LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY GNOMIC, the reclusive music producer Phil Spector had been out of the public eye for decades when he was arrested in 2003 for the murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson. Photographed in court sporting a mammoth Brillo pad of an Afro that threatened to topple his tiny frame, Spector seemed to be another in a long line of LA has-beens—O. J. Simpson and Robert Blake come to mind—who capped their careers with alleged execution-style killings. During his first trial, which ended in a hung jury in 2007, Spector appeared as emotionally distanced from the proceedings as Simpson and as dangerously eccentric as Blake. Through testimony, the jury learned that he had a fondness for firearms, which he often brandished at ex-girlfriends (as well as the Ramones). He was erratic and strange—a sad, twisted little man who hadn’t done anything of merit for years. No doubt that he pulled the trigger.
One of the chief virtues of this fascinating documentary is that it restores Spector to his proper place in music and cultural history, despite the tawdry tabloid conclusion of his life as a free man (he was convicted and sentenced to prison in 2009). Hardly a hagiography, it does not sidestep or skimp on the Clarkson murder—a good quarter of the film is trial footage from Court TV—but in getting hours of intimate interviews with Spector at home, just after the first trial, and mixing in copious vintage performance clips, producer-director Vikram Jayanti has done a great service, reminding generations who knew Spector only as a murderous freak (if they knew him at all) of his importance—and his humanity (he is surprisingly lucid and likable in the film).
From “Spanish Harlem” (1960), “He’s a Rebel,” (1962), and the dum-da-dum-cha intro of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963)—perhaps the most recognizable opening salvo in pop history—through the Beatles’ Let It Be (1970), George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (1970), and John Lennon’s Imagine (1971), with minor detours along the way like the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” (1963), the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” (1964), and Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep—Mountain High” (1966), among many others, Spector turned the recording studio itself into an instrument, piling on layers of orchestration while foregrounding odd percussion, particularly castanets.
He was the first practitioner of the 1950s rock ’n’ roll generation to take pop music seriously, likely giving it more weight than Cole Porter gave his own material. Known for his “wall of sound” technique, Spector pushed primitive four-track recording to its limits, using extreme compression and tape echo to make his productions peerlessly dense and as wide-screen as mono allowed. He was a massive influence, as well as a mentor and later a source of paranoid delusions, for Brian Wilson, who has played “Be My Baby” on his home jukebox every day of his life, still wondering how Spector got that sound. No Spector, no Pet Sounds. He salvaged the Beatles’ biggest mess (Let It Be) and produced Lennon’s and Harrison’s strongest solo work. In our pop present, where producers are as aesthetically and commercially crucial to a record’s success as performers, it’s easy to forget that Spector pioneered the concept of the producer-as-star, becoming the first music-business figure to reach the Hollywood director’s grail: the name above the title.
If Jayanti’s empathetic, psychologically penetrating film can be faulted, it’s for including flowery, overblown “critical texts” by Tearing Down the Wall of Sound author Mick Brown as subtitles while Spector classics play on the sound track. They distract not only from the music but also from the imagery on-screen, whether it’s trial footage, period performances, or Spector’s wan, contemplative face. The profundity of all of the above is clear enough. We don’t need to be told that a piece of early-’60s AM pop is a “masterpiece of chiaroscuro.” Otherwise, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a bracingly revealing portrait of a dark, complicated genius. It would fit right in with Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (1994) and Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006) in the imaginary PBS series “American Misfits.”
“IF WE NEED ACTION”—camera pans up toward an ominous gray sky—“we know where to look.” The joke, delivered by George Kuchar about halfway through his Weather Diary 5 (1989), is typical fare for the filmmaker, riffing on his frustration with the lack of sexual stimulation in his cooped-up motel room and the inherent dangers of the locale: the “Tornado Alley” region of Oklahoma that Kuchar has been visiting each May for the past two decades. The result is an ongoing personal theater of absurdity, nonpareil in the world of cinema.
Kuchar’s career as a filmmaker can be divided into three discernible phases: his earliest collaborations with his twin brother, Mike, in the 1950s and ’60s, when the two emerged as pioneers of the early New York underground film scene; the chaotic and colorful films he has made with his students each year, since the early ’70s, at the San Francisco Art Institute; and his more personal, diaristic video works. It is this third phase, resulting in several hundred works to date, that forms the focus of a retrospective, curated by scholar Marc Siegel, currently on view as part of the Berlin Biennial. Kuchar began working with a camcorder in the ’80s because, in his words, it was a “despised medium,” ugly and amateur—the stuff of home movies rather than a vehicle for high art. Ever prescient, Kuchar immediately sensed that the most interesting way of dealing with video’s limitations would be to exploit them. The resulting oeuvre can be read as a single, continuous opus, with individual films serving as chapters, ranging in length from under ten minutes to over an hour. Stylistically, the work is neither home movie nor high art, but perhaps a little of both, and it forms a self-portrait of the artist—his journeys, his friends, and his daily motions—all transmitted through Kuchar’s self-deprecating, Bronx-accented narration. The Kuchar oeuvre is an archaeology of the mundane.
The centerpiece of Kuchar’s work since the late ’80s has been his “Weather Diaries” (1986–), which document his annual visits to the El Reno Motel in El Reno, Oklahoma. These trips are a means of temporarily escaping the muck of urban life while simultaneously engaging the artist’s childhood fascination with—and fear of—extreme weather. Much of the footage focuses on Kuchar’s motel room: a collage of banal narrative veering perpetually toward the grotesque (as we are constantly reminded of the artist’s canned-meat-and-fast-food diet—and its gastrointestinal consequences) interspersed with weather reports from television and radio, as well as “action” shots of the (impending) storms outside the window. Occasionally, he ventures out for strained interactions with the locals. In Weather Diary 5, we accompany Kuchar to an empty beauty salon, where the proprietress gives us an in-depth tour of all the hair products. In Weather Diary 3 (1988), he befriends a student storm chaser staying in the room next door. Kuchar’s infatuation with the young man seems more rooted in his awe of the meteorology student’s bravery than in straightforward sexual attraction.
