Left: José Val del Omar, Fuego en Castilla, 1958–59, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 17 minutes. Right: José Antonio Sistiaga, . . . ere erera baleibu izik subua aruaren . . ., 1968–70, color film in 35 mm, 70 minutes.
EXACTLY WHAT General Franco thought of José Val del Omar’s “longings to communicate the ineffable” is not a matter of record, but the Spanish ruler would most certainly not have approved of the filmmaker’s way with a pietŕ.
The 1958–59 short Fuego en Castilla is the second work in a triptych made in the 1950s and ’60s by the Granada-born film and sound artist whose work has recently attracted considerable interest both in Spain and abroad. In this film, Val del Omar presents various examples of religious statuary by Alonso Berruguete and Juan de Juni in a decidedly impious fashion. Blasting the icons with rapidly shifting patterns of light or draping them in sinister shadows, he situates them in a chiaroscuro hellscape. A crackly voice imploring listeners to “rejoice at your power to be God” adds another sacrilegious flourish to the film, which earned Val del Omar a prize at Cannes and much official consternation at home.
The fact that such a flagrantly strange work could surface during an era of severe political and creative repression points to the surprising hardiness of Spain’s most wayward artistic strains. The earliest film included in a program that spans a half century, Fuego en Castilla serves as an appropriately startling opener for “From Ecstasy to Rapture,” a survey of Spanish experimental film and video at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Charting “50 years of the other Spanish cinema,” the series is the first in TIFF Cinematheque’s shiny new complex for the Free Screen, its long-running Wednesday night program of independent and avant-garde works. Originally curated by Antoni Pinent and Andrés Hispano for the Contemporary Cultural Centre of Barcelona, the series is rich with revelations about what was possible for filmmakers both during the Franco regime and in the decades that followed.
Early selections also demonstrate the influence of artists from far beyond Spain’s borders. The impact of Norman McLaren’s filmic experiments is clear in Joaquim Puigvert’s Exp. I/II, a pair of short animations made in 1958 and 1959. For a more extreme example of McLaren-inspired hyperkineticism, see Jordi Artigas’s Ritmes cromŕtics, a 1978 marvel scored to a jazz-rock instrumental by Billy Cobham.
Even more audacious are the films that put a Spanish spin on the affronts of Warhol and Godard. An artistic by-product of the student protests that rocked Madrid in 1968, Carlos Durán’s BiBiCi Story (1969) is a Molotov cocktail of sex, politics, and death by red spray paint. Ice Cream (1970), underground filmmaker Antoni Padrós’s ode to fellatio, involves more than its fair share of licking, writhing, and heavy breathing.
Each of this series’s two feature-length works qualifies as a milestone in this alternate history of Spanish cinema. Screened from a recently restored 35-mm print that was presented in Los Angeles last year with a live score by Savage Republic, José Antonio Sistiaga’s 1968–70 . . . ere erera baleibu izik subua aruaren . . . (the title is a nonsensical phrase in mock-Basque) is the only full-length Spanish film to deploy an entirely cameraless technique. (Sistiaga painted directly onto each of the frames.) Closing the program, Arrebato (1980) is a freewheeling, semilegendary curio by Iván Zulueta, a designer and director best known for the equally wild posters he made for Pedro Almodóvar.
It can be hard for contemporary filmmakers to match the outrages of their forebears. Nevertheless, recent entries such as Oriol Sánchez’s Copy Scream (2005)—a Super 8 short that makes ingenious use of ever-more-degraded photocopies—and Laida Lertxundi’s Farce Sensationelle! (2004)—a cunning, thoroughly Vertovian self-portrait made while Lertxundi was studying with Jennifer Reeves at Bard College—indicate that Spain’s film artists are still eager to defy whatever authorities may remain.
“From Ecstasy to Rapture: 50 Years of the Other Spanish Cinema” runs January 5–February 2, 2011, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more details, click here.
Mads Brügger, The Red Chapel, 2009, color film, 87 minutes.
