Hit Parade

08.31.11

Sam Fleischner, Willis Glasspiegel, Tony Lowe, and Olivia Wyatt, Below the Brain, 2011, still from a color film in HD video, 59 minutes.


HANDMADE, IMPROVISATORY, and almost as immersive as the event it depicts, Below the Brain is an impressionistic documentary of the Brooklyn West Indian Carnival, an annual Labor Day weekend event that has never been as hyped as New Orleans’s Mardi Gras but certainly should be. Sam Fleischner, co-director of the Jamaica-set Wah Do Dem (2010), one of the best narrative film debuts of the twenty-first century, is a Caribbean music fanatic, as is Below the Brain’s coeditor, musician-artist Tony Lowe. Teaming up with two other filmmakers, Willis Glasspiegel and Olivia Wyatt, the quartet “covered” the 2010 Carnival from sunset one day to sunset the next, each mapping his or her own route through the twenty-four-plus hours of tumult. They then pooled their best footage (everyone used low-end digital cameras) and Fleischner and Lowe compressed all of it into a furiously paced fifty-nine minutes, suggesting a nonstop sampling of sound and image, done on the fly.

Like the parade itself, the movie is rude, crude, hyperkinetic, and deliriously colorful. People deck themselves in feathers and often not much else, paint their skin gold or cover it with flour paste, flaunt their flesh and dance down the street to the polyrhythms of one steel band after another. There’s safety and joy in numbers. Occasionally we glimpse a studied, even ritualized interaction between the revelers and the cops who line the route, the latter clearly having been instructed not to intervene unless something dire occurs. It’s a bacchanal where children and elderly are welcome. One of the movie’s most memorable images is of two androgynous ancients with painted faces, holding hands and regarding the passing parade as if they were already in heaven.

Amy Taubin

Below the Brain screens September 1 at 6:50 and 9:15 at BAMCinématek in Brooklyn. A Q&A with the filmmakers and a live performance by the Rara group Brother High follow the 6:50 screening. The Brooklyn West Indian Carnival parade takes place September 5 beginning at 11 AM. The route is along Eastern Parkway from Utica Avenue to Grand Army Plaza.

Left: Tacita Dean, Edwin Parker, 2011, still from a color film in 16 mm, 29 minutes. Right: Nathaniel Dorsky, The Return, 2011, still from a color film in 16 mm, 27 minutes.


WHETHER HE’S PUTTERING around his storefront studio in Lexington, Virginia, or ordering a turkey sandwich at a local restaurant, Cy Twombly displays a stubborn vitality in a new film portrait by Tacita Dean, made last year during what turned out to be Twombly’s final autumn. The twenty-nine-minute work, titled Edwin Parker after Twombly’s birth name, is a remarkably circumspect tribute. Shot by Dean from a series of judiciously unobtrusive vantage points, Twombly becomes the rare camera subject who is allowed to preserve his privacy.

Presented in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Wavelengths program a mere two months after Twombly passed away at age eighty-three, Dean’s film inevitably takes on an elegiac quality. But that air of finality has nearly as much to do with the death knells for 16-mm film, the medium of choice for Dean as well as for so many of the other artists represented in TIFF’s annual survey of experimental world cinema. Indeed, Dean has been increasingly vocal about the declining availability of film stock and labs in which to develop it. (The last one in her native UK has already closed.)

That anxiety and sense of loss permeate many of Wavelengths’ 16-mm selections, including Ben Rivers’s Sack Barrow—an eerie study of corrosion and decay shot in a decrepit electroplating factory outside London—and Joshua Bonnetta’s American Colour, which traces a final pilgrimage for several rolls of 16-mm Kodachrome stock between the film’s original birthplace in upstate New York and the Kansas lab that processed the rolls earlier this year. The Return, another masterful symphony of light, shadow, and shape by Nathaniel Dorsky, stands as further proof that the supplanting of analog forms with digital ones will leave the world a poorer place.

Adding to the gloom of this year’s Wavelengths is the news that it is the last edition to be programmed by Andréa Picard. Thanks to her careful curation, the program became an oasis for adventurous cinephiles otherwise alienated by the ever more frenzied and Hollywood-centric nature of the festival around it. But the works themselves are too full of energy and ingenuity for the mood to grow completely dour.