Like his ambivalent fix on El Reno, Kuchar’s relationship with mainstream cinema has always been one of give-and-take. While there’s nothing here resembling a conventional plot, the action is always fast-paced, with most shots in the “Hollywood” three-and-a-half-to-five-second range, thus resisting the strategic slowness on which oppositional strategists of “art cinema” so often rely. Kuchar could be thought of as anti-anti, his art the deployment of a deliberate artlessness. With its wandering gaze, lo-fi effects, and obsessive need to document and find spectacular meaning in the unspectacular, Kuchar’s vision continues to be one of the most endearing in American cinema.
ONE OF THE FINEST literary adaptations ever made, Chantal Akerman’s La Captive (2000) distills La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of Marcel Proust’s sprawling In Search of Lost Time, to a spare, inventive rumination on the author’s key themes: jealousy and possession. Akerman, who co-wrote La Captive with Eric de Kuyper, dispenses with the novel’s belle epoque time frame, setting her film in present-day Paris. Marcel and Albertine, Proust’s mismatched lovers, become Simon (Stanislas Merhar) and Ariane (Sylvie Testud), who live together in Simon’s enormous apartment. A neurasthenic writer, Simon is feverishly jealous, first seen studying Super 8 footage of Ariane playing on the beach with a group of women—a time he refers to as her “other life,” when her romantic relationships were exclusively same-sex.
Ariane is inscrutable in those home movies, as she will be throughout most of La Captive; Simon becomes a possessed private detective, tormented by Ariane’s lesbian past and determined to solve the “mystery” of sapphic desire. Vertigo is a key referent for Akerman’s film: Like Scottie pursuing Madeleine in Hitchcock’s movie, Simon doggedly trails Ariane throughout Paris, spying on her in the Musée Rodin as she transfixedly approaches the marble bust of a woman with a chignon—mirroring the scene of Madeleine’s prolonged gazing at the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, whose hair is arranged in a similar swirl, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
Beyond Akerman’s inspired interventions in this page-to-screen transfer, La Captive’s greatest achievement is its exploration of love between women, a topic that runs throughout In Search of Lost Time and that the director herself has keenly depicted in Je, tu, il, elle (1974) and Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels (1994). Simon, again in relentless P.I. mode, takes a taxi to a lesbian hangout to interrogate two friends of Ariane’s, a couple named Sarah and Isabelle: “I’m burning to know what goes on between two women that doesn’t between a man and a woman,” he asks. “It can’t be explained,” Isabelle responds. Akerman has never been interested in “explaining” lesbian desire, either—only in demonstrating, sometimes elliptically but always powerfully, its pull. The most erotic scene of La Captive features two women who may not even be looking at each other: On Simon’s balcony, Ariane hears a woman from an apartment above singing an extract from Così fan tutte. Ariane, enraptured, sings back; though the timbre and quality of each woman’s voice is quite different, they reach a climactic moment during their duet. “What goes on between two women” may defy simple explanation, but it can be heard.
La Captive screens June 29 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. For more details, click here.
Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, Restrepo, 2010, color film in SD and HD, 94 minutes. Production stills. Left: Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin and Ross Murphy of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne. Right: Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo. Photos: Tim Hetherington.
IN APRIL 2010, the US military pulled its last combat troops out of the Korengal Valley, once regarded as the most dangerous posting of the war in Afghanistan. Now General Stanley A. McChrystal, who rejiggered what was a losing strategy into what likely remains a losing strategy—he moved the battlefront from isolated mountain valleys to more urban areas—is out, a victim of confusion and panicky politics in the White House and the Pentagon, and, of course, his own big, hubristic mouth. (I guess no one warned him how efficiently the hippie burnouts at Rolling Stone had besmirched Goldman Sachs.)
Callous though this observation may be, the McChrystal scandal seems made to order for the release of Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s heart-stopping and sometimes heartbreaking documentary about some twenty soldiers tasked with building and defending a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley from mid-2007 to mid-2008. On assignment for Vanity Fair and ABC News, Junger, the writer, and Hetherington, the photographer, brought along a couple of video cameras when they embedded themselves with the Second Platoon of the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The movie was assembled from 150 hours of footage shot during ten extended trips to the Korengal base camp and from there to Outpost Restrepo, a satellite camp built of sandbags, chicken wire, ammo boxes, and a couple of two-by-fours and named for the platoon’s medic PFC Juan Restrepo, killed in the early days of the fighting. The outpost is under constant fire from the Taliban, taking as many as four attacks a day, sometimes from as close as fifty yards. Junger and Hetherington did everything the soldiers did except fire weapons. Restrepo is nerve-racking from beginning to end, especially once one becomes involved—as the moviemakers clearly were—with the soldiers as individuals, most of them very young men who do not want to die and, even more, do not want to see their buddies die.
The action sequences are so intense one could overlook the complicated structure of documentary; it’s far from pure cinema verité. Soon after the film’s opening sequence—which shows PFC Restrepo, a week before deployment, horsing around in a home video and mouthing repeatedly into the camera “Going to war”—a more expertly handled camera is in a helicopter swooping vertiginously over the Korengal as it dodges fire, and we hear the soldiers’ dismayed assessment, as they glimpse the densely forested valley ringed with impassable mountains, that they’ll be “like fish in a barrel.” Then, seemingly without a break, the camera is falling, turned upside down in the hands of one of the moviemakers who’s scrambling from a truck that’s been half blown apart by an IED. The sound has dropped out—the recorder has been deafened by the blast, just as the men probably are—and we’re looking down the weirdly silent road at the vehicle, and at the men trying to get their bearings and figure out if anyone’s been injured.
That’s just the beginning. The camera sticks so close to the soldiers when they’re in combat that it shudders with the recoil of their guns. It glimpses, over their shoulders, a fallen comrade. It jerks around as it follows the wary eyes of soldiers moving though thick brush: They know they are surrounded by Taliban, on the mission that most of them describe as the worst of their deployment. The camera is present, too, at a weekly meeting with the village elders, who sit in long rows on the floor, fingering their hennaed beards, yawning, frowning, trying to extort whatever they can from the Americans, whom they clearly despise—and not without reason, as we see when the camera roves around a house where there has been “collateral damage”: wounded children, five dead adults (or at least someone implies that the dead are all adults). And the moviemakers also capture moments of R&R: Three burly guys, their arms wrapped around one another, pogo as they belt out “Touch me, touch me now,” finding ecstasy by letting down their guard.
