“THIS LOVE OF DROPPING OUT is not going to be possible in every era,” observed Terayama Shûji, the charismatic voice of Japanese youth, in 1967. He was critiquing a return to “primordial society” embodied by the futen-zoku, the so-called “idle tribe” who gathered, sedated on sleeping pills, in front of that quintessential example of busy modernity, Tokyo’s train station Shinjuku-eki.
In that era, Shinjuku was contested ground in the battle between Japan’s cultural and political radicals and the pragmatic, materialistic society that emerged in the wake of what amounted to an economic miracle. This dense network of express trains, urban trains, and subways all opening into department stores created an ideologically charged space, the setting for and subject of an unprecedented burst of counterculture in Japan.
The “Shinjuku Diaries” program, which ran at the British Film Institute this summer (August 2–31, 2011) with a parallel “Theatre Scorpio” series organized by London’s Close Up Film Centre, revisited the astonishing cinema that was born out of two of Tokyo’s countercultural hot spots, the Shinjuku Bunka and its basement venue, the Sasori-za. The Shinjuku Bunka was the most successful in a chain of boutique repertory cinemas managed by the Art Theatre Guild; the institution was established in 1961 as a distributor for foreign art-house films, but by 1967 it was successfully producing its own. The BFI program focused on the guild’s heyday of experimentation, which lasted until the demise of the Shinjuku Bunka and Sasori-za in 1974.
The Art Theatre Guild privileged themes of taboo crime, violence, anarchism, and eroticism, producing groundbreaking work by directors including Nagisa Ôshima (Death by Hanging ), Matsumoto Toshio (Funeral Parade of Roses ), and Terayama (Throw Away Your Books, Rally in the Streets ). What is remarkable about these films is how they not only narrated but also seemed to drive a period in which the boundary between artistic expression and political violence was permeable. Shinjuku comes across in the films of the Art Theatre Guild as a liminal cityscape where leftist factions, merging literary language and political rhetoric, instigated and enacted their own “Battle of Tokyo.” The most striking example of the guild’s synchronicity with this political fever pitch was Kôji Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels (1972), a film depicting the isolation and faction fighting of a group of terrorists after they attack a US army base. As producer Kuzui Kinshirô noted, “Wakamatsu’s film was too lucid in anticipating things that were about to happen.” For instance, the Christmas tree bombing Wakamatsu envisions really did take place during the shoot, and the film’s release coincided with the Asama Sansô Incident, a brutal purge of newly recruited Red Army Faction members by their own comrades in the isolated mountains of Gunma prefecture.
At the start of the 1970s, the utopian ideal of a counterculture combining art and politics was coming apart. The young people that had been concentrated in Shinjuku moved to other parts of Tokyo. In Kunio Shimizu and Sôichirô Tahara’s Lost Lovers (1971), a former youth pole-vault champion abandons Shinjuku after witnessing the failure of the student protests, and embarks on an aimless adventure to the north of Japan, his primary companions a deaf and mute couple. With a clear sky as his roof and the air for his furnishings, he embodies the ideals of the futenzoku. But the directors are obviously unsympathetic to the principles guiding such “dropouts,” and in a curious parallel to the isolation and blinding of the terrorist in Wakamatsu’s Ecstasy of the Angels, Lost Lovers finally sacrifices its three protagonists: All end up blind, deaf, and mute after they stray onto a military training site during a weapons test.
Lost Lovers’s rebuff to the dropouts’ carefree abandonment of society is a useful starting point when revisiting the films of the Art Theatre Guild. When they were made, these works revised the conditions of the “present tense,” and in retrospect they evince an uncanny, seismographic connection to the deep contradictions in the historical landscape of Shinjuku and Japanese counterculture.
Richard Linklater, Dazed and Confused, 1993, still from a color film in 35 mm, 102 minutes. David Wooderson (Matthew McConaughey).
DECADES. They’re so much fun to look at from the outside, so miserable to inhabit. Nostalgia—commonly frowned on by intellectuals and forward-thinking folk—actually allows us to be in and out simultaneously, which might account for the enduring popularity of the nostalgia flick.
