“IT’S NOT THAT I DON’T LIKE WORDS,” Claire Denis said when I interviewed her a couple of years ago. “There’s sometimes no need for words.” Denis is a filmmaker who privileges sensory experience, but while she may often strip away words, she never foregoes music, and in fact views it as central to a cinema that strives to act on the unconscious. Since her fourth feature, Nenette and Boni (1996), she has collaborated with the great, perennially underrated British band Tindersticks. (The one exception is her Beau Travail , which used the Benjamin Britten opera of the Herman Melville novel on which the film is loosely based.) Claire Denis Film Scores 1996–2009, a five-disc box set out this week from the Montreal-based Constellation Records, brings together all six sound tracks (only two of them previously available) that the band—and two of their members, working solo—have composed for Denis.
As with all great director-composer pairings, from Hitchcock-Herrmann to Leone-Morricone to Paul Thomas Anderson’s associations with Jon Brion and Jonny Greenwood, the Tindersticks make film music that goes far beyond its traditional illustrative role. You could call this a match made in synesthetic heaven—critics have long tagged the Tindersticks’ expansive orchestral rock as “cinematic,” and Denis’s elliptical films certainly have a musical quality—and it’s telling that the musicians have described this artistic kinship in the most fundamental terms. Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples has said that their music and Denis’s films both create “a sense of space”; for violinist and multi-instrumentalist Dickon Hinchliffe, the common factor is that they “don’t fit easily into standard time.”
Along with cinematographer Agnès Godard and the stable of actors that includes Alex Descas, Gregoire Colin, and Isaach de Bankolé, the Tindersticks have become part of Denis’s creative family, long-standing collaborators for whom working together is largely a matter of shared intuition. When Denis says that the Tindersticks are in her films, she means it quite literally, given how deeply embedded each party is in the other’s process. They start when she shows them the script (which tends to be spare), and their music, as it evolves, helps her find the rhythm and shape of the films.
Denis met the band at a show in Paris in the mid-’90s. At that point they had made two albums (1993 and 1995, both self-titled, still their high-water marks), and the wide-screen sweep of their baroque romanticism made them naturals for film music (parallel to their relationship with Denis, the band has worked with the British filmmaker Martin Wallace on a series of “companion films,” among them a Super 8 charmer for the second album’s “Traveling Light”). Denis had just finished writing Nenette and Boni, an intimate brother-sister story set in Marseille, and had been listening compulsively to “My Sister,” a droll, delicate mumbled-word number from the 1995 album. The Nenette and Boni score, which largely riffs on the shimmering “My Sister” (beginning with a rearranged instrumental version called “Ma Soeur”), goes a long way toward creating the film’s daydream atmospherics.
The range of the sound tracks speaks to the band’s versatility, and of course to Denis’s appetite, her desire never to make the same film twice. Trouble Every Day (2001), her notorious tale of vampiric, cannibalistic sex, matches the Tindersticks’ predilection for orchestral gothic, right on the cusp of beauty and dissonance, tenderness and savagery. (Denis said of the film, “It starts with a kiss and ends with a bite.”) For Friday Night (2002), an altogether more civilized erotic fable, set in an enchanted (though traffic-clogged) Paris, Hinchliffe conjures an air of expectancy and quiet delight from a narrowed musical palette and a small string section. Staples, handling the more opaque and experimental The Intruder (2004), accompanies the hallucinatory final journey of a man and his fading, newly transplanted heart with a kind of cardiogram motif: a repetitive guitar loop, by turns lulling and ominous.
After making six studio albums, the band members took a break for solo projects, and half of the original sextet—Staples, keyboardist Dave Boulter, and guitarist Neil Fraser—regrouped in 2007. (Hinchliffe has gone on to a prolific scoring career in indie film, working with Ira Sachs, Debra Granik, and James Marsh.) The reformed band scored Denis’s last two films, the Ozu-inspired father-daughter drama 35 Shots of Rum (2008) and the roiling postcolonial African nightmare White Material (2009). As with their predecessors, these are sound tracks that easily survive the transposition to home listening even as they instantly summon a welter of indelible images for anyone who has seen the films. A wistful melodica refrain brings to mind the crisscrossing railway tracks of 35 Shots; slow-building crescendos evoke the stealthy progress of the child soldiers in White Material––a testament to the respective power of the images and of the music but, more than that, to their mysterious inseparability.
The Tindersticks will perform with scenes from Denis’s films on April 30 in Los Angeles at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex and at the Castro Theater on May 2 as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.
KEVIN JEROME EVERSON’S two-minute film Something Else (2007) begins with a bit of worn color 16 mm—evidently shot for a local television-news station, perhaps sometime around 1970—depicting an interview with Miss Black Roanoke, Virginia, a young woman in a scoop-necked russet gown, with a sparkling tiara perched atop her Afro. The footage seems battered by time. The sound drops out, more than once, and split-second bits of dialogue repeat, as if two prints had been badly spliced together. Following some initial questions, the awkward white male reporter asks the beauty queen whether she’d prefer to be in a racially integrated event or remain in segregated pageants. “Well, I don’t think it’s a matter of preference,” she responds, smiling sweetly into the reporter’s microphone. “I think it’s a matter really of whether I was to win or lose, you understand. Because in the other pageant—I call it the regular pageant—the black girl doesn’t have much of a chance of winning. I hate to say it, but it’s kind of true. It’s not that it’s segregated, but it’s necessary to segregate, in order to give black girls a chance to feel . . . ‘up.’ ” As soon as she utters that final word, Everson’s film cuts to silent images of a more recent African American pageant queen, waving from atop a parade float, shot from a low angle on digital video, artificially distressed to imitate the flaring light leaks at the end of a roll of 16-mm film.