Threading the action footage together are talking heads—not outside experts, but the same soldiers. Three months after the platoon left Afghanistan, the filmmakers went to Italy to shoot portraits of the men, just before they finally went home. Each man was shot in close-up against a red or black background. On screen, the chiaroscuro lighting makes them look like Renaissance princes—their faces, even when pudgy with baby fat, look chiseled, bare to the bone. As they gaze directly into the camera, they describe their experiences in a mix of past and present tenses. The portraits are in every way the opposite of the action footage; they give us, even in the fragmented way they are edited and placed amid the “verité,” something of the interiority of the men’s experience, at once individual and collective.
No one in Restrepo analyzes the war in Afghanistan in political terms or even describes it in terms of goals larger than the day-to-day mission. And yet, simply by bearing witness, the movie is a call to action. It makes you want to put your fist in the mouth of all the media experts and commentators who, as I write, are demanding that we focus our attention on Afghanistan, without themselves having any firsthand experience. Junger and Hetherington focus on the war in Afghanistan, and their movie is evidence that the only conscionable course of action is to end it totally, right now.
Restrepo opens Friday, June 25 in New York and Los Angeles. For more details and images, see the film’s website here.
A MASTER PORTRAYER of postwar trauma, violence, and insecurity, onetime stage actor Anthony Mann began his directorial career performing yeoman’s work, helming several low-budget comedies and musicals in the 1940s on the Paramount, Universal, Republic, and RKO lots. His breakout year was 1947, when T-Men, Railroaded!, and Desperate—each made in economical B-noir style—conveyed the plights of average men and women forced into the dire margins of American society. The last two in particular formed a double bill of wrong-man/family-under-siege plots that more than stand their own against Hitchcock. Mann, via a string of similarly angst-ridden noirs, soon transitioned to the western, where he applied his penchant for expressionistic lighting and compositions to the historical frontier. The Furies (1950) announces this phase with shocking and delirious ferocity, stirring novelist Niven Busch’s father-daughter battle for the family ranch into a Shakespearean drama and unleashing one of Mann’s trademark moments of brutality, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s Elektra heroine gouges the eyes of her father’s fiancée with a pair of scissors.
Violence is never titillating in Mann, but instead always scarily consequential and the product of familial, political, or moral conflict. This almost too-real cinematic philosophy carried over into a legendary partnership with James Stewart, starting in 1950 with Winchester ’73. Nobody shot bloody psychodramas against crags and plains better than Mann—not even John Ford—and by bringing out what had up to that point been Stewart’s mostly dormant inner turmoil, he found the perfect fallible human figure to frame against harsh, cruel, and daunting landscapes. The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955) are the crown jewels of this collaboration, but under-the-radar Stewart-less gems like Devil’s Doorway (1950), The Last Frontier (1955), and Man of the West (1958) are equally impressive in investigating the specters of racist, authoritarian, and patriarchal misrule that haunt the boundless freedom promised by the West and, in turn, the western itself.
It was with the western that Mann cemented his reputation for thoroughly mining complex material within a single genre, an inimitable talent already anticipated in the noirs. Several themes run through this earlier and frequently overlooked period of Mann’s career—perhaps richest of all is the tenuous and unstable nature of identity in a threatening, suspicious world. Minor masterpieces T-Men and Border Incident (1949), in which cops go undercover to infiltrate a crime syndicate and must negotiate the unsteady parameters of authenticity and duplicity, were written by John C. Higgins, who also co-wrote two other terrific Mann noirs, raw police procedural He Walked by Night (1948) and the strikingly designed revenge yarn Raw Deal (1948). But motifs of disguise, subterfuge, detection, assumed personality, and persuasive artificiality are also at the core of paranoid French Revolution intrigue Reign of Terror (1949), tough Lincoln thriller The Tall Target (1951), and especially Strange Impersonation (1946), the first great Mann. The last film dives into the sexual anxieties of Brenda Marshall’s mousy research scientist as they spill over into a fever dream that places her in the role of a disfigured and presumed dead victim transformed by plastic surgery into one of her persecutors. With her new identity she goes after the other, her romantic rival, only to eventually be implicated in the murder of herself. It’s a proto-Lynchian scenario made even more bizarre by Mann’s giddy, nightmarish, and pressure-chamber sense of direction (you can almost feel the protagonist’s psyche splitting under the interrogation of the camera), the essence of his genius that would flower in nearly everything to follow.
Michelangelo Antonioni, Le Amiche (The Girlfriends), 1955, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Left: Rosetta and Cesare (Madeleine Fischer and Franco Fabrizi). Right: Clelia and Momina (Eleonora Rossi Drago and Yvonne Furneaux).
RESTORED TO A LUSTROUS GLOW, the blacks, whites, and grays of a new print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) accent the elegant surfaces of mid-1950s Turin where it was filmed. From the opening pan under the credits to the long shots of the arcades and buildings that form the backdrop for the fashionable personae in the story, the city’s modernity sparkles before us. There is no evidence of the ruins from the Second World War, a conflict that still haunts the lives of the characters in the 1949 Cesare Pavese novel on which the film is based, titled Among Women Only. The adaptation’s ambience is not quite as bleak as the novel’s, but Pavese was nevertheless an important influence on Antonioni’s work. Although Le Amiche differs from its source, the tone of the novel, discernible only intermittently, has greater affinity with the director’s future work, foreshadowing the ennui that imbues the atmosphere of L’Avventura (1960) and the masterpieces that would follow. Not that Le Amiche capitulates entirely to the generic romanticism of its screenplay. A scene of two lovers making out on a beach as one of le amiche strolls by indifferently has the air of casual, meaningless sex typical of Antonioni’s later films.