Among the most dazzling selections is Black Mirror at the National Gallery, a new seven-minute work by Mark Lewis. Lewis, always interested in matters of cinematic space and spectatorship, has created one of his craftiest works yet by inviting viewers to be led by a hulking automated tour guide through two galleries in the National Gallery of London. Blake Williams’s Coorow-Latham Road depicts another memorable journey, this one along a rural Australian highway. But of course there’s a wrinkle: These travels are an animated simulation derived from images collected from Google Street View.

Williams’s work is proof that Wavelengths’ devotion to celluloid wonders shouldn’t be equated with an aversion to digital means. After all, James Benning’s own shift to HD video in recent works hasn’t dented his reputation as America’s master of real-time cinema. A Wavelengths habitué, he’s back this year with the premiere of Twenty Cigarettes, a Warholian gallery of cigarette-smoking subjects lighting up for the camera. Benning’s fellow film artists Thom Andersen and Sharon Lockhart are among the puffers under scrutiny.

While the environs of Wavelengths’ base camp at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall are prime terrain for smoke breaks, TIFF patrons can also venture further afield to the many venues hosting Future Projections, TIFF’s free program of film-based installation art. Gregory Crewdson, Ben Rivers, Duane Hopkins, and Banksy’s coconspirator Mr. Brainwash are among the artists with new works on display in local galleries, though the one that will attract the heaviest foot traffic is surely Memories of Idaho, a collaborative piece by James Franco and Gus Van Sant to be presented in TIFF Bell Lightbox’s atrium. A compendium of outtakes and alternate scenes from My Own Private Idaho (1991), Van Sant’s photographs of Portland street hustlers, and a Super 8 “ghost” version of the feature, Franco’s latest foray into installation art pays homage both to Van Sant’s original movie and to its doomed star River Phoenix. Whatever worries are prompted elsewhere about the future of film as a cinematic medium, Franco’s effort proves we can be confident about cinema’s powers to resurrect our dearly departed stars, at least temporarily.

Jason Anderson

The Wavelengths and Future Projections programs are presented September 8–18 at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall and various Toronto venues as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Puppet Show

08.26.11

Joann Sfar, Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, 2010, still from a color film, 122 minutes. Brigitte Bardot and Serge Gainsbourg (Laetitia Casta and Eric Elmosnino).


AFTER SERGE GAINSBOURG DIED, at age sixty-two, in 1991, flags were flown at half-mast in France as President Mitterrand eulogized the singer-songwriter as “our Baudelaire, our Apollinaire.” Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life, comic-book artist Joann Sfar’s biopic of the louche legend, based on the director’s graphic novel, is short on poetry but long on puppetry.

“Gainsbourg transcends realities. I much prefer his lies to the truth,” the writer-director states in a closing intertitle, a slightly defensive license for his own unconventional methods in recapitulating his subject’s life story. Sfar’s debut film begins during the occupation of Paris, when pubescent Serge—né Lucien Ginsburg in 1928 to Russian-Jewish parents—perversely demands that he be the first to get his yellow star from the prefecture. Walking through the streets, young Lucien (Kacey Mottet-Klein) passes soldiers singing “La Marseillaise.” (The kid’s mangling of the lyrics foreshadows, none too subtly, the controversy that would ensue over Gainsbourg’s 1979 single “Aux armes et cætera,” his reggae version of the French national anthem, dramatized later in the film.) During his stroll, Lucien also notices anti-Semitic propaganda wheat-pasted throughout the city; a hideous caricature of a Jew on one of these posters comes to life, transforming into an enormous papier-mâchéd head that trails the boy. But this is only a fleeting phantasm. A puppet alter ego known as “the Mug,” which grotesquely exaggerates Gainsbourg’s prominent schnozzand ears, is soon introduced and stays for good, a totem of the artist’s self-loathing and self-destruction—and a trial for this viewer.

To be fair, there is something admirable about Sfar’s tinkering with the biopic, one of the most hidebound of genres, even if it involves a voluble creation that looks a lot like Sesame Street’s Count von Count. But this conceit seems even more misconceived when it becomes clear that Gainsbourg is just another paint-by-numbers retelling. After abandoning his ambitions as a painter, adult Serge (Eric Elmosnino, who uncannily resembles the singer) focuses on the chanson, his arrangements and clever lyrics eventually earning him a private audience (and more) with hep lady cat Juliette Gréco (Anna Mouglalis), who popularized his composition “La Javanaise” in 1963. Most of Gainsbourg unfolds as a series of clichéd encounters, lasting no longer than the A-side of a 45, between the libertine and the women who made him more famous. The entrance of Brigitte Bardot (Laetitia Casta) to the strains of “Initials B.B.” is followed by a quick rehearsal of their duet “Bonnie and Clyde,” orgasmic moans that serve as the genesis of “Je t’aime . . . moi non plus,” and Bardot’s morning-after query: “Are there any croissants?”

