ROMAN POLANSKI’S LUSH, sympathetic 1979 adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), a saga of a proud, innocent peasant girl destroyed by Victorian double standards, opens with a reminder of a woman whose life was gruesomely extinguished. “[T]o Sharon” reads the dedication in the first minutes as young women, including the titular heroine, dressed in white gowns for a May Day procession, skip down a path. The dedicatee—actress Sharon Tate, Polanski’s second wife, killed by the Manson Family in 1969—had introduced the director to the novel shortly before her death.
The specter of Tate’s grisly murder isn’t the only abject aspect of the director’s personal life that informs one’s viewing of Tess. In 1978, a year after pleading guilty to having “unlawful sexual intercourse” with thirteen-year-old Samantha Gailey, Polanski fled Los Angeles, convinced (with good reason, as Marina Zenovich’s assiduously reported 2008 documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, makes clear) that the corrupt, media-besotted judge in his case was about to sentence him to fifty years in prison. As a “fugitive from US justice,” Polanski couldn’t film Tess in Dorset—the county in southwest England renamed “Wessex” in Hardy’s books—for risk of being extradited from the UK. Instead, Brittany and Normandy, in northern France, the country where Polanski has mainly lived since fleeing the US, doubled as the English region.
The poster for the US release of Tess, the first film Polanski made after his legal troubles in this country, offered this précis: “She was born into a world where they called it seduction, not rape. What she did would shatter that world forever.” Although this blustery promo copy does describe, sort of, the event that brings about Tess’s downfall—she is raped and impregnated by an older parvenu whom she believed to be one of her noble-blooded relatives—it also seems a curious tagline for a film whose director had been arrested for the sexual assault of an adolescent. (Or maybe not: Underneath the title, the poster copy concludes, “As timely today as the day it was written.”) Polanski’s choice for the title role also courted scandal: Nastassja Kinski, whom the director met in 1976, when she was fifteen; they began a romantic relationship that year, which ended around the time Tess wrapped. (A writer in People magazine said in a 1981 profile of the actress, “A few years ago the German-born Nastassia Kinski seemed just another teen trinket in Roman Polanski’s notorious collection of Lolitas.”)
I mention all of these extrafilmic details, even at the risk of conflating offscreen events with on-, fiction with fact, 1891 with 1979, not to diminish Polanski’s Tess but to exalt it further. Made at a time when half the world, it seemed, considered its director a pariah—as many have continued to vilify as champion Polanski in the thirty-five years since the Gailey incident—Tess stands as one of the filmmaker’s gentlest, most sumptuous works. The madness and claustrophobia that had dominated Polanski’s acclaimed “apartment trilogy”—concluded in 1976 with The Tenant, in which the director himself plays the unraveling Parisian leaseholder of the title—are here supplanted by landscapes reminiscent of those by John Everett Millais and a protagonist who fiercely refuses to become a victim. Polanski the man will forever remain a divisive figure; Polanski the filmmaker can sometimes bridge that chasm.
A new DCP restoration of Tess runs November 30 through December 6 at Film Forum in New York.
“THE DEVIL TAKES CARE OF HIS OWN.” So says the first wife of legendary jazz/rock/African drummer and world-class hellion Ginger Baker to explain the man’s highly improbable longevity. Best known for his work with British “supergroups” Cream and Blind Faith, in which he created and broke the mold of the hard-rock stickman in under three years, Baker is also—as we learn in the penetrating, often gasp-worthy documentary Beware of Mr. Baker—a ferocious madman who has consumed truckloads of substances; made and spent fortunes; and alienated scores of family members, friends, and musicians on several continents over the course of what should have been, by all rights, a much shorter life. When Johnny Rotten is enlisted to provide an introductory disclaimer for your perennially antisocial behavior, you’ve clearly neglected your Emily Post.
The doc opens with the stuff reality-TV dreams are made of. Director Jay Bulger, who had lived with and filmed Baker for several months at the drummer’s home in rural South Africa, tells his subject that he’s flying back to America to talk to people from the drummer’s past. Baker is none too pleased about this and, resembling Richard Harris in Unforgiven (1992), whacks Bulger hard on the nose with his metal cane, drawing blood. Among the many surprises in the film is how many similarly abused people from Baker’s life are willing to talk to Bulger. Three out of four wives, all three grown children, former bandmates Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and lifelong musical partner/nemesis Jack Bruce all participate at length, most expressing qualified if not outright affection despite Baker’s ill treatment of them over the years.
Less surprising is the series of champion drummers who line up to heap praise on the man who, according to some, invented the archetype of the rock drummer. Stewart Copeland (Police), Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), Carmine Appice (Vanilla Fudge), Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Lars Ulrich (Metallica), Simon Kirke (Free/Bad Company), Neal Peart (Rush), Charlie Watts (Rolling Stones), Mickey Hart (Grateful Dead), Bill Ward (Black Sabbath), and Max Weinberg (E Street Band) all pay their respects; some say that, as teenagers, they decided to become drummers after hearing/seeing Baker perform. Had they been alive and in possession of a quantum of humility, the Who’s Keith Moon and Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham likely would have acknowledged similar debts. (The curmudgeonly Baker makes short work of the latter when his name is raised: “Bonham had technique, but he couldn’t swing a sack of shit.”)