Both novel and film begin with Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) returning to Turin to open a dress salon, having left her working-class life there years earlier to become an assistant to a couturiere in Rome. Her arrival is marked by the botched suicide attempt of Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), a young woman in the adjacent hotel room––an event that hangs ominously over the film. Rosetta, secretly in love with Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a moody, failing artist who painted her portrait, finally confesses, only to be swept into a fleeting affair that ends in abandonment and her successful suicide at the end. For Pavese, however, it is not romantic rejection but existential despair that plagues Rosetta. A malaise pervades the novel’s atmosphere––partly an effect of the recently ended war––lending a somewhat different cast to the escapist lifestyles of the girlfriends and their men as they appear in the film. But while Antonioni alters Rosetta’s motive, her demeanor, as portrayed by Fischer, bears more than a little resemblance to the young woman whose disappearance on an island is the premise of the plot of L’Avventura.
Clelia is the novel’s narrator and, as a result, conscious of her escape from poverty. Antonioni treats her brief affair with the working-class Carlo (Ettore Manni) as a sign of the life she might have lived had she not pursued a career in Rome. Pavese is careful to distinguish her hard-won success from the shallower lives of the upper-class women she encounters in Turin––especially the cynical, impeccably garbed Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) and the flighty, man-crazy Mariella (Annamaria Pancani). While their flirtations are set against the facades of the modern city, Clelia and Carlo declare their feelings to each other while strolling through the poorer neighborhoods of their roots. And despite her resolve that “working is [her] way of being a woman,” there is, in the final shots of Clelia boarding the train back to Rome, a sense of nostalgia, even regret, as she scans the station for Carlo who observes her departure without revealing his presence. Though an affecting touch, it is one that Antonioni would resist in the future.
Although there are no all-night parties in Le Amiche that end in a somber, disquieting dawn—as in L’Avventura and La Notte (1961)—there are moments that prefigure them. After Lorenzo leaves Rosetta, her desperate flight down a long, dark street, past the bar where her friends still party, cuts abruptly to an overhead shot of the police removing her body from the river the next morning. And the cycle of male weakness and female forgiveness that resonates throughout Antonioni’s oeuvre, appearing at the conclusions of L’Avventura and La Notte, is operative here as well: Lorenzo’s plaintive apology to his mistress, Nene (Valentina Cortese), is met by a steely indifference that melts into a reassuring caress. But while the domestic context in Le Amiche has an intimacy that speaks to human possibilities, Antonioni sets the later scenes within a spatial vastness that dwarfs the pathetic, unchanging nature of mortal beings.
Le Amiche plays at Film Forum in New York June 18–24. For more details, click here.
Agnès Jaoui, Let It Rain, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 110 minutes.
IN LET IT RAIN, a pair of clueless, bumbling documentary filmmakers worry over the tiny details of their framings: whether a fern in the background gives a halo to the subject, whether a poppy pinned to another subject’s dress is “overdoing” it. Director Agnès Jaoui, who is certainly far from clueless, is only a tad less exacting, but her mixture of off-kilter framings and disorientingly close handheld tracking shots (amid more conventionally studied long takes) imparts an appropriately rough-hewn quality to her messily comic look at the familial, racial, and especially sexual resentments of a half-dozen men and women living in or visiting a provincial French town.
The film stars the director as author-turned-politician Agathe, following the character as she visits her sister in the country home where they both grew up, breaks up with her more conventionally minded boyfriend, and agrees to be the subject of the aforementioned documentary as an example of a “successful woman.” As Jaoui divides her focus between Agathe and the other characters, she maps out a tension-filled environment in which everyone is distracted and tuning one another out, each person ruled by his or her particular prejudice.
Key to understanding the characters—whom Jaoui and coscreenwriter Jean-Pierre Bacri treat with a mixture of tentative compassion and critical, often ironic, distance—is the on-screen figures’ attitude toward the film’s two buzzwords: feminism and politics. They become dirty words—the former for most of the film’s men, the latter for just about everyone, including incipient politician Agathe herself. Resentments come out most strikingly during the documentary interviews in which the intradiegetic filmmakers, Michel (Bacri) and especially Karim (Jamel Debbouze), brutally grill their subject with questions about female quotas in politics, which Agathe, who seems uncertain of her political stances, handles with unflappable dignity.
Still, no matter how ugly the expression, every character has his or her justification, and Karim eventually grows from caricature to character as he explains to Agathe the effect of a lifetime of subtle racism—mirrored in the condescension shown toward his mother, who was in fact Agathe’s family’s longtime maid. In the end, communication is possible, resentments can be worked out, and new connections can be established, as Jaoui makes clear, even if the result is that her productively off-kilter film winds up concluding a tad too tidily for its own good.
Let It Rain opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York on Friday, June 18.
IS IT IRONIC that 45365 (2009), a more or less home-baked film that celebrates a particularly American ideal of small-town life, never really makes it back to the cradle from which it sprang? Lovingly created by a pair of natives of Sidney, Ohio, 45365 (the town’s zip code) is about to have a theatrical run—in New York, of course—after screening mostly at festivals in cultural hubs like Austin (where it won the SXSW Grand Jury Prize), London, and Turin. It probably won’t, as they say, play in Peoria.
But the stable, quietly God-fearing America depicted here has broad appeal—just ask any politician. And while not quite everything is rosy in Turner and Bill Ross’s time-capsule portrait of a contemporary Midwestern hamlet, much is. The civic machinery of the Sidney depicted here works along at a gentle hum. Not that 45365 feels too tidy; the editing and camerawork have a pleasantly unforced flow.
Early on, a local patrolman responds to a call from an old-timer whose cable isn’t working; later, he confesses he’s arresting the same people he did when he started on the force—and now their children, too. It’s sad, but there’s a reassuring pattern in it. Spend a little time here, the film suggests, and you’ll soon figure out who the troubled folks are. (Compare that to the opacity, boredom, and deep emotional disturbance Steven Soderbergh explored in Bubble , which was partly filmed across the state in the hollowed-out factory town of Belpre.)