THE RED CHAPEL (2009) gives one the impression that director Mads Brügger doesn’t care if he makes himself look like a jerk, so long as it’s in the pursuit of some greater truth. Alternately entertaining and unsettling, the documentary depicts a trip to Pyongyang undertaken by Brügger and two young Danish-Korean comedians, Jacob Nossell and Simon Jul Jřrgensen. Jacob is a self-described “spastic” who often needs to use a wheelchair; his physical challenges and the North Koreans’ response to them are central to the film’s conceit. The jovial Simon is largely ignored by the director.
The duo arrive in Pyongyang to perform a deliberately incoherent comedy skit. Their North Korean handlers, who have power of approval over all footage shot by Brügger, transform the act beyond recognition and shove Jacob to the side. Only by speaking Danish can the director, Jacob, and Simon talk freely. The three men constantly lie in English to the North Koreans.
Brügger sets himself up as The Red Chapel’s conscience. At several moments he reminds the audience of the North Korean regime’s brutality. However, Jacob is the one who is really moved by the poverty and desperation barely concealed by Pyongyang’s urbane facade. While Brügger stays cool behind aviator shades, Jacob breaks down in tears.
Is Brügger exploiting Jacob? The director might be the first person to say yes. If he weren’t, the film wouldn’t have much power. Partly due to Brügger’s regular self-examination, The Red Chapel turns out to be a surprisingly complex experience, rather than a simple exercise in laughing at backwards communists. Imagine Borat (2006) if Sacha Baron Cohen articulated the ethical quandaries posed by his mockery in the film itself.
The Red Chapel opens Wednesday, December 29 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.
Ernst Lubitsch, Cluny Brown, 1946, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Left: Cluny Brown and Lord Carmel (Jennifer Jones and Reginald Owen). Right: Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones).
GOING OUT WITH A BANG BANG BANG, Ernst Lubitsch’s final completed film was this terrific, superbly performed 1946 comedy about an eponymous plumbing prodigy named Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) and a cadging Czech émigré (Charles Boyer) ignoring the rungs on England’s class ladder, circa 1938. When Jones’s Brown hears a clogged pipe calling, she gets that look, and must obey her uncontrollable urge to whip out the wrench and play fix-it, to bewilderment and condemnation. Velvet-baritoned and never without an urbane excuse, Boyer’s Belinsky inspires confusion but then respect from the marveling blue bloods who host him, and he grows enamored of this English girl whose name seems built to foil his liquid accent. The two curiosities are employee (maid) and guest (pet cause of the son of Lord and Lady Carmel), respectively, at the Carmel country estate—a Woosterishly oblivious Anglo sanctuary from the Continent’s brewing chaos—and from this most basic fish-out-of-water premise, Lubitsch again makes a film so enjoyable and clever that we too feel like we’re getting away with something.
Wilde is as much a touchstone as Wodehouse, given the sustained double entendre and satire going on, and part of the secret of Cluny Brown’s effortlessness is the execution of its impeccable writing by one of the era’s best comedy ensembles. Jones, though the extreme, is exemplary: The actors plunge into their characters’ worldviews and never look back. Clueless Lord Carmel (Reginald Owen), who wouldn’t survive a second in the wild, and his unflappable wife (Margaret Bannerman), who smoothly gets to the diplomatic heart of every matter, are a microcosm of one society’s workings. Likewise, the village pharmacist, Mr. Wilson (Richard Haydn), is just as insular-minded and self-entitled, and, as a perfectly integrated Englishman, an object of Cluny’s obsession. You can understand why British critics were not chuffed to watch these parodies of pride after enduring the war.
In fact, it’s hard to find a throwaway cast member. Helen Walker’s breezily cruel thoroughbred, for example, is worth watching closely for every line delivery. But for the lines themselves, Lubitsch, who would die a year later from chronic heart problems—shortly after sleeping with his mistress—could thank inveterate scribbler Sam Hoffenstein, who adapted Margery Sharp’s original novel. The author of the bestseller Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing and a spoof of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” called “The Moist Land,” the poet-journalist-screenwriter Hoffenstein sounds like a comic character himself, though maybe one out of Preston Sturges…
Cluny Brown runs December 24–30 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Nicolas Philibert, Nénette, 2010, still from a color film, 67 minutes.
