Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes, 1948, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Left: Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). Right: Ivan Boleslawsky and Victoria Page (Robert Helpmann and Moira Shearer).


A WOMAN’S GLOVED HAND turns the pages of a program, aided by her male companion. The camera assumes their point of view. With this brilliant segue, directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger signal that we, the film audience, are these dapper patrons. Placed squarely in the theater, we begin our transition from watching The Red Shoes (1948) the movie to watching “The Red Shoes” the ballet. This gesture and its promise of a static, total vantage proves deceiving, as the astonishing fifteen-minute dance that follows immediately transports us to a place far beyond the proscenium arch.

Propelled by the dreamlike cinematography of Jack Cardiff and production designs of painter Hein Heckroth, the ballet becomes a proto-psychedelic projection of the desires and conflicts of its prima Victoria Page (Moira Shearer). She must choose between the love of a man (composer Julian Craster [Marius Goring]) and the love of her art (embodied by ballet impresario Boris Lermontov [Anton Walbrook]), partnering with both in her mind’s eye as well as in that of the camera. And still the bloodthirsty red shoes dance on, threatening to send Vicky leaping to her death (both on and off the stage).

The affectation of Powell and Pressburger’s metadrama has long been a point of contention, as if ballet is somehow cheapened by the impossible staging and cinematic tricks of the eye, and cinema likewise insulted by the cultural pretensions of ballet. But it is this hallucinatory magic made possible by the marriage of the two arts, in conjunction with the film’s portrayal of the grinding banalities of work (for the dancers are right back in rehearsal the next morning), that makes The Red Shoes true to the experience of creation. What is art if not part magic, part grind?

Cameron Shaw

A newly restored version of The Red Shoes is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. For more information, click here.

Left: Sacha Guitry, The Story of a Cheat, 1936, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 81 minutes. Right: Sacha Guitry, Quadrille, 1938, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 95 minutes.


DUBBED A “MINIATURE MODERN MOLIČRE” by contemporaries, and later “Lubitsch’s French brother” by François Truffaut, the Saint Petersburg–born Sacha Guitry (1885–1957) was a popular, prolific playwright/writer/actor and admired wit even before churning out forty-plus films. Criterion’s archive-diving Eclipse imprint makes available a quartet of playful 1930s works that sample an oeuvre marked by his one-man-showmanship. Though Guitry’s reputation has traveled little outside of France (where he was tarred for entertaining during the Occupation), his genial cynicism, candid and unpretentious sophistication, and Meliesian joy in storytelling have found admirers in filmmakers ranging from Truffaut-Godard-Resnais to Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The Story of a Cheat (1936) features Guitry as a smooth player who owes his life to a petty theft in boyhood: Grounded, he misses a dinner of mushrooms that kills his family. What follows is the eminently Continental yarn of his continued survival by hook or by crook and of the lovers that give him a run for his money. Amazingly, the memories of servicing a guest as a hotel elevator boy and gambling in Monaco are told almost entirely through voice-over, a sustained feat buoyed by imaginative bridges and asides such as a magic trick demonstrated in a mirror. In a characteristic paradox, the cheat finds himself entrusting his fate to honesty. Representing another Guitry specialty, The Pearls of the Crown (1937) shares in this raconteur’s spirit with its costume-a-rama daisy-chaining mildly goofy histories of royals in France, England, and beyond.

The housebound intrigues of Désiré (1937) might have attracted accusations that Guitry’s work was “filmed theater,” but the filmmaker’s driven dialogue belies the imputation of stodgy-staginess. As a new valet with a checkered past, the husky Guitry elegantly serves his beguiling boss (Guitry’s frequent co-star and one-time wife Jacqueline Delubac, her fine beauty served well by Criterion’s high-quality image) and neurotically pours forth on-the-fly analyses of motivations and potential indiscretions. As with the love rectangle of Quadrille (1938)—a reporter, a movie star, an editor, and his actress wife—there’s a frankness about sexual desires, across any boundaries, and social fictions that surpasses mere glib urbanity. “Let’s make sure we have our stories straight,” the editor tells his wife. “It’s only polite.”

