“HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE,” the money line from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit (1944), could easily serve as the subtitle to the latest film by Roman Polanski, master director and controversial exile. Based on the award-winning 2006 play Le Dieu du Carnage (God of Carnage) by French playwright and novelist Yasmina Reza, Carnage is a minor, stagey film that returns the Polish filmmaker to the physical and emotional claustrophobia of the boat in Knife in the Water (1962) and the apartment in Repulsion (1965), as well as to the misanthropic gallows humor of Cul-de-sac (1966). The narrative draws on a well-worn dramatic trope—No Exit and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) being just two examples; since the 1980s, they’re too numerous to count—that of the small group of presumably normal adults who come together in an enclosed space and, over time, degenerate into psychological sadism and monstrous behavior. In this case, two sets of parents—a power couple (corporate lawyer and investment broker) and a liberal couple (bathroom-fixture wholesaler and author/activist/bookstore clerk)—meet in the latter couple’s apartment to negotiate the aftermath of the power couple’s son injuring the liberal couple’s son with a stick in Brooklyn Bridge Park. As for how things turn out, see above.
In several respects, Carnage feels like Polanski’s version of a late Woody Allen film—a modest, naturalistic production that gathers great actors, nurtures their craft, and doesn’t let a lot of “cinema” get in the way. (That both men have been semi-disgraced by personal peccadilloes, but are beloved of the best actors the world has to offer, merely reinforces the parallel.) Nevertheless, Polanski is too much of an artist to simply film a one-set play, and one can see the director and his talented cameraman, Pawel Edelman, trying to make the most out of the limited visual material. The apartment-bound, real-time constraints of Carnage recall Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) with cuts, and Polanski’s frequent use of actor close-ups threatens the status of Samuel Fuller’s I Shot Jesse James (1949) as the ultimate face-off in film history. Carnage was shot in Paris, but veteran production designer Dean Tavoularis completely nails a contemporary Brooklyn Heights apartment, and the views of Brooklyn and Manhattan through the windows are bluescreen magic. I was perfectly willing to believe that Polanski somehow smuggled himself into New York for the shoot.
With three Oscar winners and one nominee, the cast is hard to fault. While Jodie Foster (as the humorless, politically correct author/activist) and Kate Winslet (as the buttoned-up investment broker) are not natural comics, they both acquit themselves well, with Foster’s neck veins bulging as she huffs about “suffering in Africa” and (spoiler alert) Winslet delivering the most effective onscreen vomit since The Exorcist (1973). John C. Reilly (as the wholesaler) adds some edge to his schlumpy, regular-guy persona—peppering his standard Norm-from-Cheers routine with dashes of Archie Bunker, and Christoph Waltz, best known for his utterly chilling turn as the unctuous, ingratiating Nazi in Inglourious Basterds (2009), is perfect as the glibly self-satisfied corporate attorney, constantly interrupting the action as he fields BlackBerry calls about a bad-drug scandal unfolding for one of his Big Pharma clients. Hints of his native Viennese accent only add to his unforced air of urbane venality. The “carnage” the characters inflict on one another is overstated; there’s gobs more in Albee’s play, for instance, and Polanski himself has gone much further than this in his best films. One hopes that he returns to the locational breadth of latter-day triumph The Ghost Writer (2010), but Carnage will satisfy fans of Polanski and the four actors, and if you’re a parent, it will make you feel a bit better about yourself.
So, not exactly The Tenant (1976), but what is?
Carnage opens the 49th New York Film Festival on Friday, September 30.
ROUGHLY TWO YEARS after her passing, the first of filmmaker Chick Strand’s unfinished films, Señora con flores (Woman with Flowers, 1995/2011), will come to light on Monday at REDCAT (copresented with Los Angeles Filmforum), anchoring a program of classic Strand shorts that have been newly restored by the Pacific Film Archive and the Academy Film Archive. Technically the screening is a “precursor” to Los Angeles Filmforum’s yearlong series tracking midcentury Southern California experimental film for Pacific Standard Time, and it’s fitting that the cinema arm of the chronophilic behemoth should dawn with Strand. For one, she was a cofounder of the vital Bay Area distributor Canyon Cinema. For another, she was an artist who clung enduringly to the present—an inclination that fills her work with halcyon poignance.
