THE BERLINALE’S final week jerked to a close, with most of the Saturday afternoon screenings half-empty due to a citywide transit strike, only to be madly replenished on Sunday’s Audience Day, whose ticketing system favors the general public rather than festival badges. Half-felt tips, bets, and assertions were traded among friends and industry insiders, but no single endorsement resounded. Consensus affirmed that, while not terrible, this year’s festival featured a less-than-spectacular program. There was a discernible lack of gut-punching “Mmph!” moments, a fact that gradually gave even the most seasoned festivalgoer a sense of anxiety. (“Is it just that I’m somehow missing all the good films?”) In this context, few could take the awards very seriously; anyway, the Berlinale’s strongest moments were either out of competition or confined to the Panorama and Forum sections.
One such moment was L’Âge atomique (The Atomic Age), a beautiful vision of platonic love between two teenage outcasts in a dystopic Paris nightscape. The film’s lush sound track of witch house leads me to think that the underlying aesthetic ambition was a cinematicization of that musical genre; director Héléna Klotz seems to have grasped the fundamental romanticism of the sound and matched it with her two New New Romantics, who swim in the bile of present-tense uncertainty.
Another strong point was Matthias Glasner’s Gnade (Mercy). The film’s premise recalls Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) transposed onto the freezing, sunless winter of Hammerfest, Norway, which claims to be the northernmost city on the planet. What makes this psychological drama work is the way suspense is subtly, delicately knitted into the story, in which a young mother runs over a sixteen-year-old girl and gets away with it . . . Or does she? Billy Bob Thornton could learn a lot from Gnade’s script. His second feature, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, a hilarious probing of the 1960s via the culture clash between an old American Southern family and their British marital relatives, manages to fizzle out so flatly that the film would most certainly win Anticlimax of the Year, if such an award were offered.
This was a particularly weak edition for documentary film. One of the few exceptions was Werner Herzog, chair of last year’s jury, who returned for a special screening of his new series of Death Row portraits. Consisting largely of simple one-on-one interviews with prisoners awaiting their final injection, these films reveal that guilt and innocence are far from the black-and-white categories that the American justice system insists on. If there’s anything to complain about, it’s that the made-for-TV formatting lends some of the interviews a claustrophobic brevity; one yearns for more of the director’s interjections, which always succeed in mesmerizing the viewer in his feature-length documentaries.
I missed out on Iron Sky, the sci-fi Nazi-UFO B movie that elicited one of the few mass murmurs of interest during the festival. But I saw the real thing (Nazis, not UFOs) in Blut Muss Fliessen (Blood Must Flow), a documentary by Peter Ohlendorf consisting of secret footage shot by an undercover investigative journalist at neo-Nazi skinhead concerts in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and Hungary over the past six years. The slightly hysterical Q&A following the screening was almost as fascinating as the material, and again reminded me of Germany’s ongoing struggle to come to terms with the horrors of its past. Similarly, Green Laser, John Greyson’s imaginative, short protest doc about struggles against oppression in the Gaza Strip, was greeted by dead silence from its audience of mostly middle-aged and older Germans, for whom any endorsement of the Palestinian cause implies a latent anti-Semitism. Showing Green Laser before Dagmar Schultz’s Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years was either a major programming blunder or an ingenious act of provocation, depending on your position.
The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival ran February 9–19.
Joshua Marston, The Forgiveness of Blood, 2010, color film in HD, 109 minutes.
DIRECTOR JOSHUA MARSTON is nothing if not bold. Resistant to the usual foray into the provincial corners of Americana typical of so many independent filmmakers, he prefers grappling with foreign cultures. Though one might question the wisdom of this preference, Marston (who lived abroad and was a correspondent for ABC during the first Gulf War) has fared well, garnering critical acclaim and awards for his first feature, Maria Full of Grace (2004), about Colombian drug mules, and Best Screenplay—cowritten with Andamion Murataj—at the Berlin Film Festival for his new film. Set in Albania, The Forgiveness of Blood (2010) examines the paradox of a culture that bears the signs of encroaching capitalism while adhering to outdated methods of social interaction. Young people play video games and use cell phones, shadowed by archaic codes of conduct that endanger their very lives.
The story focuses on the effects of one such code on the children of a typical family of a small village. The patriarch, refused passageway on a road by a neighboring farmer, returns with his brother to murder the farmer. (The war between the Hatfields and the McCoys of a bygone era of American history comes to mind.) While the brother goes to jail for having done the actual killing, the father, alleging innocence, goes into hiding, making clandestine visits to his family. According to the Kanun, the Albanian code dating back to the fifteenth century that rules such conflicts, the injured family assumes the right to take revenge by killing a male member of the perpetrator’s family. In this case, the oldest son, Nik (Tristan Halilaj), as the likely target, must live under “voluntary” house arrest—at the expense of his education, his social life, and his newfound love interest—until such time as the feud is resolved by mediation or otherwise. The former proves difficult when a potential mediator asks for more money than the family can afford. It doesn’t help that Nik’s sister Rudina’s (Sindi Lacej) efforts to peddle her bread are thwarted and she is forced to sell the family horse for much less than it is worth.