45365 is conservative in the most appealing ways. “I live up the road, I work down the road,” a customer explains at the barbershop, to which the film returns several times. It could be a century ago, except he’s black and has a white guy fussing over his hair. Meanwhile, girls compete in beauty pageants and ride horses, and grunting boys go to football practice and the demolition derby.
The Rosses, to their credit, seem aware that they’re blending authenticity with nostalgia-tinged idealism. The film opens with a trumpet player on an empty stage and a sad, tumbling melody that recalls a Nino Rota score. Later, the filmmakers cut from a lovely musical interlude to a group of hunters blasting away at ducks.
The film’s most obvious forerunner is Frederick Wiseman’s Belfast, Maine (1999). As in that elegiac portrait of a small town, the system works. A new bridge gets built, the cops do their job, a local judge’s successful election campaign goes off without a hitch. And everyone behaves decently, even when they’re in handcuffs. Kids aren’t smoking, getting pregnant, or even texting—they’re talking about relationships and cruising through parking lots, presumably the way their parents did.
But how do you film a teen surfing for porn, anyway? Perhaps out of necessity, 45365 does some glossing. Like the prayer Sidney’s football team chants in the locker room before the big homecoming game, the small-town ideal is a comfort against the chaos and uncertainty that lie beyond it. Which is why the film grows so poignant when, in a single cut, it moves from the full roar of game night to a shot of the same field, months later, empty and blanketed in snow. These are cherished rituals. Whether or not you’re from so-called “real” America, this sincere tour of them probably won’t leave you cold.
45365 plays at Anthology Film Archives in New York June 17–23. For more details, click here.
ONE MIGHT LOOK for the effects of ten years’ time—the era-straddling span between Jacques Tourneur’s noirs Out of the Past (1947) and Nightfall (1957)—in the voice of Aldo Ray. Playing, in the later film, a war vet who’s pursued by bank robbers, the bull-necked actor speaks with a baggy hoarseness, as if his character, Jim Vanning, has spent too many nights drinking and too many days keeping still till the shadows fall and give relief. Vanning looks a little worn out, but not glamorously so, and his savoir faire is that of the underdog who is called upon to hold his own rather than Robert Mitchum’s cool. Even his would-be femme fatale, Marie, who asks the underemployed illustrator (“Soup cans or sunsets?”) for a five-spot in a bar, turns out working-girl ordinary, played with something between understatement and resignation by a young Anne Bancroft.
Vanning’s nightmare begins, as explained in flashback, with an exploded 1950s idyll in the countryside: Hunting buddies (Jim and a doctor friend) investigate a crashed car only to find two fugitives who want no witnesses. “I can’t believe this is happening,” the shell-shocked doctor says. (Later, Marie: “Things that really happen are always difficult to explain.”) The cheerful brutality of one thug (Rudy Bond) is as unsettling as the likability of the other (later TV star Brian Keith).
The chase continues into the movie’s present, Jim and Marie teaming up, with efficient filmmaking that reflects ex-editor Tourneur’s talent for editing with the camera. Tourneur’s director of photography, Burnett Guffey, who shot In a Lonely Place, expresses Jim’s open-air paranoia at an oil derrick, an outdoor fashion show, and a cabin (in a scene whose sounds, snow, and sadism are cribbed in Fargo’s wood chipper climax). Select, fearful point-of-view shots help make a noir that’s not did-they-do-it or would-you-do-it but—streamlining David Goodis’s 1947 source novel—a question of can-they-make-it.
Aaron Katz, Cold Weather, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes.
BEN CHACE AND SAM FLEISCHNER’S Wah Do Dem (2009), in which a young man from Brooklyn comes to knowledge during a trip to Jamaica, has a sensational climax. The movie is among the highlights of the BAMcinemaFEST, and it’s a measure of how exciting a festival this is that Wah Do Dem is not the only astonishing movie on a schedule that mixes recent American indies—Aaron Katz’s lovely shape-shifting Cold Weather (2010) is another knockout, as is Bryan Poyser’s claustrophobic spin on sibling rivalry, Lovers of Hate (2009)—with fabulous music docs and vintage genre flicks.
Wah Do Dem (Jamaican patois for “What’s wrong with them?”) opens with cool Brooklyn musician Max (Sean Bones) being jilted by his girlfriend (Norah Jones in a two-minute cameo), which forces him to go solo on a luxury cruise to Jamaica. Out of his element among the moneyed oldsters, Max spends a couple of days lurching from deck to deck and from ballroom to cabin, alternately drunk and seasick. Chace and Fleischner’s editing is fast and elliptical, and Fleischner keeps the camera close and unpredictably angled. The effect is a Fred and Ginger movie sampled on crystal.
Nothing could be further from the cruise ship’s glitzy excess than the lush natural beauty and desperate poverty of Jamaica. An innocent abroad, Max accepts a ride to the beach with a sweet-talking couple. They relieve him of his money, passport, clothes, and shoes while he’s taking a swim. Barefoot and shirtless, Max hitches a ride back to the boat, only to arrive as it’s pulling away. For the next forty-eight hours, he tries to make his way across the island to the American embassy in Kingston, cadging a few bucks from a pair of suspicious tourists and some beat-up sneakers from a group of soccer-playing locals. The Jamaicans he meets warn him that he’s lucky no one has murdered him yet, but it’s the eve of Obama’s election, when few would begrudge even the most callow and pasty-skinned American his life. And then something happens that could have come out of one of those Carlos Castaneda guidebooks to 1960s-style enlightenment. Max encounters an aged Rasta (Carl Bradshaw) who seems to exist on a plane so crazily high that just to look at him made me feel as if I were levitating. He escorts Max to a full moon celebration where the great reggae group the Congos play on and on, and time, which had been galloping along, stands still.