The transitions between lovers/muses are even creakier. “After an affair with Bardot, who cares about some English girl?” Gainsbourg says over the phone in between puffs of Gitanes, setting up, of course, the entrance of Jane Birkin (Lucy Gordon). Their most famous creation, daughter Charlotte, is represented briefly as a half-pint, though Sfar skips the scandalous collaborations of père et fille: the 1984 song “Lemon Incest,” recorded when Charlotte was only twelve, and Serge’s film Charlotte for Ever, made two years later, in which they star as inappropriately attached father and child. Not even a puppet-id, it seems, could make sense of that.

Melissa Anderson

Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life opens August 31 at the Film Forum in New York.

Amazing Race

08.12.11

Asif Kapadia, Senna, 2010, stills from a color film, 106 minutes.


PERHAPS YOU HAVE NO INTEREST in Formula One racing. Perhaps you’re resistant to documentaries in general. Neither of these should keep you from seeing Asif Kapadia’s Senna (2010), a marvel of a movie that has at its center the very thing one longs for and seldom finds on screen today: a brilliant, charismatic, romantic hero. Three times a world champion in a ten-year career, the Brazilian racing car driver Ayrton Senna is considered by aficionados of the sport to have been the greatest driver of his generation—and perhaps of all time. He was also wildly handsome, generous, honest, intelligent, and intensely spiritual. He loved racing, his family, and his country. He donated millions to educating poor Brazilian children. He faced down the Formula One hierarchy that looked on him as an upstart from a third world country—not that that prevented Formula One from capitalizing on his audience appeal—and he challenged himself in every race, not only to win but to achieve the perfection of a form. In other words, he was an artist and a superhero, who tragically is unavailable for a sequel to the most exhilarating and heartbreaking action movie of the summer. Senna was killed in 1994 in a race about which he had grave misgivings, but from which he could not bring himself to walk away.

Like Steven Soderbergh’s And Everything Is Going Fine (2010), that director’s portrait movie of Spalding Gray, Senna consists entirely of archival footage. Kapadia, producer James Gay-Rees, and writer–executive producer Manish Pandey, as well as the production company Working Title, convinced the Senna family to give them the documentary rights to Ayrton’s life story and also to home videos, family photos, and other memorabilia. From Formula One honcho Bernard Ecclestone they received unlimited access to the entire F1 archive, including meetings between drivers and management, interviews, and onboard camera recordings. (In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, Senna argues furiously with France’s head of F1 over an issue of driver safety, something none of the other drivers in the meeting dare to do—and Senna wins.) In addition, the filmmaking team collected TV footage from ten countries. When they began editing, they had five thousand hours of film and video, which then took them more than a year to edit down to seven hours, and many months more to streamline into a thrillingly paced 106 minutes.

Although Kapadia relies on voice-over commentary—much of it from Senna himself—there are no talking heads. You’ll need to go to Google for hard information about Formula One’s complicated scoring procedures or to get an overview of the economics and politics of the sport, or even to find out the details of the controversy around Senna’s fatal crash. Senna makes no bones about disliking the politics. He was happiest, he says, when he drove go-karts in his teens: “That was pure driving, pure racing, that made me happy.” Given his intensely competitive nature, however, he had no choice but to enter Formula One, because that’s where the greatest drivers are. Although he fought the F1 authorities and the car companies over safety, he took risks that angered rivals and teammates (sometimes one and the same), who felt he put their lives as well as his own in danger. But he was adamant about competing to win. “If you refuse to go for a gap,” he said, “you are not a racing driver.”

