THE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL that calls Toronto home is like a city itself, hosting art and commerce in dense proximity, their acolytes each transmitting varied images of their shared world. The new downtown flagship was the clean and well-lit Lightbox building (hosting three screens, installation space, controlled milling-about zones), though the mecha-monstrous Scotiabank multiplex still did heavy lifting. Plenitude, by now the festival byword, was internalized as a theme by Guy Maddin and Michael Nyman, two artists commissioned by TIFF to help inaugurate the Lightbox. Shown nightly, Nyman’s travelogue NYMan with a Movie Camera sucked the dynamism out of Vertov’s cascading classic, but Maddin’s diverting Hauntings I crammed eleven screens into one room, displaying re-creations of lost films by Alice Guy Blaché, Josef von Sternberg, Hollis Frampton, Kenji Mizoguchi, F. W. Murnau, and more, some of which featured noted silent star . . . Udo Kier.
Set in 1845, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff also re-created the past—or two pasts, really. A band of pioneers go down a road to nowhere in rickety prairie schooners, placing themselves at the mercy of a bluffing guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood). The men hesitate to stand up to him; the women strain to hear privy decision-making; but one wife, Emily (Michelle Williams, mildly but productively anachronistic), dares to call bullshit. All wander a frontier that isn’t yet “America,” a rolling desert of unreadable signs (extending to the language barrier with a captured, amused Indian). The stagnant chaos and baffling leadership (“Is he ignorant or just plain evil?” goes one musing) evoke a more recent decade, too, but more disconcerting is the weary disconnect among Reichardt’s unsettled settlers.
Williams’s outspoken character is driven both by gumption and by having nothing more to lose, and other women in the festival’s selections also crossed lines. In Pink Saris, the talented British documentarian Kim Longinotto keeps up with force of nature Sampat Pal Devi, a women’s advocate in Uttar Pradesh, India. Sampat has the daunting ability to tell a runaway fiancé to stay, or to shame an abusive father, and make it stick. Yet her sound bites and “gulabi gang” of pink-clad supporters belie her conviction that she and these villagers are invisible without media recognition. What threatens to become a Judge Judy series of interventions turns dark as Sampat’s own traumas emerge. Longinotto, who uses tightly wound scenes buffered by verdant fields, unsentimentally suggests that centuries of custom can’t be resolved just like that.
Errol Morris’s Tabloid, the debut public screening for the LightBox, probably doesn’t need more exposure, so to speak, but it was wrongly rated as a nonpolitical goof-off. The film is powered by loony Southern raconteur and life-adventurer Joyce McKinney, known in the 1970s as a British tabloid phenomenon for kidnapping her Mormon husband and ensorcelling others, and then later as a millennial human-interest oddity for cloning her dogs. McKinney just seemed to make things happen, somehow, and Morris uses her to tease out the interplay between one’s fictions and one’s actions. (At the Q&A, he complicated the gonzo appeal of the movie: “I don’t think she’s any crazier than any of the men in the story.”)
In Pia Marais’s At Ellen’s Age, too, a woman breaks out, though to dubious ends: Jeanne Balibar’s stewardess walks off the job after a breakup, but gets limited mileage out of hotel nesting and taking up with an animal-rights collective. Nanouk Leopold’s serenely simmering but schematic Brownian Movement tracks a young mother and doctor (wholesome, blonde, unnervingly aphasic Sandra Hüller) who keeps a secret pied-à-terre for unsightly pickups. Dead, dying, and man-eating prisoners populate a godforsaken reeducation outpost in Wang Bing’s monotonously staged Cultural Revolution life force sapper The Ditch, but it takes someone’s wife to show up and ask where the bodies are buried.
Among the more delicate pleasures were Delfina Castagnino’s What I Most Want, a wisp of a film, a bit of a female Old Joy, about two twentysomething friends (one of them María Villar, an appealing player from this circle of filmmakers) in Argentina’s Bariloche, talking, reacting, nursing wounds, passing milestones. And, finally, Jia Zhangke’s Shanghai excavation I Wish I Knew counts, among the ranks of its superb and illuminating interviews marking midcentury and today, a gangster’s cheery middle-aged daughter and Hou Hsiao-hsien. Plenitude indeed.
THE FOURTEENTH EDITION OF “VIEWS FROM THE AVANT GARDE,” an event of the forty-eighth New York Film Festival organized by Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith, presents seventeen programs of films and videos. Though some are devoted to a single artist––e.g., Jean-Marie Straub, Phil Solomon, and Helga Fanderl––most are eclectically composed. The works vary in length and format, some in Super 8 or 16 mm, others in alternative media. James Benning’s Ruhr (2009) represents his first foray into digital. It is an occasion to study and appreciate the potential and values of different media. Of those I previewed, many deserve more attention than space allows, including Manon de Boer’s Dissonant (2010), Dominic Angerame’s Soul of Things (2010), Paolo Gioli’s Il finish delle figure (Photofinish Figures, 2009), Ute Aurand’s Hanging Upside Down in the Branches, Pieter Geenen’s Atlantis (2008), Fred Worden’s Possessed (2010), and Fanderl’s luminous miniature sketches.
Robert Beavers’s The Suppliant (2010) is an exquisitely wrought, five-minute portrait, both of the small statue of the title and of the artist/friend in whose apartment it resides. Its arms raised in appeal to an absent being––perhaps a deity, or, as the shot of the figure seen from the back implies, the radiant sun that blazes through the windows––the figure is crosscut with an unmade bed, an anatomical drawing, a painting of a male nude, and views of Lower Manhattan seen from a nearby Brooklyn promenade. Beavers pans briskly up and down the figure’s sleek surface, as if to summon its spiritual, nurturing power, cutting these moves with shots of its head, its torso, and an arm gracefully poised. Sounds are minimal and precise: A gentle scratching suggests the friend at work, perhaps shading in a pencil sketch. Without a single shot of the apartment’s occupant, images and sounds carve a portrait of a solitary life comforted by art.