Rewatching a film like Dazed and Confused eighteen years after its release means being lucky enough to have scored two tabs of nostalgia stuck together. For Richard Linklater’s second feature is just as much about the 1990s as it is about the ’70s—a fact that might have been lost on us at the time it hit theaters in 1993, but which seems oh so clear from today’s retrospective vantage point. Aside from Jon Moritsugu and Jacques Boyreau’s Hippy Porn (1993), it’s the only viable contender for the Easy Rider (1969) of my generation.
Like Easy Rider, much of Dazed and Confused’s charm can be traced back to its essential plotlessness. Like its predecessor (and arguably the only other great film so far in the Linklater oeuvre) Slacker (1991), the film’s scenes are organized around its ensemble cast and its setting, the last day of school at Lee High in Austin, Texas, 1976. Slip a kickass rock ’n’ roll sound track into that eight-track deck, rev up the engine, and we’re ready to go. There are, of course, tiny obstacles that must be overcome along the way, but remember, kids, the secret to nostalgia is idealizing the past. As such, Dazed and Confused’s dramatic arcs revolve around such earth-shattering dilemmas as finding the party, figuring out if the new kid smokes pot or not, calling shotgun, and getting laid. It perfectly captures that fleeting moment when the only thing that really matters in life is having a fucking great time.
The film would not only be a launching pad for Linklater’s career but serve as the casting reel for a whole generation of actors no one had ever heard of before, among them Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Anthony Rapp, Milla Jovovich, Joey Lauren Adams, and, perhaps most stunningly, “indie queen” Parker Posey (whatever happened to . . . ?)
There are reasons for retro fever. Just as the 2000s would mine the worst aspects of the ’80s—provoking a string of vapid covers of pop songs, unwatchable remakes of slasher films, and, worst of all, another right-wing religious nut in the White House—the ’70s somehow resonated with the cultural mentality of the ’90s. Though today one would be hard pressed to see any viable correspondences between the two decades, at the time, both felt like the end of something. If the ’70s were the prolonged hangover of the countercultural revolt of the late ’60s, the ’90s in America saw the last gasps of the rock ’n’ roll underground, before everything would be subsumed by that great and damning equalizer, the Internet.
For viewers of my generation, watching the film today brings back memories of Nirvana, Doc Martens, and the scent of stale bong smoke. At one point in the film, a character proffers her own spin on the “decades” phenomenon, quipping, “It’s like the every-other-decade theory, you know? The ’50s were boring, the ’60s rocked. The ’70s—oh my God, they obviously suck, right? Maybe the ’80s will be radical!” I remember this line provoking an uproar of laughter from the audience in the cinema in 1993. Perhaps the film’s rerelease on DVD signals a chance to finally laugh at the ’80s-fetishizing hipsters of the aughts.
A Blu-ray edition of Dazed and Confused is now available from the Criterion Collection.
Tom Six, The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence), 2011, still from a black-and-white film, 88 minutes. Martin and Ashlynn Yennie (Laurence R. Harvey and Ashlynn Yennie).
NOT SINCE Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975) or John Waters’s Pink Flamingos (1972) has shit made such a stink in the cinema. Initially banned in the UK by the British Board of Film Classification, Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence was released on DVD contingent upon thirty-two cuts; in the US it is showing primarily at midnight screenings. As the sequel to Dutch director Tom Six’s Human Centipede (First Sequence), the film continues the basic, gruesome premise with which the first work caused its own, more modest stir: In each instance, a man captures and literally conjoins the bodies of his victims, suturing them mouth to anus, creating the eponymous monstrosity of the films’ title. Very much a creature of the original film, the sequel begins with the first Centipede’s final sequence; as the camera pulls back, we realize that we are watching someone else watch the first film.