Bored and disgusted with the absurdity of the system and his father’s complicit acceptance of it, Nik wonders whether the man should serve jail time rather than put his family through such an ordeal. But when his father is arrested and then released, the danger only increases. Desperate, Nik confronts the rival family, seeking peace, but is willing to die rather than live under these conditions. Impressed by his courage, the grandfather of that family tells him he must leave the village to avoid being killed. Against his mother’s wishes, but with his father’s blessing, he does just that. Rather than imply this is the best solution, however, Marston’s final shot is not of Nik walking off to a better life, but of Rudina, no less a victim of the backward culture, doomed to confront a dismal future.
Although Albanian films have dealt with blood feuds, their accent, according to Marston, is on the killings and the action around them. Marston is less interested in the inherent melodrama of the subject and the violence associated with it than with the young people whose lives are effectively ruined. In fact, the entire phenomenon would appear to be even more outlandish for recent generations since, according to press notes, “only one such blood feud was recorded during the forty-year reign of the communist regime,” while in the vacuum created by the collapse of communism, the Kanun code reemerged as an unsanctioned alternative to a convoluted legal system. Thus, for young people, the reappearance of such a code might well lack the enduring glue of an unchallenged tradition. Then there is the Kanun itself, which, unlike the Ten Commandments, for example, is hardly a text memorized and cited by everyone, but largely an oral tradition, subject to arbitrary interpretation and random misuse.
Compatible with the accent Marston has chosen, his film has a leisurely, almost uneventful pace—not unlike that of Maria Full of Grace—seemingly at odds with the tension and action-oriented potential of the material. This subdued dramatizing imposes an unsettling ordinariness on a horrific state of affairs, which nicely mirrors the unquestioning manner in which the elders accept the code. In general, it is easy to underestimate what Marston does: His actors are affecting and credible without being showy, and his camerawork is direct without being intrusive. That this restrained visual and narrative style works is a sure sign of a confidence that has served him well and should continue to do so.
The Forgiveness of Blood opens in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and in Los Angeles at Landmark Sunshine Cinema on Friday, February 24.
A CONCISE RETROSPECTIVE of film and video works by Ken Kobland, one of the least known and most accomplished American experimental moviemakers, has been scheduled as a postscript to Anthology Film Archives’ inclusive, fascinating series of movies made by and about the Wooster Group (as well as movies that simply feature past and present members, among them Willem Dafoe, Spalding Gray, Kate Valk, and Ron Vawter). As a longtime media collaborator with the Woosters, Kobland codirected with Elizabeth LeCompte many of the pieces in this series, but his talent and skills as a film and video maker also stand on their own.
The three programs in the series, titled simply “Ken Kobland” (February 24–26), reflect the evolution of Kobland’s moviemaking from his early, lyrical, minimalist, 16-mm films, Frame (1975) and Vestibule (1978), to his most recent digital work, the dense, despairing The Toy Sun (2011). Kobland’s concerns have been remarkably consistent: the connection of memory to place; the layering and fragmentation of imagery; the mixing of actual interior and exterior places with theatrical backdrops and flats representing the same; the frequent use of oblique (“Dutch”) angles; the tension between image and sound and more problematically between image and language. T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943) is a touchstone, with the opening of “Burnt Norton” (“Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past. / If all time is eternally present / All time is unredeemable. [. . .]”) quoted and pondered in movies separated by decades: The Communists Are Comfortable (1984–88) and the aforementioned The Toy Sun, and others in between. A recording of “The Internationale” occurs with similar frequency. Marx and Eliot, that’s a hellish pair.
At least three movies should not be missed. In The Toy Sun (February 25 at 8 PM, on a program with the radiant travel diary Ideas of Order in Cinque Terre ), Kobland turns a digital editing system into a philosophizing machine while paying homage to Gordon Matta-Clark. The Communists Are Comfortable and Flaubert Dreams of Travel but the Illness of His Mother Prevents It (1986) are, at the least, among the strongest, most moving experimental movies of the last two decades of the twentieth century, and the passage of time has if anything rendered them more potent.
The Communists Are Comfortable (March 1 at 7 PM, playing in a Wooster Group series although solely directed by Kobland) springs from the filmmaker’s early childhood memories of living in the Parkchester section of the Bronx, surrounded by communists and fellow travelers. The film combines clips of Hollywood melodrama and terrifying fragments of World War II newsreels with scripted sequences written by Jim Strahs and actual detail. (The repeated shot of a hand moving over a radiator grate while out the window one sees what must have been the limits of a child’s vision says everything about the complicity of touch and sight in activating memory.) American avant-garde film has had an uneasy relationship with acting, but here the Wooster Group performers, particularly Vawter and Gray, are stunning; their quiet discontent, not to mention their impeccable timing, are at one with the delicate, sensory fabric of the piece.