A JOLIE LAIDE red-haired Parisian of a certain age with four offspring by various mates, Nénette lives with Tubo, her youngest. Her address: Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, 5čme. Nénette is a forty-year-old orangutan, probably the oldest of her species in captivity or in the wild. With her fertility status unknown, her caretakers have put her on the Pill as a precaution. They do not know whether orangutans observe the incest taboo, and if Nénette should become pregnant again, her health might be endangered. Not to mention that it would look bad for the zoo’s breeding program, the rationale for any zoo’s existence. With their natural habitats severely diminished, orangutans are an endangered species.
Nénette is the titular subject of an oddball documentary by Nicolas Philibert, who is best known for To Be and to Have (2002), a captivating study of a French village grade school and its only teacher. To Be and to Have was an unexpected critical and popular success, in part because its empathetic teacher and his energetic young pupils felt like a beacon of hope in troubled times. Sadly, a shadow was cast over the movie when the teacher and some of the students’ parents sued Philibert for a piece of the profits, claiming that they had been led to believe that they were participating in an educational film with no commercial value. They lost the suit, the filmmaker’s lawyers countering that if their demand was upheld, it would have a chilling effect on documentary moviemaking in general.
It goes without saying that Nénette is in no position to drag Philibert back to court, and since she has spent her entire life as an object of the gaze, one camera more probably doesn’t matter to her. Still, Nénette’s subtext of subject-object relations and its setting—an institution where power and freedom are absolutely entwined—account for the unease it generates along with delight. The issue of zoos is little discussed, although some of Nénette’s keepers express grave reservations about keeping wild animals in captivity. The zoo in the Jardin des Plantes was renovated about five years ago, and the indoor cage and slightly more spacious outdoor enclosure that Nénette and Tubo share with two other orangutans are palatial compared with the “Ape House” in which Nénette lived for thirty years after she was brought from Borneo.
Hardly a candidate for a slot on Animal Planet, Nénette is structured by a complete separation of image and sound. A star attraction at the zoo, Nénette is the focus of almost every shot in the movie, some of them sustained for five or more minutes. There are a few cutaways to the three other orangutans, but there are no reverse angles—the only glimpses we have of Nénette’s human visitors and caretakers are as occasional indistinct reflections on the glass of her enclosure. On the sound track, however, we hear nothing except human voices—a collective stream of consciousness that mixes casual spectators, Nénette devotees, various zookeepers, and one or two scientists and philosophers. “They used to kill redheads at birth in Egypt,” says one woman. “She’s going through the stages of her life [in her mind],” opines another, of the diffident Nénette, who seldom interacts with her visitors and spends long periods of time doing nothing or performing household chores—arranging the straw of her mattress, wrapping herself in the bedclothes and then tossing them aside.
Like all great stars, Nénette is an enigma, She is more withdrawn than the other orangutans, perhaps because of her age, as one keeper speculates, or perhaps because she was born free. In the wild, orangutans spend much of their time high in the trees, simply observing the world around them. Nénette replicates this behavior in captivity, watching the people who watch her but without interacting. In this she is the alter ego of Philibert, a maker of observational documentaries. Indeed, the first shot of Nénette is an extreme close-up of the star’s rheumy, deep-set eyes; the unseen camera’s electronic eye stares into the animal’s eyes, revealing nothing about Nénette but worlds about our desire to transform perception into knowledge and power.
Late in the movie, we hear a man who seems to be an actor (he is the comedian Pierre Meunier) try to account for our fascination with Nénette. “The quality of her idleness,” he says, “makes me think of an acting exercise: ‘Ladies and gentleman, the space is yours to do whatever you want.’ A difficult exercise,” he continues, “when watched by others.” In the late afternoons, Nénette performs the routine that is most intriguing to her audience: She takes tea. First she unscrews the cover of a small plastic bottle, sips a bit of its contents, and carefully sets it down. Then she opens a container of yogurt, takes a spoonful or two, unscrews a second bottle, samples its contents, pours some of it into the yogurt container, and drinks the mixture. Does this daily ritual—an uncanny mimicry of human behavior—give her pleasure? We hope it does, but who is to know?
Nénette plays December 22–January 4 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Bruno Dumont, Hadewijch, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Yassine and Céline vel Hadewijch (Yassine Salime and Julie Sokolowski).