For all the kinetic excitement of the racing sequences, this is an extremely intimate movie. Action and subjectivity come together most powerfully in the extended onboard camera sequences in which we are locked into a point of view that’s almost exactly the same as Senna’s. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment in the movie was recorded by a tinny microphone on an onboard camera. As he crosses the finish line to win the Grand Prix in Brazil, Senna lets out a long wailing sound—a mix of physical release and out-of-body exultation—like nothing I’ve ever heard before. And then, of course, there is the heart-in-the-throat agonizingly long onboard camera POV of that tragic final race, which mercifully cuts away to a long shot just a second and a half before the crash. I asked Kapadia if he cut away from the onboard camera footage because of morality or taste. He answered that he had used every frame of the shot he was given. The tape went black just before the impact, but he was unable to ascertain whether the camera had malfunctioned or something was erased after the fact. So what’s absent from the movie becomes part of the still unsatisfactory explanations of the tragedy.

If the picture editing by Gregers Sall and Chris King is amazing for its seamlessness in cutting among the coverage of four or five TV crews to form a single dramatic scene, the sound design (by Andy Shelley and Stephen Griffiths), in which Antonio Pinto’s surging romantic orchestral score figures prominently, is even more extraordinary. The digitally souped-up sound that nevertheless allows voices—particularly Senna’s—to retain their fragile expressive qualities is what gives the movie the expressive scope and weight of a big-screen action epic.

Amy Taubin

Senna opens Friday August 12 in New York.

Left: Edward Dmytryk, Crossfire, 1947, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Montgomery and Samuels (Robert Ryan and Sam Levene). Right: Nicholas Ray, On Dangerous Ground, 1952, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 82 minutes. Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan)


EVEN IF HE WINS—especially if he wins—he loses. That’s Robert Ryan in The Set-Up (1949), playing beaten-down boxer Stoker, who opts not to take a fall. The first half of Robert Wise’s boldly drawn film, set mostly in the ring’s warm-up room, captures in miniature Stoker’s life as a whole until that moment: one long wait for the fight that will change everything. And then it’s happening—success, or failure—in front of everyone choreographed by lank former university champ Ryan and enacted before a vividly realized avid crowd, the bout is edited into an exhausting sequence. By the end, we feel his experience in our own muscles. As noted film critic Samuel Fuller put it: “Bob caught all the nuances of guts and shattered hopes, and small-time aspirations of a never-was beating the hell out of the desperation of being a club fighter.”

Film Forum’s two-week series rolls out twenty-three features with Ryan. Whether he plays victim or villain, or a noir-esque mix of both, it’s easy to go along with his characters’ shifts in emotion and trains of thought. The violent rages of his cop in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952), at times full of pleading even as the aggressor, are abrupt, terrifying, and grounded in a fully inhabited psychology that also seems to represent a darker side to postwar masculinity. Fred Zinnemann’s Act of Violence (1948) and Edward Dmytryk’s Crossfire (1947) (the latter film provided Ryan’s first and only Oscar) see the actor portraying veterans determined to share their psychological wounds by inflicting new ones.

Ryan’s daunting intensity, which may have kept Ryan from headline-star status, could easily lend itself to scenarios of mania and extremity, such as the paranoid odd-jobber who traps Ida Lupino in Beware My Lovely (1952), or the cuckolded husband abandoned in the desert in an unusual experiment in crosscutting and voice-over, the 3-D Inferno (1953). (Anthony Mann’s 1958 God’s Little Acre finds the actor infusing a nutty bumpkin patriarch with downright weird energy.) By the time he joined the acclaimed 1973 American Film Theatre production of The Iceman Cometh (he died from lung cancer soon thereafter), Ryan, playing a former anarchist, could draw on the hard-won wisdom of what felt like several lifetimes of on-screen experience.

Robert Ryan” runs August 12–23 at Film Forum in New York.

Nicolas Rapold

Left: Ken Kesey. Photo: Ted Streshinsky. © CORBIS. Right: Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady. Photo: Allen Ginsberg © CORBIS. From Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, Magic Trip, 2011, color film in 16 mm, 107 minutes.