Flaubert Dreams of Travel (February 22 at 9 PM, on a program of three short films made for use in Wooster Group theater pieces) evokes an altered state of consciousness in ways that are both ecstatic and despairing. It’s simply the best LSD movie ever. The premise seems to be that the members of the Wooster Group are hanging out in some cheap motel room and have ingested some powerful hallucinatory substance, perhaps in preparation for a rehearsal of their theater piece Frank Dell’s The Temptation of Saint Antony (1988). The room vibrates, the walls threatening to dissolve. You hear what seems to be a barely audible radio/TV combo tuning in to all the frequencies of your life. Everything you believed in falls apart. Sexual difference is a macabre joke; communism has failed, and so has modernism. The movie is a twenty-odd-minute elegy for the twentieth century. Godard has done no better. I want the sound track played at my funeral.
The retrospective “Ken Kobland” runs February 24–26 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Some films noted above will screen as part of other programs at Anthology, including Flaubert Dreams of Travel but the Illness of His Mother Prevents It (February 22 at 9 PM) and The Communists Are Comfortable (March 1 at 7 PM).
NEW YORK’S WOOSTER GROUP is renowned for the incorporation of film and video in its theatrical productions. In To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre) (2002), for example, video mediates live action, as monitors placed in front of the actors’ lower halves show their movements both delayed and sped up. In the 2003 version of Brace Up!, on the other hand, one character appears entirely on video: translator Paul Schmidt, who had died since his appearance in the original production in 1991. The company’s 2007 Hamlet set its actors the task of re-creating a 1964 filmed staging, directed by John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton, projected behind them. Film is also used as an element of collage or commentary: House/Lights (1998) is a mash-up of Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights and the 1964 B movie Olga’s House of Shame, scenes of which are screened onstage.
Numerous productions since the Wooster Group’s founding in 1975, however, have included videos produced by and featuring the company. These are now on view in Anthology Film Archives’ retrospective “The Wooster Group in Film and Video,” along with stand-alone video works not destined for the theater and, finally, straight documentation of productions. The series, organized by Wooster Group archivist Clay Hapaz, spans the company’s career thus far: The very first program (which will be screened again on February 23) features clips from its inaugural production, Sakonnet Point (1975)—as well as from the three following plays that comprise Three Places in Rhode Island (1977–79)—and a current work-in-progress documentary about the group.
The videos vary in quality—that is, both content and condition. The earliest works, which have never been revived, will be of greatest appeal to Wooster devotees, but the clips of Three Places are so short, and the video and audio at times so degraded, as to be basically unintelligible to those not familiar with the original productions. The Road to Immortality is more edifying, featuring excerpts from three controversial productions: Route 1 & 9 (1981), in which Our Town meets Pigmeat Markham, with an infamous blackface routine that cost the group funding from the New York State Council on the Arts; L.S.D. ( . . . Just the High Points . . . ) (1984), which mixes The Crucible with quotes from Timothy Leary, although the presence of the Arthur Miller text was diminished after a cease-and-desist letter from the playwright; and Frank Dell’s The Temptation of St. Antony (1988), a reimagining of Flaubert’s poem from the point of view of Lenny Bruce and the Channel J soft-porn TV station.
Anthology is also screening complete recordings of a number of productions, including Brace Up!, To You, the Birdie! (Phèdre), House/Lights, and North Atlantic (1984), as well as two early dance pieces, Hula (1981) and For the Good Times (1982). Most of the videos present a static view of the entire stage, but the filming of House/Lights is more considered, featuring close-ups and shots from different angles. The Emperor Jones (1993) was entirely reconceived for video in 1999, but the purposely rough green-screen effects distract from the legendary lead performance by Kate Valk, a founding member of the company.
Other evenings showcase the short films featured in Wooster Group productions as well as two full-length works included in 1990s Whitney Biennials that, according to the Anthology program, have been “rarely seen since.” All of these were made with filmmaker Ken Kobland, whose retro aesthetic contrasts with the contemporary, technophilic approach of the group’s theater. (Immediately following the Wooster Group series, Anthology will be screening additional films by Kobland over three evenings.)