Baker was born in London on the eve of World War II. His childhood was marked by his father’s wartime death and the sound of German bombs overhead. A rebellious kid, he fell in with a gang that, among other pursuits, stole LPs from a record store while he played decoy in the listening booth. On one of these ventures, he heard the jazz all-star record Quintet of the Year, with bebop pioneer Max Roach on drums, which set him on his path. After years of banging on school desks, the teenage Baker was given a chance to sit at a drum kit and found he could play it without instruction. “It’s a gift from God, and I had it—time, natural time,” he recalls in the film (pronounced “toime” in Baker’s thick Cockney). The pale, gangly redhead soon became known as the most promising young drummer on the British jazz scene, and eventually met his elder counterpart and hero Phil Seamen, who took the younger player to his basement flat and introduced him to heroin and African drums, both of which became integral to Baker’s life for many years.
He played with bassist Jack Bruce in R&B outfits Blues Incorporated (replacing Charlie Watts) and the Graham Bond Organization, beginning a combustible relationship as personally fractious as it was musically sympathetic. Months after forcing Bruce out of the latter band at knifepoint, Baker decided to form his own group, immediately setting his sights on Yardbirds/Bluesbreakers guitar prodigy Clapton. When Clapton suggested Bruce as bass player, Baker reluctantly agreed, and Cream was born. As noted by fellow musicians in the film, the original power trio was the beginning of many things: first prog band, first supergroup, first arena rock band, first jam band, first metal band. “The birth of heavy metal should have been aborted,” Baker grumbles in the film, though there’s no mistaking the impact of his hammer-of-the-gods style on the aforementioned Bonham, and “Sunshine of Your Love,” with its sludgy tempo, fuzzed-out Gibson, and doomy progression was the template for Black Sabbath’s sound.
Cream was massively successful, and Baker quickly eased into rock-star decadence. “When a promoter booked Cream,” Appice recalls in the film, “Ginger wanted a case of beer, two black hookers, and a white limo—or he wouldn’t play.” After releasing three LPs in two years, the band fell apart, largely due to constant clashes between Baker and Bruce. Clapton began a quiet collaboration with former Traffic leader Winwood, which Baker soon crashed, much to Clapton’s horror. The result was a supergroup’s supergroup, Blind Faith, which made one album and toured prematurely before dissolving, partly due to Baker’s bad behavior. The drummer rebounded with a personnel-heavy world-beat band, Ginger Baker’s Air Force, and live battles with jazz drummers—among them personal idols Art Blakey and Elvin Jones—before moving to Lagos in 1970, where he befriended and played with Nigerian legend Fela Kuti.
Staying for several years. Baker set up a recording studio and acquired a polo habit before being run out of town in a hail of gunfire by soldiers doing the bidding of a local gangster/record label executive. Thus began his true descent into years of hellish obscurity, struggling in England, Italy, Los Angeles, and Colorado before moving (under threat of deportation) to postapartheid South Africa, where Bulger finds him many years later, bitter and broke in a gated compound (the sign at the gate gives the film its title) with a young African wife and thirty or so polo ponies. Asked by Bulger if he considers himself a tragic figure, Baker seems to speak for the film when he croaks, “Go on with the interview. Stop trying to be an intellectual dickhead.” One must not only beware but obey this primitive artiste, this sophisticated savage. Indeed, given the bridges he’s burned around the globe and the heavy tracks he’s laid across modern music, Mr. Baker should be given wide berth. He’s earned it.
Beware of Mr. Baker runs Wednesday, November 28–Tuesday, December 11 at Film Forum in New York.
Lisa Duva, Cat Scratch Fever, 2011, DVCPro HD, color, 73 minutes. Ashley and Lisa (Kara Elverson and Starsha Gill).
SOMEWHERE IN AN ALTERNATE UNIVERSE—in some confusingly named folder buried in “My Documents” or in the Cloud (if only I had turned on iCloud Backup)—is a review of Lisa Duva’s Cat Scratch Fever (2011). I am intermittently convinced that I wrote this review immediately after I saw a DVD of the movie a few months ago, that I will find it if I search hard enough, and that finding it would be wildly preferable to focusing on the daunting task of re-creating it, as I am now trying to do. This elusive review begins (I refer to it in the present tense because it exists, always has existed, and always will exist) with the best lede I’ve ever written, in that it fully captures the euphoria I felt throughout Duva’s heady, funny, scary, endearingly scruffy first feature.
As you already may have guessed, Cat Scratch Fever proposes a “many worlds” interpretation of the Schrödinger’s cat paradox, using the laptop as a portal. If you are not familiar with the 1935 absurdist critique of a central theory of Quantum physics, you will now be able to spend many pleasurable hours Googling it and following links that, among other things, will allow you to understand Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) as never before. Also Shane Carruth’s Primer (2004) and Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), two of Duva’s direct inspirations. Cat Scratch Fever is Primer with, about, and for girls, er . . . young women. Its depiction of female friendship puts a new spin on its addiction/time-travel/coming-of-age narrative. Lisa (Starsha Gill) and Ashley (Kara Elverson) love each other as deeply as Thelma and Louise did, making Duva’s movie the anti-Girls, to invoke the HBO series which is about how cool it is to be in love with your own imperfections.