A similarly intense sense of place and mastery of tonal shifts distinguishes Aaron Katz’s third feature, Cold Weather. Doug (Cris Lankenau) drops out of college just short of getting his degree in forensic science. He moves into a Portland apartment with his sister, Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). For a while nothing much happens. Doug gets a job at an ice factory and makes friends with another worker (Raúl Castillo). Just when the movie begins to feel as if it’s going limp, Doug’s ex-girlfriend shows up acting nervous, and suddenly we’re in the middle of a rescue-the-damsel-in-distress mystery that’s not quite as nightmarish as Blue Velvet but that has the same Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew antecedents. Cinematographer Andrew Reed worked with Katz on his first two features, Dance Party USA (2006) and Quiet City (2007), but here, shooting with the Red One (a very cool digital camera), he provides more expressive and subtle imagery, just as Keegan DeWitt, the composer for all three movies, delivers a score with just enough genre elements to get the adrenaline running.
Like Matt Porterfield’s debut narrative Hamilton (2006), which John Waters included in his Artforum Top Ten, his Putty Hill (2010) is set in an impoverished, largely white Baltimore neighborhood. A young man has died of a drug overdose, and family and friends have assembled for his funeral. The movie is filled with vividly detailed behavior and many small, moving, emotional moments. In the large cast of nonprofessional actors, the young women make the strongest impressions, but there are just too many characters to allow any of them to develop fully. Forced by his limited budget to work quickly and improvisationally, Porterfield uses the device of having an offscreen reporter interview some of the characters, who turn away from whatever they are doing and talk directly to the camera. It may be an economical way of delivering exposition, but it also makes the movie seem like an acting-class exercise. One can’t believe that these characters would be quite so eager to confide in a stranger.
In Tiny Furniture (2010), director/writer/star Lena Dunham also toys with screen “truth,” but in a creepier way. Dunham plays Aura, Tiny Furniture’s protagonist, who, after graduating from college and being dumped by her boyfriend, returns to the TriBeCa loft where she grew up. And in fact, the filmmaker actually did grow up in the loft that she uses as the movie’s set, and she cast her actual mother, the artist Laurie Simmons, and her actual younger sister, Grace Dunham, as Aura’s artist mother and precocious younger sister. In the movie, Mom is a nasty piece of work—cold, narcissistic, willfully indifferent to her needy daughter’s pain. She and younger sis form a united front of rejection, but the extremity of Aura’s masochism guarantees that she won’t move out. She also courts the contempt and rejection of two male losers who barely notice her presence sufficiently to abuse her. And stickier still, she courts our rejection by walking around the house in nothing more than a T-shirt, flaunting her ass and thighs for anyone who’s looking—and we can’t help but look—as if daring us to pass judgment on her body. It’s a game I dislike being roped into, just as I dislike being roped into speculating about whether Simmons knew she was playing an art-world Mommie Dearest, and whether she worried that her daughter really thought she was a monster, or whether the audience would think that, and was this movie meant to be a satire or a psychodrama. On the other hand, if you know nothing about the people involved, I suspect you’ll just be bored.
Along with the Congos’ appearance in Wah Do Dem, the musical treat of the festival is Goran Hugo Olsson’s Am I Black Enough for You, a documentary about the Philadelphia soul singer Billy Paul, famed for his gorgeous, sexy 1972 hit single “Me and Mrs. Jones.” The film is chock-full of thrilling singing and frank, amusing conversation, threaded with a complicated debate about music, militancy, and black identity. Paul, who still has great pipes, is slated for a post-screening Q&A with Olsson. Among the other special events: Olivier Assayas presents two of his favorite films, David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together (1972). There’s brutish, bloody horror aplenty in Nicolas Winding Refn’s heavy-metal Viking saga Valhalla Rising (2009), and Refn is on hand also to introduce William Lustig’s Maniac (1980). See it and be disabused of any romance you may have cultivated about NYC in the ’70s. The horror is psychosexual in Ted Kotcheff’s Australian cult classic Wake in Fright (1971) and in G. W. Pabst’s more austere Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), starring Louise Brooks, which screens at the closing night special event with live music by 3epkano.
BAMcinemaFEST runs June 9–20 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. For more details, click here. Wah Do Dem opens theatrically June 18 at Cinema Village in New York.
Left: Jean-Pierre Gorin, Routine Pleasures, 1986, still from a video, 81 minutes. Right: Zhao Liang, Petition, 2009, still from a color video, 123 minutes.
ASKED ONCE to describe his 1986 essay film Routine Pleasures, Jean-Pierre Gorin settled on saying that it is simply “a film about about.” One might argue the same of the Migrating Forms festival, held May 14–23 at Anthology Film Archives, where three of Gorin’s works screened amid a selection of films and videos that cannily sustained breadth and focus while corralling explorations, co-presenters, and essentials from both the art gallery and the cinema. Besides programs of new and recent experimental shorts by the usual suspects, the Gotham-bound one-stop cinephile could scoop up rare revivals (Gorin, Ed Ruscha’s 16-mm works), catch-up suites (Stanya Kahn, Kerry Tribe, Straub plus or minus Huillet), and ambitious documentary deployments (Zhao Liang’s Petition , John Gianvito’s Vapor Trail [Clark] , Kutlug Ataman’s Journey to the Moon ).
The Gorin screenings demonstrated the nimble insights of the former Godard collaborator and “twin brain” to Manny Farber (a fellow UCSDer). Poto and Cabengo (1979) is an extraordinary funny-sad document of Gorin’s encounter with pidgin-speaking six-year-old twins and their desperately optimistic half-German parents. Shot by Les Blank and enlivened by the distinctive stonerlike drawl of Gorin’s voice-over, it’s a film about translation, and it’s as restless as its pent-up subjects, replete with text scrolls, sound looping, and freeze frames. The film presents a suburban California snapshot of ready-made housing, eye-popping wigs, and Dad’s hopeless realtor-ing. (The title alone is a fascinating closed circuit: the children’s names for each other.)
Even more fertile and visually engrossing, Routine Pleasures treks into the clubhouse of a group of train hobbyists, with its replica terrain and “temporal landscapes.” Full of reflective pivots and outright comedy, Gorin’s “small-scale epic” is punctuated with considerations of Farber and his own omnidirectional work (on canvas and off). It’s about men hanging out, a Frenchman in America, tools (“What you do with them and what they do to you”), and, in a spectacular climactic montage, the heavy grace with which the clubhouse’s wires and rigging hang together. Less an essay film than a collaborative chronicle, My Crasy Life (1992) goes heart to heart with ethnic-Samoan gangbangers in “Strong Beach.” There’s homegrown rap and the bizarre conceit of a beat cop’s Knight Rider-ish onboard computer making ironic observations.