Altogether, Anthology’s series presents an impressive overview of the Wooster Group’s oeuvre, but it is necessarily handicapped: This is clearly not the best way to watch live theater. At a time when museums are turning away from film and video documentation in favor of reperformance, more art-centric audiences might wonder why the Wooster Group doesn’t just do the same. The answer, of course, is that a full theatrical production requires extensive rehearsal time and is much more expensive to mount than, say, the simple performer-and-ponytail setup of Marina Abramović and Ulay’s Relation in Time, 1977. Yet, while the Wooster Group has frequently revived productions, it has never restaged works from the late 1970s and early ’80s. On February 20 at Anthology, company director Elizabeth LeCompte and Kobland will present their efforts to reconstruct Rumstick Road (1977) through Super 8 and video footage, photographs, and audio. The production is intimately tied to the late Spalding Gray, another founding member. Perhaps LeCompte views Gray as irreplaceable, but the preference for film over performance comes across as more conservative than the group’s reputation would suggest. Or might the archival project be a first step toward a revival? That might be the biggest treat to come out of Anthology’s series.
Interestingly, the Wooster Group has recently embraced video as a way to attract new viewers online. In 2010, realizing that its audiences were declining, the company began posting short videos on its website—these include clips from its archive as well as footage of the group rehearsing, performing, and even commenting directly to the camera. This kind of YouTube-ready backstage confessional might seem irrelevant to what true fans want from the Wooster Group, but it could be the final stage in the demystification of the theater company.
“The Wooster Group in Film and Video” runs through Thursday, February 23, at Anthology Film Archives in New York. “The Wooster Group at Large,” a program of experimental films and videos featuring members of the company, runs February 24–March 1.
IN RETROSPECT, 2011 was a great year for cinema. That year’s Berlinale memorably served as a barometer for bold statements, which ranged from Béla Tarr’s stark essay on finitude, The Turin Horse, to the sweeping AIDS documentary We Were Here. The prospects for 2012 are rather more humble, if the current edition of the Berlinale (or at least what I’d seen by its halfway mark) is any indication.
One of the more pervasive trends is a shift away from the macro (large, worldly issues) and toward the micro (personal, domestic crises). Is this to be the year of the Relationship Movie? Two films that both happen to star Thure Lindhardt—Formentera and Keep the Lights On—epitomize this direction. The former, directed by Ann-Kristin Reyels, analyzes a young professional couple from Berlin vacationing among aging hippies on the eponymous Spanish island. He wants to run away from it all and relocate there with their young child; she feels content with their life back home and fathoms that his desire to flee is grounded in his secret unhappiness with their marriage. In Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On, Lindhardt plays a gay documentary filmmaker attached to a young lawyer whose struggles with addiction threaten to implode their relationship. The plot is fairly rote and at times hovers dangerously close to cliché—though I suppose it serves a political purpose, showing, in the raging topical arena surrounding gay marriage, that queer couples can be just as miserable as their hetero counterparts.
Of course, with a program as vast as the Berlinale’s, which features several hundred films in ten sections, there are always surprises. Finding them is often a matter of luck. So far, the Zellner Brothers’ Kid Thing tops my list of fortunate accidents; its prepubescent, white trash antiheroine sorts through the refuse of the American heartland and contributes her own bit of pitiless violence to the pile. When Annie (Sydney Aguirre) discovers a woman trapped in a hole in the ground in a remote forest, she runs away, believing it to be the devil. Eventually she must grapple with whether it is in her moral fiber to help another person. The film is, in many ways, disgusting and difficult to watch; its few characters (cripples, drunks, sadists: human derelicts) and their crude, pointless activities are all as unsympathetic as the protagonist herself. At the same time, the film’s stylistic cunning makes it hard to look the other way: Conjure a world populated with living Duane Hanson sculptures and photographed by Jeff Wall. Kid Thing could very well be the scariest slice of Americana Ugliana since Harmony Korine’s Gummo (1997).
Among those making their feature debuts this year is Zainichi Korean director Yong-hi Yang. Her previous documentaries explored her estrangement from her brothers, who as teenagers were sent by their parents to study in North Korea and were never able to return to Japan. Kazoku no kuni (Our Homeland) uses this fascinating autobiographical material to animate the story of a son who is permitted to come home after twenty-five years to seek medical treatment for a brain tumor. The film owes its success to an ensemble of powerhouse performances, headed by Iura Arata as the traumatized son.
Other worthwhile endeavors include flashy festival opener Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen), director Benoît Jacquot’s chronicle of the last days of Versailles from the perspective of Marie Antoinette’s reader; timely documentaries on Marina Abramović and Ai Weiwei; and a handful of cinematic installations included in two of the four Forum Expanded exhibitions I managed to attend, “Kritik und Klinik” and “Gutschow-Haus.” We’ll see what the remaining days hold in store.
The 62nd Berlin International Film Festival runs February 9–19.
EXPLORING THE MARITIME WORLD as the unseen matrix of globalization, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space (2010) begins as an investigative documentary and concludes as a mythopoeic essay on modernity and the sea. Along with the quickening staccato of the accordion sound track, the film’s rhetorical intensity slowly builds as metaphor and allusion are interwoven with the facts and conditions of global trade.