Nathaniel Dorsky’s lyrical Pastourelle (2010) plays with the borders between recognition and wonderment. Though much of the imagery is of flowers and plants, the film escapes sentimentality. Dorsky’s lens pushes through blossoms and stalks, as if to penetrate the secrets of their existence. Signs of the human, via reflections or close-ups of hands, assume no priority over the natural world. Venetian blinds, shades, windows, and gaudy colors from a television deflect the light or mediate between the botanical and the biological in what seems almost a pantheistic view of the universe.
Rebecca Meyers’s Blue Mantle (2010) is an elegant, sorrowful meditation on the sea, crosscutting haunting images of its variable moods, seductive hallucinations, and numerous shipwrecks with excerpts from poems, novels, paintings, and music––of Melville, Turner, Wagner, and Tennyson––that have bowed to the supremacy of all seas over human history and invention. At the end of Meyers’s meticulously crafted voyage, the cruel irony of her title becomes clear: “Alas! What is life, what is death, what are we / That when the ship sinks we no longer may be?”
In an entirely different register, Thom Andersen’s Get Out of the Car (2010) and Jeanne Liotta’s Crosswalk (2010) focus on marginal cultural aspects of city life. At least his second chronicle on Los Angeles, Anderson’s film is composed of stunningly shot single takes of storefronts, fenced-in empty lots, and decrepit, unused billboards. Graffiti covering many surfaces––including images of Jesus and the Virgin Mary––mark the displacement of a mostly Spanish population, as mournfully noted by a native voice-over. Though not a city symphony in the classic mode, the juxtaposition of forlorn images with the sounds of endless, unseen traffic on the highway nearby speak eloquently of the onrush of urban life indifferent to the fate of its cultural fabric.
Set in New York’s Losaida, Crosswalk’s directness––embodied in handheld shots and the grainy tactility of Super 8––respects its subject. Liotta’s camera follows a Good Friday procession on the Lower East Side. Through crowded streets, the Christ figure falls the requisite three times as “soldiers” lash him into line. Sensitized to her material’s connotations, Liotta avoids messages. The religious pun of the title extends easily to the cultural and racial cross-sections of the environment; to the aural juncture of police sirens, traffic, hip-hop, and a voice-over religious text; to the reenactment of a biblical event amid storefronts, banks, and vehicles. The two final images seal a coexistence too compacted to ignore: a black-and-white negative of the Christ figure frozen in place, followed by that of a storekeeper––the living present displacing, though not erasing, the iconic past.
Digital works are strongly represented. In T. Marie’s Slave Ship (2010), a minimalist gem, details of J. M. W. Turner’s painting of the same name slowly, almost imperceptibly bleed through and supplant preceding ones, a revelatory visual feat unimaginable in any other medium. Jürgen Reble’s mind-bending, alternately numbing and mesmerizing Materia Obscura (2010) is a work whose morphing of cellular-like forms of indiscernible origin and trajectory, might evoke the atomistic views of the universe of pre-Socratic philosophers or the Heraclitean notion of flux. We could be looking at the coagulation and decoagulation of organic matter. The ultimate hypnotic screen saver, the film is a paean to the endless mutability of the cosmos.
Phil Solomon, American Falls, 2010, still from a color film in HD, 55 minutes.
Should anyone imagine that the art of alchemy died with the Middle Ages, Phil Solomon’s American Falls testifies to the contrary: both to the possibilities of photographic and digital transformation and to the magical emanations of their fusion. The work is epic in conception and form, with a surface texture that, as it refashions and transmutes archival footage from myriad sources, resembles something between a palimpsest of chemical and photographic strata and the impasto of a painter’s canvas. The incipient visions of Solomon’s previous labors in this style here burst forth, unleashed, with images from America’s collective unconscious. Burnished bronze and pulsing forward through layers of idiosyncratic techniques, they flesh out a three-framed canvas with “monumental” aspirations, sometimes invoking the nation’s war memorials. Images are conjured into transient visibility before dissolving back into the recesses of historical memory. This is as much about inviting instant recognition as it is about limiting exposure of the overfamiliar. Similarly, popular songs are gently deconstructed through the rhythmic protractions of an intricate sound design (cocreated and mixed by Wrick Wolff) that freshens their nostalgic currency.
Opening with 1901 footage and a reenactment of Annie Edson Taylor, the first person to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel, allusions to “falls” pervade: of political and inspirational leaders (from Lincoln to FDR to JFK and King), and soldiers on battlefields (the American Revolution, the Civil War, both world wars, and Korea); from pratfalls of movie comics (Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Charlie Chaplin) to baseball heroes crippled by disease (Lou Gehrig). Disillusionment with America’s promise is palpable throughout. In one triptych, George Washington in the central panel is flanked by the text of the Declaration of Independence; but in another the Liberty Bell’s crack is visible in all three panels. Still later, the looming rule of capital, evoked by the credits of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), needs only the central panel to dominate.
It is impossible to do justice here to the juxtapositions and permutations of these images, or to the aching beauty and emotional resonances of this work. Much of the latter derives from the sheer physiological spectacle of each marble or bronze tableau throbbing into life through Solomon’s midwifery. More than any other independent film or video I can think of from the past decade, American Falls invokes the specter of a nation whose present unraveling is all too rooted in its history. How sad it is to realize that Solomon’s masterwork, painstakingly crafted over thousands of hours, cannot hope to reach as many people as the lamest television commercial. Anyone still touched by the poetic viability of the avant-garde should not miss this opportunity to see it.
The fourteenth Views from the Avant-Garde runs Thursday, September 30–Sunday, October 3 as part of the New York Film Festival. For more details, click here.
THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a cerebral Fight Club. Leave it to David Fincher to make the story of a young man’s symbiosis with his laptop into adrenaline-rushing, mind-racing, often thrilling, occasionally laugh-out-loud entertainment. Based on Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires (2009), a speculative nonfiction book about Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook, the movie boasts, in addition to Fincher’s fleet, elegant direction, Aaron Sorkin’s whip-smart dialogue and a performance by Jesse Eisenberg that confirms him as the Dustin Hoffman of his generation.
The movie opens with a breakup scene, the argument as fast and abrasive as in a Howard Hawks movie, except these are nineteen-year-old kids, fragile and vulnerable, doing damage to each other. In a dark, noisy college pub, Zuckerberg (Eisenberg) and his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara, who also snagged the title role in Fincher’s remake of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series) lean toward each other across a table, their faces etched in light, as if no one else existed for them in the crowded room. Zuckerberg is projecting his own paranoia and hunger for status onto Erica, and he seems completely unaware that she isn’t enjoying his passive-aggressive repartee. His conversational style is disconcerting: It’s as if at least two trains of thought are running in his head simultaneously and he’s paying more attention to the relationship between them than to anything Erica says. He refuses to acknowledge how condescending he’s being until she stops him cold by telling him that they are no longer dating and she thinks they should “just be friends.” In uttering this clichéd kiss-off, Erica plants the seed for Facebook’s modus operandi, which is what makes the scene and much of what follows very funny—sometimes funny ha-ha, always funny ironic. Then she delivers the coup de grâce. You will be, she tells him, a successful and rich programmer, but when girls do not want to date you, you will think it’s because you are a nerd. “I want you to know from the bottom of my heart that that will not be true. It will be because you are an asshole.”
Stricken, Zuckerberg sprints out of the pub and jogs across the entire Harvard campus toward the safety of his dorm room. It has just rained, and the damp sidewalks and buildings gleam under the streetlights. Fincher frames Zuckerberg in one long shot after another. His isolation and the unbroken pace of his running suggests, as fully as the rat-a-tat dialogue of the previous scene, his drive and alienation; Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s ambient loop of low-pitched, tremulous strings under a repeated piano figure takes the measure of his anxiety and directs it straight to our solar plexus. Diametrical opposites, this sequence and the opening one in the pub are gorgeous in a way that nothing else in the movie quite matches. (Director of photography Jeff Cronenweth used the latest iteration of the RED camera.) Fincher needs to show us the beauty of the actual world because it is the danger of that beauty that makes Zuckerberg, a genius kid emotionally paralyzed by abandonment fears, take refuge in a virtual world that he creates and controls. Without sentimentalizing him, Fincher gives us room to empathize with Zuckerberg, even allowing us a fantasy of rescuing him from himself. The movie needs that fantasy, because in the course of building Facebook, Zuckerberg will commit some unforgivable actions. As Jean Renoir said apropos of The Rules of the Game (1939), “Everyone has his reasons,” and The Social Network, although it is largely focused on a single character, shows us something similar.
Wired into his laptop, Zuckerberg trashes Erica on his blog while downing beer after beer, their labels familiar without being identifiable. (Fincher must believe that product placement—except for the use of Harvard as a product—is “not cool,” which is the reason that Zuckerberg gives for refusing advertising on Facebook in the site’s early days.) Then, seemingly in the course of a single night, he hacks into the university’s primitive dormitory facebook registers and writes the code for FaceMash, a site that arranges the ID photos of Harvard women in random pairs and allows users to vote on which is hotter. The site goes viral with a legendary twenty two thousand hits in two hours. Zuckerberg is instantly famous around campus. He has solved the problem he explained to Erica just hours earlier—how to distinguish himself among hundred of undergrads, all of whom got perfect 1600s on their College Boards. (Maybe I love this movie because it’s about how very smart people survive in an age of rampant stupidity.)
“Why do you always do things that make girls hate us?” complains Zuckerberg’s only friend, wealthy business major Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the next Batman, and here fulfilling the promise seen in his performance in the British social drama Boy A .) While Zuckerberg’s notoriety has drawbacks, it captures the attention of the Winklevoss twins (both played by Armie Hammer using the facial-movement capture technique Fincher put on the digital-effects map in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button .) The “Winklevi,” as Zuckerberg contemptuously dubs them, are dim-bulb legacy students, varsity rowing champions on course to become masters of the universe. They and their business partner Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) approach Zuckerberg to help them with their stalled idea for a dating site whose lure would be the exclusivity of its harvard.edu address. But instead of applying himself to their project, Zuckerberg strings them along while working nonstop on his own idea for a site “that takes the whole social experience of college and puts it online.” After forty days and forty nights, “The Facebook,” as it was initially dubbed, goes live, and the rest is history.
At this point, the movie jumps three years ahead to a conference room where Zuckerberg, Saverin, the Winklevoss twins, Narendra, and their various lawyers are giving deposition in two lawsuits brought against Zuckerberg: one by Saverin accusing Zuckerberg of defrauding him of his financial interest in Facebook, and the other by the Winklevi and Narendra accusing Zuckerberg of stealing their intellectual property. The Winklevi suit at one point causes Zuckerberg to respond: “If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you would have invented Facebook.” Eisenberg’s delivery is stunningly fast and flat, the logic achieved with just the tiniest emphasis on “inventors” in the first clause and “Facebook” in the second, the words floating in an ether of contempt. At that moment, Zuckerberg seems so much like Warhol, whose assistants and Superstars claim to this day that they gave the artist every idea he ever had.