This bit of the past replayed in Something Else might strike some viewers as unexpected—an African American woman calmly arguing for the benefits of a segregated institution, applying the theory of Black Power to the pageant system. Such an emphasis on the overlooked particulars of history has become increasingly central to Everson’s filmmaking, which now comprises nearly seventy short pieces made since 1997 and four feature-length films: Spicebush (2005), Cinnamon (2006), The Golden Age of Fish (2008), and Erie (2010). For more than a decade, working in numerous film and video formats, Everson has presented images of the lives of African Americans—and other people of African heritage, worldwide—through his own distinctive practice of cinematic portraiture, a blend of fiction and documentary that analyzes minute aspects of individual personality by homing in on everyday gestures of labor and leisure. Whether shot from real life, rediscovered in archival images, or performed according to Everson’s direction, these gestures subsist as parallels and cognates for artmaking. His films suggest not records of reality but, rather, recordings of performance.
Thus, in Something Else, the significance of Miss Black Roanoke’s statement lies as much in its structure as in its content, functioning as an example of the material practice of her avocation: the media interview as part of the beauty queen’s job. At the same time, her statement points to the many variations on individual experience and expression that transpire, for the most part unremembered, within the larger sweep of history. Everson captures and reclaims the particularity of this woman’s performance by reduplicating the final word of her statement “I felt very privileged” in a way that viewers might think indicates a physical problem with the footage: The added emphasis raises the question of how and exactly in what manner a young black woman in the South would have experienced “privilege” at that point in time. As signaled in the angle of the film’s second shot, Everson is less interested in bird’s-eye views than in observations from the ground up. Achieved through an understated formalism rather than through traditional documentary modes, this materially inflected history of racial politics remains always immanent, even if, at times, occluded in symbolism and metaphor.
Similarly, in The Reverend E. Randall T. Osborn, First Cousin—part of the 2007 “Cleveland Trilogy,” which also comprises North and Emergency Needs (the latter shown in the 2008 Whitney Biennial)—Everson reedits monochrome footage of an African American television reporter interviewing the titular Reverend Osborn (“first cousin to the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King,” as the reporter himself announces), at night, against a sharply lit white brick wall. The youthful but determined Osborn relates an incident of police violence in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland during the race riots there in July 1966, and his account is intercut with reaction shots of the unnamed reporter nodding to his words. Here, Everson shifts the focus slightly to the reporter himself, who is shown barely evincing emotion, his voice perfectly even, in a calm but insistent telejournalistic tone. By the end of the three-and-a-half-minute film, it becomes apparent that Everson has subtly duped and repeated these shots of the reporter, increasing his presence in the footage and underscoring its theatrical construction. The significance of the piece thus moves away from the obvious grand narrative of racial conflict and civil rights–era protest toward the trace of this reporter’s unheralded career, expanding what Everson sees as the slim cinematic and televisual record of African Americans and suggesting that significances lie at the margins of this visual history.
Understated artistic interventions such as these go back to the earliest instances of Everson’s work, in sculpture, photography, and installation. The exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art” at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994 included Mansfield, Ohio, End Table, 1994, one of a series of small tables Everson hand-fabricated to imitate the mass-produced modernist furnishings found in the working-class homes of Mansfield when he was growing up there in the 1970s (and at least one critic at the time missed Everson’s handiwork, mistaking the piece for a readymade). On the table he placed framed photographs: some, portraits taken for high school yearbooks; others, snapshots of prison guards. “What I really liked was the fact that I knew people, like my parents or my uncles or neighbors or whatever, would go down to Bing’s Furniture,” he told Cinemad magazine in 2006, “and pick out frames for family pictures and assemble them in their house.” The photos of corrections officers silently bear witness to Mansfield’s painful transition to a postindustrial economy: By the early ’90s, the local prison had become one of the city’s major employers.
This same socioeconomic circumstance underwrites one of Everson’s early films, Second Shift (1999), which depicts a guard at a correctional facility—played by the filmmaker himself—arriving at work through a repetition of specific actions: lugging his lunch pail to the counter, placing his keys in a plastic bin for inspection. The camera crops Everson from the shoulders down, an unusual framing that emphasizes the motions of his hands. The kind of mundane tasks alluded to indirectly in installations like Mansfield, Ohio, End Table are here explicitly depicted. The somatic repetition typical of daily labor recurs in later films such as A Week in the Hole (2002), which portrays a tyro worker at a paint factory learning the skills needed for his job, and Company Line (2009), narrated by Mansfield municipal employees, shown plowing and deicing streets that once demarcated the areas where southern African Americans had settled during the Great Migration after World War II.
Beyond his clear emphasis on the experiences of everyday workers, Everson also stresses high-art models for his filmmaking. He has remarked that Emergency Needs, which pairs archival footage of a press conference by Cleveland’s first African American mayor, Carl B. Stokes, with a reenactment on an adjoining screen by a female actor, was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg’s seemingly identical collage paintings of 1957, Factum I and Factum II, which, hung side by side, reveal subtle variations—though the differences between Everson’s paired images are far more conspicuous, serving to call attention to Stokes as public actor. The filmmaker has also made related remarks about the content of his feature Cinnamon, which explores the black auto-racing subculture by following a fictional African American female driver through the routines of preparing for a competition in Virginia, where Everson now lives and works. “Drag racing is like abstract painting,” he told Filmmaker Magazine in 2006. “The layperson thinks it is easy, but it has its own complex language.” Everson’s own formal strategies are likewise a specific kind of cinematic abstraction. Elsewhere, he speaks of wanting to “abstract everyday actions and statements into theatrical gestures,” which he achieves in Cinnamon and other works by probing at the boundaries between scripted performance and documentary recording. And by drawing out the roar of engines into a rich and enveloping soundscape, he insists on the essentially aesthetic nature of drag racing, which, like art, is portrayed as both a physical and a technological discipline. Beyond these details, Everson’s point in invoking abstract painting is strategic, meant to dislodge any expectations of simple social realism. (It is also, undoubtedly, part of his own sense of performance that he brings to interviews and artist’s statements, which, like his films, are seemingly offhand but nonetheless rehearsed and precisely calibrated.)