Ashley is organized, controlled, tall, slim, and Caucasian. She works as a researcher in Alan Lomax’s folk music archives, a resource that Duva uses in the movie’s lively sound track and world-travel montages. Lisa is impulsive, messy, short, buxom, and African-American. She is currently unemployed and spends most of her time in the tiny Brooklyn apartment the two share, doing job searches and various online procrastination rituals. One morning, just after the third occupant of the apartment, a nondescript tiger cat untroubled by identity issues, has spilled cornflakes on a corner of the keyboard (what turns out to be the narrative’s inciting event), Lisa is startled to see on the screen a close-up of the back of her head, as if a webcam were mounted behind her—except that there is no webcam there. When Lisa tells Ashley that she has tapped into another dimension, Ashley laughs it off as a well-known Internet hoax, including the supposed “MIT Institute of Advanced Dimensionality” experiments, which doesn’t stop her from pursuing an audio variant of Lisa’s discovery by playing records backwards at the wrong speed at work. (Remember “Paul is dead”? That’s how antique the home-media aspect of this quest is.) Searching side by side, glued to their personal screens, they find “Dimension Seeker,” a site that promises immersive trips through multiple dimensions. It comes with a warning label about side effects, which the two ignore. “You always just hit ‘Agree,’ ” says the incautious Lisa. Immediately they are rewarded with a domestic scene just seconds out of sync with their “base reality.” But as their addiction to “dimensions” takes over, the on-screen realities become projections of desires and fears they’ve barely articulated. Elation spirals into desperation and paranoia. Lisa’s abandonment issues become overwhelming, as does her desire to have a child. Ashley embarks on a secret affair with the guy who lives next door with his girlfriend, but soon the relationship falls apart, and her ambivalence about sex turns to pure negativity. The emotions generated in these adventures via avatars invade their supposed actual lives, which disintegrate in familiar junky fashion. Asked by a concerned friend if they’ve showered recently, Ashley responds with incontrovertible logic: “We watched ourselves showering.” It’s the movie’s funniest moment and also the darkest.
Trailer for Cat Scratch Fever.
Made on a miniscule budget with production taking place sporadically over two years, Cat Scratch Fever employs almost no special effects. Duva differentiates between base and alt spheres of reality by shooting the latter off a computer screen, thus emphasizing their borderline abstract qualities. But as Lisa and Ashley become increasingly unclear about where they are, it becomes harder for us, partly because of the ingenious, off-kilter editing, to keep our bearings as well. Gill and Elverson grow stronger as actors as the movie progresses, but what they bring to every moment is a sense of intimacy. The two have been close friends since their days at Sarah Lawrence, where Duva was also a student. What made me interested in Cat Scratch Fever when I saw a trailer online was that I too am a cat person, and I too graduated from Sarah Lawrence, albeit nearly fifty years before Duva. We did not have access to cyberspace in 1960, but the sense of our minds being on fire as we pursued the intersections of multiple worlds, abstract and concrete, is identical. Which is to say—attention alumni fundraisers—Sarah Lawrence is, always has been, always will be, as alive and dead as Schrödinger’s cat. Maybe I’ll send a check in Duva’s honor this year.
Simone Fattal, Autoportrait, 1971/2012, video, 46 minutes.
HERE’S HOW THE STORY GOES: In 1971, Simone Fattal went to see an exhibition of self-portraits by artists working in every media except video. She noted the absence, and wondered why. Born and raised in Damascus, Fattal studied in London, Beirut, and Paris. Two years earlier, she had moved back to Lebanon from France, and, after abandoning a project to change the world by overhauling the education system in the Arab countries of the Middle East, she had decided to become a painter. But the idea of self-portraiture perplexed her. A painting didn’t seem like it would be enough. So she set up a video camera and a microphone, invited a few friends and family over, began talking, and continued for a good seven hours.
“I wanted to do my self-portrait,” she says onscreen in her deep, raspy, unforgettable voice. “Although I’m a painter, I called upon two friends to make a film because I thought the language of cinema was much richer, and allowed for a longer-lasting vision.” Halfway through, she changes the rules. She doesn’t want an autobiography but something more angled, fragmentary, and disruptive; something truer to the medium; something closer to the way memory, confession, and seduction work at once. She shot hours of soliloquy and lively conversation but then set all of it aside.
Around the same time, Fattal began to share a studio with another painter named Etel Adnan, whose works were as bold as hers were textural and delicate. When the two of them left Lebanon together for California, ten years later and five years into the civil war, Fattal packed up her side of the studio and never painted again. In 1982, she founded the Post-Apollo Press, and devoted all of her energy to publishing avant-garde poetry and fiction until she turned her attention to sculptures and ceramics in 1989.