TEENAGE CÉLINE VEL HADEWIJCH (Julie Sokolowski) lives in a rural nunnery where she expresses her devotion to God by eating virtually nothing and standing for hours in the pouring rain. After being expelled for her extreme renunciation and self-infliction, she flounders in the secular world: Her government official father’s palatial domicile and lack of parental affection leave her cold, while a friendship with impulsive juvenile delinquent Yassine (Yassine Salim) stops short at romance due to her “marriage” to Christ. A conspicuous emptiness consumes Céline until she meets Yassine’s older and more disciplined brother Nassir (Karl Sarafidis), who schools the impressionable young woman in the horrors committed against the Muslim world by the West.
Arriving at this point via a slow-building series of carefully composed, taciturn images—including overcast landscapes and verdant refuges—French director Bruno Dumont constructs his latest film, Hadewijch (2009), in typically patient and ominous fashion, making the dramatic turn in his protagonist’s life plausible as well as palpable. And following the theme of the filmmaker’s American desert nightmare Twentynine Palms (2003) and battlefield psychodrama Flanders (2006), Hadewijch completes a sort of trilogy of brooding considerations of violence, faith, sexuality, and warring ideologies in the post-9/11 world. But Hadewijch is nonetheless a different beast from Dumont’s prior work, making muted sadness its dominant tone alongside the disturbing provocation carried over from Twentynine Palms and L’Humanité (1999).
A milder Dumont might be difficult to discern in a film that climaxes in a terrorist bombing and concludes with an oblique coda. But the understated mood is undeniable, and is perhaps most powerfully embodied in the performance of newcomer Sokolowski, who in moments of nervous vulnerability communicates the longing for and confusion of transcendence. The Mouchette-evoking Céline is by far Dumont’s most complex creation, an empathetic being who challenges popular notions of the spiritual personality and how it can be driven to perpetrate unforgivable acts. “Bressonian” is the adjective that continually sticks to Dumont, and Hadewijch once again proves he’s both earned the accolade and gone far beyond such a reductive category. In mysterious scenes that explicitly refer to biblical events like the banishment from the Garden and Christ’s baptism, the film operates on a symbolic level; in playing out amid the conflicting forces of contemporary global strife, Hadewijch’s political meaning is just as significant.
Hadewijch opens December 24 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.
Peter Sillen, I Am Secretly an Important Man, 2010, black-and-white and color film, 84 minutes. Photo: Arthur Aubry.
THANKS TO HIS GRIZZLED VOICE and fascination with fringe life, Seattle poet Steven “Jesse” Bernstein emerged as a homegrown icon of the 1980s Northwest alternative scene. The writer, assiduously chronicled in Peter Sillen’s documentary I Am Secretly an Important Man (2010), first broke through to a wider audience in 1978, when a stripper who enjoyed his poems spent half a day raising the funds to publish his first official chapbook. Bernstein’s visions of Seattle’s drifters and junkies increasingly appealed to those who strayed from the mainstream, and sympathizers quickly gravitated toward the man with the tattooed fingers. By 1988, when one of his recorded readings arrived alongside Nirvana and Soundgarden tracks on the grunge compilation album Sub Pop 200, Bernstein had become one of the movement’s figureheads.
Though Bernstein died nearly two decades ago, Sillen’s reconstruction is an intimate portrayal, drawn from a treasure trove of published poems, audio recordings, and amateur videos. While home movies offer insight into Bernstein’s creative process and his unexpected fame, new interviews with lovers and confidants also chronicle Bernstein’s struggle with the unrelenting mental illness that led to his eventual suicide in 1991, at age forty.
It’s only late into this remembrance that Sillen fully reveals the brutal depths of Bernstein’s anguish—the sudden bouts of madness that would lead the soft-spoken man to erupt in violent fits. Worse than his condition were the prescribed treatments, which would alter his mental state and make writing nearly impossible. Sillen argues that the very things that made Bernstein sick also allowed him to see the world as others never could, and I Am Secretly an Important Man is a tribute to the jagged edge that Bernstein was forced to walk.