Such comparisons also serve a larger purpose, as reminders of the collision between the formal necessities of art and the socioeconomic determinations of plain life. The resonance between the art of workers and the work of artists, a junction that Everson returns to again and again from different angles and by various methods, is not merely one of conceptual elegance. It should be felt—deeply—as a means of confronting and resolving the tensions and incongruities consequent to the sort of class migration of which Everson’s own life is but one example. It speaks of an urge to bridge disparate modes of living. What may have its roots in personal history becomes a platform for reflecting on and analyzing larger patterns in the structure of society through work that, while drawn from life, nevertheless avoids straightforward autobiography.
If art-world references are buried and complicated in his films, so, too, are the sociological verities that critics typically wish to mine from anything made by or about nonwhite cultures and the working class. In Everson’s work, tiny details are fabricated and fictionalized, archival footage is framed in new ways, events that seem documentary are directed and staged. Old Cat (2009) consists of an unbroken roll of silent black-and-white 16 mm, shot by Everson in a small boat navigating what seems to be a broad river. One man pilots the boat from a perch at the fore; another lies port side with his leg in a splint, crutch under his right arm. What seems like a single-take slice of life is in fact an instance of theater: The man’s injury is fabricated, inserted into the shot as a means of suggesting some unseen narrative. The half-hour-long BZV (2010) takes the same tack. Shot in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, as a commission for the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s “Where Is Africa?” program this year, BZV opens with another sequence on water—this time, featuring three young African men in a rumbling speedboat. Later shots show a woman walking through the city holding water skis, then a couple shopping for a bed frame who finally journey through the capital’s dirt streets, captured from the back as they navigate the roads, rolled-up foam mattress in their hands. Without narration and with little dialogue, BZV feels like documentary but is in fact entirely scripted, collecting fragments of a narrative into an open-ended whole. Everson once again proposes, then refuses, an anthropological role, instead crafting a fiction from the bits of reality at hand. This film of Africa works less as a window than as a surface, composed by the artist with several layers of remove. The cusp between reality and fiction is here more explicitly revealed in the displacement from America to Africa, but the de-realizing effect of cultural and class migration suffuses his work as a whole: The differences between modes of being allow everyday actions to more markedly present themselves as performances.
Kevin Jerome Everson, Erie, 2010. (Trailer)
The strategies of Old Cat and BZV culminate in Everson’s latest and, arguably, strongest feature, Erie, which like these two shorter works is told in a series of long, unbroken takes, each shot on a single roll of grainy black-and-white reversal 16-mm stock. In the first sequence, two workers in hard hats unfurl a billboard depicting what appears to be an African American man in a beret, proudly posing with a Beetle, with a tagline reading THERE’S A BIT OF THE COOL IN EVERY BUG. VOLKSWAGEN OHIO. The billboard was fabricated by Everson: The photo is of his own uncle, taken while he was stationed in West Germany in the 1960s, though the film never reveals the picture’s origins. (Everson will install the billboard—titled American Motor Company, 2009—as part of his show at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center in Buffalo in June.) Succeeding events play with different kinds of duration: A title sequence shows Niagara Falls; a young girl (Everson’s daughter) stares at a lit candle as it melts; two men fence—one shirtless—in what looks like a dance studio or auditorium; young performers practice piano, singing, and krumping in a warehouse; workers sort and sterilize surgical scissors at a medical facility; and, finally, two women back on another boat in clear plastic rain ponchos approach the falls, wind whipping into the microphone and water clinging to the lens.
These scenes bear the inherent pleasures of actuality-style longueurs, but they also present tangential references to the story of African Americans in Ohio, Niagara Falls calling to mind the Underground Railroad’s great gateway to Canada, the medical workers evincing the area’s more recent transformation, especially hard-hitting in the Rust Belt, from a manufacturing to a service economy. The most overt gesture in this regard is a segment early in the film recording a conversation with some of Everson’s older relatives, former General Motors plant workers and UAW members reminiscing about how the unions were blamed for the industry’s decline. “Mainstream America,” one of them recalls, “really did not like a UAW worker. ‘You people should not be making that kind of money. You do not have the education to make that kind of money. How did you get that job?’ ” she mimics. “You didn’t need the education to have that job. You just needed to know how to do that job. And everybody was taught to do a job. It was a learning experience. You didn’t go in there knowing how to build a panel. Nobody knew that. Everybody had to learn to do that.” The discussion draws from local history but also returns to one of Everson’s primary considerations—that of labor as an ongoing mental and physical process of learning, as well as a form of discipline and performance not always understood as such from the outside.
The idea—the validation, even—of education through practice and repetition goes to the heart of Everson’s work, as seen in Erie and beyond. Because so much of his output feels fragmentary and evocative, with connecting themes hidden behind what only seems to be a documentary lucidity, his filmmaking benefits from cumulative viewings, patterns emerging slowly over time. This element of intentional opacity can be seen as a reaction to the identitarian baggage inherited from long-standing debates about the politics of representation in cinema. Everson rejects the role of cultural explainer in his work, opting instead to place the burden of understanding on the audience and its own labor. In this way, he has carved a place for himself outside both the typical expectations of documentary and the conventions of representational fiction, attempting to work from the materials of the worlds he encounters to create something else.
THERE ARE OLDER FESTIVALS in Latin America than the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film—BAFICI, to use its Spanish acronym—and there are certainly flashier ones (like the more mainstream event in the Argentinean coastal resort of Mar del Plata), but none has staked out so central a place in cinephile culture. As a municipally funded event, BAFICI has endured the whims of government bureaucracy during its brief existence—the festival, which concluded its thirteenth edition on Sunday, is already on its fourth artistic director. But while it may be subject to variable political pressures, it has avoided having to make serious artistic compromises. Through personnel changes and through what has been a tumultuous decade in Argentina, BAFICI has cultivated an identity, one might even say an ideology, that sets it apart from the pack. Put simply, this is a festival with both the discernment and the freedom to oppose the pervasive (if often unacknowledged) notion that film festivals should be temples to industry more than to art. The fare that most other fests relegate to the margins or smuggle in amid would-be crowd-pleasers—adventurous, risk-taking work, in other words, the kind that cultural gatekeepers often tar as obscure or elitist—is unapologetically front and center here.