Then she returned to the video footage, and earlier this year, she made Autoportrait (1971/2012), one of the glittering jewels in the film program “Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now, Part III,” screening through November 25 at the Museum of Modern Art. In addition to a studio in their formative years and a full life since then, Fattal and Adnan also share an editor, Eugénie Paultre, who helped reconfigure Adnan’s early experiments with Super 8 into the ninety-minute film Motion (2012), which premiered this summer at Documenta 13. But where Motion is excruciating in a cinema setting (and suffers the great weight of an overwrought soundtrack by the Iraqi oudist Munir Bashir), Autoportrait is nimble and quick (and, at forty-five minutes, judicious).
The jumps, cuts, and pauses in Paultre’s editing set a good shifting ground for Fattal’s performance. In a crisp white shirt knotted at her navel, she sits at a table scattered with coffee and cigarettes. She retells memories, dreams, fragments of conversations, and, through these bursts of storytelling, she doubts religion, asserts and then questions her own strength, laments the burdens of her loyalty, suffers the pain of a woman who left her, and ignores the advice to never show a man that she’s in love. “Without love, everything comes apart, my mind stops working, I lose my beauty,” she says. “Nothing works.”
Fattal’s portrait of an artist as a young woman is familiar to the literary form. But the force of her character really does require the durational qualities of film. The strange slackness of early video also allows for crucial moments of silence, when Autoportrait quiets down and glances in on a world that once reined in Beirut and Damascus but is now utterly and completely gone. Fattal’s longer-lasting vision was perfect in ways she must have imagined, and painful for reasons no one then could have foreseen.
Simone Fattal’s Autoportrait will screen at 4 PM on Saturday, November 24, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “Mapping Subjectivity: Experimentation in Arab Cinema from the 1960s to Now, Part III” runs at MoMA through Sunday, November 25.
THE UNCUT HEAVEN’S GATE (1980) moves like a valedictory processional into the movie past—a funereal journey that waltzes across an Eastern prologue steeped in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), then heads due West into the then-recent anti-Establishment territory of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), rumbling on through the classical heroic landscape of Shane (1953) and a hundred other rugged, slightly less Arthurian oaters. Destination: a winsome, full-bore naïveté straight out of D.W. Griffith, part lingering Victorian idyll, part horse-opera Intolerance, part Birth of a Nation in reverse—the miscarriage of America’s ideals as capitalist cattle barons trample the hopes and rights of immigrants, women, and anyone stubborn or foolhardy enough to stand in their way.
“It’s getting dangerous to be poor in this country,” Jeff Bridges’s character (an unfortunately recessive sidekick role) muses, but Heaven’s Gate became legendary first as an ecstatically out-of-control production that went so far over budget it bankrupted United Artists. Ordered drastically cut by the panicky studio after a disastrous premiere, it was received by unsympathetic critics as a monument to directorial hubris and folly—a sturdy, medium-scale drama ostensibly about the 1890 Johnson County War in Wyoming that had managed to balloon into a four-hour, prairie schooner Cleopatra. But as the decades have gone by and the controversies faded, Heaven’s Gate has become the beneficiary of some revisionist hindsight, a burnished testament to crazed ambition, with cinephiles regarding it as a misunderstood masterpiece restored to its rightful length and place in history.
The new Criterion Blu-Ray will certainly continue that trend: Shot for shot, vista for sky-blue vista, this may be the most pictorially beautiful film to fixate on this side of Lawrence of Arabia. (Even a bloody cow carcass dragged over a muddy enclosure leaves a painterly stain.) And like Lawrence, it has a noticeably cavalier attitude toward history, an even sketchier approach to character psychology, and a gleeful willingness to sacrifice narrative coherence for stunning set pieces. The irony is that it was the so-called traditionalist David Lean who layered on the absurdity, rampant abstraction, and Englishman-who-fell-to-earth perversity: Couched in the rousing adventure-throwback spectacle were quivering premonitions of Sergio Leone’s nihilist spaghetti westerns and David Bowie’s tortured brow. Heaven’s Gate tried instead to will its way back into the nineteenth century, creating a stereoscopic portrait of a closing frontier which superimposed an insanely meticulous verisimilitude on top of comely stock figures (a triangle of stalwart lawman, romantic killer, and the whore with a heart of gold they both love) and a tangle of movie mythologies. Kris Kristofferson, Christopher Walken, and Isabelle Huppert are deployed like sharp-dressed paradigms (“You’ve got style, Jim. I’ll give you that.”) in a living diorama where they turn into frieze-frame daguerreotypes right before your eyes.
If director Michael Cimino could have shot it in 3-D, I’m positive he would have: It’s not so much that he wanted to put the viewers in the action as transport them to a moment in lost time when an American Eden was on the cusp of being forever wiped out by rapacious business interests. If Sam Waterston’s satanic head of the Stock Grower’s Association were any more villainous he’d have to go looking for orphans to tie to the railroad tracks—he’s a double-whammy figurehead who talks like an aristocratic Eastern fop and looks rather like a young, sniveling Joe Stalin. The tension in the film is between the intensely detailed, expressive, but defiantly static mise-en-scène and a familiar Old Hollywood–informed script that Raoul Walsh or Howard Hawks would have shaped up into a taut, one-hundred-minute hell-for-leather ride with Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, and Jimmy Cagney. Cimino’s only true concession to the New Hollywood zeitgeist is duration and the overarching sense of doomed endeavor—here the cavalry charges in to save the hired killers from the proletarian resistance—along with vaguely more explicit politics that aren’t so different from your typical sentimental Capra little-people-vs.-the-big-bullies broadside.