Commenting in 2006 on her approach to ethnography, Strand said that “to leave out the spirit of the people presents a thin tapestry of the culture, easy to rent, lacking in strength and depth. I want to know really what it is like to be a breathing, talking, moving, emotional, relating individual in the society.” Her brand of documentary maintains an intense closeness to its subjects, photographically and psychologically, as in Señora con flores, shot in 1995 on one of Strand’s several summerlong sojourns to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The camera follows a woman over the course of day that she spends playing with her children next to a river. Simultaneously, she chronicles her long marriage to a brutal alcoholic in a narration that runs over the footage. The composite of her personal story and glimpses of her quotidian joys creates a truthful portrait of her life. Of all the moods that Strand strikes in her films—some of which depict the more buoyant likes of synchronized swimmers, golden retrievers, and lovers tumbling outdoors to Aretha Franklin—the most palpable one is caused by the quiet that suddenly discloses itself after the credits roll. In Señora con flores, there is no decisive end to the woman’s tale, no epiphany or tragedy. She seems at terms with her life, and in the silence after the film ends, the audience is left with an imperfect sense of peace, which, as Strand’s diligent lyricism conveys, is always, on some level, present.
Señora con Flores (Woman with Flowers) has its world premiere on Monday, September 26, at REDCAT in Los Angeles.
Cam Archer, Shit Year, 2010, stills from a black-and-white film, 95 minutes.
I IMAGINE THOSE WHO had written off Cam Archer as yet another Gus Van Sant acolyte after seeing his debut, Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006), will be in for a shock when confronted with his latest film, Shit Year (2011), a mature work with a distinct, idiosyncratic approach to difficult questions.
The film is ostensibly about Colleen West (Ellen Barkin), a middle-aged actress retiring from the industry and settling into a life of intensive self-isolation in a forest cabin. This deceptively simple premise serves as a convincing departure point for a prolonged meditation on solitude: Shit Year shows the ways one can become a victim of seclusion while embracing its apparent freedoms—the process is satirized brilliantly as we watch West slowly cave in to friendship with an eccentric chatterbox neighbor when she would clearly rather be left alone—as well as the vocational manias that naturally come when one’s career has been devoted to becoming other people. In West’s case, her doomed affair with a twenty-two-year-old actor, Harvey (Luke Grimes), that endured throughout her final acting foray becomes the lingering stain on her conscience. It is not only her failure to find a satisfying resolution to the fling with Harvey that haunts her, but the existential symbolism of that failure: Harvey becomes for West a distant idol of her own waning vitality and desire.
Much of the film’s strength can be readily located in Barkin’s performance; she carries herself valiantly (she is never really offscreen) through a montage of flashbacks, dream sequences, and fantasies, accompanied by the frequent sound collages that Archer has incorporated throughout the film. These visual tactics scramble the film’s temporal continuity and enforce the illusion of living within the central character’s thoughts and motions as she goes about her day. The director’s choice to shoot the film in black-and-white celluloid further contributes to the timeless feel.
“Can you confirm that this is the real deal?” a television interviewer asks her, in regard to her retirement plans. West laughs before replying, “Real. Deal. I hate those two words together.” Ultimately, the subject of Shit Year is reconciliation: the lifelong process of learning to agree with the “real deal” that existence entails.
Shit Year opens Wednesday, September 21 at the IFC Center in New York.
Adolpho Arrietta, Imitación del Ángel (Imitation of the Angel), 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 22 minutes.
LITTLE KNOWN OR SCREENED in the United States, the work of Spanish experimental filmmaker Adolpho Arrietta is more than ready for discovery and appreciation. An upcoming Arrietta retrospective at Anthology Film Archives will hopefully encourage both.
Arrietta was born in Madrid in 1942 and began shooting movies as a teenager. A trio of short, thematically linked 16-mm black-and-white films called the “Angel Trilogy” garnered him his first recognition in the 1960s and continues to be his most highly regarded work. The first in the series, The Crime of the Spinning Top (1965), consists of an elliptical, oneiric narrative about a sexually frustrated adolescent boy bursting with homicidal urges against an older brother who undeservingly courts his object of desire. The daydreams and flaneurlike wanderings of the protagonist, as well as a glissando-heavy piano score, lure the viewer into a reverie eventually disturbed by fratricide and a disarmingly happy denouement.
