “ravishing”)—is to realize that they never left my mind.
The monthlong program “In the Words of Marguerite Duras”—presented by Anthology Film Archives, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the French Embassy, and the French Institute Alliance Français—concludes with a series of films (March 12–18) at Anthology: seven features and two shorts projected in 35-mm prints with English subtitles. These are rare objects—only a few of the films Duras directed exist as subtitled prints, and only one of them, Nathalie Granger (1972), is currently available on DVD. If you’ve never seen any of them, do not start with her stilted early feature Destroy, She Said (1969) or even with Nathalie Granger, widely regarded as her most accessible, perhaps because its cast includes a charming black cat, a young girl who may or may not be exceptionally disposed toward violence, a restless Jeanne Moreau who seems not to know what she’s doing in this strange movie, and Gérard Depardieu as a confused washing-machine salesman (one of his first screen roles), all of them in imminent danger, at least according to news broadcasts, from a pair of teenage killers roaming the countryside. The danger remains offscreen, lurking perhaps in the overgrown garden or behind a half-opened door inside the comfortable but neglected house—the lamplight soft, the paint peeling from the walls. The only violence we see is a close-up of a piano teacher’s hands cruelly gripping those of her pupil.
Instead, begin with India Song, an evocation of colonialist India in the 1930s—1937, to be precise, the year before the war would change everything. A memory piece that calls up the dead, its heroine, Anne-Marie Stretter (Delphine Seyrig), dances with her lover, Michael Richardson (Claude Mann), in the ballroom of the French Embassy in Calcutta, where her memorial—a photograph, a stick of burning incense, some flowers—is already arranged on the piano. Time folds in on itself in India Song, and space is fractured by the huge mirror that nearly covers one wall so that the reflection of the room is a constant; it is always different, however, from the framing of the room by the camera, whether still or moving. The image created by Duras and cinematographer Bruno Nuytten is at once ghostly and eroticized, so delicately colored that it seems hand-tinted, and the closeness of the air, weighted by the insufferable heat, is palpable. India Song puts all the senses on high alert, and yet it is not in any sense realism. No one would be surprised to learn that it was shot on a set constructed in a crumbling mansion near Paris.
There is the image, and then there is the sound track, its tonalities as subtle and rich as the color and play of light on the screen. There is no sync sound in India Song. The narrative—the backstory, the description of the actions and relationships of the characters—is conveyed by some half-dozen offscreen voices, their fragmentary speculations, mixed occasionally with bits of dialogue spoken asynchronously by the main characters (the dark, throaty timbre of Seyrig’s voice is unmistakable), an undercurrent of unseen party guests; Carlos D’Alessio’s great score is punctuated by the repeated melody of the “India Song Blues” and bits of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a Duras signature. Two other voices emanating from the offscreen space are crucial. When the Vice-Consul from Lahore (Michael Lonsdale), already driven mad by his unrequited love for Mme. Stretter, is rejected by her at the party, he goes into the garden and bellows like a wounded animal. The Vice-Consul is all too human—he sweats, his clothes are wrinkled, he cannot keep his feelings in check—which is why his love is doomed. Also in the garden is a beggar woman who lives among the lepers although she is not diseased herself, simply mad. She never appears on-screen, but it is her song and her high-pitched laugh that we hear at the opening and closing of the film. For seventeen years, we’re told, her path has paralleled that of Mme. Stretter’s, from the Mekong through all the great cities of the Far East to Calcutta where she, the colonized, will remain after the colonizer, her “double,” has committed suicide in “the islands of the Delta.” India Song shows us the face of European colonialism, but India itself . . . there is no way for the colonizer to put that on the screen. As in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour (1959), for which Duras wrote the screenplay, representation has limits, specific to a particular point of view, historical and personal. (“You can never understand Hiroshima,” says the Japanese man to his French lover.) India Song is a great film because every fetishized image and sound is finally merely a substitute and a shield for what remains invisible. It presents a moral argument, not simply about colonialism but about its representation.