That figure is the latest film’s deranged protagonist: a copycat sociopath so obsessed with Six’s movie that he sets out to implement its nightmarish fiction. A security guard with a lot of time on his hands, Martin Martin Lomax (Laurence R. Harvey) even keeps a scrapbook of images and drawings from the first Human Centipede; its frequent appearance in the film calls repeated attention to the director’s self-conscious self-citations. Asthmatic, non-verbal, and morbidly obese, the mentally disturbed Martin is as twitchy and shifty as his squat body is lumbering. Improbably enough, the extra weight does not prevent him from effortlessly assaulting and kidnapping a series of victims, and proceeding with his ham-fisted design. If the director—adhering to the vow he made following the first film—pushes the already horrendous envelope of terror, it now bursts with horror-genre clichés. The new film is everything the first was not.
The original Centipede unfolded with literally surgical precision. The antiseptic, well-lit spaces of Dr. Heiter’s modernist glass house, his utter aplomb as he explains to his bound captives the medical procedure he is about to inflict—these were infinitely more disturbing than the crowbar that Martin bandies about. That the original protagonist was German—a German doctor at that—only underscored thinly veiled historical allusions to Josef Mengele and the unspeakable logic of Nazi science. This is not to lend Six’s larger project a gravitas it does not bear. His films aren’t about the politics of witnessing; they are about nausea and the pleasures—however unlikely and uncomfortable—thereof; Pasolini’s caprophagia bore more than an incidental allusion to Fascism and its afterlife in commodity culture. But any redemptive qualities Six’s earlier effort might have borne are in even scarcer supply in part two. The new film is all spit-and-sawdust, gore and guts. What the audience didn’t know about the unruffled Dr. Heiter made him all the more terrifying. Martin, by contrast, is a slovenly pervert; a survivor of incest and sexual abuse; a sputtering and infantile mess. Staple guns replace needles and sutures here.
Then again, as much as Human Centipede 2 duly features the ripping out of tongues, it keeps its own proverbial tongue firmly in cheek. As much as the audience cringes and whimpers, it also snickers and giggles—or, more often, guffaws outright. Judging from the canned camp lavished on certain sequences—a hysterical mother worthy of Mommy Dearest, a lecherous therapist—it is plain that outright disgust could not have been Six’s sole, or even chief, aim. A consistent and amusing sub-plot is Martin’s attempt to lure back the actors from the original Human Centipede by tricking them into thinking that they are auditioning for a sequel—directed by Quentin Tarantino, no less. The casual invocation of Tarantino, a master of ironized violence and cinematic citation, is one of many efforts at wry self-consciousness. Like most everything else, even the film-within-a-film motif is overdone, an intermittent flicker of interest doused in a heavy-handed murk.
The Human Centipede 2 (Full Sequence) is currently playing at the IFC Center in New York.
BEFORE SHE WAS KNOWN as the “It girl,” Clara Bow (1905–1965) was promoted as “the Brooklyn Bonfire,” and, along with Barbara Stanwyck and Rita Hayworth, the actress endures as one of the greatest exports from Kings County. Hollywood’s first sex symbol, Bow was the epitome of jazz-baby thrill seeking, a spit-curled good-time gal in silent films like Dancing Mothers and Mantrap (both from 1926) and talkies such as The Wild Party (1929) and Call Her Savage (1932).
Directed by Frank Lloyd and based on a Broadway play called The Barker, Hoop-la (1933), Bow’s final film, amply showcases the star’s earthy charms. Playing a carnival cooch dancer named Lou—her show-biz handles include Fatima and Snake Hips—Bow is introduced shooting craps backstage, whooping it up with the fair’s ticket takers and clean-up crew. When the boss’s son, a greenhorn college kid and lawyer hopeful, shows up, one of Lou’s fellow hard-boiled gyraters, for complicated romantic reasons of her own, offers her $100 to make the sap fall in love with her. It’s easy enough work, especially when Lou slips into a curve-hugging silk nightie. The naïf’s father is on to her, snarling at Lou to mind her own business; “I ain’t got the energy,” she retorts, Bow’s outer-borough vowels barely tamed.