The frustration many feel with Heaven’s Gate has to do with the way it seems to drag its feet over the breathtaking scenery, trying to postpone the foreordained narrative rendezvous with disaster. There isn’t the kind of steady drive toward resolution that people expect from a big picture; instead Cimino wants to extend the beautiful “moments” into little self-contained refuges from the inevitable ruthless disillusion to come. A kind of perfect innocence hangs over the scenes of Huppert frolicking naked or the square dance at the wooden roller rink or wagon train of stoic immigrants; even Richard Masur’s death scene, the harbinger of so many assassinations and tragedies to come, is staged on a high ridge of Paradise, where a gang of serpents materialize and gun the poor Irishman down.
Was there waste, folly, and delusion built into the movie? Of course. But Heaven’s Gate had its own unwavering, half-mad lyrical integrity, a sense of imaginary place that is unsurpassed in American cinema, and some fine actors doing nothing in particular with a flinty panache that is hard to beat. Think of the scenes where Huppert is suddenly transformed into a six-shooter-wielding Annie Oakley horsewoman, riding into the teeth of battle like some ten-year-old’s fantasy of Joan of Arc. Preposterous on one level, but on another there’s a cockeyed nobility that really touches the spirit of Griffith and the Gish sisters. There’s an awful lot of that floating around inside the giant unnatural history museum that is Heaven’s Gate.
Heaven’s Gate is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.
Jem Cohen, Museum Hours, 2012, HD video, color, 107 minutes.
THE VIENNALE TURNED FIFTY THIS YEAR, and as befits an event that shuns red carpets and festival politics-as-usual, it did not make too big a deal of the milestone. While Vienna’s international film festival is not above populist concessions—this edition’s included a tribute to Michael Caine and Ben Affleck’s Argo as opening-night film—it does not by any means cater to all tastes. As festivals the world over succumb ever more to industry pressures and sponsorship demands, the Viennale’s longtime director, Hans Hurch, has repeatedly stressed the importance of programming without strings. (“On the one hand I’m a very diplomatic guy, but on the other hand I can be very Stalinist,” he told Sight and Sound last year.) For its half-centenary, this most coherent of European festivals simply played to its strengths, offering a range of retrospectives that ran deep and broad, and a deftly chosen sample of the past year’s most consequential films, with evening slots at the largest venue, the seven-hundred-plus-seat Gartenbau, accorded to the likes of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu, Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (winner of the international critics’ prize), and Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan (anointed by an audience jury assembled by the local daily Der Standard).
A film festival program that seeks to be polemical inevitably steps on some toes, and Hurch’s occasionally combative relationship with the local film industry erupted last month into a public skirmish with the director Ulrich Seidl. Denied prime-time screenings for the first two movies in his Paradise trilogy (the latter of which just won a top prize at Venice), Seidl withdrew them both, citing Hurch’s habit of sidelining Austrian cinema. In Seidl’s absence, the highest-profile Austrian film was the American director Jem Cohen’s Museum Hours, set largely within Vienna’s venerable Kunsthistoriches Museum. Cohen’s film had its world premiere in Locarno earlier this year, but the sold-out Vienna screening felt like a homecoming. (Executive producer Patti Smith marked the occasion with a charmingly underrehearsed acoustic performance, interspersed with readings from her memoir Just Kids, at the ornate, intimate Metro cinema.) Revolving around the friendship that develops between two lonely middle-aged people, a kindly museum docent (Viennale staffer Bobby Sommer) and a distracted visitor (Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara), Museum Hours is many things in one, among them a city symphony from an outsider’s perspective and, as such, a testament to the act of seeing anew. Not unlike a John Berger essay, Cohen’s ever curious, supremely generous film asserts the role of art as a living thing, premised on human relationships and encounters with the world, with the potential to transform how we see and indeed how we live.
James Benning, Easy Rider, 2012, HD video, color, 95 minutes.
Festival regular James Benning returned this year with further confirmation that his switch to digital three years ago has only energized the onetime celluloid purist. His new Easy Rider is a remake of the hippie-culture monument in much the same way that his Faces, from last year, reframed the John Cassavetes classic: a duration-based metonymic exercise that interacts in surprising and provocative ways with the viewer’s memory of the original. Both pilgrimage and desecration, Benning’s Easy Rider, in which each shot matches the length of a scene in Dennis Hopper’s 1969 film, is one of his richest (and wittiest) recent works: a road trip through the movie’s locations that questions the mythology of landscape and the meaning of counterculture. Another new Benning work, The War, culled from Internet videos of anarchic interventions by the Russian political art collective Voina, was pulled from the festival at the group’s request. The War, which Benning showed at a private screening, performs a simple trick of separating image and text, much as in his 2010 performance Reforming the Past, a reinterpretation of his earlier North on Evers. In The War, explanatory context and English subtitles are withheld, and eventually provided over a black screen at the end; the disjunction exaggerates and enriches the act of ascribing meaning to the startling documentary fragments.