The central interaction in The Social Network is between Mark and his laptop, and Fincher and Sorkin circumvent this problem with a parallel- and crosscutting strategy executed with momentum and clarity by editors Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter. Almost every sequence of nerds glued to screens is matched to the kind of partying that I somehow can’t believe actually goes down at Harvard (busloads of skanky harvard.edu groupies desperate to touch flesh with the semisecret Final Clubs’s male elite), but which seems more plausible when Mark moves Facebook to Palo Alto under the influence of Internet huckster and Napster inventor Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake, in a sleazy showboating performance that gooses the movie whenever and wherever it needs it). This pairing of racing minds with grinding bodies is complicated in the second and third acts when the testimony of the various parties in the lawsuits is crosscut with the scenes that show the events they are describing from various points of view.
The Social Network is in part a movie about young men who behave badly toward women because they are terrified of them. That the characters are in that way misogynist doesn’t make the movie misogynist. Nevertheless, it’s a bit disconcerting to see women divided into two stereotypes: the unavailable and the sluts. Erica, who in Sorkin’s overly simplified schema is the sole catalyst for Facebook, is an unimpeachable moral force, as is the young lawyer (Rashida Jones) who appears toward the end and offers a slightly more compassionate assessment of Zuckerberg’s character. Nevertheless, their brief appearances are overwhelmed by the array of anonymous bimbos and psychos, seemingly driven by their need to score a rich guy but in fact acting as box-office candy.
In the end, however, The Social Network is not concerned with gender differences or interpersonal relationships, but rather with the paradox that Facebook, the mechanism by which the social relationships of at least two generations have been transformed, was created by a social misfit. The movie is not so much about Facebook as it is about Zuckerberg, and it is carried in just about every scene by Eisenberg’s amazing portrayal, which stands out as one of the great American movie performances of all time. Eisenberg convinces us not only that his character is off-the-charts brilliant, but that his elaborately constructed defenses are always on the verge of being overwhelmed by anger or grief or both at once. His voice flattened and choked back by a glottal stop, his gaze defiantly opaque except for occasional moments when his eyes gleam with diabolical humor, Eisenberg nevertheless makes Zuckerberg furiously alive at every moment. The actor has a genius upper lip: When the outside world breaks through the character’s defenses, the lip puffs out just slightly before tensing again, as if it alone can dam a flood of emotion. It’s not a gimmick—I doubt that Eisenberg is even aware of it—but Fincher is, and he trains his camera on it. There’s more box-office gold in that lip and how it makes Zuckerberg recognizably, identifiably, lovably human than in all the bimbo breasts and booty. What a terrific movie!
The Social Network premieres at the New York Film Festival on Friday, September 24, and appears in theaters everywhere on Friday, October 1.
A PARAGON OF “THEY DON’T MAKE ’EM LIKE THAT ANYMORE” CLASSICISM, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was David Lean’s first epic, the quasi genre with which the British director would become synonymous even after a significant decade and a half helming prestige-play (Brief Encounter , Summertime ) and novel (Great Expectations , Oliver Twist ) adaptations. To watch Bridge now is to realize how much tastes have changed and how far standards have fallen in the past fifty-plus years: While the serious adult epic has gradually been replaced by the adolescent action-adventure fantasy—Lawrence of Arabia (1962) giving way to The Lord of the Rings—any remaining films that can be appropriately deemed “sagas” beyond the Star Wars sense of the word have rapidly declined in quality, this starting roughly around the time of Mel Gibson’s meatheaded Braveheart (1995).
But Bridge does more than simply summon memories of a vanished golden age. Rich in character and excitingly tense in building toward an emotionally devastating as well as physically destructive climax, Lean’s film feels fresh in its meticulous composition and thematic complexity. What’s most impressive is the way Bridge works on a grand scale and never for a second feels bloated, indulgent, showy, or melodramatic. Shot in Ceylon, the story takes place in Thailand during World War II, where British POWs arrive at a camp/graveyard run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), a cruel taskmaster whose desperation to complete a bridge pivotal for the transportation of Japanese supplies has him forcing high-ranking prisoners to work beside the men they command, an act that violates the Geneva Convention and particularly rankles Alec Guinness’s pedantic Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson. Meanwhile, an escaped American named Shears (William Holden) goes back into the jungle as part of a team sent to destroy the bridge, eventually overseen in its construction by a vindicated and increasingly daft Guinness.
Adapting from Pierre Boulle’s novel, blacklisted screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson have the three major characters grappling with the demands of masculinity by exceeding, transforming, or abdicating their roles. Shears initially impersonates an officer, thinking he’ll receive cushy treatment in the POW camp, then admits his chicanery only when it might allow him to wriggle out of the dangerous mission. Nicholson fulfills his leadership responsibilities by refusing to abandon principles even when placed under excruciating torture, but he becomes so obsessed by the letter of the law that he nearly sides with the enemy. Saito himself can only watch in awed and impotent dismay as the British soldiers prove the ineffectiveness of his command. Though visually monumental in its ’scope renderings of tropical jungles and intricate ergonomics, Bridge earns the “epic” appellation due to its depth: Every display of moral courage is countered by its opposite, and Lean captures man in the darkest of circumstances and grayest of existential areas by refusing to sentimentalize heroism. Just as much as with his masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, the director uses his outsize canvas to portray humankind as bound to the very nature that doesn’t just surround but envelop him.
The Bridge on the River Kwai plays September 24–30 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
C.W. Winter and Anders Edström, The Anchorage, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 87 minutes. (Photos: Anders Edström)
FIFTY-SOMETHING ULLA (Ulla Edström) lives in an isolated cottage on the Stockholm archipelago, her life punctuated by routine, including the walk she takes every morning through a leaf-rustling woods to the sea where her day begins with a brief, nude swim. She keeps a diary, and through it we learn that she’s a widow; she talks to friends on the phone and fills the house with the constant report of news radio, but otherwise her loneliness is interrupted only by visits from daughter Elin (Elin Hamrén) and her boyfriend Marcus (Marcus Harrling).