The other film not to be missed is The Truck (1977), a more minimalist work than India Song but just as remarkable for its precise balancing of interior and exterior, sound and image. Duras and Depardieu sit across from each other at a round table in Duras’s home. She reads aloud the shooting script for a film titled The Truck, for which she has cast Depardieu as the driver, a doctrinaire Communist Party member. En route, he picks up a hitchhiker, one of Duras’s madwomen of a certain age. The truck driver doesn’t hide his contempt for her, but she also gets under his skin because there is no way she can fit into his schematic view of proletarian victory. As Duras reads, Depardieu occasionally interrupts with questions that seem to be spontaneous but are not. They are the lines assigned to him in the script for The Truck, which will never exist in any other form than this reading. Intercut, however, with the Duras-Depardieu table read are sequences of a truck speeding along various highways and byways of France, accompanied by, what else, the Diabelli Variations, which end this conceptual and comic road movie on a note of triumph.
Left: Howard Hawks, Red River, 1948, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift). Right: Elia Kazan, Wild River, 1960, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 110 minutes. Chuck Glover (Montgomery Clift) and Carol Garth Baldwin (Lee Remick). Images courtesy Photofest/BAMcinématek.
NAMED AFTER A SARCASTICALLY JUBILANT LYRIC from the Clash’s “The Right Profile,” the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Montgomery Clift retrospective—“That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!”—might have also taken a more somber title from REM’s “Monty Got a Raw Deal.” Defined by tragedy and qualified by what-ifs, Clift’s story is one of Hollywood’s saddest: a preternaturally attractive and talented actor permanently marked, at age thirty-six, by an automobile accident that altered his face, forced him into a crippling drug dependency, and led to his early death ten years later.
Clift made his reputation in prestige pictures like A Place in the Sun (1951) and From Here to Eternity (1953), though other films better demonstrate his infrequent brilliance. Rather than the brooding violence of Brando or the hip dissidence of Dean—to whom he was a Method-esque predecessor—Clift’s handsomeness suggested melancholic introspection, a quality exploited in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948), where he plays the conscientious cowboy protégé who stands up to John Wayne’s half-mad cattle baron, and later in Alfred Hitchcock’s morality play I Confess (1953), in which he assumes the role of a conflicted, tortured priest. Throughout his career, Clift’s nobility would both hasten his characters to and steel them for sanctifying punishment, as in the former film when he unblinkingly welcomes a beating from Wayne before their climactic showdown and in the latter when he endures public scorn by holding in his confidence a vindicating confession.
Legend has it that Clift’s good looks were ruined by his 1956 accident. The truth is that while his appearance didn’t drastically change, his demeanor did. In pre-accident films like the surprisingly terrific The Big Lift (1950), Clift possesses a natural yet humble confidence; post-accident (cf. the tepid Lonelyhearts ), he’s often painfully self-conscious, shoulders slumping and hands fiddling around his mouth as if guarding against the morbid curiosity of his audience. And yet the second half of his artificially bifurcated oeuvre features some of his best work. The Misfits (1961) remains poignant almost exclusively for its pairing of Clift with similarly doomed contemporary Marilyn Monroe, but the real gem is Wild River (1960), a Tennessee Valley–set drama about environment, politics, race, and heritage that gave Clift a chance to work with Elia Kazan, the spontaneity-friendly director with whom he should have perhaps been working all along.
“That’s Montgomery Clift, Honey!” runs at the Brooklyn Academy of Music March 11–25. For more details, click here.
Jia Zhangke, Still Life, 2006, still from a color film in HD, 111 minutes. Shen Hong (Zhao Tao).