In one of the final scenes, we learn that Doel, a small Belgian village, is being demolished to expand the port of Antwerp. In one shot, we see a street that dead-ends in a dike wall protecting the low-lying town from the ocean. The giant steel tower of a cargo crane slowly crosses through the background; like a scrim, the dike hides the ship on which the crane is being transported. To the viewer, the crane seems to stand still while the ground seems to move beneath one’s feet. It’s a disorienting effect, a haunting visualization of Marx and Engels’s dictum that, under capitalism, “all that is solid melts into air.” Only here amended: Everything bound to the earth is forced to sea.
At a folk festival in the doomed town, a close-up shows an artisan’s hands and tool as he hollows out the inside of a wooden shoe. Picking up on its shape, the voice-over likens it to a lifeboat crafted from past tradition; in a dizzying metaphoric twist, it comes to stand in for the village as whole and, by extension, all the lands of the globe that might be submerged under shifting economic tides. The film’s conclusion is torn between the manifesto-like call for “the lowly crew to seize the helm” of this provisional craft, and the open question about how to extend hospitality to those bankrupt and shipwrecked refugees who might arrive on our shores.
Through visits to four port cities, viewers learn that nine-tenths of the world’s freight is moved by 100,000 ships and 1.5 million seafarers. Rotterdam, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong are each expansive megaports that handle huge amounts of containerized cargo. Surveying their environs reveals some of the costs of ever-expanding trade, from pollution to standardization to the automation that increases productivity but keeps wages low and eliminates jobs. In the formerly industrial town of Bilbao, the Guggenheim museum exemplifies the replacement of the working port by a tourist economy that floats on a forgetting of industry and nostalgia for the sea. Its emblem is Frank Gehry’s sinuous, piscine building, whose titanium scales never rust—“a lighthouse that shines only when the sun is out” and blinds viewers both to industrial history and to the realist and modernist sculptures by native Basques and Spaniards at the city center. When ocean waves overwhelm the sound track as museum visitors wind their way through rusting, rolled steel sculptures by Richard Serra (himself a former shipyard worker), it amounts to a return of the repressed.
The film continually returns to the cargo ship on the open ocean, but it also tracks the ways goods move inland. The camera takes us inside the cramped cabs of the crane operator, the barge captain, the train engineer, and the truck driver, to listen as they explain the demands of their jobs. People are paired with machines to which they sometimes become appendages, now all part of a global, mobile factory. The voice-over emphasizes that factories have become like ships, continually moving production to countries with low wages and few environmental protections. And ships, now mammoth floating buildings, become factories and warehouses.
We also explore the domestic spaces that support this form of trade, visiting the inside of a seafarer’s hostel in Hong Kong. Security guards keep the crew from entering a homeless camp in California, so the filmmakers interview the unemployed on the sidewalk. Viewers tour the massive spaces inside a Chinese appliance factory in Shenzhen, and accompany two female workers to their tiny dorm and then out into the city as they go shopping. Despite the exploitative conditions, these women are some of the most hopeful figures of the film—not only in their youth and enthusiasm, but because of the collective power they might someday wield.
The Forgotten Space has its New York theatrical premiere Wednesday, February 15–Tuesday, February 21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Allan Sekula will be present at the opening-night screenings on February 15.
Kleber Mendonça Filho, Neighboring Sounds, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 124 minutes.
ONE YEAR after marking its fortieth anniversary with an expanded edition (tagged “XL”), the 2012 International Film Festival Rotterdam flaunted a slimmed-down profile. This accelerated cycle of binge and purge surely had much to do with the deep funding cuts that have hit Dutch arts organizations in recent months, but organizers put a positive spin on it, calling it a user-friendly downsizing for a famously sprawling event. While there were indeed fewer sidebars (and somewhat quieter bars), festival director Rutger Wolfson’s claim that Rotterdam could now be “summed up in four sentences” is not exactly true, and would not have been a good thing anyway. The hit-and-miss overprogramming typically pays dividends for those willing to do a little snooping around: This year’s retrospectives encompassed “The Mouth of Garbage,” an ambitious historical survey of São Paulo’s down-and-dirty Boca do Lixo scene, a cine povera crossroads of social realism and genre exploitation; among the other programs were topical roundups of Arab Spring dispatches and underground Chinese docs with an obligatory focus on Ai Weiwei. (The activist artist’s loops of Beijing traffic were installed in an “Ai Weiwei Café,” which served free instant noodles and was meant to echo the informal screening spaces where Chinese audiences typically encounter banned work.)