This is the extremely skeletal plot of The Anchorage, the debut feature of directors C. W. Winter (American) and Anders Edström (Swedish, son of Ulla). Like several other recent titles on the more adventurous side of the art-house roster (e.g., Lake Tahoe, Liverpool, Birdsong [all 2008]), The Anchorage patiently observes the unfolding of events as they slowly cohere into a subtly discernible narrative. The stakes aren’t immediately evident. There are long, nearly dialogue-free shots of the film’s few characters engaging in the most humdrum of activities: rowing on the water, playing ping-pong, gutting fish, shopping. Certain events—such as the departure of Elin and Marcus—seem significant, but not necessarily all that much more than anything else. While one or two compositions stand out for their foreboding beauty—the faint light glimpsed from a deeply darkened windowsill, for instance—the film maintains a consistently muted tone, even when Ulla’s calm existence is eerily disrupted by the presence of a deer hunter literally lurking at the edges of the frame.
Films in the style of The Anchorage can easily evaporate into thin air, their focus on the rhythms of quotidian life an excuse for a lack of daring and substance. The Anchorage doesn’t simply avoid this trap: Its mysteries are uncommonly profound and deeply felt; its depiction of a woman entrenched in solitude is not just contemplative but unbearably tense. And Winter and Edström don’t simply evoke transience and fragility, dread and fortitude; they capture these invisible states through delicate yet haunting images that render them startlingly visible.
The Anchorage runs at Anthology Film Archives in New York September 17–23. For more details, click here.
Lionel Rogosin, On the Bowery, 1957, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 114 minutes.
LIONEL ROGOSIN’S On the Bowery (1957) inhabits two netherworlds: Manhattan’s storied skid row and the nascent independent American cinema. Filmed mostly in the shadows of the old Third Avenue elevated train, Rogosin’s frank depiction of proletarian down-and-outers was deplored by establishment critics of its era as dispiriting and inept, even anti-American. To watch it now, as with walking today’s Bowery, is to see it in more flattering light—in the film’s case, as a daring trip into the wrong part of town that paved the way for John Cassavetes (who singled out On the Bowery as a major influence) and countless others.
The faces in On the Bowery are far from pretty: Bristled, drawn, swollen, and dented from hard luck and probably even harder drinking, they’re portraits from what a priest in the film calls “the saddest and maddest street in the world,” and they tell the real story. The tale that Rogosin scripted with Mark Sufrin (about a railroad worker from Kentucky who drifts through and an old-timer who latches on to him) gives the film a thin plot. You can feel some of its raw poetry leeching away during the staged scenes.
Still, the spontaneous and scripted elements are remarkably integrated overall. Rogosin (who died in 2000) largely learned how to direct during shooting, and although he claimed he was “motivated by life and not by films,” On the Bowery belongs to the rough but beautiful traditions of Italian Neorealism and Robert Flaherty’s celebrated 1934 depiction of weather-beaten Irish, Man of Aran.
The footage of snarling drunks that Rogosin and his cinematographer, Richard Bagley, captured inside a raucous Bowery bar is a minor miracle, and not a pleasant one. A scene of Hogarthian urban dissolution, its sourness almost sticks to your clothes. Contrast that bedlam with the quieter mornings on the Bowery, when sacklike bodies drag themselves up off the sidewalk and slouch away, and you begin to get an idea of the sad rhythms of the gutter, a place that Rogosin had the temerity to believe 1950s America needed to see and hear.
A new 35-mm restoration of On the Bowery plays September 17–23 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
LESBIAN BLOODSUCKERS have long populated vampire movies, appearing as early as 1936 in the Hollywood studio film Dracula’s Daughter and resurfacing several decades later in the pleasingly tawdry Euro productions The Vampire Lovers (1970), Daughters of Darkness (1971), and Vampyros Lesbos (1971). But Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) gave the genre its most enduring sapphic icon: Catherine Deneuve’s Miriam Blaylock.
The Hunger was the first feature helmed by Scott, who had directed commercials for two decades. Oozing with stylish pansexual chic, the film pairs Deneuve’s vampiress, thousands of years old but forever young, with infamously gender-tweaking, AC/DC David Bowie, playing her bloodsucking but rapidly aging husband, John. After snacking on some new-wave cuties they picked up in a Bauhaus-headlining dance club, Miriam and John return to their Upper East Side marble palazzo, where sheer curtains blow, doves cry, corpses pile up—and straight women fall into Miriam’s mirrored bed.
Miriam’s latest conquest is progeria expert Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), initially sought out by John, who’s desperate to stop withering away. Paying a house call, Sarah is greeted at the door by Mrs. Blaylock; the scientist is so dazed by the undead’s beauty that she’s almost run over by an eighteen-wheeler. When Sarah returns, Miriam, with perfectly marcelled hair pulled back in a chignon, follows the etiquette of the aristocratic, lavender-leaning, bloodthirsty seductress: She offers her guest sherry and plays her extracts from Lakmé on her piano. Though the love scene that follows looks like the slo-mo, heavily art-directed soft-core that was a staple on Cinemax for years, Deneuve’s high-femme hauteur and Sarandon’s soft-butch bi-curiosity slowly ignite into sweaty lust on-screen.
“She’s just that kind of woman. She’s . . . European,” Sarah, still feverish with dyke desire, will later describe Miriam in not-so-coded language to her suspicious boyfriend. Part of Miriam’s allure, of course, is that she is played by the world’s most famous Frenchwoman—a position Deneuve still holds almost thirty years later. (The actress was thirty-nine when Scott’s film was released.) The Hunger wasn’t Deneuve’s first foray into same-sexing—there are hints of lesbian frisson in Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967)—or her last (see André Téchiné’s 1996 Thieves and François Ozon’s 8 Women from 2002). But flawless, intoxicating lady-killer Miriam Blaylock remains Deneuve’s signature lez role—and a reminder of the debauched fun vampires used to have before the virginal teens of Twilight took over.