Gorin’s films were the sort that send one walking away with freshly inquisitive eyes, and the festival’s programs likewise tapped multiple modes of attention: the immersive sylvan nocturne of Robert Todd’s Golden Hour (2009); shifts in and out of headily dynamic animal perception in Ruth Maclennan’s Three Short Films on Hawks and Men (2009); Dani Leventhal’s lusciously disorienting close-ups in 54 Days This Winter 36 Days This Spring for 18 Minutes (2009); the hypervivid field recordings and Song of Ceylon–descended sonic pastiches of Luke Fowler’s A Grammar for Listening (2009); and hypnotic digressions in Peggy Ahwesh’s Ape of Nature (2010). In these mixed contexts, a program of critically adored Straub and Huillet shorts was free to seem as precious as any other sampling of exactingly executed but rigid and off-putting aesthetics.
The feature documentary work in Migrating Forms (which opened with the trompe l’oeil actualités of Kevin Jerome Everson’s Erie ) included Gianvito’s Vapor Trail (Clark), about the toxic legacy of the US military presence in the Philippines. Originating in Gianvito’s scouting for documentary material for a fiction project, the 264-minute mammoth is part history lecture, part marathon testimonial by activists and victims. While informative and boasting Gianvito’s striking landscape photography, the film suffers from the literal-minded conceit that duration ensures fidelity and, at worst, suggests a kind of penitence cinema. (“I’m not sure the film asks enough of you,” Gianvito said in introductory remarks.)
Zhao’s Petition achieves more with less, burrowing into the psychological hellholes of Beijing legal petitioners from the provinces. Whole chunks of life, a decade or more at a time, are sheared off during their disputes; the dead-end disorder of their victimhood is echoed in the screen-filling clutter of their temporary shantytown rooms and environs, and in slurry grays of debris and the sad washed-out synthetic pinks and blues of clothing. Last, continuing the extraordinarily intimate globe-trotting, was Stephanie Spray’s As Long as There’s Breath (2009), in which a family frets over a son gone to Maoist rebels in between bickering, bantering, frank sex talk, and offhand wisdom: “Things look good used.”
Johan Grimonprez, Double Take, 2009, stills from a color film/video in 35 mm and digital Betacam versions, 80 minutes.
“THEY SAY THAT if you meet your double, you should kill him.” The mantra in Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s eighty-minute film Double Take, 2009, suggests that the real must assert itself against its image to prevent its own defeat in an ongoing battle between fiction and reality. The quotation is from the narrative that anchors the film—written by British novelist Tom McCarthy and based on Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “August 25, 1983”—in which Alfred Hitchcock meets an older version of himself. Alongside the intermittent narration of this tale in voice-over by a Hitchcock “sound-alike,” the film features interviews with Ron Burrage, one of the plethora of portly bowler-hatted Hitchcock look-alikes in Grimonprez’s Looking for Alfred, 2005, as well as carefully edited sequences of archival footage from the late 1950s and early ’60s. These include television news reports of the Cuban missile crisis, US and Soviet satellite launches, atomic bomb tests, and Nixon and Khrushchev’s 1959 “kitchen debate,” in addition to excerpts from Hitchcock’s wry introductions to his own television programs. At various points we see Folgers coffee commercials in which distraught housewives learn to mend their ways after serving their husbands unsatisfactory coffee. Throughout, echoes of and excerpts from The Birds propose Hitchcock’s 1963 film as an allegory for television (which, the director once quipped, “has brought murder back into the home—where it belongs”) and for missiles descending from the sky, suggesting a psychohistorical analogy between the fear of nuclear attack and the suspense that Hitchcock made his trademark.
As Grimonprez’s film develops, the parallels press in upon us ever more closely. The two Hitchcocks meet; television duplicates cinema; the opening salvos of the cold war expose the Soviet Union and the West as mirrors of each other. The proliferating layers of doubling are themselves interconnected: In one excerpt from the kitchen debate, Nixon boasts, “There are some instances where you may be ahead of us—for example, in the development of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space. There may be some instances—for example, color television—where we’re ahead of you.” Yet, as the film implies, the overriding purpose of the space race and of television was propaganda, both individually and, to greatest effect, when acting together.
The interplay between fiction and reality has long been central to Grimonprez’s practice; it already characterized his 1997 film essay Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, which conjoined archival footage of plane hijackings with excerpts from Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Mao II, and became notorious for its uncanny preemption of some of the shrewder theorizations of 9/11. Double Take—recently on view at Sean Kelly Gallery in New York and at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and currently at the Garage Center for Contemporary Culture in Moscow and Magasin 3 Stockholm Konsthall—clearly speaks to the origins of our current predicament, too, in which the symbiosis of the fictional and the actual has become increasingly difficult to parse. Indeed, a rapid-fire sequence after the final credits portrays both politicians and Hollywood as still invested in perpetuating a culture of fear. We should remember, as Grimonprez has noted, that “The Birds is the first Hitchcock film not to feature ‘The End.’ ” Double Take plays out our recent history against a fiction even while it presents that history itself as an ongoing story of claustrophobic suspense.
Johan Grimonprez, Double Take, 2009. (“The Humiliation of Old Age.”)
IN ONE OF HIS interviews with François Truffaut, Hitchcock speaks of the difference between surprise and suspense. He explains that to create suspense—even during the interview itself—the audience needs only to know that a bomb is under the table. Hitchcock is talking about how he constructs his fictions, but it’s hard not to think of the Cuban missile crisis, which was dominating television screens the same fall that the two directors were having their conversation in Los Angeles—in 1962, during the filming of The Birds. Although Hitchcock argued that his film wasn’t an allegory for catastrophe coming from the sky, it came to seem to me—after I’d worked my way through a vast quantity of archival material—that The Birds is entirely embedded in that specific historical context. At that time, even as cinema was having to redefine itself as a consequence of losing its audience to television, television was playing a pivotal role in the propaganda of fear: catastrophe culture—just like the birds—invading the world of domestic bliss.