The wide range of offerings, along with a smartly programmed array of short and experimental work, help divert attention from the grumblings (which seem to grow louder each year) that Rotterdam’s central event, its Tiger competition for first or second films, is not what it used to be. There was at least a newsworthy outcome this time. All three prizes went to women directors, and all of these, as it happens, were first-timers with substantially different variations on the coming-of-age tale. Huang Ji’s Egg and Stone, a moving autobiographical account of youthful trauma, parcels out the grim backstory of an unwanted teenage girl in rural China through an art-film lingua franca of fixed, precise compositions and an oblique, withholding narrative. Equally accomplished and also more than a bit familiar, Dominga Sotomayor’s Thursday Through Sunday chronicles a disintegrating family’s road trip via off-kilter details and circumscribed perspectives reminiscent of Lucrecia Martel’s films. But if Martel’s singular style, at once sensual and abstract, promotes disorientation, Thursday Through Sunday means to evoke something known, even universal: sense memories of childhood, with adult realities just coming into view. The least deserving prize, Maja Miloš’s Clip, was also the festival’s designated controversy thanks to the surefire combination of titillation and moralism. This Kids retread for the digital age, about sexually hyperactive Serbian adolescents and their cell phone cameras, comes complete with hard-core scenes and a closing-credits assurance that no actual teens had any actual sex.
Two out of three isn’t bad, but it was still mystifying that the jury, headed by Singaporean director Eric Khoo, failed to recognize Kleber Mendonça Filho’s Neighbouring Sounds, a supremely poised and ambitious first feature from Brazil that towered over a largely subpar competition. A former critic-programmer with a series of inventive shorts to his name, Filho has made a thoroughly modern, film-savvy opus (at times it suggests Cache as directed by Paul Thomas Anderson), steeped equally in dread and humor. Neighbouring Sounds concerns urban tumult, class hierarchies, the threat of violence, a culture of fear—common themes in recent Brazilian cinema—but, as someone puts it during a charged confrontation in the film, “This is no favela.” Instead we’re in a well-off beachfront neighborhood of Recife where the residents are ensconced in bourgeois comfort but also trapped behind barred windows, high fences, and all manner of human and mechanical security systems. The Altmanesque tapestry, which includes members of a rich family that owns much of the area and of the working class that variously serves, protects, and threatens them, appears to promise the puzzle-piece convergences of the Iñárritu-style ensemble movie, but Filho, using fluid camerawork and an intricate sound design to sensational effect, has something more original in mind: a horror movie in which the horror is nameless and pervasive, both embedded in the domestic everyday and a convulsive emanation of the collective unconscious.
As is often the case at Rotterdam, the discoveries were not confined to new films. Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s Anna (shot in 1972, first shown in 1975, and newly restored by the Cineteca di Bologna) is an astonishing nearly four-hour documentary about a sixteen-year-old homeless junkie, eight months pregnant, whom the filmmakers discovered in Rome’s Piazza Navona. Mainly shot on then-newfangled video (which at times gives the black-and-white images a ghostly translucence), it documents the interactions between the beautiful, clearly damaged, often dazed teenager and the directors, who take her in partly out of compassion and partly because she’s a fascinating subject for a film. Far from straightforward vérité, this self-implicating chronicle includes reenactments of the first meeting, explicit attempts to direct its subject, and frequent intrusions from behind the camera (not least the emergence of the film’s electrician as a love interest). Anna cuts between long, often discomfiting domestic scenes (including an interminable delousing in the shower) and equally protracted café discussions back in the square, where the unruly cross talk among hippies, bums, bourgeoisie, and angry young men touches on the movie’s key themes of obligation and intervention: between filmmakers and their subjects, the state and its citizens, fellow members of society. An end-of-the-1960s document with the scale and intimacy of Robert Kramer’s Milestones, Anna also marks the birth of our media age, not just demonstrating the obsessive immersions of a new technology that, as Grifi put it, “makes life filmable,” but also embodying the uneasy dawning awareness of what that means. It’s a film born on a cusp, as an urgency to change the world yielded to an urge to record it.
The International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 25–February 5, 2012.
Bill Morrison, The Miners’ Hymns, 2011, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 52 minutes.
BILL MORRISON’S The Miners’ Hymns (2011) is a remembrance of northeast England’s lifeworld of coal and an ode to the solidarities born of the struggle to survive it, before the industry was union-gutted and privatized unto extinction in the 1990s. Like Morrison’s Decasia (2002)—whose deliquescing cast included men fleeing a mining disaster only to encounter death by nitrate film stock—it is a necromantic collage, but it extends a homecoming to the past more than a final farewell. Black-and-white clips culled from archival footage since 1900 underscore strain and occlusion in the dug-out dark—miners prowling on all fours to reach farther seams, coal in chiaroscuro out-glistening faces. Slowed for a searching, heedful gaze, the frame lingers before scenes of telling simplicity, like a clothesline against tessellating rowhouses, its billowing whites dignifying conjoined work-cycles. It’s astonishing how often we see the open sea, never so distant from the airless pits; kids bound toward it after sliding down slag hills while their elders harvest washed-up seacoal there.