The Hunger plays at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn September 15 as part of the series “Bela Lugosi’s Dead, Vampires Live Forever.” For more details, click here.
Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, 2009, black-and-white and color film, 109 minutes. Left: Cornelia Foss and Glenn Gould on the cruise ship the R.M.S. Segwun, Lake Muskoka, Ontario, June 1968. Personal photo of Christopher Foss. Right: Glenn Gould in Nassau, Bahamas, 1956. Photo: Jock Carroll.
ASIDE FROM THE ABSURD TITLE and what has become a conventional—but in my book, cavalier—use of re-creations, Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont’s documentary about Glenn Gould is both an excellent primer and a reminder of just how revelatory it was to hear, for the first time, Gould’s Bach recordings. By foregrounding the structure of the music, he made the Baroque sound utterly modern. (I’d say the same for his readings of Beethoven, although others might disagree.)
As more than a few of the authoritative talking heads attest in Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould—it really is a laughable title—the Canadian pianist was one of the twentieth century’s greatest keyboard artists. He gave his first solo recital in Toronto in 1947 at age fourteen and made his New York debut eight years later. His instant stardom was attributable to his dazzling piano technique and a musical intelligence that allowed him to radically rethink and hear afresh the warhorses of the classical repertory. It didn’t hurt that he was wildly handsome and, like many shy people, clownishly funny, and that his method of fingering the keys—he used a custom-made piano chair that was only fourteen inches high and allowed him to attack the piano from below—was as weird as it was effective. He also sang quite loudly when he played, as if his voice could coax from the piano exactly the sound he heard in his head.
The day after his first New York appearance, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia. The movie includes an amusing and touching sequence of Gould in the Columbia studio telling a skeptical producer that he’s going to begin with the Goldberg Variations. The recording became a classical best seller. In 1981, a year before his death at age fifty, Gould made a second, very different recording of the same work. The two bookend his career and in retrospect become a meditation on mortality.
Hozer and Raymont’s movie is a fast-moving clip job, but it is no less fascinating for it. There are about a half dozen documentaries about Gould, as well as an archive of radio and television programs that Gould himself produced after 1964, when he stopped performing live, explaining that he hated playing on strange pianos in strange halls and having to deal with various conductors, some of whom could not comprehend what he was doing. At the opening of the film Gould describes himself as existing entirely within media, and in the second half of his career, he took control of the analog recording studio in a way that prefigures the digital age. An illuminating sequence has Gould and his audio engineer at work, Gould hovering over the mixing board offering suggestions and then taking control of the dials himself.
The filmmakers claim that they have substantial new material from Russian archives of Gould’s 1957 Soviet Union concert tour, which put him on the international map and, according to another piano giant, Vladimir Ashkenazy, was an amazing experience both for him and for the more than capacity audiences. Still, aside from the Ashkenazy interview, a few photos, and some very brief moving-image sequences, there’s not enough material here to justify a new movie about Gould.
The real journalistic coup is an interview with Cornelia Foss, who only recently publicly acknowledged her long love affair with Gould. She and her husband, the composer/conductor/pianist Lukas Foss, became friends with Gould in 1962. Soon after, her involvement with Gould turned romantic. In 1968, she left her husband and, with their two children, moved to Toronto. She and Gould planned to marry, but after five years, she left him to return to Lukas. Her lucid account of this period and the affectionate memories that the children, who are now middle-aged, have of their substitute father refute previous portraits of the undeniably eccentric pianist as an ascetic recluse or, conversely, shagging groupies like a rock star. What is extremely sad is Cornelia’s description of Gould’s descent into paranoia during the years they spent together, his psychological instability likely exacerbated by his use of prescription drugs including antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. The film achieves its stated aim of “humanizing” a great artist and a great star while eschewing pop psychology.
Still, I have one serious caveat. Having considerably more audio than visual material, the filmmakers resort to the common but questionable technique of re-created imagery. In shot after shot, a Gould stand-in is shown at a distance and with his face turned from the camera, walking alone through the city, the countryside, and, ridiculously, through the lobby of a New York hotel after the first unsuccessful attempt to revive the relationship with Foss, and along a beach in the Hamptons after a second attempt ends in failure. Much more heartrending is a close-up of the log Gould kept of his compulsive attempts to reach his ex-lover by phone.
Gould, who dressed regardless of the weather in a cap and a long overcoat, his neck swathed in a woolen muffler, his hands protected by thick mittens, is an easy figure to simulate. But to what end? If the filmmakers want to suggest his loneliness, the impression is negated by the presence of the camera and the unseen crew behind it. How could these shots have possibly come into being? Wouldn’t the media-savvy Gould have been aware of being tailed by paparazzi? Wouldn’t he have objected? The re-creations make no sense emotionally or psychologically, and what’s more, Gould almost certainly would have hated them.
AMONG THE MANY virtues of Get Out of the Car, Thom Andersen’s latest essay-film–cum-travelogue, is the often funny commentary provided by folks curious about the reasons why the filmmaker and CalArts professor is so interested in the ephemera that catch his eye. At one point, a gentleman understandably asks why Andersen is filming an empty billboard structure. By way of reply, Andersen wonders aloud whether he might be making “a movie about absence.” Says the passerby in his best deadpan: “When you make a movie about something, call me.”
Viewers who flock to the Toronto International Film Festival for the latest Oscar bait would no doubt have a similar reaction to other components of Wavelengths, the festival’s tenth annual sidebar of avant-garde film and video. Indeed, the works showcased here frequently appear to lack a familiar “something”—narrative, for one, though there are certainly stories aplenty. And for those patrons eager to discover what’s really transpiring on-screen—the studies of spaces real and invented, the questions of time and perception, the mystery and materiality of the cinematic medium and its digital descendants—Wavelengths’s selections prove to be more stimulating than the more easily recognizable fare on offer elsewhere.