Nicolas Rapold

Eclipse Series 22: Presenting Sacha Guitry is now available from Criterion. For more details, click here.

Flat Affect

07.27.10

Left: Stephanie Barber, letters, notes, 2000, still from a film in 16mm, 4 minutes 30 seconds. Right: Stephanie Barber, dwarfs the sea, 2007, still from a video, 7 minutes.


THOUGH EXTREMELY VARIED, the films of Stephanie Barber engage universal themes—time, death, memory, forgetting, frustration. Barber’s films also consider the impossibility of directly engaging these same themes in a media-saturated culture in which our deepest emotional reserves have been tapped by marketing and advertising.

Even in her films with characters, she avoids facial expressions, bodily gestures, the intonation of a human voice, and the graphic expressivity of handwriting. In a way, Barber is a modernist artist fashioning, from the detritus of mass culture, appealing and opaque documents that speak to our emotional lives in a mechanized, distant, even cold manner.

Through a computerized voice and typographic lettering, Barber scrubs away traces of the human subject in the process of telling stories about people. In dwarfs the sea (2008) and letters, notes (1997), shots of blurry portrait photographs and postcards form a cast of ersatz actors, who, frozen and out of focus, cannot ruin a scene with bad acting. In dwarfs the sea, black-and-white photographs of crew members appear and the digital narrator gives snippets of their lives: “Oh him, he had problems sleeping,” or, regarding a ship’s navigator, “Barely awake, he would begin an internal dialogue of failure.” Holding saccharine melodrama at bay, the affectless and antiseptic tone paradoxically grants each photograph and story a tinge of emotional identification.

In a different vein, the animated shipfilm (1998) takes the choppy rhythm of a film played too slowly and matches it with the roll of ocean waves. A Flying Dutchman ghost ship flickers on the horizon, its tremulous presence tied to the irregular syncopation. Appearing and disappearing as if conjured by the same chaotic force that created the waves, the lost vessel rides the oceans forever.

James Glisson

A screening of films by Stephanie Barber will run on July 31 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. The first program, “A Sides,” will run at 6:30 PM; the second program, “B Sides,” will run at 8:30 PM. For more details, click here.

Tamra Davis, Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, 2010, color film, 90 minutes. Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo: Lee Jaffe.


TAMRA DAVIS’S DOCUMENTARY Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child might make you weep (it did me) and might help you better appreciate a painter whose work matters enormously in the history of late-twentieth-century art. It achieves these ends largely though an abundance of footage of its subject at work and with a long interview that Davis videotaped in Los Angeles in 1986, two years before Basquiat’s death.

The painter and the filmmaker were friends; they had a rapport and intimacy that allowed Basquiat to be remarkably open, although it should be said that he is almost always open on camera, even when he openly shuts down at a perceived slight or stupidity. “It’s Samo—Mr. Samo,” he says with a flash of anger when, on a segment (circa 1980) of the cable access show Glenn O’Brien’s TV PARTY, O’Brien mispronounces the graffiti tag that Basquiat shared with his high school friend Al Diaz. SAMO©, which is pronounced with a hard “A,” is black slang for “same old shit,” but as critic and musician Greg Tate noted in his brilliant 1989 essay “Nobody Loves a Genius Child: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Flyboy in the Buttermilk,” “it also invites the cruel and punning to identify the writer as Sambo”—in other words, to put his/her foot in the same old shitty racist associations. The SAMO© tag was fixed to enigmatic bits of poetry, filled with just such slippages and contradictory meanings. This linguistic strategy became a central element in Basquiat’s painting practice. Explaining to an interviewer why his canvases are full of crossed-out words, he says, “The fact that they are obscured makes you want to read them more.” Countering the charge that he simply copied de Kooning or Twombly, he says that what he paints is “someone’s idea going through my new mind.” He lingers on the last three words, surrounding each of them with just enough silence so that, as we hear them, we also see them as they would be spaced out on a canvas.