I Am Secretly an Important Man opens December 15 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.
Left: Alexis Granowsky, The Song of Life, 1931, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 71 minutes. Right: Reinhold Schünzel, Viktor und Viktoria, 1933, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.
WITH ITS MIX of sub-Hollywood showmanship and Weimar permissiveness, MoMA’s ongoing four-month, eighty-one-film exhibition of German cinema from 1919 to 1933 has that “alternate universe” feel. Here are comedies, musicals, chamber dramas, and sundry unclassifiables—all excavated from a period that most college surveys tag merely as the heyday of Expressionism, and which history treats as an overdetermined march to Nazism (or, in the case of Siegfried Kracauer’s shadow-casting study From Caligari to Hitler , a fusion of the two). The monuments—Nosferatu and Caligari, The Last Laugh, Berlin: Symphony of a City, M, Metropolis—are all present, but so are things like The Song of Life (1931), a movie that begins with a grotesque satirical scene of a wedding feast and, after the bride’s suicidal flight and salvation, features songs including a hopeful ode to procreation with shots of a fetus developing and a corny sailor’s lullaby.
Song of Life is at one extreme of musical pastiche, however, and the more familiar silliness and joy of carefree song-and-dance marks other toe-tapping Weimar entries. Wilhelm Thiele’s Three from the Filling Station (1930) stars Willy Fritsch and two nervous nellies as evicted friends who start a gas station and fall for the same convertible-driving, high-kicking dame, played by Lilian Harvey. The sprightly numbers are charming partly because they are so inconsequential (driving with friends is fun!), and the jaunty escapism and entrepreneurial capers crop up elsewhere in the series. In the improvised-feeling scenario of Into the Blue, co-workers from a failed firm start a dog wash, allowing for the extraordinary rapid tracking shot of a tiny runaway pup zigzagging through the streets. In Kurt Gerron’s A Crazy Idea (1932), the get-rich-quick scheme involves a mountain resort (“The Belvedere”) and numbers feature ladies shimmying in workout tunics, ice-skating waiters, and funky leg shaking in a hotel corridor. Even in Congress Dances (1931, and that would be the 1814–15 Congress of Vienna), easy-come-easy-go is one take-home lesson of the romance between shopgirl (Harvey) and Czar Alexander (Fritsch): Her temporary high life ends when history changes again (with Napoleon’s Hundred Days campaign).
In hindsight, the escapism has its limits. Gerron, for example, the prolific hulking cabaret and film star who also acts in The Blue Angel and Three from the Filling Station, was killed at Auschwitz after being forced to make a propaganda film. Hope and despair go hand in hand in Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others, 1919), made when the country’s ban on imported films was sowing the seeds for rich and varied output. Advocating for gay rights, it’s a didactic melodrama about a concert violinist (Conrad Veidt) and his student, lovers who are beset by blackmail and ostracism. The only upside to the ending is that just one of the men commits suicide, and ultimately, the film challenges the audience to undertake social activism (specifically invoking Emile Zola). (The sexologist who encourages the student and his supportive sister is played by Magnus Hirschfeld, a historic gay-rights advocate persecuted for both his work and his Jewish faith.) The series also provides a chance to see Leontine Sagan’s by turns rambunctious and anguished Mädchen in Uniform (1931), about the forbidden relationship at a girls’ boarding school between a teacher and a spirited pupil.
The ground zero of Weimar cinema offers opportunities to glimpse famous names early on, including Marlene Dietrich (in Three Loves —pre-Sternberg), Alfred Hitchcock (The Pleasure Garden , set in London, shot in Munich), and Robert Siodmak (Farewell  and especially Looking for His Murderer , a black comedy about a man who asks a burglar to kill him). There’s also an early adaptation of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1931) and the original version of Viktor und Viktoria (1933). And for curiosity value and sheer jaw-dropping historical synchronicity, it’s hard to beat The Way to Strength and Beauty (1925), an athletic Muybridgean celebration of the classical human form. Wilhelm Prager’s Kulturfilm was conceived “to compensate for the loss of the valuable training given to male youth during their military service” following the army’s mandatory post-WWI disbandment; was advertised by German film company UFA as displaying “the representatives of a new race for whom body culture is uppermost”; and featured a young dancer named Leni Riefenstahl.