IT WAS ONE OF THE GREAT UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES in American history: Hoping for a truth serum or psychological weapon, the CIA tested the powerful, still-legal psychedelic LSD on human volunteers during the late 1950s and early ’60s in research hospitals and mental wards across the country. The project, it was later revealed, was called MKULTRA, and one of its unwitting subjects was the young, soon-to-be-famous novelist Ken Kesey, a creative writing grad student on a fellowship at Stanford. Kesey also worked the night shift at a local “nut house,” as he put it, and his experiences caring for the insane, combined with the roiling hallucinations he endured in nondescript hospital rooms during the original, government-sponsored “acid tests,” inspired him to write the novel that made his name, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

Visiting New York City in 1963 to see Kirk Douglas star in a stage adaptation of the novel, Kesey observed the construction for the following year’s future-themed World’s Fair in Queens, and, being quintessentially American, optimistic, and hungry for the new, he vowed to attend the fair when it opened. Back in La Honda, California, Kesey and a growing band of friends were taking LSD in less “controlled” conditions. To travel to the fair, Kesey had the idea of buying an old school bus, painting it in bright, protopsychedelic colors, dubbing it “FURTHUR,” and rigging it with audiovisual gear. Film and audio recording would be crucial to the cross-country journey, according to Kesey. As he says in an archival voice-over interview in Magic Trip, Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood’s small miracle of a documentary, “If Shakespeare were alive today, I don’t think he’d write with a quill pen.”

Kesey and his crew, who came to be known as the Merry Pranksters, “weren’t old enough to be beatniks, but a little too old to be hippies, but everyone had read On the Road.” Who better, then, to navigate this search for the “soul of America” than the living inspiration for Kerouac’s Beat bible, Neal Cassady? A wiry, motormouthed speed freak from Denver, Cassady became the inexhaustible driver of the bus and patron saint of the trip, which would take the Pranksters from Northern California through the Southwest and up the Eastern seaboard to New York, turning on and turning heads wherever they went, constantly filming and recording.

The Pranksters’ American odyssey was memorialized by Tom Wolfe’s totem of New Journalism The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), but no one ever did anything with the endless hours of film and tape captured along the ride (although Kesey and the Pranksters tried unsuccessfully for years to cobble together a coherent narrative from the footage). Gibney, director of political docs like the 2006 Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, along with his partner Ellwood, were given unfettered access to the archive (now housed at UCLA) by the Kesey family and set about the seemingly impossible task of restoring, syncing, and editing the unmarked reels into a film worthy of the legend.

Neal Cassady. From Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, Magic Trip, 2011, color film in 16 mm, 107 minutes.


They succeeded beyond anyone’s hopes, largely because they let the original tapes do the talking—there’s not one present-day reminiscence interview in the film. Using audio from the trip and interviews with Kesey over the years, the filmmakers had actor Stanley Tucci record questions that are “answered” on the sound track by Kesey and had actors perform voice-overs of the Pranksters’ written transcripts or barely audible master tapes. For the ever-perilous rendering of the visual distortions of LSD to illustrate audio from one of Kesey’s MKULTRA sessions, the filmmakers hired the production house Imaginary Forces, who wisely eschewed CGI by painting and drawing on the film cells by hand, resulting in an aesthetic triangulation of Stan Brakhage, Ralph Steadman, and Peter Max.

The film the Pranksters shot crackles with visual exuberance, equally due to the charisma of the subjects themselves, the painterly post-Technicolor quality of 1964 16-mm stock, the look of roadside America at the time, and the unbridled amateurism of the cameramen and women. The men wore horizontally striped shirts, the women pegged pants, and everyone’s hair was relatively short, making them look more like mods than nascent hippies. Those allergic to paisley and patchouli have nothing to fear here; these people really were the vanguard. As one of the Prankster women says in the film, cops and onlookers might have been bemused by the Pranksters’ appearance and behavior, but no one thought they were drug freaks or hippies “because that wasn’t in the news yet.”

Kesey saw himself as the liberator of a generation. He wanted Americans to realize that fun could be a political platform, and that you could be different without being a threat. (The Pranksters flew the flag on the bus and wore red, white, and blue without an ounce of sarcasm or irony.) He believed that psychedelics could cure insanity and depression. As he said of his MKULTRA trips, “I felt like I had discovered a hole that went into the center of the earth, and you could see jewelry in there, and you wanted your people to go down and enjoy it.” Unlike the other psychedelic proselytizer of the day, Timothy Leary, Kesey and his band were irreverent and irresponsible with the “sacrament.” When they descended on Leary’s compound in Millbrook, New York, after visiting the World’s Fair, the ex–Harvard professor snubbed them, leaving colleague Richard Alpert to play the embarrassed host. “Millbrook was very clinical and controlled,” one of the Pranksters says. “We were free-form; we were the explorers, they were the scientists.”