Except for the extended interview with Basquiat, which she fragments and returns to throughout the movie, Davis follows a linear path, charting Basquiat’s ten-year career from his entrance to the downtown art scene as SAMO© in 1978 to his death from a drug overdose in 1988. In no way does she try to emulate Basquiat’s explosive style or the sense of suspended time and space in his painting, although the movie’s lively editing owes something to the bebop-laden sound track. “I like all kinds of music,” Basquiat says. “But bebop is my favorite.” Conversely, I would have preferred that Davis linger on at least a few individual paintings in her quick-cut montages of gallery shows and the painter’s various studios. Yes, his output was astonishing; at his death, Basquiat left about one thousand paintings and an equal number of drawings. The movie gives a sense of how driven he was, how it seemed as if he aimed, by sheer volume, to assure himself a place in the pantheon of twentieth-century painters, when in fact he achieved that position by virtue of a necessarily smaller number of masterpieces, produced in the early and late stages of his heartbreakingly short career.

In addition to the footage of Basquiat (there is one remarkable close-up of the artist at work paired with a voice-over explaining that he held his tools exactly as he had as a child at the Brooklyn Museum school, and this, combined with his visual sophistication, is what made his line so distinctive), the film succeeds through an assembly of highly articulate talking heads: colleagues and friends Fred Brathwaite (better known as Fab 5 Freddy), Julian Schnabel, and Kenny Scharf; critics Nelson George and Rene Ricard; the great historian Robert Farris Thompson, who explains that Basquiat “excavated black history in his paintings. . . . Like a Native American shaman, he says, ‘I walk with you’ ”; dealers and curators (in order of their appearance in Basquiat’s life) Diego Cortez, Annina Nosei, Bruno Bischofberger, and Larry Gagosian; studio assistants and girlfriends.

Davis relies on Basquiat’s first significant girlfriend, Suzanne Mallouk, now a psychiatrist, to make connections between the artist’s personal life and the pressure of a career that exploded overnight, and she admirably walks a fine line between clarity and discretion. The film is perhaps too reticent about Basquiat’s drug use (one might come away with the impression that drugs only became a problem in the last years of his life, which is not really the case). The movie, on the other hand, doesn’t pull any punches in its discussion of the racism of the art world. Hilton Kramer puts the nail in his own coffin with his assessment that “[Basquiat’s] contribution to art is so miniscule as to be nil” and that the only reason for the painter’s success was that “liberals need to make a gesture.” MoMA curator Ann Temkin explains somewhat ruefully that museum curators are uncomfortable with work that looks new because they are so immersed in the art of the past. This problem, of course, didn’t stop major American museums from showing Basquiat’s contemporaries Schnabel and David Salle during the 1980s’ return to painting. What was “new” about Basquiat’s work was the place from which his painting spoke—that of the black American male artist. Basquiat was so upset at being snubbed by museums that he got his devoted and astute collectors Herbert and Lenore Schorr to offer both MoMA and the Whitney a painting. The offer was refused; according to the Schorrs, one of these institutions told them that “the painting wasn’t worth the space.” I only wish Davis had been able to add Tate’s voice to this discussion. In “Nobody Loves a Genius Child,” Tate comes out swinging. The essay takes its title from the Langston Hughes poem that also opens and closes Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child. He was a genius, he was radiantly sad and radiantly angry, and he is much missed.

Amy Taubin

Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child opens July 21 at Film Forum in New York. Filmmaker Tamra Davis will appear at 8 PM for the July 21 and 22 shows; Fab 5 Freddy will appear at 8 PM for the July 23 show. For more details, click here.

Fire Starter

07.16.10

Serge Bromberg and Ruxanda Medrea Annonier, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, 2009, still from a black-and-white and color film, 102 minutes.