Imitation of the Angel (1966) and The Criminal Toy (1969) play even more oblique variations on the themes and motifs of the first film. In Imitation of the Angel, a stifled bourgeois woman enlists a lover to kill her husband, and then—in a bizarre act of metaphysical transformation—herself. (“You must strangle me until I disappear,” she pleads. “Until I become something else.”) To complicate matters further, the young man brings along an accomplice, or possibly two—the level of reality at which a tunic-covered angel operates remains purposefully obscure. In The Criminal Toy, a middle-aged man stalks his former wife even as another couple—who might be dreaming about the first one—wrestle with marital problems occasioned by the seductive intrusion of a handsome angel. Throughout both films, poetic images—of wings cut from cheap paper, of spinning globes, of angels floating and dressing in reverse motion—comment on and enter into the dialogue-minimal stories.
Arrietta’s work has been frequently likened to Cocteau’s, a connection made all the more obvious by the presence in The Criminal Toy of Cocteau actor and muse Jean Marais. While the comparison is apt, it’s also worth pointing out the possible influence on the “Angel Trilogy” by the American avant-garde of the ’40s and ’50s and the various European new waves of the ’60s: The films’ amateur production values and psychodrama narratives recall Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger, while the violence instigated by ennui-plagued youth is reminiscent of the kinds of transgressions Jean-Luc Godard and Marco Bellocchio were committing contemporaneous to Arrietta.
This isn’t to say the “Angel Trilogy” is a mere amalgam of historic cinematic trends. A unique understanding of Catholic sin and salvation informs these films. Arrietta’s angels offer neither grace nor messages from God, but instead haunt their human charges as agents of unfulfilled longing and dark desire. And Arrietta’s complex and challenging narrative strategies—which often involve the blurring of separate characters’ identities and aims—creates a troubling confusion of good and evil, love and fear, provoking the question of whether the divine order might not itself be divided and corrupted.
Steven Soderbergh, Contagion, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 105 minutes. Mitch Emhoff (Matt Damon).
WHEN I LEFT THE THEATER after I saw Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, my hands were shaking so hard that it took me fifteen minutes to text the words: WHAT A SCARY, CONVINCING RIDE. A few days later I saw the movie again, and even though I knew what was going to happen and to whom, it was no less unnerving. Contagion is a champion sprinter–paced entertainment that is in no way escapist, which is why it sticks with you long after the fact. “Somewhere out there, the wrong pig met up with the wrong bat,” is how one CDC medical biologist explains the genesis of a virus that is on track to kill one in twelve persons on the planet unless a vaccine is concocted to stop it. This scenario—and the details of its depiction—is not only plausible on the screen; it is a glimpse of an almost inevitable real-life catastrophe.
Like the lethal bug, Contagion is itself a hybrid, comprising nearly equal parts of two genres, both dear to the 1970s: the disaster thriller epitomized in such Irwin Allen productions as The Towering Inferno (1974) and the investigative procedural, of which the telling modern American example is Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 All the President’s Men. David Fincher, a director who seems to share a radar with Soderbergh, also used Pakula’s “follow the money” saga as a map for his 2007 Zodiac. In Contagion, epidemiologists and medical researchers follow the airborne virus, which is largely transmitted by touch (sick person coughs into her hand, sticks that hand into a bowl of nuts in an airport bar, and in days, the virus is killing people—gruesomely—all over the world). At a moment when movies—particularly art movies—are praised for their “tactility,” Soderbergh, one of the least tactile and most sardonic great directors in world cinema, has made a movie whose mantra is “do not touch.” By evoking tactility in the negative, Contagion makes you aware of the feel of every bacteria-laden surface you put your hand to. I’ll never grasp a subway railing again.