Offscreen, Bow’s stamina would be drained by scandals involving sordid allegations by her once-devoted private secretary (which eventually led to a trial) and mental breakdowns. She retired at age twenty-eight, stating, as quoted in David Stenn’s Bow biography Runnin’ Wild, “I’ve had enough. I don’t wanna be remembered as somebody who couldn’t do nothin’ but take her clothes off. I want somethin’ real now.” Extinguishing her own flames, the Brooklyn Bonfire became a housewife and mother, raising two sons with Rex Bell, a cowboy actor and future Republican lieutenant governor of Nevada.
Hoop-la plays Sunday, October 16, at 1 PM and Wednesday, October 19, at 7:30 PM at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series “To Save and Project: The Ninth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation” (October 14–November 19, 2011).
Pedro Almodóvar, The Skin I Live In, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 117 minutes.
MARTIN SCORSESE once remarked that although Citizen Kane (1941) is a great film, he felt that after many viewings he had exhausted it. He could never exhaust Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), on the other hand, because, as with a recurrent dream, no matter how many times he entered its world, the twisted, time-shifting story line—who did what to whom and when and why—eluded him immediately after the fact. The most oneiric films of Pedro Almodóvar have a similar effect.
The Skin I Live In is Almodóvar’s most formally complex, bravura film since All About My Mother (1999). It effortlessly synthesizes the mad-scientist horror flick, a contemporary resetting of a nineteenth-century grand opera narrative (motored by the desire for revenge and filled with dark family secrets), and the most perverse strain of the Hollywood “woman’s picture,” where the heroines are wrongly imprisoned in insane asylums or hospitals and treated as sadistically as lab rats. That it is a disturbing film goes without saying, but its affect is strikingly narcotic throughout, its moments of anguish tempered by the carnivalesque. A comedy not only because it finds the absurdity in obsession, it also resolves in favor of its protagonist, whose integrity and will to survive are never undermined, regardless of a forced physical makeover that is somewhat more than skin deep. The Skin I Live In is an exhilarating treatise on identity in which the self transcends the fragile, sullied flesh, and, as always in Almodóvar, the law of desire trumps sexual difference.
Reunited for the first time since Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) with the director who made him an international star, Antonio Banderas plays Robert Ledgard, a plastic surgeon obsessed with creating a substitute for natural human skin that will be just as sensitive to touch but impervious to fire. Robert lives in a sprawling, impeccably designed country villa near Toledo with his protective housekeeper, Marilia (Marisa Paredes), and Vera (Elena Anaya), a young woman whose body is covered with a flesh-colored unitard. We first see Vera dutifully doing stretching exercises for a high-end video camera; it’s almost immediately clear that she is a prisoner in the house, and while she has some Stockholm syndrome–style attraction to Robert, he prefers to watch her image projected in real time on a giant screen.
Almodóvar sustains the mystery of who these three people are for what seems an outrageously long stretch of time, and then the revelations begin to pile up at a dizzying speed. Since much of the pleasure of The Skin I Live In derives from the precise route the narrative takes to arrive at the truth, involving flashbacks within flashbacks and the sudden intersection of seemingly unrelated plot elements and characters, it’s best to give away as little as possible. Suffice it to say that Robert has experienced not one but two tragic losses by the time he takes Vera prisoner. Robert is a cooler, more soigné Dr. Frankenstein, or, even better, a crueler, psychopathic version of Scottie Ferguson in Vertigo (1958), so intent on resurrecting the past that he destroys another’s present. Scottie’s Madeleine was a victim. Vera is something else. She gets to have the last word, and her summation of her experience and the movie we have just seen is hilariously direct and succinct. It has everything to do with why we leave the theater laughing.
The Skin I Live In plays at 6 PM and 9 PM on October 12 at Alice Tully Hall as part of the 49th New York Film Festival.