A present-day flyover of Durham’s reclad villages notes the supermarket parking lot that was Ryhope’s colliery and the dry ski slopes now upholstering Silkworth’s. But aerial survey promptly turns to historical X-ray as the helicopter descends to earth, gusting a grassy field until it dissolves into a flat-capped crowd from another time, gathered for the annual Durham Miners’ Gala. When men next convene in a field it is for civil war: Images from the Battle of Orgreave during the 1984–85 miners’ strike surge like the political unconscious of The Iron Lady (2011), out for a reckoning. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s enveloping, electronically finessed score of brasses and organ, drawing on the region’s colliery brass-band tradition, is paced with suspense, and The Miners’ Hymns concludes in the very Durham Cathedral where it premiered, ushering film-memory into lived experience.
The Miners’ Hymns has its theatrical premiere February 8–14 at Film Forum in New York.
NOEL BLACK’S satisfyingly sordid first feature, Pretty Poison, was released in 1968; eight years prior, the film’s male lead, Anthony Perkins, had his breakout role in Psycho, and his costar, Tuesday Weld, appeared as one of the titular Sex Kittens Go to College. These earlier screen incarnations crucially inflect the characters the actors play in Black’s film. In Pretty Poison, Perkins’s Dennis Pitt, a fragile fantasist in his early thirties out on probation—his earlier crimes include burning his aunt’s house down—could be thought of as Norman Bates’s less damaged cousin. Weld’s Sue Ann Stepanek, a sexed-up eighteen-year-old high-school honor student who’s been seduced by Dennis’s conspiracy theories, often lures him to “Make-out Alley”; soon she’ll coax him into her matricide plan.
Written by Lorenzo Semple Jr. and based on Stephen Geller’s 1966 novel She Let Him Continue, Pretty Poison tanked at the box office and was dismissed by many critics, never earning the accolades that greeted two other criminal-lover films of the era, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973). Though often spiked with mordant humor, Black’s movie, unlike those more celebrated titles, has no layer of cool detachment or irony; Dennis and Sue Ann throb with hurt, confusion, desire, and rage. Out in the real world for the first time in years, Dennis, whose parole officer secures him a job in a small-town Massachusetts chemical plant, can barely function outside the cocoon of his Scientific American–strewn Airstream trailer, often resorting to supercilious speech as a defense mechanism. He seems to possess one outfit—a light-blue oxford shirt and gray corduroys, an ensemble that makes Perkins, thirty-six at the time, look barely old enough to shave.
Weld has the opposite effect: She was in her mid-twenties during shooting—and looks it. Yet the discrepancy between the actress’s age and her character’s imbues Sue Ann, whom Dennis first notices carrying the flag for an all-girl rifle drill team, with a necessary perversity. Immediately turned on by Dennis’s silly CIA talk—“We’re under surveillance” is his pickup line, delivered at the local hot-dog stand—Sue Ann avidly follows all of his crazy directives, simply for the adventures they promise. When Dennis’s scheme to commit eco-terrorism at his workplace goes awry, it ignites in his girlfriend insatiable lusts—both for blood and carnal pleasure.
The flaxen-haired sweetheart, one minute concerned about being late for her hygiene class and the next aiming a pistol right at her mother’s heart, has an active tongue: It darts out from her mouth when she is concentrating, preparing to kill, or registering delight. The fleshy organ also helps deliver the teenager’s deepening mythomania, which, by film’s end, has surpassed even Dennis’s. If Weld’s and Perkins’s roles before Pretty Poison informed their characters, the compatibility they established in Black’s film would greatly enrich their next (and final) collaboration: costarring as Maria Wyeth, the unraveling Hollywood wife, and B.Z., the tormented bisexual producer (and Maria’s only friend), in Frank Perry’s 1972 adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays.
Pretty Poison plays February 3 through 9 at Film Forum.
Gob Squad, Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good), 2012. Performance view, The Public Theater. Photo: David Baltzer.
OF KITCHEN, the 1965 film directed by Andy Warhol from a script by Ronald Tavel that was largely ignored by its star, Edie Sedgwick, Norman Mailer rhapsodized: “It captured the essence of every boring dead day one’s ever had in a city, a time when everything is imbued with the odor of damp washcloths and old drains. I suspect that a hundred years from now people will look at Kitchen and say, ‘Yes, that is the way it was in the late Fifties, early Sixties in America. That’s why they had the war in Vietnam. That’s why the rivers were getting polluted. That’s why there was typological glut. That’s why the horror came down. That’s why the plague was on its way.’ Kitchen shows that better than any other work of that time.”