GRITTY BUT ELEGANT CHRONICLES of a rapidly transforming society, Jia Zhangke’s films depict street-level life in contemporary China with a hyperreal, science-fictional gloss. The scripted characters of The World (2004) are performers and staff at an actual Bejing theme park filled with miniature replicas of international tourist sites like the Eiffel Tower, the pyramids, and Lower Manhattan. In a dystopian twist worthy of Baudrillard, the sprawling attraction displays the tagline SEE THE WORLD WITHOUT EVER LEAVING BEIJING. Still Life (2006) takes place in a city being destroyed and rebuilt to make way for the colossal Three Gorges Dam, and its interconnected story lines play out against an unsettling combination of verdant landscape and industrial rubble. Throughout Jia’s eight features and numerous shorts, his characters are plugged into global pop music, fashion, and markets. But even as he shows how the Imperial and Maoist eras have become two-dimensional images, flattened by the speed of change, Jia underscores the fact that these same characters’ lives remain determined by forces beyond their control. As the sounds of Chinese opera play at a dinner party, the thirty-somethings in his short narrative Cry Me a River (2008) reminisce about their 1990s college days after discussing stock tips, then exchange skin-care advice. Though he roots his films in an everyday strangeness, Jia doesn’t shy from his own postmodern flourishes. Shot in a declining factory town, his downbeat Unknown Pleasures (2002) includes a remarkable sequence, set in a diner, that lurches without warning into a full-on Pulp Fiction pastiche, complete with jump-cut to disco (an inspired and pointed knockoff, considering how many bits from Chinese films Tarantino himself has cribbed). Just as suddenly, one of the buildings in Still Life launches skyward, like a rocket.
The leading figure of China’s Sixth Generation—directors who came of age in the ’90s, producing low-budget films frequently outside the rules of state censorship—Jia works in a complex blend of fact and fiction. His narrative features use contemporary locations and story lines based on true events, while his documentaries employ a fluidly controlled camerawork that hermetically seals them into a tight choreography. The subsequent ontological tangles can become dizzyingly baroque. For 24 City (2008), a fictional tale based on the true-life transformation of a munitions factory into luxury apartments, Jia based his script on interviews with more than one hundred residents, then shot his film with both actors and nonactors, staging documentary-style monologues on the factory floor prior to its demolition. One of the factory workers is nicknamed Little Flower, after a 1979 movie starring Joan Chen, because of her resemblance to the international star; the character is played by Chen herself, disconcertingly cast as her own double. Still Life has its own uncanny twin, too, East (2006), a documentary about artist Liu Xiaodong shot in the same location at the same time. Liu is shown early on manipulating a group of men into casual poses as painting models, not unlike similar tableaux of shirtless workers in Still Life, suggesting parallels to Jia’s own meticulous remaking of real-world experience.
Don Argott, The Art of the Steal, 2009, still from a color film in HD, 101 minutes.
THE ART OF THE STEAL wants you to think that a secret cabal of greedy politicians, social-climbing university trustees, and not-so-charitable charities hoodwinked the public into accepting the move of Dr. Albert Barnes’s world-class collection of modern art from Merion, Pennsylvania, to its new home in downtown Philadelphia.
About twenty minutes into The Art of the Steal, Julian Bond, then chairman of the NAACP board and one of several luminaries interviewed for the movie, states its recurring leitmotif: that Barnes wanted his collection to be a place where the common man could have epiphanies in front of works of art, without the buttress of wall text, audio guides, and other forms of meddlesome discourse—a place that, according to Bond, even a plumber from New York would appreciate.
Admirable idea. So let’s follow said plumber on his visit to the Barnes. After reserving a ticket weeks in advance, Joe Plumber takes an unpaid day off work to travel to a wealthy suburb outside Philadelphia. The train is neither convenient nor cheap. If he had taken a car, he would have found that what limited parking was available had been booked weeks in advance. But surely a pilgrimage to this holy shrine is worth such trifling inconveniences. Once disembarked, Joe Plumber walks about half a mile to the collection. Though puzzled by the lack of signs and parking (thanks, neighbors!), Joe Plumber is undeterred. The museum is designed for people like him, after all.
I exaggerate, of course. But not too much. And my mild attempt at irony pales in comparison to the propagandistic rant that is The Art of the Steal. Director Don Argott has gathered the initiates of the cult of Saint Barnes—unsurprisingly, mostly former students of the foundation’s dubious art school—to proclaim that the cultural version of the military-industrial complex contrived to take the Barnes away from Joe Plumber and the parking-phobic residents of Merion by means of evil spells and incantations written into the state budget.