Retrospectives are far from an afterthought at the Viennale, where a discerning attendee is likely to see more old films than new ones. The Austrian Film Museum hosted a concurrent Fritz Lang retrospective, but there were also spotlights on lesser-known names. Alberto Grifi (1938–2007), whose epochal 1970s real-life drama Anna, codirected with Massimo Sarchielli, has found new admirers since its restoration last year, was the subject of a welcome focus. Grifi’s work ranged from found-footage experiments (La verifica incerta) to sci-fi allegory (Dinni e la normalina). But the heart of his remarkable oeuvre can be found in his ’70s political videos, eruptions of self-reflexive vérité that drew on and fed into the energy of the times. Lia (1977), a counterpart to Anna, is a nearly half-hour single take, much of it devoted to a young woman’s impassioned monologue at an “anti-psychiatry counter-conference” in Milan, mounted in opposition to an establishment event. Parco Lambro Juvenile Proletariat Festival (1976), commissioned as a document of a Woodstock-like rock festival, turns into a chronicle of an impromptu protest over food prices, culminating in the mass looting and cooking of the poultry supplies (“the socialization of the chickens”). These extraordinary documents of their historical moment speak to Grifi’s uncanny sensitivity to the currents of thought and feeling swirling around him, his live-wire responsiveness to ideas as they form and life as it happens.
Another eye-opener: a sidebar of films by the Portuguese filmmaker Manuel Mozos, drolly and fondly introduced at his screenings by his younger colleague and dogged champion Miguel Gomes. Something of a forgotten man and missing link in post-Salazar cinema, Mozos has had a stop-start, catch-as-catch-can career, one that is perhaps (as Gomes suggests) emblematic of a film culture that has survived and in many ways thrived despite neglect and isolation. Among Mozos’s documentaries is a national-cinema survey from 1996 whose tentatively punctuated title, Portuguese Cinema…(?), speaks volumes. (It opens with João Bénard da Costa, the late director of the Cinemateca Portuguesa, declaring that “Portuguese cinema has never existed.”) Stalled for years, Mozos’s great work, Xavier, came close to becoming a lost film and, little seen outside Portugal, very nearly remains one. It was completed in 2002, but shot in 1991, not long after Pedro Costa’s O Sangue, and features the same wonderful actor, Pedro Hestnes (who died last year), in the title role as a troubled youth whose world is closing in on him. At once deadpan and dreamy, rich in everyday detail but also given to romantic stylization, Xavier is an odd and indelible movie: Its ellipses may be a function of its difficult production or indications of how its drifting protagonist experiences his life. Either way, it’s a work of bone-deep melancholy, a young man’s film that bears the scars of age.
Left: Imamura Shôhei, Ningen Johatsu (A Man Vanishes, 1967), 16 mm, black-and-white, 130 minutes. Right: Imamura Shôhei, Outlaw-Matsu Returns Home, 1973, digital video, color, 47 minutes.
THE GREAT IMAMURA SHÔHEI (1926–2006) effected a tactical withdrawal from the film industry at the end of the 1960s. The first sign that he wanted out had come several years earlier, in 1965, when he quit the major Nikkatsu and began producing his movies through his own independent company. The second title from Imamura Productions was Ningen Johatsu (A Man Vanishes, 1967) and it was a real mold breaker, not least because he persuaded a coalition of independent movie theaters in Tokyo and other cities to help pay for it. The film had no obvious aesthetic precedent in Japan or anywhere else. It presents itself as a piece of investigative journalism, a documentary reportage, but the lines of inquiry turn into a garden of forking paths and the film ends up questioning its own veracity. The Godardian dictum that cinema is truth at twenty-four frames per second doesn’t hold much weight here.
One feature film later, Imamura abandoned fiction and commercial distribution altogether. He once told me that his retreat from the mainstream was provoked by the filming of Kamigami no Fukaki Yokubo (Profound Desires of the Gods, 1968). Shooting in indolent, tropical Okinawa, he’d become so laid-back that he lost track of time and budget. But his actors and crew rebelled against the protracted shoot, and the whole experience became an unhappy one. This was probably not the whole truth; the fact that he’d already made A Man Vanishes proves that he was already finding the chore of constructing narratives too constraining. Whatever the case, between 1969 and 1979 he shot nothing but documentaries and quasi documentaries. The final phase of his career, of course, brought him two Palmes d’Or in Cannes and secured his lasting reputation.
All of Imamura’s documentaries focus on the aftermath of the Pacific War—the period when he got through his college years in the rubble of Tokyo by dabbling in student theater and hanging out with small-time yakuza, hookers, occupation-force GIs, and black marketeers. His subsequent cynicism about Japan’s former imperial ambitions (not to mention the “economic miracle” of the 1960s) fueled an interest in casualties of the war—the Japanese soldiers and “comfort women” who had chosen to stay in Southeast Asia rather than return to Japan after the defeat. Imamura himself took what we’d now think of as the Michael Moore role: an on-screen traveler-interviewer, less pudgy and sure of himself than Moore, but certainly no less intrepid.