Under its current head, Sergio Wolf, BAFICI has continued on the distinctive path forged by the critic Quintín, the festival director from 2000 to 2004, who did more than anyone to boost the event’s global profile. There are no red carpets at BAFICI, and there is no insistence on premieres; the festival also resists the curatorial habits—or marketing practices—of sectioning work off into, say, documentary, genre, and experimental categories. At the core of the program are three competitive slates—one international; one Argentinean; and one, called “Cinema of the Future,” for nominally edgier work—generally reserved for first- or second-time filmmakers.
The main competition lineup does not simply depend on product availability—more than that, it’s an attempt to survey the cinematic landscape for ripples of urgency and pockets of resistance, to summarize the state of the art. Alongside pickings from last year’s Cannes (Le quattro volte) and Venice (Attenberg), there is room for an oddity like the scruffy Os monstros, by four young Brazilian directors, Guto Parente, Pedro Diógenes, and twin brothers Luiz and Ricardo Pretti. A film in search of something—freedom, art, the real, a means of expression (all of which is to say, itself)—it plays like a melancholic slacker movie, halting and meandering, and culminates in a fifteen-minute free-jazz jam, an extraordinary feat of camaraderie and alchemy.
Both the top prize and the critics’ prize went to the French director Sylvain George for May They Rest in Revolt (Figures of Wars I), a black-and-white portrait of illegal migrants in the shadowy borderlands of Calais, France, as radical in its lyrical intimacy as in its activist point of view. George’s project—to reinvigorate the possibilities of the political documentary—was shared by films as different as Palazzo delle Aquile (by Stefano Savona, Aliessia Porto, and Ester Sparatore), a purposefully grueling vérité immersion in the chaotic daily existence of homeless families during a monthlong occupation of city hall in Palermo, Sicily, and Mercedes Alvares’s Futures Market, a philosophical essay film on the life cycle of objects and the existential crisis of late capitalism, journeying from expos hawking unbuilt Dubai towers to an overstuffed Barcelona junk shop. A highlight of the Cinema of the Future section, Ion de Sosa’s True Love, a chronicle of the Spanish filmmaker’s doomed romance while living in Berlin, boldly subverts another familiar form—the diary film—by both going deeper into self-exposure (literally, as in endoscopy footage) and abstracting emotion into ambient impressionism.
BAFICI is not immune to festival bloat (more than three hundred features this year), but its tentacle-like reach pays off in the many retrospectives, which counter the embalming tendencies of such showcases by featuring not only anointed masters but sundry bodies of work, large and small, that have eluded local (or, for that matter, most) audiences. Stuffed into the mix this year: Japanese New Wave icon Kiju Yoshida; Andrei Ujica’s remarkable post-communist trilogy; a midcareer spotlight on the Canadian comic (sub)urbanist Gary Burns; and a catch-up session on Sandro Aguilar, an important producer and editor in the Portuguese independent film world and, in his own right, a director of several enigmatic experimental shorts and one potently moody feature, Uprise (2008).
Santiago Mitre, El estudiante (The Student), 2011, still from a color film in HD, 124 minutes.
A major draw for foreign visitors is the prospect of finding Argentina’s next big thing, especially now that the key figures of the last national new wave (Pablo Trapero, Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel) are a decade or more into their careers. The Argentinean jury, on which I served this year, awarded its top prize to Nicolás Grosso’s Animal’s Run, an atmospheric, elliptical drama about the aftermath of a factory closing and the pull of an absent father figure. While this year’s BAFICI offered nothing to match the excitement of the domestic cinema’s last great discovery, Mariano Llinas’s 2008 epic Historias Extraordinarias (which will receive a New York run at MoMA starting May 4), the two Argentinean films that played in the international competition, both debut features, are proof of the local scene’s continued health.
Hermes Paralluelo’s documentary Yatasto follows the lives of a family on the outskirts of Córdoba that subsists on scavenging and begging—follows is the operative word, as Paralluelo’s film implicitly wrestles with the question of how best to observe its subjects and to reveal the particularities of their world. Far from effacing the presence of the camera, Paralluelo calls attention to it with an ingeniously simple, almost theatrical device. The most vivid scenes are captured in long takes with a camera mounted to the clip-clopping horse-drawn cart that transports the family members, primarily the very garrulous kids, through town. It’s a privileged perspective, granting us an unusual, head-on intimacy, but also one that reveals a larger social context as the cartoneros, in these scenes of continuous motion, navigate the traffic and the neighborhoods of the city.
El Estudiante, written and directed by Santiago Mitre (who has cowritten scripts with Trapero), centers on a twenty-something newcomer to Buenos Aires who becomes entangled in the byzantine world of campus politics. Anchored by Esteban Lamothe’s nuanced, charismatic performance, El Estudiante complicates the bildungsroman narrative of education and disillusionment, emphasizing the endless adaptability—or malleability—of its protagonist. An intelligent, engrossing portrayal of politics as a game, an addiction, and a vicious cycle, the film was enthusiastically received (and won a special jury prize). Some wondered whether it would travel, given the hyperlocal details, the allegorical relevance in light of Péronism. But El Estudiante doesn’t merely transcend its specifics. At its best, it’s a truly universal political thriller, one that illuminates the conspiratorial pleasure, the sheer labor, and the moral murk of what it memorably calls “politics in its pure form.”
The thirteenth Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente ran April 6–17, 2011.
IF JACKIE CURTIS was the most brilliant and mercurial of the drag queens immortalized in Andy Warhol’s films of the late 1960s and early ’70s, Candy Darling was the most moving and devotional. Born James L. Slattery in 1944 to a working-class family and raised in the stultifying conformity of post–World War II Long Island suburbia, Candy discovered her ideal self in the platinum-haired vision of Kim Novak toughing it out in The Eddie Duchin Story (1956). Just as the young Warhol wrote fan letters to Shirley Temple and incorporated her gestures into his blatantly feminized presentation of self, the young Slattery wrote to Novak (who responded with a “personalized” letter that became one of the boy’s most cherished possessions) and fashioned a fantasy life around his desire to become a glamorous Hollywood sex symbol like Kim. (Warhol missed a great opportunity by not remaking Hitchcock’s Vertigo with Candy in Novak’s role, thereby clarifying Hitchcock’s fetishism of women who are not at all what they pretend to be.)