A lively “city symphony” of sights and signage that is a worthy companion piece to Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2005), Get Out of the Car is one of several major new works to receive world or North American premieres at Wavelengths. Andersen’s 16-mm film is also presented as part of Wavelengths’s first-night program of urban-oriented short pieces ranging from Callum Cooper’s Victoria, George, Edward & Thatcher (a frantically paced, iPhone-shot survey of near-identical London row houses) and Landscape, semi-surround (the latest in a series of dauntingly intricate frame-by-frame animated pieces by Japanese artist Eriko Sonoda) to Everywhere Was the Same, in which Beirut-based artist Basma Al-Sharif conveys the horror of an air strike on Gaza via an enigmatic mix of narration and slide show.
There are three more tightly curated programs, as well as evenings devoted to new work by two longtime residents of cinema’s outer limits: James Benning and Nathaniel Dorsky. Benning’s Ruhr, filmed on high-definition video in the titular German industrial region, somehow seems a Bela Tarr–like epic of durational cinema, even though it lasts only two hours. The first hour comprises several lengthy, fixed-camera shots that reveal such locations as the interiors of a steelworks and a mosque. (In another sequence, a worker removes graffiti from what turns out to be a sculpture by Richard Serra.) The second hour invites diligent viewers to study every wisp of smoke that emerges from a stack at a Coke factory. Thus do memories of Andy Warhol’s Empire mingle with reveries about empires in decay.
Less arduous is the program of three new films by the transcendentally minded Dorsky, which mark his final efforts to make something on Kodachrome stock, his long-preferred (and recently discontinued) medium. Fellow alchemist Peter Tscherkassky also debuts Coming Attractions, a typically cunning twenty-five-minute piece that interweaves references to the early cinema trickery of Méliès and Léger, glimpses of later masterpieces (Taxi Driver, Pasolini’s Decameron), and the repeated gestures and expressions of unknown actors in the outtake reels of long-forgotten commercials. Just as kinetic are new offerings by Italian master Paolo Gioli—whose Photo Finish Figures (Il finish delle figure) is a rapturous procession of faces, eyes, and assorted shapes—and the one and only Ken Jacobs—who dazzles with two doses of strobophobic excess, including a dance-happy tribute to his friend Jonas Mekas. Like many of the veteran filmmakers represented at Wavelengths, these deans of experimental cinema are eager to show off the spring in their steps.
Wavelengths runs September 10–13 at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall at the Toronto International Film Festival.
SIMULTANEOUSLY CELEBRATED and overshadowed, My Uncle (1958) represents the peak of pantomime genius Jacques Tati’s career and yet earns a place in his sparse filmography as a transitional film. Located in between the earthy yet moribund “traditional France” satirized in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and the insulated postmodern fun house of 1967 debacle/masterpiece Playtime, the setting of My Uncle depicts the former world giving way to the latter, with outdoor markets and quaint three-story walk-ups slowly being replaced by automated houses and efficient industrial plants. The contrast is especially marked in the shorter, reedited version of the 1958 original, featuring alternate takes and English dubbing that further accentuate Tati’s signature theme of globalized uniformity.
Lanky, befuddled, and moving with a staggeringly stiff gait that can best be described as hastily hesitant, Tati’s Monsieur Hulot is, of course, the bumbling refugee from a simpler era who must navigate the film’s different worlds. But whereas Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (1922) or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) commented on the disorienting modern industrial era by employing jolting, even violent slapstick, Tati’s stategy is relatively subdued in its amusement. Like much of the Tati universe, My Uncle centers around the sight gag more than the physical gag, and the film’s real protagonist turns out to be the antiseptic, button-operated home of Hulot’s bourgeois, socialite sister Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie), with its inconvenient, surrealistically streamlined aesthetic—a garden that must be tiptoed through via haphazard paths, a fish-shaped fountain spewing too-blue water, a kitchen that looks and functions like a dentist’s office.
Comfortably situated in his dilapidated yet close-knit working-class environs, raincoat-attired, pipe-smoking Hulot causes chaos when placed in front of anything slightly modern, though just as often the supporting players find themselves flummoxed by the gadgets with which they’ve surrounded themselves. Disasters and visual puns patiently unfold in perfectly choreographed long shots that subordinate human beings to architecture, give precedence to aural rhythms (sci-fi hums, squeaks, and swooshes) over platitudinous dialogue, and allow the simultaneous occurrence of multiple planes of action (and bold, Pop art color, a first for Tati). As with Holiday and Playtime, the film reaches a high point in a posh party that disintegrates into anarchy as one accoutrement after another is destroyed or else wittily reconfigured for alternate use. Laugh-out-loud moments are rare but well earned; “aha” moments in which one recognizes the follies of technological absurdity are constant.
Though My Uncle’s pokes at the encroaching ersatz values and mindless consumerism of postwar France can be occasionally blunt (a drab, suburbanite couple offers another couple some plastic flowers as a gift), and though it views a vanishing era through a somewhat nostalgic lens (Hulot’s nephew breaks free from his mother and father’s materialistic existence to join a band of creatively mischievous kids who seem to have come from another time), Tati’s humor isn’t merely in the service of a reactionary Luddism. “You just have to get used to these things,” exclaims Arpel to her hopelessly old-fashioned maid in one of the film’s few important lines of dialogue. A decade later, Playtime would realize in the most radical, innovative terms Tati’s vision of a society completely overwhelmed by machines designed to make life easier, but in My Uncle he was already demonstrating that “getting used to” social estrangement—not to mention its accompanying bafflement—may be nearly impossible, even if the things that cause it are the stuff of comic malleability.