THE DAZZLING DOCUMENTARY Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno was conceived when the film preservationist Serge Bromberg was stuck in an elevator for two hours with Inčs Clouzot, widow of the legendary French auteur (Le Corbeau, Wages of Fear, Les Diaboliques). She told Bromberg that 185 cans of film—fifteen hours—existed from the project Clouzot had begun in July 1964. Inferno had been granted an unlimited budget by Columbia, but it was aborted after two and a half weeks of the eighteen-week shoot, when Clouzot had a heart attack.

Bromberg and codirector Ruxandra Medrea Annonier sifted through the tantalizingly silent footage—including costume tests, experiments in color inversion, and black-and-white scenes shot beside Eiffel’s Garabit Viaduct, across which express trains ominously thunder—and interviewed Clouzot’s surviving collaborators, among them Costa-Gavras, who had been an assistant director. They also had actors assume the roles of the original leads, Romy Schneider and Serge Reggiani, to read from the script, which concerns a hotelier, Marcel, who’s haunted by the suspicion that his beautiful young wife, Odette, is sleeping with a rakish mechanic and his sexy gal pal. (Claude Chabrol leadenly filmed the story in 1993.)

Stoking the Inferno myth rather than deconstructing it, the documentary’s investigative work goes only so far—Clouzot was struck by uncharacteristic indecision, Reggiani mistrusted him, the three camera crews didn’t know what they were doing—but the images the great director created are revelatory. Influenced by Op art and making use of stroboscopes, many of the visuals are proto-psychedelic valentines to the fabulously sensual Schneider—slick with olive oil or sparkling with glitter as she flirts with the camera, inhaling and exhaling cigarette smoke, laughing with erotic abandon as she pours water into a glass, being strangled beneath cellophane wrap. (In a black-and-white shot that suggests a Buńuelian gloss on The Perils of Pauline, Odette lies roped and naked on the railroad track as a locomotive speeds toward her.)

Gorgeous though they are as a record of Schneider’s hypnotic allure, in context Marcel’s imaginings are poisonously sadomasochistic. They are emblems of “visual non-security,” their colors the “improbable colors of madness.” They augur the rapid-fire dream sequence in Clouzot’s perverse 1968 La Prisonničre, which like his rancid showbiz noir Quai des Orfčvres is ignited by sexual jealousy. In an excerpt from an old TV interview dabbed in by Bromberg and Medrea Annonier, Clouzot pointedly denies he was pathologically motivated, yet the stain of paranoia is all over Inferno—a tragically abandoned masterwork to rank alongside Josef von Sternberg’s I, Claudius.

Graham Fuller

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno opens at the IFC Center in New York on July 16. For more details, click here.

Quality Time

07.14.10

Pedro González-Rubio, Alamar, 2009, color film, 73 minutes. Natan Machado Palombini and Jorge Machado.


IN ALAMAR (TO THE SEA) (2009), a record of a trip that was conceived for the purpose of the film, the Mexican director Pedro González-Rubio uses real people and an echo of their real-life situation to create what you might call a documentary about happiness––a project at once straightforward and delicate, every bit as simple and as profound as it sounds. The backstory emerges in a prologue of family snapshots and home movies: Several years ago, Jorge and Roberta fell in love and had a son named Natan. Now separated, still devoted to their boy, the two are moving on with their lives in the places they know best––he’s Mayan Mexican and remains in the Yucatán; she’s Italian and has returned to Rome. “I’m unhappy with your reality as you are with mine,” Roberta says, which leaves their five-year-old in the position, both difficult and privileged, of having to straddle two very different worlds.