“Weimar Cinema, 1919–1933: Daydreams and Nightmares” runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through March 7, 2011. For more details, click here.
Claude Lanzmann, Shoah, 1985, still from a black-and-white and color film, 565 minutes.
“THE HOLOCAUST is about six million people who get killed,” Stanley Kubrick reportedly said to screenwriter Frederic Raphael in the late 1990s. “Schindler’s List was about six hundred people who don’t.” One of the most striking things about this remark is its placement of the Holocaust in the present and a film made half a century later in the past.
These are the priorities of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), 565 minutes long, widely and in some ways justly regarded as the greatest film about the Holocaust. But they’re also the priorities of Alain Resnais and Jean Cayrol’s Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), only thirty-one minutes long, which in many respects made Shoah possible. Shoah even quotes Night and Fog about forty-three minutes into the film—Resnais’s low-angle dolly following grassy railroad tracks that lead to an Auschwitz crematorium is virtually reprised and extended, though Resnais’s use of Eastmancolor is even more vivid.
One shouldn’t have to choose between these masterpieces. But it’s important to stress that they aren’t about precisely the same Holocaust and that their formal strategies for juxtaposing past and present are quite different. Night and Fog crosscuts between postwar remnants of the camps today in color and archival footage in black and white. Its Holocaust is pointedly not only Jewish (Jews in fact go unmentioned). Cayrol, a Resistance fighter sent to a camp in Mauthausen who later wrote the screenplay for Resnais’s Muriel (1963), as well as a remarkable nouveau roman about the lies of the Occupation (Foreign Bodies, 1960), notes in his offscreen text that “Nine million dead haunt this countryside.” (A more contemporary estimate might nearly double that figure.)
Shoah’s focus is more sectarian. Polish anti-Semitism is highlighted, but the issue of two million Polish gentiles exterminated is clearly considered secondary. One could even argue that Shoah’s devastating impact and structure are predicated on a confrontational shotgun marriage between Lanzmann’s Judaism (signifying the past) and his existentialism (signifying the present) in which faces and voices recount remembered events while the camera lingers over locations where they once happened. The refusal of any archival footage or photographs gives a privileged status to the words of the interviewees, also lingered over by virtue of being subsequently translated—most often twice—from Polish or Hebrew or Yiddish to French, by Lanzmann’s interpreter, while the French is subtitled in English, meaning that we often discover what was said only during the interpreter’s translations.
The philosophical difference between these films is profound. Both address the impossibility of imagining the unimaginable while plying us with many facts and figures. But ultimately, despite its exhaustive length, Shoah registers as the more metaphysical work because of its more restricted view of the Holocaust victims. Most of these, of course, were Jewish, much as most people killed in the Twin Towers on 9/11 were American. But to reduce—or, worse, seek to elevate—either tragedy to ethnic or national proportions is ultimately to perpetuate the categories and definitions of the executioners.
IFC Films’s twenty-fifth-anniversary rerelease of Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah opens on Friday, December 10 at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and on Friday, December 24 at the IFC Center in New York.
BEGINNING WITH HIS baby-face embodiment of filial angst and eruption in Marco Bellocchio’s debut Fists in the Pocket (1965), the career of sixty-seven-year-old Colombian expat Lou Castel has intermittently dovetailed with minor highlights of the past five decades of New Wave–influenced European art cinema (Fassbinder, Wenders, Ruiz). Fists in the Pocket is the most well-known example, though for its abbreviated Castel series the French Institute Alliance Française has chosen to emphasize his French work from the 1990s onward: in Philippe Garrel’s The Birth of Love (1993), in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996), and, more recently, in Nicolas Klotz’s Heartbeat Detector (2007).
Perhaps the most curious item on the docket is a short Castel himself directed in 1998 called Just in Time. It’s the only title that appears in both the FIAF program and a concomitant series at Anthology Film Archives. The latter program draws a line between Castel’s acting and his own experimental work as a filmmaker, with Anthology presenting his other, lesser-known creative side. Castel the thespian is best known for manic-depressive performances that yo-yo between contemplative dourness and disgusted volatility; Castel the director interrogates the act of expression (and communication) altogether.