Today, Hollywood seems to be running ahead of reality. The world is so awash in images that we related to 9/11 through images we had already projected out into the world. In a sense, fiction came back to haunt us as reality. After being confronted with Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y’s being a kind of premonition of 9/11, I wondered how to deal with that—with something happening in life confirming the film, even going beyond what one could have imagined. Slavoj Žižek described the 9/11 attacks as a real-life version of The Birds, the ultimate Hitchcockian threat, suddenly appearing from nowhere.
But I’m not a Baudrillard addict who thinks that reality has totally disappeared. Double Take does explore those boundaries, though it doesn’t say that reality has imploded. I think reality is very much there, but it’s co-constructed: Fictions are made into reality and back and forth. There was all this talk about weapons of mass destruction. It was a lie, yet even though the war was actually triggered by a fiction, it turned into an abhorrent reality.
When I was editing Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, the news coverage of the first Iraq war was a way for me to work through the material in that film. The second Iraq war was totally different—a double take on the first Iraq war. But Double Take is not overtly about Iraq, of course. It looks at the two rival ideologies of the Communist bloc and the capitalist bloc as analogies for the doubling that is mapped out in the film and in the story Tom McCarthy wrote, in which Hitchcock meets Hitchcock in a meditation on the perfect crime. The film looks at how fear was projected into society, like a fiction, on both sides of the ideological divide between East and West. It’s also about the fear industry and how fear has become a commodity.
Double Take starts off with Hitchcock saying, “I think my mother scared me when I was three months old.” He is pretending to be totally serious, but then he says, “You see, she said ‘Boo!’ ” and turns it into a joke. It’s like the whole cold war—the entire world was like, “Oh, they are scaring us,” but in the end all either side actually did was say “Boo!” in order to boost their defense industries, and people started to wonder, was this all a big joke or something?
Even Kennedy came to power by exaggerating the Red threat. And television played a huge part in drilling fear into people during the cold war, which justified the military’s accumulating large, expensive stockpiles of nuclear arms—at the beginning, for sure, but even more so at the end, when, with no reasonable gain in security, defense budgets escalated with the Star Wars program while public programs were eroded to a third-world standard. History repeats itself. That’s why the two Hitchcocks meet each other in the story—the Hitchcock from 1962 and the Hitchcock from 1980. Among other things, they talk about how television changed the nature of storytelling. Hitchcock had helped define what television was all about, and there’s something awkward about his ambivalence toward the television format and toward the programming getting interrupted all the time with commercials. As Heiner Müller said, the commercials are the most political part of television. The commercials hijack the whole history—the story that you’re telling. When Hitchcock introduced Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, he was always goofing around and laughing at the commercials in a sardonic way—that was his way of dealing with it. He was television’s biggest prankster.
The ads for Folgers coffee in Double Take are written into the story in such a way that sometimes you don’t know what’s going on: With the cup of poisoned coffee from Hitchcock’s Notorious occasionally spliced in between, and especially when the Psycho music instills the images with a double meaning, the commercial suddenly seems like a murder weapon. If you connect Hitchcock and these ads, it makes you think of poisoned coffee; at the end of the story maybe Hitchcock is killed by a cup of coffee. But it’s also the commercials that start to kill Hitchcock—because cinema and television are rival doubles as well. The older Hitchcock in the story even argues that “television killed cinema.”
We stumbled onto Ron Burrage when we held Hitchcock look-alike castings in London in 2004, and that developed into the doppelgänger plot and the Hitchcockian theme of mistaken identity. Ron, who died last year, was someone from a totally different background whose connection with a Hollywood icon, through circumstances not entirely of his own making, had become his life. In reality, his life and Hitchcock’s were tied together by a series of coincidences: There was more to the resemblance than met the eye. Ron used to work as a bellboy at Claridge’s, where Hitchcock stayed whenever he was in London; then he waited tables at the Savoy—Hitchcock’s favorite restaurant—where he served the likes of Cary Grant and James Mason. So he was at the other end of the spectrum from Hitchcock, who was working with the same actors on the set. And Ron was actually born on the same day as Hitchcock, August 13, but thirty years later. Then we found an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents where Hitchcock introduces himself as “the Alfred Hitchcock of thirty years ago.” And Ron actually introduced Tippi Hedren at the premiere of the restored version of The Birds in 1999, on the night of his seventieth and Hitchcock’s hundredth birthday.
In his appearances on television, Hitchcock often played off the idea of the double: He would be mistaken for someone pretending to be the real Hitchcock, he would work the strings of a marionette of himself, walk off with his own head under his arm, dress as a woman, or appear as his own brother, explaining that Alfred was nowhere to be found. Once he staged a look-alike contest in which he claimed to have been disqualified in the first round. More generally, the doppelgänger is often depicted as the harbinger of bad luck, as in Dostoyevsky’s The Double, which inspired Borges as well as Hitchcock.
Johan Grimonprez, Double Take, 2009. (“If You Meet Your Double, You Should Kill Him.”)
There were so many coincidences and other doubling analogies that came up. The Birds came out in 1963, the year Kennedy was shot, and I found a peculiar anecdote in Hitchcock’s daughter’s 2003 book, Alma Hitchcock: The Woman Behind the Man, where she says that her father got an invitation from President Kennedy for a White House luncheon that was postmarked one day before Kennedy’s assassination. For me, that coincidence was a knot connecting everything—Kennedy’s funeral, which the whole world watched on television, The Birds . . . A lot of things fell into place.
After the credits at the end of the film, there’s a footnote in very fast-forward acceleration. I show the Berlin wall coming down—marking a time when the whole world had to be redefined and when the United States had to reinvent its imaginary other. Next, the flying saucers descending on Washington, DC—from the opening of Independence Day—suggest how, at the beginning of the 1990s, the image of the alien became pervasive in American society. That role was later taken on by Bin Laden, and again fictions were being projected into society. We were in desperate need of another fear factor, and that’s where the film leaves off, with Donald Rumsfeld talking about the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.