NEW YORK HAS OFTEN been the setting for films about junkies: Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1962), Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971), and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) are all gritty, cautionary portrayals of skag addicts tying off, shooting up, and nodding out. Slava Tsukerman’s 1982 cult classic Liquid Sky may be the first example of heroin cheek, imagining an invasion of extraterrestrials drawn to a city where new-wave androgynes languidly hope to score and the Empire State Building looms as a giant hypodermic needle.
Tsukerman, a Russian émigré who arrived in New York in 1976, cowrote Liquid Sky with his wife, Nina V. Kerova, and the film’s star, Anne Carlisle, who plays both Margaret, a bisexual model-actress with a fondness for Adam Ant maquillage and extravagant peroxided hair, and her archrival, Jimmy, another bottle-blond runway vamper when he’s not seeking out his next fix. The director’s own downtown penthouse apartment doubled as the home Margaret shares with her sadistic girlfriend, Adrian (Paula E. Sheppard), a pint-size performance artist and dope peddler whose warmest term of endearment for her lover is “uptight WASP cunt from Connecticut.” Their rooftop dwelling—seemingly equidistant from the Twin Towers and the Empire State Building—is also the landing spot of a Frisbee-size flying saucer, its occupants feeding off the rush humans feel after they inject horse, which, a Berlin astrophysicist explains, is similar to the effect of reaching orgasm. Those who have sex with Margaret, often nonconsensually, vanish right after coming, the preclimax rutting rendered through far-out solarized imagery and scored to the nihilistic drone of a Fairlight CMI.
Tsukerman’s fascination with his new city and its infinite subcultures—similar to that of the aliens in his movie—would leave its imprint on other Gotham-set mood pieces: The Bauhaus-scored, ominous pansexual chic of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983) immediately recalls Liquid Sky’s avant-garde gender tweaking; Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) presents a much sunnier vision of New York’s weirdness but is linked with Tsukerman’s film through its supporting performance by Carlisle. But one line from the highly ridiculous dialogue in Liquid Sky, which premiered one year after AIDS was first reported, suggests the real-life terror that would dominate the city for the next three decades: “If you fuck me, you’ll die.”
Liquid Sky screens October 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Ben Rivers, Two Years at Sea, 2011, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm blown up to 35 mm, 86 minutes.
AS ALWAYS, this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde, a sidebar of the forty-ninth New York Film Festival, offers a variety of media works and sensibilities. For the first time, the series will present a composition in “official” 3-D—i.e., requiring glasses. Titled Upending, it’s a stunning piece by the OpenEndedGroup, running about fifty minutes and accompanied by excerpts of a recording of Morton Feldman’s String Quartet No. 1, performed by the Flux Quartet. The visual world summoned begins simply enough, with a copper-toned curved line emerging from the screen’s darkness to the sound of a brief pizzicato phrase from the strings. Before long, elaborate designs take skeletal shape within the three-dimensional space, as the camera (or cameras) moves toward, away from, under, over, and through them. The shapes themselves, according to the artists, derive from actual objects—tables, chairs, people, trees, a garden, a swing—existing in real space, but abstracted into atomistic elements that no sooner come together into recognizable form than they swim apart, dissolving back into the endlessly protean mise-en-scène of the work’s cosmology. These lines and shapes, defined and constructed through light and color (reddish orange, white, gold), achieve a richness altogether unexpected, given their genesis within the overall fragmentary nature of the entire “performative” space. The music has a singular, tactile quality affined to the viewer’s tendency to want to reach out and touch these fragile forms before they vanish. One feels one has entered an impossible space, conjured by the mind but uninhabitable, a space in which music, mathematics, and the concept of form itself dance elusively.
Perhaps in the spirit of the end-of-the-world themes of several of the festival’s main slate entries, Views includes Studies for the Decay of the West (1979–2010) by veteran German filmmaker Klaus Wyborny. Few of Wyborny’s works are known in the US. Even Birth of a Nation (1973), his first major piece, is rarely screened. Studies is divided into five parts whose titles suggest more distinction among them than one might discern at an initial viewing. For example, part one, “Turning; tumbling towards the end,” is largely composed of relatively static industrial images—refineries, smokestacks, nuclear reactors, and chemical plants—while part four, “About the Light of the North,” is dominated by movement: rivers and canals, boats and trains, seashore views, and city life. Except for the bulk of Part four, most of the images throughout are tinted red, yellow, or blue, suggesting perhaps a parallel between chemical deterioration and what they display.