This bit of hyperbolic hindsight or “typological glut,” published in Edie, An American Biography (1982) by Jean Stein, edited with George Plimpton, also may be found in the description of Kitchen on the Warhol Stars website (www.warholstars.org), an Internet treasure, as is the website of the late Ronald Tavel (www.ronaldtavel.com), which contains the script of Kitchen as well as all of Tavel’s other scripts, journals, essays, manifestos, and scabrous gossip. The Mailer quote and the description of Kitchen (appropriated from Stephen Koch’s Stargazer: The Life, World and Films of Andy Warhol ) were e-mailed to me by Tavel friend and associate Norman Glick as a way of encouraging me to hotfoot it to the Public Theater to see Gob Squad’s production of Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good). Glick liked the production a lot, especially the parts that used Tavel’s actual lines or paraphrased them, as in, “This cake is just like my life. One meaningless layer after another.” He was upset, however, that the piece did not give Tavel proper credit, despite the note in the program, printed in large black type, which explains that “the original screenplay for Andy Warhol’s Kitchen was written by Ronald Tavel.” Acknowledging collaborators was not in Warhol’s playbook, and history has done nothing to challenge his auteurist assumption. Gob Squad is riffing on a Warhol film (actually more than one), and the fact that Tavel’s layer-cake metaphor most likely inspired the pile-up of past/present/future that is the joy of the production won’t change an audience’s perception that it’s Warhol’s kitchen alone that Gob Squad has taken over.
On entering the Public’s Newman Theater, audience members are encouraged to tour the area behind the triptych of large video screens on which the entire performance will be projected. At once backstage, stage, and soundstage, the space through which we amble is divided into three sections. The titular kitchen (a narrow table, a few chairs, a cupboard) is at the center flanked by a bedroom (just a bed really) and a more amorphous area where a chair is positioned for “screen tests.” Small video cameras on tripods are trained on each area. Lounging around the set are the cast and crew, several sporting the unisex horizontal striped pullover favored by Warhol superstars. At what might be considered the climax of the performance, four actors clad in these signature shirts will engage in a high-speed mock orgy on and around the kitchen table.
During the tour, the actors are quite chatty. I tell them that I saw the premiere of Warhol’s Kitchen in 1966 at the theater directly across Lafayette Street from the Public, where the Blue Man Group has been in residence for more than two decades. It was then the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque. They tell us that the tour is important because it proves to the audience that the black-and-white video projections which constitute almost the entire performance (and which resemble the texture and tonalities of Warhol’s black-and-white 16-mm films) are a simulcast of the performance taking place in the colorful, three-dimensional space behind the screens—and not a prerecorded video. The strategy works. Paradoxically, the video, which is larger than life but also ghostly, is more convincing than seeing flesh-and-blood performers moving around a three-dimensional space imitating Warhol superstars could possibly be.
Which is not to say that the Gob Squad actors are not extremely skilled and lively. At the performance I saw, the leading roles were played by Sharon Smith, Nina Tecklenburg, Sean Patten, and Simon Will. Whereas Warhol’s performers mixed up being themselves with playing themselves or playing nominal characters, the Gob Squad adds another “layer,” as Tavel would have it. “I’m Nina and I’ll be playing the character of ‘Nina’ in Kitchen,” Tecklenburg says, addressing the camera/audience directly. But it’s clear that she is also attempting to re-create the character played by Elektra in the film Kitchen, and she acknowledges the absurdity of such a re-creation. Time contracts and expands.
Gob Squad briefly ventures into Warholian boredom, although it never falls apart as thoroughly as the end of the original Kitchen does when Edie burns her hand on the stove and other performers wander about aimlessly for at least ten minutes. When nothing much is cooking in Gob Squad’s kitchen, one’s attention turns to the right or left screens, where passages of Sleep, Kiss, and a Screen Test or two are reenacted. At one point, the all-purpose kitchen table is used for a female version of Blow Job (the action, as in the Warhol version, kept discreetly below the frame line). About halfway through the performance, audience members are drafted to replace the lead performers. (The initial behind-the-screens tour may be a way for the Gob Squad to size up which of us is ready for fifteen minutes of fame.) The draftees add a layer of the unpredictable to what is clearly a precisely tuned—and therefore anti-Warhol—theatrical machine. Still, they are not free to do whatever they please. Instead they are given headphones through which they are fed stage directions and dialogue, which they then repeat.
As I remember, Warhol did not cue his performers through headsets. In Kitchen, pages of Tavel’s script were pasted on every available surface, but failing to avail herself of any of them, Sedgwick sneezed her way through the entire film. It was Jean-Luc Godard who outfitted his actors with invisible earbuds so that he could control how they moved and what they said while the camera was running. Warhol was as much indebted to Godard as Godard was to American Pop art. The striped pullover/boy-cut hair combination that we see in countless photos of Andy and Edie was first worn by Jean Seberg in Breathless (1960). Gob Squad nails the Warhol/Godard connection by including a bit of the Breathless theme music in the wittily collaged score that sets much of the tone of the production. Opening with the “Bell Song” from Lakmé (a Factory favorite), it sends us out humming the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” suggesting that Gob Squad’s Kitchen aims to be as endearing as Warhol’s was antagonistic.
Gob Squad’s Kitchen (You’ve Never Had It So Good) plays through Sunday, February 5, at the Public Theater in New York.