This may indeed turn out to be the case. I cannot speak to the legality of it all, which is something for the courts to decide (but then again, according to the movie, the judges are in on it, too). But what I can speak to is the holier-than-thou attitude and the one-sided presentation of evidence that, true or not, makes it hard to take the movie’s claims seriously.
The script would make any conspiracy theorist proud: Former governor Ed Rendell, then mayor John Street, Pew Charitable Trusts president Rebecca Rimel, and the ghost of newspaper magnate Walter Annenberg, along with the city’s snobby art establishment, are the nasty villains; the poor students in Barnes’s art school, the hapless victims of the “steal.” That Barnes himself was intensely hostile to serious art-historical discussions of works of art and promoted a reactionary, ahistorical, and quasi-religious understanding of aesthetic experience is never questioned, let alone raised as a point of debate.
It becomes obvious that the people who have the most to lose from the Barnes’s relocation are not the Joe Plumbers of the world, who now have to suffer easy access and entrance signs, but the self-anointed guardians of Barnes’s vision, who now have to share their precious collection with—God forbid—other students, among others.
I’m not saying that everything about the move was on the up-and-up or that Barnes’s original, idiosyncratic installation should be changed. But I do find that an argument made on the basis of hagiography rather than on a balanced view of the facts is obfuscating at best and nauseating at worst.
But of course, I’m just an art critic and, according to the logic of The Art of the Steal, another happy would-be conspirator.
The Art of the Steal is now playing in select theaters.
Felix Moeller, Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, 2009, still from a black-and-white and color film, 99 minutes. Lotte, Nele, and Lena Harlan.
VEIT HARLAN’S HYSTERICAL COSTUME MELODRAMA Jew Süss, seen by twenty million Germans and twenty million other Europeans on its release in 1940, is widely regarded as the most virulently anti-Semitic of the films made during the Third Reich. Directed by Harlan under Joseph Goebbels’s close supervision, it recast Lion Feuchtwanger’s anti-Nazi novel about the life of the Jewish financier Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, adviser to Duke Karl Alexander of Württemburg; Süss was hanged at the behest of his court enemies in 1738. Harlan’s movie-star wife Kristina Soderbaum played the Aryan woman who kills herself after Süss rapes her. The film’s value to the Nazis as rabble-rousing propaganda is indicated by Heinrich Himmler’s order that it be seen by all SS guards and police.
Two current films address Harlan’s loathsome work. Oskar Rohler’s Jud Süss: A Film Without a Conscience, a fictional piece about Goebbels’s coercing of the actor Ferdinand Marian to play Süss, was ridiculed by some critics after it premiered at the Berlinale in February and has been criticized for historical inaccuracies. First to these shores is Felix Moeller’s Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss, a trenchant documentary that probes whether or not Harlan himself was an anti-Semite or a mere fellow traveler, based on the evidence of his other films; it also explores the effect of Jew Süss on his family. To this end, Moeller interviewed Harlan’s three sons (including the author, filmmaker, and Nazi hunter Thomas Harlan) and surviving daughter (the other committed suicide), a nephew, a niece (Stanley Kubrick’s widow, Christiane), a grandson, and five granddaughters. The result is a tapestry of guilt, disgust, and incomprehension, though two of the children remain protective toward their unrepentant father and one of the grandchildren is indifferent. Thomas believes the family cannot be purged of its associative guilt and must continue to bear the burden. We learn that Harlan had many Jewish friends. We also learn that the breakup of his first marriage to the Jewish actress Dora Gerson, who would die in Auschwitz, may have led him to hate Jews. (Or did she leave him because he hated them?)
Moeller had access to remarkable home-movie footage of Harlan: touring the Charles Bridge in Prague with Soderbaum and one of their babies on a day off during the filming of Jew Süss; on his deathbed in Capri. Nothing, though, is more telling than the footage of the doomed Jews he brought from the Prague Ghetto to play their ancestors entering Württemburg after Süss had repealed the law banning them. Whatever florid talent Harlan had, he apparently had no scruples, as one of his granddaughters asserts.
Harlan: In the Shadow of Jew Süss plays March 3–16 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.