In Malaysia he encountered the demure but destitute seventy-four-year-old Zendo Kikuyo, who was tricked into selling herself into sexual slavery when she was a young woman; she was from Japan’s most despised caste and now feels no connection with the “motherland” that exploited her youthful naïveté. In Thailand he encountered the embittered ex-soldier Fujita Matsuyoshi, nicknamed “Matsu the Untamed” after a movie hero, who similarly felt abandoned and rejected by the country that had sent him to war. From the many women and men he met, Imamura picked these two for invitations to revisit their birthplaces in Japan and documented their trips in Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute (1975) and Outlaw-Matsu Returns Home (1973). As he follows them around, it becomes obvious that Imamura is less interested in their inner feelings than in using them as living indictments of Japan’s postwar materialism.
Comparable ambiguities arise in A Man Vanishes, the film that launched Imamura down this path. The film ostensibly sets out to investigate the phenomenon of individuals who simply disappear from their homes, jobs, and social circles, specifically by helping a woman named Hayakawa to track down her missing fiancé. Imamura soon twigs that the missing man absconded precisely to get away from Hayakawa, a virtual catalogue of bad character traits, but goes on filming (sometimes with a hidden camera) to observe her growing crush on Tsuyuguchi, the actor he has hired to pose as a professional investigator. It transpires that Hayakawa is also interested in Imamura himself, and so the director finally collapses the project in on itself by revealing the elements of fiction he has used to his unsuspecting protagonist. Imamura made the film without access to the lightweight cameras and sound recorders and fast film stocks pioneered by Richard Leacock and his associates in New York in the mid-’60s, and the result is as astonishing as it is rough-and-ready. Imamura’s genius in this period was to marry his political critique of Japanese society with his conceptual and technical innovations. He found himself rethinking the ontology of the film image itself.
Anthology Film Archives is hosting a weeklong theatrical engagement and retrospective of A Man Vanishes and documentaries by Shôhei Imamura from Thursday, November 15–Wednesday, November 21.
Pier Paolo Pasolini, The Decameron, 1971, 35 mm, color, 111 minutes.
PIER PAOLO PASOLINI’S so-called Trilogy of Life, which Criterion is reissuing today on Blu-Ray and DVD, consists of The Decameron (1971), The Canterbury Tales (1972), and Arabian Nights (1974). The explicit sexuality of these adaptations was what got everybody talking at the time, but what sets his medieval tales apart from his other work is that they represent Pasolini the filmmaker (he was also a poet, novelist, and critic) at his most optimistic.
These were Pasolini’s most commercially successful films, and they were gleefully raunchy without being anywhere near as stomach-turning as Salò (1975), his subsequent and final film, a scatological torture-fest that’s in a category all its own. (Pasolini was murdered, in circumstances that have never been fully explained, a few weeks before its release.) The Trilogy of Life’s pre-Enlightenment folktales were a perfect match for Pasolini’s idiosyncratic approach to filmmaking. With these canonical proto-novels, he had more license than ever to reject cinema’s storytelling conventions in favor of the looser, more poetic syntax he’d always preferred and argued for in his writings. Imagine a medieval artist using a movie camera for the first time and you’ve got an idea of Pasolini’s naive realism: The close-ups on characters are almost always frontal, the quivering long shots expressive without feeling composed at all. Watching the Trilogy of Life, one wonders at times whether this is how Chaucer might have filmed his England, Boccaccio his Tuscany.
Pasolini occasionally interrupts the flow of pranks, courtships, punishments, and acts of love and revenge with careful reconstructions of tableaux by the likes of Giotto, Breughel, and painters of Rajput miniatures. As schizophrenic as it sounds, his blending of naturalism and mannerism, the refined and the primitive, results in a fascinating pastiche—“one language citing another,” in the words of scholar Sam Rohdie—and a sincere, rather than winking, acknowledgment both of Pasolini’s predecessors and of the artifice inherent in any work of cinema.
The Canterbury Tales is rightly regarded as the sloppiest of the three films. In a documentary included in the new Criterion edition, Pasolini admits that editing it was “madness” and that he “wasn’t in the best frame of mind” to bring Chaucer’s ribald tales to life. It might have been interesting, against the gray English backdrop, had Pasolini tried his hand at some of the more somber stories. But he had embraced the Trilogy from the beginning as a celebration of the body uncontained by capitalist and bourgeois codes. The absence of morality was the point.
The selectivity at work in Pasolini’s loose adaptations is perhaps most evident in Arabian Nights; inspired by The Thousand and One Nights, it lacks a single reference to Islam. (In the two films set in Europe, as Tony Rayns points out in his superb audio commentary, the censorious church is always present.) Perhaps Pasolini should have widened his scope a little—if not to prevent left-wing critics from panning the film as escapist, which they did, then to acknowledge a debt of sorts. After all, were it not for the Islamic scholars who gathered these spellbinding tales or the fanciful European translations (including Pasolini’s) that followed, they might never have survived. Thankfully, they did, in abundance, and Pasolini was free to make their many forms and colors his own. Thus his Arabian Nights opens with a direct quote: “Truth lies not in one dream, but in many.”