Lixin Fan, Last Train Home, 2009, still from a color film, 89 minutes.
RARELY IN A DOCUMENTARY does every shot matter as a bearer of emotion and information. Lixin Fan’s nonfiction debut, Last Train Home (2009), is just such an exceptional movie. The three opening images establish the conditions that shape the lives of the film’s subject, the Zhang family. First, an overhead camera pans across hundreds of people packed into a roofless railroad waiting-hall, their open umbrellas suggesting a field of pastel flowers. The image immediately brings to mind a digitally extended Andreas Gursky photo, but here, the space and all the people occupying it are actual, not virtual. In the second shot, the angle changes to show that the people in the hall are only a small fraction of the crowd that stretches for blocks outside the station, and now all of them are pressing forward, running toward the unseen trains. The third shot is simply a title card that explains what we have seen: During the New Year’s holiday, 130 million Chinese migrant workers pack the trains that take them from the cities to their home villages. It is the world’s largest human migration and, as we soon learn, the only time they get to see the children and parents they’ve left behind.
Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin left their Sichuan village to work in the sweatshops of Guangzhou when their daughter Zhang Qin was only a year old. Later they had a son who was also left with his grandparents on their tiny farm. At the time Lixin began his documentary, the father and mother had been working in Guangzhou for roughly seventeen years; their pay is about five dollars for a twelve-to-fourteen-hour day. They work six days a week and live in a dormitory cubicle near the factory. They try to save everything they earn to pay for the exorbitantly priced New Year’s holiday railroad tickets and to support the family back home. Their only goal is for their children to get a good education so that they can have better lives than their own. Unfortunately, the children are not cooperating.
Lixin filmed the Zhang family over a period of three years. The beginning, middle, and end of the film are punctuated by the spectacle of the migration—the camera jostling through the crowds in the station, boarding and riding the packed trains along with the Zhangs. (If any of the passengers questioned what the cameraman was doing taking up valuable space, there is no evidence of that on the screen.) Aside from these scenes, the documentary is stunningly intimate. Lixin’s technique is observational but not fly-on-the-wall. As the Zhangs go about their lives they are also engaged in an ongoing conversation with the filmmaker, confiding in him their thoughts and feelings. Lixin avoids any semblance of talking heads, keeping his camera to one side, framing his subjects close but mostly in profile. Thus it is all the more shocking when Qin, who is in the middle of a full-fledged adolescent rebellion, comes to blows with her father and then confronts the cameraman head-on, goading him to film her as, she shouts, she “really” is. Qin’s story is so typical it could seem like a dramatic cliché—she defies her parents, leaves school, and goes to work in the city, first in a sweatshop, then as a waitress in a topless bar where the female workers begin each shift chanting in unison, “The customer is always right. The boss is always right.” But the truth of her anguish and anger is heart wrenching and undeniable, as is the more restrained emotional expression of her parents and grandmother.
Elegantly edited and impeccably shot, Last Train Home builds a visual dynamic through the contrast between the gray, smog-ridden city and the gloriously beautiful countryside. One’s first reaction to seeing the Zhang children and their grandmother at home and in the fields of their tiny farm is to wonder why anyone would give up this natural paradise for the crowded, filthy city. But it soon becomes apparent that producing enough food for their own survival—a tiny harvest of bitter melons and rice—is as backbreaking as working the factories, and much lonelier. There is not even the illusion of a better future in rural China.
Lixin Fan, Last Train Home, 2009, still from a color film, 89 minutes. Zhang Qin and Zhang Yang.
Eschewing voice-over and using only minimal intertitles, Lixin manages to include some crucial information about the larger economic picture. We learn, for example, that the grandmother became a farmworker during the Mao regime—when, she says, life was even harder. Her dream of living in the city ended even before the transition to capitalism. When the father gets sick and misses a day of work, we glean from his conversation that the migrant factory workers have no health benefits, unemployment insurance, or pensions. By the end of the film, both the father and mother are forced to acknowledge that when they are no longer strong enough to work, they will end up, impoverished, in their village, their only hope being that the children will take their turn contributing to their parents’ support. From what we’ve seen of Qin, last glimpsed on a dark street wearing heels and hot pants, that’s nothing they can count on. Indeed, Qin’s feeling that she was abandoned by her parents—who, she says, care about nothing except making money—and her understanding that part of their desire for her to have a better life is so that she can support them in their old age have already, perhaps irrevocably, damaged family ties and traditions.
But curiously, the film omits two crucial pieces of information that would allow us to fully understand the dilemma in which the 130 million migrant workers are trapped. Perhaps Lixin was forced into a game with the Chinese censors, or perhaps these underlying conditions are so obvious to the Chinese that he could not believe they would not be common knowledge elsewhere. In any case, it was only by reading interviews with the filmmaker that I learned that in its rush to a capitalist, industrialized economy, China withdrew support from agricultural production, thus forcing workers to flee the impoverished countryside to find work in the cities if they were to survive. Even more important to understanding the double bind in which the Zhangs are trapped is that the children of migrant workers are not allowed to go to school in the cities where their parents labor. To obtain any kind of education they must remain in the villages where they are registered at birth. Thus, the cost of becoming an industrialized giant is not only on individual workers but also on the institution of the family.
Omissions aside, this is a memorable movie, easily on the level of recent documentaries by Jia Zhangke, a filmmaker to whom Lixin is obviously indebted. Last Train Home is wonderfully crafted and has moments of lyric beauty but refuses the veneer of glamour that characterizes much of the cultural production of the new China. The world of the Zhang family is invisible to those who trade in Chinese art and fly in and out of art and information-technology fairs in Beijing and Shanghai. But next time you and I pull on our jeans from Barneys or Target, we should probably ponder who broke their backs to cover our asses.
Last Train Home opens Friday, September 3 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.