In James Rasin’s tender and intimate documentary, Beautiful Darling (2010), there is a clip from David Bailey’s documentary Bailey on . . . Andy Warhol (1973) in which Warhol tries to parse the difference between “drag queens” and his stars. Drag queens, he opines, “just dress up for eight hours a day. The people we use really think they are girls and stuff, and that’s really different.” According to several sources in Rasin’s documentary, Warhol suggested to Candy that she have a sex-change operation (no one says he went so far as to offer to pay for it, and skinflint that he was, he probably didn’t), but Candy demurred, although she was also said to have regarded Warhol as her Louis B. Mayer (the all-powerful studio head who always knew what was best for his stars or, rather, his wallet). No, Candy preferred to dose herself with the female hormones that very likely caused her death from lymphoma at age twenty-nine.
Beautiful Darling is not a biography of Candy so much a testament to the friendship between Candy and Jeremiah Newton. The movie begins in 2007 with the preparations for the burial of the urn containing Candy’s ashes along with the urn containing the ashes of Newton’s mother in the single grave in which Newton also plans to be buried. Newton obtained Candy’s ashes along with some of her possessions from Candy’s mother. The mother was trying to keep the fact that Candy ever existed a secret from her second husband, who seems to have been even more homophobic than Candy’s actual father.
Rasin looks at Candy largely through Newton’s eyes. They met when Newton was a beautiful gay teenager living in Queens and Candy was looking for a couch to sleep on. Newton says he was afraid to take her home because of what the neighbors would think, but later, when he got a place of his own in Manhattan, it was different. He became her most steadfast friend, throughout her life and beyond. The movie is thus the story of an undying love, and as such, it is immensely affecting and mysterious. The executor of Candy’s estate, Newton coedited the book My Face for the World to See: The Diaries, Letters, and Drawings of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar (1997) and is a coproducer of Beautiful Darling. Both works have kept Candy’s image and legend alive in ways that would have pleased her as much as the two events that seem to have been the high points of her short life: going to the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood of Paul Morrissey’s Women in Revolt (1971), in which she costars with Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, and starring in an off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings (1972). (Williams insisted on casting her in the lead.)
Beautiful Darling is an inspired clip job—that is to say, the clips themselves are often amazing and they are brilliantly arranged. There are glimpses of Candy on the swing in Curtis’s fabulous La MaMa production of Vain Victory (1971) singing Paul Serrato’s torchy “My Place Tonight,” a song with which she was identified as much as with the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says.” The music (cuts by Lou Reed, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry) gives the movie a defiant edge, as do some of Candy’s own subtle send-ups of her melodramatic diva image. (The clip from Warhol’s Phoney is choice.) Among the sharpest commentators are Fran Lebowitz, John Waters, Helen Hanft, and the Interview crowd: Pat Hackett, Bob Colacello, Vincent Fremont. After Candy died, a grieving Newton recorded audio conversations with everyone who knew her, and bits of these exchanges serve as narrative glue. It is an illustrious cast of downtown characters, most of them long gone.
Rasin’s riskiest move was to choose Chloë Sevigny to read, in voice-over, from Candy’s diaries and the letter she left to be opened after her death. Sevigny makes no attempt to imitate Candy’s vocal delivery, which mixed the breathy tones of Hollywood sex goddesses with the staccato inflections of Viva. (Did Viva model her delivery on Candy’s or vice versa? Or did they have a common source? The movie casts no light on this conundrum, since Viva, a contemporary of Candy in the Warhol scene, seems to be the great unmentionable for Newton and Rasin alike.) Rather, Sevigny sounds exactly like the well-educated, upper-middle-class, East Coast young woman that she, in fact, is. And that alone expands the meaning of what Candy wrote about her uniquely personal transgendered experience of the world. Near the end of the film, we hear Sevigny’s forthright, transparent reading of one of the last entries in Candy’s diary: “You must always be yourself no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.” The words boggle the mind and break the heart.
Beautiful Darling opens Friday, April 22 at the IFC Center in New York.
BETTE GORDON’S FILMS have always put women first. Spanning more than three decades, the five-program retrospective of her moving image work at Anthology Film Archives confirms that the sense of adventure in Gordon’s movies springs from her depiction of women’s psyches and bodies, desires and fears. There is a distinctive sense of camaraderie between the filmmaker and her actors that is slightly different from the empathy we expect a director to have.
The series includes two of Gordon’s landmark works, Variety (1984) and The United States of America (1975). The latter was co-directed by James Benning, Gordon’s boyfriend at the time. It plays on Program 1, preceded by two other Gordon-Benning collaborations, Michigan Avenue (1973) and i-94 (1974), and followed by three of Gordon’s solo turns, Still Life (1972), An Erotic Film (1975), and An Algorithm (1977). All six films are being shown in new prints, courtesy of Anthology’s preservations program. All were made during the “structuralist” period of American avant-garde filmmaking, and with the exception of The United States of America, all involve elaborate layering and/or fracturing of movement by means of optical printing. The United States of America is a structuralist film of a different ilk. When it was originally shown, it seemed merely a very smart riff on the reigning avant-garde film of the time, Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967). But the passage of thirty-six years allows it to be seen in its own right, not only as a conceptually canny piece of structuralism but also as a revealing historical document.
One of the myriad ways that Wavelength can be described is as a trip through a single interior space, traced by the slow and staggered movement of a zoom lens from its widest to its narrowest (close-up) position, with all the “distortions” and transformations of the image such a movement creates. (The camera doesn’t move, and certainly the room doesn’t move; only the lens moves, thus transforming what we can see of the room and how we see it.) The United States of America was also filmed with a fixed camera, but one that had a fixed lens. The camera was mounted in the backseat area of a car. Its position—and thus the framing of the images it records—never changes. We see a bit of the backseat area; the backs of the front seats and backs of the heads of the filmmakers who are seated in front (mostly Benning drives, but occasionally he and Gordon exchange places); the front windshield with the rearview mirror fixed in the middle at the top; and a bit of the side windows, left and right.