Having experienced General Motors’ Futurama exhibit and DuPont’s “Better Living Through Chemistry” stage show at the fair (on acid, naturally), Kesey and the Pranksters returned to California, realizing that “the trip is more important than the destination.” Acid parties thrown at Kesey’s house to watch film footage from the bus trip expanded to the point where he decided to hold them in San Francisco and other nearby cities in 1965–66. These were the Acid Tests of Wolfe’s title, and the moment when “the sixties” went public. It was all over in a few years, but during the Pranksters’ 1964 sojourn, anything seemed possible. And it was all due to a CIA mind-control experiment.

Andrew Hultkrans

Magic Trip opens Friday, August 5.

Head to Head

08.03.11

Left: Claude Lanzmann, Sobibor October 14, 1943, 4 PM, 2001, still from a color film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Right: James Nares, No Japs at My Funeral, 1980, still from a color video, 60 minutes.


“I split his skull completely, as if I’d been a specialist, doing it all my life.”

– Yehuda Lerner in Claude Lanzmann’s Sobibor October 14, 1943, 4 P.M., describing how he killed a Nazi death camp guard.

“Resistance, what is resistance? It is material.”

– Novelist Thomas Bernhard in Ferry Radax’s Three Days.

“When you get to my age, there are memories everywhere around the corner. Good ones, bad ones, they’re all the same to me.”

– Filmmaker Joe Gibbons in Saul Levine’s Driven.

“You’ll cut all this out anyway, won’t you?”

– Eighty-year-old dancer Paul Swan to Andy Warhol during an awkward moment in the filming of Paul Swan.

THESE QUOTES suggest something of the range of “Talking Head,” the rich, diverse, altogether amazing series of films that focus on the speech and actions of a single individual, programmed by Jed Rapfogel at Anthology Film Archives. I’ve viewed almost all sixteen programs and there isn’t a dull one in the bunch. If I had to pick just three, they would be Lanzmann’s Sobibor (2001); the Warhol double-screen Edie Sedgwick vehicle Outer and Inner Space (1965) paired with Paul Swan (1965); and Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967).

Sobibor, Lanzmann’s stripped-down, journalistically-acute 1979 interview with Holocaust survivor Yehuda Lerner, was originally intended as part of the documentarian’s monumental Shoah (1985). But because Lerner’s story countered the prevailing belief that Jews went to the gas chambers without resistance, Lanzmann decided it deserved a film of its own. That is not to say that Sobibor has anything in common with the recent genre of Holocaust uplift movies. To ensure that we understand that Lerner’s experience was nearly anomalous, the film concludes with a listing of the trainloads of Jews who arrived at Sobibor during its eighteen months of operation. (Some 250,000 were murdered there.) The first half of Sobibor combines Lerner’s voiceover with contemporary footage of bustling cities and bucolic landscapes where the horrors of the past are all but obliterated. But if the sites of various camps and ghettos have been prettified with parks and monuments, trains still rumble along the same tracks that routed Jews to their deaths. The most chilling meeting of past and present involves the screeching of gaggles of geese that live in the ruins of the death camp. The Nazis employed just such geese to cover the screams of the dying in the gas chambers. In the second half of film, Lanzmann fixes his camera solely on Lerner, as he tells the story of how he and about twenty others, most of them Russian-Jewish army officer POWs armed with axes and knifes, carried out an insurrection that gave the population of the camp a chance to escape en masse. Although only about six hundred made it into the surrounding forest, and the vast majority of those subsequently died at the hands of the Nazis or their Polish sympathizers, the uprising forced the closing of the camp. Lerner, a stocky middle-aged man (he was sixteen when he escaped from Sobibor) with a twitch at the corner of his lips (the only visible “scar” left by his traumatic past), tells his story straightforwardly but with a certain amazement at his own luck and courage. Relishing the irony, he explains that the revolt went like clockwork and succeeded, in part, thanks to the Germans’ obsession with punctuality. Lanzmann asks his questions in French and Lerner responds in Hebrew. The complications of translation from Hebrew to French (subtitled in English) causes a delay between Lerner’s words and the viewer’s comprehension, thus making palpable the distance between his experience and our own and giving us time to imagine the unspeakable.