Tonally, the movie that Contagion most resembles is Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), with its chilly, clinical depiction of the implacability of the natural world and the limited ability of humans to understand or control it, or, more to the point, to challenge its desecration for the supposed benefit of one species—our own. The big difference: Birds are visible to the naked eye, viruses not. Thus the movie opens in darkness, through which comes the sound of a woman discreetly coughing. The sound provokes nervous, knowing titters in the audience, which will continue intermittently until the dire implications of the situation trump the familiar conventions of the epidemic/horror/disaster genre. Soon we see Gwyneth Paltrow, her face pale and sweaty, standing in an airport lounge talking on the phone. Paltrow plays Beth Emhoff, who is returning from a business trip to Hong Kong and has stopped off in Chicago for an afternoon quickie with an old boyfriend before returning to her husband, Mitch (Matt Damon, a wonderful everyman), and her young son in Minneapolis. The voice we hear on the other end of her phone connection is that of the boyfriend (rendered with repellent smarm by the director himself). As Beth chats, the title “Day 2” appears on the screen. (“Where was ‘Day 1’?” you might ask at this point, but no worry: Soderbergh’s best twist on the genre is to save the first for last—and what a reveal it is.) Still chatting and coughing, Beth reaches into the aforementioned bowl of nuts and the camera follows her hand, again provoking knowing laughter. As usual, Soderbergh, under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, is his own DP, using the latest model of the RED camera. There’s nothing flashy or even beautiful about the camerawork, but like the virus itself and the scientists and health professionals who are called into action against it, it is notably efficient.
Steven Soderbergh, Contagion, 2011, stills from a color film in HD, 105 minutes. Left: Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow). Right: Dr. Ellis Cheever and Dr. Ally Hextall (Laurence Fishburne and Jennifer Ehle).
In about ten screen minutes, Beth will be dead and autopsied (her scalp peeled back to bare a brain so devastated by the virus that the CDC and the WHO immediately go into overdrive). It will of course be noted that her death, and that of her boyfriend soon after, fit the horror film convention (you enjoy sex, you die), but the movie’s punch line hammers another nail in her coffin—this is a bit of a spoiler so some of you might want to stop reading here—by making us aware of her role as a charming front person for the corporation whose pillaging of the environment led to the meeting of “the wrong pig with the wrong bat.” Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns deliver information so quickly and concisely and with such a light touch that the beauty of the payoff (and the fact that the movie ends by coming full circle, leaving you to imagine the next round rather than putting a new beginning on the screen as is customary in the genre) might escape you on first viewing. Movie critics were heard at press screenings debating plot points and character facets, all of which are crystal clear if you attend to every line of dialogue and the details of every image. Soderbergh proposes an audience workout, which calls for the speed and concentration that the professionals on the screen (the actors and the characters they play) bring to their jobs. The propulsive pace is maintained throughout by Stephen Mirrione’s lucid, elliptical crosscutting among at least half a dozen major narrative strands; Cliff Martinez’s synth score; and Soderbergh’s direction, which has the actors speed-walking while talking whenever possible.
Like the Irwin Allen disaster pictures, Contagion is laden with stars. The difference is that Soderbergh’s big names (Damon, Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law) eschew glamorous makeup and put aside their egos to act in the best interest of the machine of the movie. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Contagion is its liberal politics. The movie makes an excellent case for the professionals who work for big government agencies. Not that they aren’t above breaking a rule or two when it’s a question of “taking care of the people in my lifeboat,” as the deputy director of the CDC, Dr. Ellis Cheever (Fishburne) puts it, knowing fully that his moral position could cost him not only his job but his life. The movie’s consummate maverick good guy is CDC researcher Dr. Ally Hextall (a perfect Jennifer Ehle), who not only chances using the research of an eccentric independent (Elliott Gould) simply because he’s better at what they both do than she is, but also, in order to bypass lengthy human trial protocols, risks her life by testing her vaccine on herself. If there is hope for human survival, it lies with a well-funded, compassionate federal government. The villains of the piece are the drug companies, hedge funds, corporate antienvironmentalists, and an ace journalist (Law) turned to blogging—although not by choice—whose conspiracy paranoia and desire for power and big bucks result in his promoting an unproven homeopathic medicine that will cost millions of lives.
Tactile-phobic and anything but touchy-feely, Contagion nevertheless has its extremely moving moments. Take, for example, the image of Ehle, covered in her anticontagion suit and helmet, standing alone in her research lab smiling in gratitude and awe at the monkey who has survived her experimental vaccine. I’d like to believe that the monkey smiled back.
Contagion opens in theaters and IMAX on Friday, September 9.
Andrei Ujică, The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu, 2010, still from a black-and-white and color film, 180 minutes.