Roberta packs her son up for a vacation with his father, who brings him to a tiny fishing community by a pristine coral reef off the southern coast of Quintana Roo called Banco Chinchorro. (The reef was declared a biosphere reserve in the 1990s, and there are plans to turn it into a UNESCO World Heritage Site.) From an offhandedly moving shot of Jorge resting his palm on his seasick son’s chest during the outward journey, Alamar takes shape as a collection of intimate father-son moments. Extending the generational scope, the two stay with Jorge’s father, Matraca, in his palafitte, a hut on stilts above water; each father imparts knowledge and teaches patience to his son. Natan’s experience is one of constant discovery; he learns how to snorkel and fish, to spear lobster and dodge crocodiles. The one shred of narrative concerns the appearance––and disappearance––of a friendly white egret, christened Blanquita. Under his father’s watchful eye, Natan grows to appreciate the manual work that an elemental existence demands as well as the leisurely rewards that come with it.

Acting as his own cinematographer (he also edited the film), González-Rubio pulls off a remarkable balancing act––his HD camera is tropistically alert to beauty and sensation but also capable of effacing its own presence, whether in the cramped palafitte or on a narrow fishing boat. (This talent for close-up, small-crew observation was put to very different ends in González-Rubio’s first film, Toro negro [2005], codirected with Carlos Armella, a harrowing character study of an abusive, self-destructive bullfighter whose nickname, El Suicida, sums up his approach in the ring.)

Alamar is an easy film to love––it has probably won more prizes than any other film on the festival circuit this past year (taking top awards at Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Miami, and many more)––and some might say too easy. But as lovely as it is, the movie is never merely picturesque. González-Rubio has not just photographed an idyllic location but, with the help of deft editing and use of sound, captured nearly its full effect on the senses. Alamar is, in essence, one sensory high after another: turquoise waters, open skies, reef dives, hammock naps, salt spray, the waves at night. And in its attention to rituals and rhythms, the things that make up a way of life, it also continues a long tradition of fisherman ethnography that dates to Robert Flaherty and encompasses films like Carlos Velo’s Almadrabas (1934), Agnčs Varda’s La Pointe courte (1955), and Margot Benacerraf’s Araya (1959).

As a meditation on the relationship between fathers and sons, and between man and nature, Alamar is perhaps unfashionably utopian. González-Rubio has said he had Peter Pan in mind, and there is a sense in which his boys’ adventure takes place in Neverland. But the film is no less poignant and vitalizing for being a self-conscious ideal, a paradise temporarily gained. When the title appears, it’s through a freshly sawn window, pushed out onto a picture-perfect sky-and-sea vista, an acknowledgment of the movie’s fictional frame. As the film ends, Natan commemorates his trip with a Sharpie sketch, which he plans to roll up into a glass bottle and set adrift “to Italy or Mexico.” The boy draws the highlights of his time by the sea––stingrays, barracudas, Blanquita––and then remembers one last thing: “The camera.”

Alamar runs July 14-20 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.

Dennis Lim

Left: Sally Potter, The Man Who Cried, 2000, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Suzie and Cesar (Christina Ricci and Johnny Depp). Right: Sally Potter, Orlando, 1992, still from a color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes. Orlando (Tilda Swinton).


MOMA’S MINIRETROSPECTIVE of films by Sally Potter kicked off with a “preview” of the digital restoration of Orlando (1992), Potter’s witty, dazzling, and occasionally delirious adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender bender starring Tilda Swinton as the eponymous, androgynous hero/ine. Orlando was Swinton’s breakout film, and her stardom plays a large role in the film’s theatrical re-release (on July 23) by Sony Pictures Classics, the other reason (or rather hope) being that its beauty and ambition might jog the art-house audience, particularly its female sector, out of complacency. I haven’t seen Orlando in nearly twenty years but I’ve never forgotten the moment when our hero, awaking to discover that the body that was born male is now female, turns limpid eyes to the camera and says with surpassing cool: “Same person, no difference at all. Just a different sex.” Or when she makes a madcap dash from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, shedding her Victorian togs as she runs. Or the sound of Jimmy Somerville’s angelic falsetto voice, singing the aria that ends the film on a note of total affirmation that is pure Potter. (It’s doubtful that Woolf would have approved.)