The most striking formal aspect of the work is that Wyborny has edited his images in nearly perfect synchrony with a musical score he composed for piano and strings. In the silent era, Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling composed films based on musical principles (e.g., rhythms of repetition and variation), and in the sound era, the Disney studios animated graphic shapes to classic musical pieces. But to my knowledge, I don’t think anyone has timed the editing of filmed images of the world—iron structures, concrete buildings, beaches, waterfronts, apartment buildings, waterways, people, and so forth—to the notations and phrases of a musical composition. In many instances (further viewings would indicate how extensively), images are repeated in sync with the repetition of the musical note first associated with them. At nearly eighty minutes, the effectiveness of this may tend to lose force, but I found the work even more seductive on second viewing.
NOT IMMUNE TO APOCALYPTIC FOREBODINGS HIMSELF, Ben Rivers makes work that celebrates the simplest virtues of craft, self-reliance, and the solitary life in the face of a future that may expunge all traces of humanity. These themes, discernible in I Know Where I’m Going (2009), are played out in different ways in Rivers’s three works on view this year. Though Slow Action is closest to the darker side of Rivers’s sensibility, I find the two other offerings more affecting. Sack Barrow, dedicated to the workers in a factory that had engaged in metal electroplating and finishing since 1931, was filmed during its last month of operation in 2010. Though the site appears old and grungy, the colors and compositions of every shot are anything but. To stress this painterly quality, Rivers inserts full frames of vivid red, yellow, green, and blue that also reflect the heating and cooling stages of the work. No interviews explain the work in any detail. We do get glimpses of it, but Rivers is less interested in documenting a process than in capturing the atmosphere—popular music streams from radios or recorders; cheesecake photos are generously displayed on walls and lockers—and in extracting the physical beauty in rusty surfaces and corrosive decay. These indelible imagesespecially those of objects deformed by toxic chemicalsevoke comparable artifacts of antiquity.
Rivers’s feature-length Two Years at Sea is an entrancing, all-out tribute to a hermitic, Thoreau-like existence, given wide-screen grandeur and photographed in a black-and-white made appropriately grainy through a blowup from 16 to 35 mm. It is no criticism to remark that there is nothing especially avant-garde about this work. (It is far more viewer-friendly, for example, than Béla Tarr’s aggressively minimalist The Turin Horse, one of the festival’s main slate entries.) Filmed in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, its lone protagonist lives a self-sufficient existence amid pine-crowded mountains and vast gray skies: rising briskly, whistling old pop melodies, brewing coffee, taking long walks through woods and hills, and hauling fallen tree limbs for his wood-burning stove. We know he has access to water and gasoline, since he takes showers and drives a jeep, but we’re not sure where or how he gets them. He is also well supplied with sophisticated tools: With a rope and pulley, he constructs a tree house by hoisting a small trailer atop several tall pines that he has bent downward into a kind of huge nest, just to provide an alternative view of his surroundings. In similar fashion, he constructs a raft supported by plastic containers just to float aimlessly. On two occasions, we see him reading assiduously. Who he is and why he is there is never explained. A single shot of a nearby rock is held long enough for us to read its markings as the grave of a Scottish clansman from centuries earlier—a kindred spirit, perhaps? The film has a directness and an innocence that are anything but sentimental. Rivers shows how existence itself and its duration in a specific place and time is sufficiently compelling, requiring no metaphors or symbols to impress its value on us. There is no surer sign of the filmmaker’s trust in his methods and of the human composure of his protagonist than the final, five-minute-long take: a close-up of the man’s face on frame right, flanked by the blackness of the wide screen, as a sputtering fire burns down, casting soft, diminishing light across his features until the screen goes dark.