The movement in the film is created almost entirely by the movement of the car as it is driven by the filmmakers from the East Coast to the West, with some north-south driving in the middle of the country. The United States of America has a runtime of twenty-seven minutes, but it’s not possible to determine how long the actual trip took or if the film was edited from footage taken during one trip or several. Our attention, like the attention of the filmmakers/“actors,” is on the passing landscape as it can be seen through the windshield. The film is shot from what in Hollywood is described, cheatingly, as an over-the-shoulder POV, but here, since the camera is midway between the left shoulder of one person and the right shoulder of the other, the shot is an amalgam of two supposed POVs, i.e., a double cheat. There is no dialogue. The sound track is largely derived from the car’s radio—a mix of music and local newscasts, one of which allows us to fix the period as that of the US’s chaotic withdrawal from Saigon in the closing days of the Vietnam war. The United States of America is pure road movie, absent of character goals or desire, but attentive to the movement of history and fixity of geography.
While Gordon began her filmmaking career as a structuralist, she soon became involved with issues that joined film and feminism. In the midst of the scorched earth theories that all but prohibited images of women on the screen lest they provide voyeuristic satisfaction for “the male gaze,” she insisted on training her camera on women, often unclothed. An Algorithm, an optically printed film edited from several truncated shots of a woman diving off a board but never breaking the surface of the water, contains the germ of much of her later work. Gordon realized that the problem of the objectification of women in film has less to do with the display of the body than with who has control of the narrative—of the desire that motors it and of how that desire is resolved, or left as an opening into the unknown. She also understood, psychologically and pragmatically, that for a woman to become a filmmaker or to simply enjoy movies, she had to take pleasure in her own voyeurism.
Nevertheless, the pressures of the feminist discourse were such that Gordon would have to make several confused efforts at being a “good girl” filmmaker before she could cut loose in her barely disguised autobiography, Variety, the saga of how a nice young woman from the Midwest comes to New York, goes to work as a ticket taker in a porn theater (it’s the end of the 1970s recession), and discovers that she wants to take charge of and act on her fantasies however she pleases. Variety isn’t a perfect movie, but it is one of the most powerful descriptions of the female psyche committed to film by a director who knows how ravishing films can be. Also playing in the Anthology series are Gordon’s subsequent features, Luminous Motion (1998) and Handsome Harry (2009), the latter a reversal of her modus operandi in that it is solely focused on the crisis of male identity. They are polished in ways that the earlier films are not, but for crazy genre-wrestling pleasure, Variety is the one to see.
WHEN A CONTEMPORARY MUSICAL ACT is brought in to create and perform a new score for a silent film classic, the result is typically tasteful and restrained. But as one might surmise from the band’s moniker, Fucked Up doesn’t exactly do restraint. Enlisted by the Images Festival—Toronto’s lively annual survey of experimental film, video, installation, and media art—to provide new music for a screening of Tod Browning’s film West of Zanzibar (1928) on the festival’s closing night, the local hardcore favorites handled the assignment with all the delicacy of a UFC cage match.
Fucked Up expanded on the most epic moments on their 2009 album The Chemistry of Common Life, deploying an arsenal of razor-sharp guitar riffage and thunderous drum solos to accentuate and intensify the lurid lunacy of Browning’s curio, a compelling if egregiously racist jungle melodrama by the director of Dracula and Freaks. While many films of its vintage might have been overpowered by such a visceral display of power, West of Zanzibar was sufficiently feisty to match the band blow for blow.
In their rejection of timid tactics, Fucked Up’s efforts were very much in line with the playfully subversive energies present throughout the festival. That energy was certainly there in the opening-night film. Rivers and My Father, Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Luo Li’s impressive sophomore feature, freely mixes fiction and documentary elements as Luo juxtaposes reenacted scenes from his father’s boyhood in rural China with footage of his family in the present day. But after an hour of hushed, ambiguous, and lyrical black-and-white vignettes, Luo’s work takes a surprising turn. Explaining via on-screen text that he sent the film we’ve just watched to his father, the director then presents Luo Sr.’s well-meaning comments on how it might be improved. The result is an ingenious sort of autocritique, one that immediately deflates any air of pretension while adding texture to the film’s key themes of family, landscape, and memory.
Two events by visiting Brooklynites in the festival’s Live Images program proved to be similarly unpredictable. The Fortunetellers, a performative lecture by Ellie Ga based on her experiences during a scientific expedition in the Arctic Ocean in the winter of 2007–2008, used a variety of means—photo transparencies presented via overhead projector, digital video collected during her very dark days on the Tara, cryptic slides of wristwatch ads, and live narration by Ga—to create a wry and touching portrait of a temporary community at the end of the world. Andrew Lampert, an archivist at the Anthology Film Archives and an artist in his own right, was also in Toronto to present three recent films that reflected his new interest in “contracted cinema,” a cheeky term that points to his shift away from the multiprojector works he had previously favored. In his introductory remarks, he also admitted that he risked the rancor of fringe-film purists by using video to preserve and present works originally shot on Super 8. But the results—including two hilarious films in which actress Caroline Golum channels the woeful spirit of one of Lampert’s Siberian ancestors—suggest that the director’s move to narrow his scope has also revitalized his work.
The twenty-fourth edition of Toronto’s Images Festival ran through April 9, 2011. The festival’s “Off-Screen” program continues through April at participating galleries and venues.
THE REVIVAL OF 1970S UNDERGROUND “three-chord” movies continues apace at the IFC Center and Anthology Film Archives in New York. With Céline Danhier’s randomly informative and completely uncritical documentary Blank City (2010) currently booked for an unlimited run at the IFC, the theater is also showcasing, as part of its ongoing “Short Attention Span” series, moving image work by the film’s most articulate interview subject, James Nares.