Orlando is an enormous achievement, and if nothing else in Potter’s nearly forty-year career matches it, there are nevertheless many films in the MoMA series that reveal her brilliant eye for framing and camera placement, her ear for music, and the extremely moving ongoing conflict between her romantic sensibility and her analytic mind. This conflict makes some of her most daring movies awkward and sometimes outright embarrassing, inspiring some of my favorite film critics to reviews as amusing as they are openly befuddled. Thus J. Hoberman of the Village Voice wrote that The Man Who Cried (2000) “gives bad movies a good name.” He continued: “Potter’s stringent, resourceful filmmaking in handling an extravagantly absurd plot and hopeless acting recalls the genius of poverty row maestro Edgar G. Ulmer.” He also noted that said plot was of Potter’s own devising. Nevertheless, he included the film on one of his best-of-the-year lists. (Among the hopeless actors are Johnny Depp, Cate Blanchett, and Christina Ricci.) The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris opened his review of Yes (2005), Potter’s attempt at reconciliation with the Other in the post-9/11 era, by observing: “Yes is a movie I watched with delighted derision, if such a response is possible. I enjoyed my dislike of it.” And he concluded: “The result is a unique time at the art house: a work whose badness becomes guiltily pleasurable, like a Harlequin romance novel masquerading as a dissertation.”

If these seem like dubious recommendations (and my assessment of these two films is even less likely to inspire anyone but a Potter completist to catch them), I suggest that you not pass up the rare opportunity to see The Gold Diggers (1983) and The Tango Lesson (1997) projected on the big screen. The former is Potter’s first feature, a fragmented meditation on women, money, and power, in addition to Busby Berkeley musicals Arctic landscapes, and Julie Christie’s leonine face. It is ravishingly photographed in black and white by Babette Mangolte. The latter film, another black-and-white beauty—this one shot by Robby Müller—is an audacious, pull-out-the-stops wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the tango is used to explore cultural difference that’s bred to the bone, the lure of certain aesthetic forms despite—or perhaps because of—their traditional assignment of gender roles, and the problem of women asserting authority and power, especially in situations where great male artists are involved. The artist here is the tango master Pablo Veron. The Tango Lesson is precisely structured and heedlessly personal, and the particulars of Potter’s self-exposure, like the wildest moments in Orlando, have stayed in my mind for years.

Amy Taubin

A retrospective of the films of Sally Potter runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York July 7–21, 2010. For more details, click here. Orlando will have a theatrical re-release by Sony Pictures Classics beginning July 23.

Jacques Rivette, Around a Small Mountain, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 84 minutes. Left: Kate and Vittorio (Jane Birkin and Sergio Castellitto). Right: Vittorio and Clémence (Sergio Castellitto and Julie‐Marie Parmentier).


THE ELEGIAC MONOLOGUES and bittersweet themes of Around a Small Mountain (2009) seem uniquely appropriate, given the career arc of the film’s director. At eighty-one, Jacques Rivette, key member of the French New Wave, has molded an ephemeral eighty-five-minute daydream about an over-the-hill circus troupe and an outsider who helps a scarred former cast member learn to cherish her roots. Could this be the filmmaker’s requiem for the art of cinema?

The story begins with a broken car: A visibly flustered Kate (Jane Birkin) is stranded on the side of the road in rural France; a man, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), comes to the rescue, stopping to silently repair the clunker. Actual introductions don’t occur until later, when both are parked in the next town, where Kate has returned to find a circus founded by her father. She invites Vittorio to a show and he becomes enraptured with the archaic spectacle of the clowns and gymnasts, who are now playing to an audience of three. Vittorio books a hotel room and begins his investigation into the past, befriending the unsung artists, celebrating their passions even as he learns more about Kate’s traumatic history. It was here, during a performance, that she lost her lover, forever imbuing the tent with pain and regret.