In Just in Time, Castel, filmmaker Robert Kramer, Nadine Naous, and Sarah Jalabert play four brooding lovers trapped in a café, possibly aware of their role in a work of fiction and thus in search of an author. At times Kramer appears to be this creative god figure, giving camera directions on-screen; at other moments Castel takes over such duties. The production process is foregrounded, with boom mics popping into the frame and retakes left in the final product. The oblique narrative is filtered through Castel’s presiding ennui: In the penultimate shot a character’s command—“Let’s fuck”—is followed by men kissing women in an eerie tableau less evocative of lasting romance than of the stasis of unsatisfied desire.
Just in Time is Castel the filmmaker’s most accessible film, which says a lot. Our Tongues Are Moving (2005) breaks down the situations and dialogues of Just in Time to even more digressive and abstract bits, with Castel fixing his camera on mundane street scenes and littering the screen with text. Convergences and Revoyant (both 2005) offer split-screen experiments, the former a diagonally bifurcated work that brings together seemingly unrelated shots, the latter an overwhelming multi-image mosaic comprising what look like home movies. Pyramidial (2005) meditates on the effect of light coming through holes punctured in a can. These films could be read as either incredibly hard-core avant-garde stuff or total wankery. I lean somewhat toward the latter; it’s worth noting that these works are a combined five hours long, and not very entertaining or illuminating to sit through. A few accompanying films about Castel, including ones by Gérard Courant and Yuka Toyoshima, put the actor’s high-art hobby into better focus; the labors of love themselves remain mystifyingly lazy.
The Lou Castel retrospective is co-presented by Anthology Film Archives and the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF). The FIAF program will run Tuesdays December 7–December 21; Anthology Film Archives’s program runs December 8–12.
DISARMINGLY AND DECEPTIVELY CASUAL, the three films by John Cook showing at Anthology Film Archives follow notoriously slippery scenarios: bohemians screwing around, griping, and sometimes working, in Slow Summer (1976); a striving boxer and his supportive wife, in I Just Can’t Go On (1972); and a frustrated young man trying to get a foothold on life, in Clinch (1978). Slippery in the sense that these milieus tend to attract formulas and pronouncements from filmmakers that only take us away from actual lived experience. But Cook, a Toronto-born fashion photographer who moved to Austria in 1968 (he passed away in 2001), managed without much fanfare to take insightful cinematic snapshots of those around him (and, directly and obliquely, of himself), during a pronounced lull in Austrian film production.
The black-and-white Slow Summer, which also appeared in MoMA’s “To Save and Project” series, gets praise—as many artists’ self-recordings of microscenes do—as a loose document of existence arising out of cooperative shoestring production and nonprofessional casting (aka visiting friends). Drifting among cohorts in Vienna, Cook complains about an ex-girlfriend to partner in crime Helmut, watches friend Michael Pilz (a producer and filmmaker) argue with wife Hilde, and takes photos of a string-bean model. Signing the self-portrait, this “slow summer” action (also called a “Scheiss Sommer” at one point) is nostalgically framed as a movie that Cook and Helmut are revisiting, complete with breaks to switch reels.
Cook’s work is more striking when portraying people in orbits outside his own. I Just Can’t Go On offers a fascinating update of Leo Hurwitz’s vérité landmark The Young Fighter (1953) with its odd loving couple: a young ex-con Gypsy boxer and a bouffant-haired middle-aged Austrian widow with children. Fleet footage of each at work and at play is overlaid with their voice-over thoughts on the quotidian occurrences that define and reflect character. The boxer’s account of snubs related to his ethnic background leads into an offhand, breathtakingly precise description of discontent and how a life can go awry. The better-funded Clinch (aka Headlock), adapted from a novel by Helmut Zenker and shot in color that pops, tracks a young guy with a blond nimbus of hair as he wins our sympathy (by comparison to his horndog landscaper colleagues), loses jobs, gets kicked out by his family, and treats a woman well, shabbily, then better. Refreshingly unpretentious and never hopeless (nor retreating into absurdity), Cook’s film shows someone just now learning to pull things together.