THOUGH IT BELONGS TO THE TRADITION of found-footage documentaries—from the work of such Soviet filmmakers of the 1920s as Dziga Vertov and Esther Shub, to such later practitioners as Edgardo Cozarinsky—Andrei Ujică’s astonishing film The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu adds a twist. Boldly declaring itself an autobiography, it invokes the hidden other self that shadows all autobiographies and makes that the nucleus of the film’s deconstructive construction of the public life of the former Romanian dictator. A document of relentless self-aggrandizement that Ceauşescu himself could hardly have matched, the film, through sheer ingestion of the cloying, propagandistic media record—much of it commissioned by the dictator—of its subject’s manufactured persona, is both compelling and repellent. Ujică bookends his work with snippets from the mock trial that immediately preceded the execution of Ceauşescu and his wife, Elisa, on Christmas Day, 1989. Accused of genocide and illegal accumulation of wealth, Ceauşescu faced a judgment that shocked only those ignorant of the years of disastrous rule and economic oppression, blatant nepotism, and personality cult that constituted the truer biography of this socialist Macbeth and his partner in crime. Except for these brief excerpts at the beginning and end, the compiled footage bears hardly a sign of social distress as it tracks Ceauşescu’s twenty-four-year regime, from the time he assumed power after the death in 1965 of his mentor Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej—the country’s first Communist chief of state, whose elaborate funeral constitutes the movie’s opening footage—to his reelection as general secretary of the Communist Party just a month before the end.
Ceauşescu drew attention largely through his unique and paradoxical courting of East and West, as well as his resistance to Moscow’s efforts to control Eastern bloc nations. We see and hear his forceful denouncement of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Under his rule, Romania was the only nation to maintain diplomatic relations with both Israel and the PLO. It was no doubt such postures, reinforced by speeches proclaiming the progressive nature of his goals, that seduced state leaders of the West into believing that there was finally a voice and disposition in the communist world that was willing to communicate, if not negotiate, with democratic nations. The footage includes visits to Romania by both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, as well as receptions by Jimmy Carter at the White House and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. These paled, however, in comparison with the positively giddy extravaganzas welcoming him to China and North Korea, where hundreds of thousands of smiling, cheering indoctrinated youths lined the streets and lent their bodies to immense lawn and stadium mosaics spelling out each country’s euphoric greetings. These rarely seen images, as well as the gleeful interactions with Mao and Kim Il Sung, are precious precisely because of their unadulterated fakery.
Whatever signs of independence and progress Ceauşescu initially pursued, his second decade was marked by increased oppression and an impoverished quality of life while, inspired by the idolatrous cults of Mao and Kim Il Sung, he accumulated debts building costly, improbable architectural monuments to his rule—several of which we see in progress. Having absolute power, as both president of Romania and secretary general of the Communist Party, he suppressed all opposition and isolated Romania from any beneficial communication with the West that he himself once sought. Frightening evidence of his success is provided over and over by the unanimous, on-cue applause he received at every party meeting.
In 1986, a report by the humanitarian organization Helsinki Watch declared Ceauşescu’s regime to be as “totalitarian and repressive as any in Eastern Europe.” As part of what the critic J. Hoberman aptly called the film’s “structuring absence,” such information is not mentioned in the film. Alternating black-and-white footage and color, juxtaposing public appearances with private hunting outings and vacations, the film eschews helpful contextualization and voice-over narration of any kind. But Ujică’s understated rhetorical method does allow subtle relationships between images and sequences to emerge. For example, against the gaudy, cast-of-thousands concoctions of the Chinese and North Korean receptions, Ceauşescu’s tour of Hollywood’s Universal Studios seems paltry indeed. While we might wonder whether the fabricated illusions of the capitalist West were any match for the delirious spectacles of the Communist East, there is no mistaking the irony of watching the man comfortably touring the dream factory.
Of course, without some knowledge of the counterhistory of the subject, Ujică’s film might almost succeed as a propaganda tool, a latter-day Triumph of the Will. Unlike that commissioned masterwork, however, Ujică’s film demonstrates that even adulatory found images culled from the official record and offered ad nauseam can generate enough disgust to implode. More toxic than intoxicating, the overkill of jubilant parades and enthusiastic party endorsements illustrates the potential mock in every documentary. Against this glut, Ujică provides a telling and stirring motif—a silence that often interrupts the blather of politicians and statesmen as the footage continues. In these voiceless intervals—totaling well more than half of the film’s three-hour length, and sometimes accompanied by an ominous musical score—Ujică invites us to look at the ghostly images of the once powerful and reflect both on the dangerous if ephemeral nature of hubris, and on the historical and personal truths left undocumented.
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York on Friday, September 9.