Rivette, director of Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and La Belle Noiseuse (1991), has made a career by building vibrant characters through improvised, almost spontaneous performances. In Around a Small Mountain, the personalities expand and then take flight via reflective chats in empty cafés and afternoon musings in gardens. Vittorio comes to love the simple pleasures of circus life, while Kate attempts to reconcile her despair. Rivette’s own affection for the circus is obvious. He shows the same comedy routine in its entirety three times, underscoring the familiar charm of a classic performance. He emphasizes the dwindling audience, at one point capturing the clown’s shocked reactions when Vittorio actually laughs at a punch line. Even the film’s climax plays out under the big top, as Vittorio tries to heal his new friend’s heart by playing out her lover’s death scene in full makeup: mourning as spectacle. It is Rivette’s doting tribute to the ways life imitates art (and vice versa), his gentle reminder that the show must go on.

S. James Snyder

Around A Small Mountain opens July 9 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.

Left: Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze, 2010, stills from a single channel video, 20 minutes. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery / Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery. Right: Michael Glawogger, Workingman’s Death, 2005, still from a color film in 35 mm, 122 minutes.


“WORK” WAS THE THEME of the fifty-sixth annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar—the what, when, where, who, and sometimes why of activity that’s often unseen or unrecognized on-screen. The 150-plus pool of attendees, including the featured filmmakers, watched and discussed a globe-trotting program of films showing drunken bullfighters, toddler water bearers, tyro politicians, fake pimps, expat diarists, open-air butchers, bankrupt farmers, and fantastical cheese manufacturers, among others. The program, curated by critic and editor Dennis Lim, was of course not a matter of “work” as mere occupation; instead it traced the diverse paths filmmakers take in interpreting works and days—spanning Michael Glawogger’s spectacular travelogues, Uruphong Raksasad’s melancholy Thai pastorals, Mika Rottenberg’s fanciful trope-loaded factories, Lisandro Alonso’s temps mort journeys through the Argentine outback, and Akosua Adoma Owusu’s deftly wrought films on craftsmanship and culture.

Two documentaries by Mexican filmmaker Eugenio Polgovsky found the hallucinatory in vérité, parachuting into his country’s impoverished hinterlands for close-up, carnivalesque chronicles of labor that is by turns mundane and macabre. Set in the isolated desert of San Luis Potosi province, Tropic of Cancer (2004) tags along for the hunting and trapping of sundry birds, snakes, and rodents (much of it done by a diabolically focused child of eleven or twelve). The film climaxed, in one of the seminar’s periodic reflexive moments, with roadside sales to tourists (as well as an extraordinary Donald Cammell–esque cut from an eagle’s eye to a snake). Polgovsky’s The Inheritors (2008) is just as unnerving, with unrelenting sequences of rural children shoveling, toting, and picking—a Seven-Dwarfs-gone-wrong world of pint-size workers, spiked with circus-y local music.

Like Polgovsky’s work, Zhao Dayong’s lauded Ghost Town (2009) conjures a marginal community in the provinces—a former Communist workers’ village perched in the mountains. Its unification of artistry (Zhao trained as an oil painter) with social portraiture made the centrally placed film a capstone to the week’s percolating dialogue on how work forges identity. Accordingly, Zhao’s embedded look at the Shanghai homeless, Street Life (2006), offered a fascinating vision of unmade man: a prolonged finale showing one of the subjects (recently beaten by police) engaged in demented Situationist crumping in a public square under a Jumbotron. The seminar’s most ironic statement on disenfranchisement, however, might have been Kazuhiro Soda’s tragicomic Campaign (2008), which follows a clumsy candidate in liberal Kawasaki through to the ultimate end: absorption and integration into the conservative party machine.