The movies that comprise “Talking Head” fall into two groupings. The foreign language films—from Germany, Austria, France, and China—are narratives of lives shaped by war, fascism, and other forms of state oppression and terror. Among them is Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s The Confessions of Winifred Wagner (1975), which screens in both its 104-minute and 302-minute versions. The antithesis of Sobibor, its titular subject was the widow of Richard Wagner’s son Siegfried and the organizer of the Bayreuth Festival. An example of denial to the point of madness, she rhapsodizes on Hitler as a patron of the arts. Syberberg’s ambivalent relationship to German romanticism is better played out in his Parsifal (1983), but Wagner herself is a monster not to be missed. More accurate and painful accounts of lives under the Nazi regimes are found in Christoph Hübner’s Thomas Harlan–Moving Shrapnel/Wandersplitter (2006) and André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002). And in Ferry Radax’s Thomas Bernhard–Three Days (1970), we hear from the bleakest of contemporary writers how his earliest memories of abandonment and illness take place within the landscape of the rise of fascism. Admirably minimalist in form, Radax’s film allows us to hear Bernhard’s actual voice. The weight of its depression and barely contained fury is no different in life than it is on the page.

Left: Shirley Clarke, Portrait of Jason, 1967, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Right: Ferry Radax, Thomas Bernhard – Three Days, 1970, still from a black-and-white video, 58 minutes.


The American movies in “Talking Head” are notable for their lack of overt political dimensions. The exception—it is in that sense the swing movie in the series—is James Nares’s No Japs at My Funeral (1980) which juxtaposes British television’s outrageously biased coverage of the “Irish Troubles” with the first-person account of an IRA member gone underground. Nares who moved from London to New York in the early 1970s was at the time, unlike the American-born filmmakers in the series, an outsider by birth as well as by choice, the choice being to make movies of no commercial value. Indeed the American movies selected are all films about outsiders made by outsiders. Thus two of the young Martin Scorsese’s early documentaries, ItalianAmerican (1974) and American Boy (1978), are respectively a portrait of his first-generation immigrant parents and a monomaniacal rant by Steven Prince, better known for his performance as the gun salesman in Taxi Driver (1976). Prince is a riveting performer but no more so than the deadpan Joe Gibbons, whose investigations of his own addictions, obsessions, and general lapsed-catholic-with-a-vengeance amorality confound documentary and fiction, true confession and wild fantasy. Gibbons’s magnum opus is Confessions of a Sociopath (2002). It’s programmed with earlier, slighter works including the hilarious Barbie’s Audition (1995). Gibbons is also the subject of Saul Levine’s Driven (2003), which is notable for its depiction of an extended adolescence suddenly overcome by middle age.

Portrait of Jason (1967) is culled from twelve hours of film Shirley Clarke shot of Jason Holliday, her gay African-American household assistant, over the course of a single drunken night. Holliday aspired to be a cabaret performer and the camera gives him the license to let it all hang out. In its sadomasochistic coupling of the voyeuristic filmmaker with the exhibitionist performer, and in its use of a third party (Holliday’s glamorous cousin and Clarke’s lover, the actor Carl Lee) to needle Jason from off screen, the film resembles many of Warhol’s talking portraits. But because racial difference comes into play here, the power relationship is more complicated and disturbing.

Warhol’s Outer and Inner Space (1965) is the first American video-art work. Using a prototype home video rig lent to him by Norelco, Warhol recorded his superstar Edie Sedgwick, framing her in a TV screen–filling close-up as she talks to someone outside the frame. He then shot two sequential thirty-three-minute films of Sedgwick placed in front of the TV screen on which her own video portrait is playing as again she chatters to an unseen person and tries to ignore the presence of her own recorded recent past tantalizingly near but out of sight (unless she turns her back to the camera). The two sequential films (the final form of this mixed-media work is 16-mm film) are projected side by side so that there are four Edies on the screen. The title suggests enough meanings—concrete and metaphoric—to make your head spin throughout the film even if you barely pick up a word, good sound being a nicety that Warhol cared little about. The sound is surprisingly sharp, though, in Paul Swan (1965). Warhol filmed the former Isadora Duncan dancer who continued to perform the “aesthetic” dances he choreographed at the turn of the century for invited audiences in his Chelsea studio. As he plods through his atrophied routines, one imagines Warhol peering through the lens and seeing his possible future, especially when Swan reveals a shoe fetish that “Drella” (Warhol’s factory nickname, a combination of Dracula and Cinderella) could certainly relate to. There are few works of art that marry form and content to reveal the fissures of narcissism and the fear of death that seeps through them as powerfully as these Warhol talking heads.

Amy Taubin

“Talking Head” runs August 4–17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.