The exemplary Renaissance man of ’70s downtown New York, Nares made movies, played guitar (with James Chance in the Contortions and with Jim Jarmusch in the Del-Byzanteens), and staged performances for minuscule audiences in his loft where he also produced sculpture and paintings. Today, he is perhaps best known as a painter, although he has never stopped shooting still and moving photographic work. Ranging across thirty years, the five movies included in the “Short Attention Span” series are lyrical but heady one-liners. Ramp (1975), Hammered (1975), and Drip (2007) are mini documents of sculptural activity, involving the effects of gravity on weighty objects. Game (1976) is like a stoner’s dream—a fast and furious chess game played with very small indistinguishable rocks—while Weather Bed (1990) depicts what might have happened the night before as a slowly gathering tornado in the sheets. Nares’s longest movie, the mostly soporific, occasionally hilarious Rome 78 (1978) which features various Mudd Club denizens stalking around in togas, plays at IFC the weekend of April 8–9 in the midnight movie slot, as does Charlie Ahearn’s livelier Wild Style (1983), an invaluable document of early hip-hop, break-dancing, and graffiti artists.
Unlike Nares, Eric Mitchell, one of the stars of Rome 78, had feature filmmaking ambitions. Anthology Film Archives, which has programmed its own ’70s underground series, is showing two of Mitchell’s riff's on Warhol’s tabloid-inspired talkies, Kidnapped (1978) and Underground, U.S.A. (1980). Both movies are notable for frantic and relentless camera movement and feature downtown luminary Patti Astor, whose attempted Edie Sedgwick imitation is closer to Ingrid Superstar, who herself had created the first and least self-conscious Edie parody. If you only have time for one Mitchell movie, choose Kidnapped. It’s the shorter and purer of the two, and it’s preceded by the bluntly titled, seven-minute Mass Homicide (1977), which will give you a taste of what you’re in for.
“The Films of James Nares” runs at the IFC Center in New York through April 21 as part of the theater’s “Short Attention Span” series. Rome 78 and Wild Style play at the IFC Center on Saturday, April 9 at midnight. Films by Eric Mitchell will show at Anthology Film Archives in New York on Saturday April 9 and Sunday April 10. Céline Danhier’s Blank City opened at the IFC Center on Wednesday, April 6.
João Pedro Rodrigues, To Die Like a Man, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Left: Tonia (Fernando Santos). Right: Tonia and Rosário (Fernando Santos and Alexander David).
JOÃO PEDRO RODRIGUES’S brilliant To Die Like a Man effortlessly shuttles between nose-to-the-ground melodrama and airy fantasy, embracing both the ethereal and the cruelly physical. The film’s central dichotomy is between body and soul, a dualism best evinced by the lightly worn but deterministic Catholicism of the film’s transgendered protagonist Tonia (Fernando Santos).
Working as a drag queen in a Lisbon discotheque—and living as a woman off the job—Tonia is hesitant to undergo the full sex-change operation demanded by her younger, junky boyfriend. Her reasons for resisting are a botched breast job and a dose of Catholic guilt about altering the body that God gave her. While dealing with her unstable beau, Rosário (Alexander David), and the potential loss of work to younger performers, Tonia begins to produce a milky, bloody discharge from her areola, a sign that her body is rejecting its silicone implants.
To Die Like a Man is highly attuned to the body in all its naked humbleness—never more so than in a scene when, shades of Mary Magdalene, Rosário washes Tonia’s unsightly feet, eventually moving up the torso to definitively expose Tonia’s “manhood.” But Rodrigues’s film is also given to delirious flights of fancy, emphasizing that human experience is by no means limited to the grueling vagaries of day-to-day life. In a series of largely non-narrative sequences that seem to exist outside of time, the film explores higher yearnings that also acknowledge the cruelties of the quotidian temporarily left behind.
In the most bizarre of these moments, Tonia and Rosário stumble upon a trio living away from society in the forest. Everyday time comes to a halt while the five of them go snipe hunting. Suddenly the moon turns red, a crimson haze is thrown across the screen, and the characters sit motionless, listening to an off-screen song about Jesus at Calvary whose audio source remains unspecified, but which provides Tonia with a hard-earned, if temporary, release from the conflicting demands of her corporality. A person may be bound to his or her body, the film suggests, but they need not be defined by it.
To Die Like a Man opens Friday April 8 at the IFC Center in New York.
“YOU WOULDN’T EAT, you’d buy a guitar or a Super 8 camera.” Musician Pat Place’s recollection of the urgency that drove New York’s underground auteurs in the late 1970s and early ’80s encapsulates both the scenesters’ fiercely do-it-yourself ethic and their— perhaps inevitable—tendency to self-mythologize. Blank City, director Céline Danhier’s document of the rough-and-ready style of filmmaking that emerged in conjunction with punk rock and ultimately ballooned into big-budget indie cinema, gives Place and friends plenty of time to indulge this long-nurtured romanticism. But it also packs in so much detail that people and places central to the story soon begin to acquire an odd equivalency with rather more tangential ingredients. The final effect, while not actually misleading, can be slightly numbing. Still, if there’s a feeling of being rushed through too much interesting stuff, at least the interesting stuff is there.
“It was an explosive moment, a meeting of minds.” Blank City begins with Jim Jarmusch characterizing the birth of what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman termed “No Wave” cinema, a no-holds-barred filmic rejoinder to the grittiness of ’70s Manhattan that acknowledged but played fast and loose with the influence of the French New Wave. That Hoberman’s term was also applied to a fleeting but similarly influential subgenre in music is no accident; Danhier’s film describes two worlds in a state of continual overlap. Ivan Kral’s The Blank Generation, 1976—made, according to its director, on a budget of a hundred bucks—features performances by the Ramones, Television, and the rest of the CBGB’s gang. But it was bands of the more dissonant kind gathered on 1978’s No New York compilation that were the real sonic counterparts to the filmmakers featured in Blank City.