UTE AURAND’S YOUNG PINES, a chronicle of her trip to Japan, is a lovely example of what is usually called the “diary” mode of avant-garde filmmaking. It recalls the distinction made by P. Adams Sitney (in his indispensable study Visionary Film ) between that term and what he aptly phrased the “quotidian lyric.” Both terms refer to the form in which a filmmaker, with handheld camera, shoots in the moment—from the hip, so to speak—amassing footage through a kind of editing in camera. But while the word “diary” implies daily chronicling, the “quotidian lyric” accommodates a self-contained quality and stresses the poetic nature of such works.
Like the best exemplars of the genre, Aurand’s film reminds us that the critical element is the presence of the artist—not visibly, but via every pulse and movement of the flow of images. No form of filmmaking comes closer to palpably rendering the exterior and interior being of the artist—the camera becoming, as Stan Brakhage once said, an extension of the body, recording not only what the filmmaker sees but everything he or she feels each instant, transferred from the rhythms of breathing and gestures to the images pulsing before us. Balancing rapidly edited phrases of grave markers in a cemetery or bicyclists in motion with longer-held gazes at rice fields, vegetable harvesting, and floral arrangements, Aurand’s film manifests a sensibility as attuned to what she sees as it is to the mechanics of the apparatus in her hands. Tonal shifts from color to black and white and from silence to sound recharge the image track as it does the viewer’s attention. The filmmaker’s steady hand, keen eye, and empathic, patient demeanor invest this familiar form with a vibrancy often unappreciated.
FILMING AN ARTIST AT WORK is not merely a challenge for the filmmaker but a potential trauma for the subject. Indeed, the dual process of scrutinizing and recording an act that is meant to be private amplifies the artist’s self-consciousness—and the effects can be detrimental. Legendarily, it drove Jackson Pollock to alcoholic relapse, eventually killing him. The key to a satisfying encounter between filmmaker and artist could be the trust that emerges out of a mutual understanding of the creative process; it is no coincidence that one of the few successful experiments in this regard happens to have been one great artist filming another: Aleksandr Sokurov recording Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn at scribble in The Dialogues with Solzhenitsyn (2000), a remarkable scene that is somehow intimate yet noninvasive.
Corinna Belz comes close but doesn’t quite nail it in Gerhard Richter Painting. Those expecting a revealing biopic of the famously elusive painter will be mostly disappointed with this exercise in observational idolatry, which confines itself to two years, 2008 and 2009, in Richter’s working life, culminating in “Abstract Paintings,” the November 2009 exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery in New York.
To Belz’s credit, her camera elegantly captures the artist’s complex method of applying paint through squeegeeing several different layers on a large canvas. It is a complex process—filled with doubtful, contemplative pauses—wherein one painting becomes several different paintings before arriving at the finale. At one intense moment, however, when a painting doesn’t seem to be going right, Richter begins to falter. “Painting under observation: That’s the worst thing there is,” he says. The moment is as uncomfortable for the spectator as it is for the artist, as one cannot determine whether the actual filming itself is to blame or if Richter is merely flustered by being caught in a creative blunder.
In a subtle way, Belz implies that such “traumas” are actually rather slight for a figure like Richter, who understands firsthand the impact that far harsher forces can have on the individual psyche. The film crescendos about three-quarters into it, as Richter is going through a collection of old family photographs. With great restraint, he divulges that, after leaving East Germany in 1961 as a political refugee, he was never able to see his parents again. It’s the closest we are able to get to the core of Gerhard Richter, who otherwise channels all of his emotions and intellect into his canvases and seems to relate to the world purely through images.
Gerhard Richter Painting is now available on DVD from Soda Pictures. A retrospective of Richter’s work will be on view at Tate Modern in London from October 6, 2011 to January 8, 2012. The film screens at Tate Modern on select dates between October 6 and 23; the October 6 screening is to be followed by a conversation between Belz and Tate Modern curator Mark Godfrey.