The Flaherty is not “about” premieres, but a presentation of Mika Rottenberg’s latest work preceded its unveiling this week at SF MoMA. Partly inspired by build-your-own salad bars, Squeeze (2010) showcases another tightly but mysteriously constructed whatzit-box of components—a disembodied tongue, a black Buddha, bare bottoms, lettuce, Indian rubber extraction—that defamiliarizes the ritual of work. Rottenberg’s use of montage in Squeeze and earlier works acquired new dimensions when seen in the context of the conversation on technique and distance that was running through the programs. An early short by Glawogger, Haiku (1987), becomes virtually indistinguishable from ads in setting metalworking and domestic routine to a pounding factory beat. Glawogger’s stunning world tours (from Bombay to Moscow to Mexico City to New York) in Megacities (1998) deploy restaging (a simulated Times Square hustle, a minimusical of babushkas singing), city-specific color schemes, and the impression of angelically ubiquitous access. Portraying dazzling beauty at the margins, Megacities and the better-known Workingman’s Death (2005) could evoke comparisons to National Geographic: Extreme voyeurism or, as one attendee put it, the sublime wonder/horror of Turner’s burning boats.

Perhaps most striking across the program was the tug of the rural—upon documentary subjects and filmmakers alike. Alonso saw the solitude of the urban young in the lone woodsman of La Libertad (2001); Pedro González-Rubio (director of soon-to-be-released Alamar) recounted fleeing soulless Mexico City TV production to make Toro Negro, a 2005 portrait of a wife-beating bullfighter weaned on soap operas; and Naomi Uman presented 16-mm diaristic and present-tense-nostalgic works on her (re)adopted Ukrainian homeland (one of which was wonderfully programmed with Uruphong’s 2009 Agrarian Utopia). In such crossing and bridging of boundaries there arises an ecumenical sense of documentary as not simply filmmaking but also a kind of shared experience.

Nicolas Rapold

The 56th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, programmed by Dennis Lim, ran June 19–25 at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. To see the full seminar schedule, click here.

Rein of Fire

07.02.10

Left: Anthony Mann, The Furies, 1950, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 109 minutes. Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck). Right: Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity, 1944, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 107 minutes. Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff (Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray).


BROOKLYN’S GREATEST GIFT to the world (Walt Whitman runs a close second), Barbara Stanwyck exemplifies a certain kind of big-city dame: whether as slang-slinging nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941) or platinum-blonde femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944).

But starting in the 1950s, Stanwyck would slip out of sequined gowns, white-belted dresses, and anklets to don dungarees, flannel, and holsters. The westerns Stanwyck made—most notably Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950); Allan Dwan’s Cattle Queen of Montana (1954); Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957); and, on the small screen, The Big Valley (1965–69)—mark her shift from metropolitan wisecracker/double-crosser to butch frontierswoman, determined to keep (or reclaim) her land. (Her mettle extended beyond the characters she played: Stanwyck, forty-nine at the time, did all her own stunts for Forty Guns, including being dragged by a horse in a windstorm.)

True to the film’s title, Stanwyck’s Vance Jeffords is an avenging woman in The Furies, set in the New Mexico Territory during the 1870s. When Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) threatens to come between Vance and her ranch-owner father, T.C. (Walter Huston), to whom she’s unnaturally attached, the enraged daughter permanently disfigures her stepmother-to-be with a well-aimed pair of scissors. Later betrayed by T.C., Vance will spend years and travel thousands of miles to ruin him.

“Do you mind if I take the reins? I like to know where I’m going,” Vance insists to Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), one of two men (not including Dad) she’s romantically attached to, her feelings often expressed by a hard slap across the face. Stanwyck grounds Mann’s western—which, as a combination of Greek mythology, Freudianism, and scenery chewing from Huston (in his last screen role), often threatens to tip over into hysteria—through her unwavering commitment to her character’s hot-headed dignity. “You’re in love with hate,” Rip tells Vance. Stanwyck makes wrath a virtue, never once letting go of the reins.

Melissa Anderson

The Furies plays July 6 at Film Forum in New York.