Chief envoy of this group from Danhier’s perspective is James Chance, of James Chance and the Contortions. The film’s only interviewee (with the exception of John Waters) to still look something of an oddball, Chance also gives a beautifully concise account of his first encounter with actor-director John Lurie: “[He] used to follow me around on the street. Then one day he came over and knocked at my door and gave me some speed and we went to his apartment and we made a movie.” Lurie himself is an entertaining source throughout the film, discussing the then au courant emphasis on de-skilling—“Technique was so hated [ . . . ] no one was doing what they knew how to do”—and remembering having to fake a break-in at his apartment to claim the insurance money that he used to fund 1979’s Men in Orbit.
And so the film goes on, ranging across a downtown topography that, while appearing strikingly desolate in numerous atmospheric clips and described ad nauseum as dangerous to life and limb, was seemingly packed with radical innovators. En route, guerrilla cinema is cited as a response to everything from political conservatism to the AIDS pandemic, the indomitability of the cockroach to the gentrification of the Lower East Side. The self-celebration is interrupted only late in the game by director James Nares, who slams Jean-Michel Basquiat for making it cool to have cash. From here, it’s the fast track to something like mainstream success for a select few, and a digging in of heels for others. Most notable among the latter is Nick Zedd, whose 1985 manifesto stakes out a more lurid and confrontational territory in the form of the Cinema of Transgression.
Zedd, who still cuts a youthful (one might even say adolescent) figure, is a riot. Still sulky after all these years, the uncompromising director maintains an admirable poker face as he outlines an ongoing quest to offend. “I was elated to get this kind of attention and this kind of outrage,” he says of the appalled critical reaction to 1979 anti-masterpiece They Eat Scum, his face steadfastly expressionless. Waters describes Zedd’s production Fingered (1986) as “the ultimate date movie for psychos,” and former partner and collaborator Lydia Lunch remembers of the young Zedd, “Even when he did nothing, people hated him. It was amazing!” If Blank City has a star, it’s not the more critically lauded and commercially successful likes of Jarmusch or Steve Buscemi, but this pouting man in black, a stubborn iconoclast who doesn’t wanna grow up.
Blank City opens Wednesday, April 6, at the IFC Center in New York.
LIKE A BOOMERANG hurled across three-plus decades and carrying today’s viewer back with it to that fervent, hard-edged but oddly innocent downtown moment when the free-for-all 1970s (free because no one had or was willing to admit to having money) gave way to the more practical and materialist ’80s, Ericka Beckman’s Super 8 “Piaget Trilogy” (1978–81) arrives on the Anthology Film Archives screen. Its restoration in 16 mm was made possible by Anthology’s experimental film preservation project, which has recently focused on work from this period. (Two weeks ago, restored movies by Manuel De Landa were screened; on April 15–16, it’s Bette Gordon’s turn.) I can’t remember seeing an actual boomerang in any of Beckman’s works, but so many of the trajectories of camera and object movement in her films evoke that kind of kinetic and aggressive back-and-forth that to include the thing itself would be redundant.
Beckman’s place in the pantheon of daredevil experimental moviemakers should have been secured in 1983, when You the Better, the thirty-five-minute, 16-mm film that followed the “Piaget Trilogy,” caused a riot at the New York Film Festival, where it preceded Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion. I recall that at the time, Godard, perhaps as a defensive maneuver, anointed Beckman as the most talented young American experimentalist. Two years earlier, Beckman’s Super 8 work was lauded by J. Hoberman in his catalogue for “Home Made Movies,” the 1981 marathon survey of 8-mm and Super 8 films he organized at Anthology. Hoberman described the films in what would only later be dubbed the “Piaget Trilogy”—they were partly inspired by the learning theories of the psychologist Jean Piaget—as follows: “Filled with images of disembodied limbs, toy-like models, and anthropomorphized furniture, scored to doo-wop mantras and abstract cheerleader chants, Beckman’s films suggest the amalgam of Max Fleischer’s oneiric Bimbo’s Initiation and Oskar Fischinger’s geometric Composition in Blue.” Of Out of Hand (1981), the last film in the trilogy, he memorably blurbed: “like an Allstate Insurance commercial as it might appear to an autistic child.”
Of all the artist-filmmakers who debuted in the ’70s, none have shown more consistency than Beckman. That is to say that each of her films is distinct from the others while also being part of a uniquely envisioned oeuvre. (You have to see her films to understand how derivative, clumsy, and vacuous Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle is.) What I wrote in 1979 in the Soho News about two of her early films—about their fragmentation, dreamlike displacements, and associative connections; about how clear, diagrammatic, often primary-colored iconography is placed within a shadowy, shifting, ambiguous space; about the incantatory power of her sound tracks with their repeated percussion riffs and nursery rhyme–like chants—applies to her more recent, technically formidable work as well. In the stunning 2006 Tension Building—an unfortunate omission from the Anthology program, though it can be found in its entirety on her website—she uses stop-motion, camera movement, and variations of focal length and exposure to transform the Harvard University coliseum into a giant thrashing machine. A mere three minutes, it seems to go on for hours, sucking you in like a black hole. It’s the only film that’s ever given me motion sickness.
Milking the Surrealist roots of Pop, Beckman creates brightly colored, psychologically threatening, sexually charged worlds in which her avatars are hurled to and fro, trapped inside a game plan whose rules they desperately try to discern. In what is probably still her most narrative-like film, Cinderella (1986), her heroine, decked out alternately in baggy overalls and a green bouffant prom dress topped with a blonde flip wig, is shunted between an industrial furnace that she’s forced to tend and the ballroom where she dances with the prince until she loses her chance to marry him because she doesn’t make it home by midnight. It’s not until she realizes that she can come home whenever she likes that she breaks out of the confines of the game. “And that night, I didn’t get home until two!” she exclaims, in one of the most thrilling moments of liberation in a Beckman movie. It wasn’t until looking at Cinderella again, twenty-five years after its debut, that I realized how deeply Beckman’s films were lodged in my brain in their entirety, as deeply as the childhood nursery rhymes and picture books that are undoubtedly their sources. They touch down where the wet dreams of girlhood arise.