The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights are now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Criterion.
Shirley Clarke, Portrait of Jason, 1967, 35 mm, black-and-white, 105 minutes. Comparison of previous version and 2012 Milestone restoration (courtesy Milestone Film & Video).
ABOUT SHIRLEY CLARKE’S Portrait of Jason (1967), Ingmar Bergman remarked, “The most fascinating film I’ve ever seen.” You definitely might agree, if you were able to see this masterpiece of film portraiture. An eclectic experimental filmmaker, Clarke set out to beat Warhol at his own game—and she did. In Portrait of Jason, the titular gay, African-American hustler/cabaret performer/maid-or-butler-as-needed seizes the opportunity that Clarke offers—to perform for the camera and thus become immortal. Clarke filmed Jason Holliday over the course of a single drunken twelve-hour night and then edited the footage down to standard feature-film length. As he becomes increasingly inebriated and is wounded by needling offscreen questions and comments, his defenses crumble and his masks fall apart. But in the end the humanity of Jason Holliday, a talented, outrageously funny, feeling human being, endures. If the film (and Jason’s own determination) hadn’t made him unforgettable, what Clarke did would have been unforgivable.
In other words, this is a powerful, radical document, and it must be preserved—exactly what Milestone Film & Video’s Dennis Doros and Amy Heller are attempting to do. Right now the only way to see Portrait of Jason in the US is when the Museum of Modern Art hauls its print out of the vault, which happens infrequently. (Or, you might be lucky enough to have, as I do, a duped-down VHS. Mine is no longer playable.) Milestone has already restored and rereleased two of Clarke’s earlier features, The Connection (1961) and Ornette: Made in America (1985). The restoration of Portrait of Jason is well underway, its cost estimated at $100,000. The Academy Film Archive has contributed $25,000. Milestone can afford to put up $50,000, and it is trying to raise $25,000 by December 10 at 4:16 PM EST on Kickstarter. Over $10,000 has already been pledged. Goodies are offered for each contribution level. It only costs $50 to have your name listed in the end-credits, which is a pretty cheap way to make yourself part of a masterpiece. Milestone promises to release Portrait of Jason in theaters and on BluRay and DVD in 2013. It will also be shown on the Turner Classic Movies channel—I hope on Ingmar Bergman night.
Milestone Film & Video’s Kickstarter campaign for the restoration of Portrait of Jason can be accessed here.
Portrait of Jason: Before and After Preservation.
ONE OF THE GREAT American independent films and one of the great films about how racism defines African American masculinity, Nothing But a Man (1964) is as convincing and emotionally agonizing as it was when I first saw it at the New York Film Festival in 1964. Formally, the film absorbed the Neorealism that had dominated European cinema, particularly in Italy, since World War II, and which continues to energize emerging national cinemas through what now is dubbed “observational cinema.” The subject matter and point of view that made it seem “foreign” when it was first released—especially in relation to social uplift movies about racial difference—still testifies to the ugliest aspect of America, the racism that was exposed by the civil rights movement and which has never been “cured,” as the political discourse of the recent election proved.
Nothing But a Man is the work of two white filmmakers, Michael Roemer and Robert Young, who met at Harvard in the late 1940s. Roemer directed, Young wrote the script and was in charge of the cinematography, and both coproduced the film along with Robert Rubin. It was made on the cheap, but its spare visual beauty is the result of Young’s sensitivity and skill and also the support of DuArt Film Laboratories, which was run by Young’s brother Irwin Young and which was a crucial resource in the development of the American Independent film movement. When Nothing But a Man was restored, rereleased, and added to the Library of Congress’s National Film registry in 1993, Roemer commented that had there been black fiction-film directors of the caliber of Spike Lee working in the mid-’60s, he would not have directed the script, and that the aspects of black culture he failed to capture because he hadn’t experienced them from the inside—the humor, for one thing—bothered him every time he looked at the movie.
No matter, since the galvanizing, unsparing performance by Ivan Dixon more than compensates for any distance Roemer felt. Dixon plays Duff Anderson, a railroad worker who leaves his relatively well-paid and protected union job when he falls in love with Josie Dawson (Abbey Lincoln), a college-educated preacher’s daughter who teaches in a segregated primary school in a small Alabama town near Birmingham. Despite the opposition of Josie’s parents and the anger Duff feels toward her father, who “stoops” to every white man from the school principal to drunken dropouts and teaches his congregation to do likewise, Duff and Josie marry, and Josie soon becomes pregnant. Duff gets a job at a sawmill, but, accused of being a union agitator, he’s fired and blackballed from every decently paying job in town. Unable to earn a living and unwilling to turn a deaf ear to insults and threats, he takes out his rage on his wife.
Roemer’s most dramatic directorial choice is to shoot close and keep the narrative largely within Duff’s point of view. Locked into his subjectivity, one feels in one’s own gut the humiliating and enraging experience of being forced to deny your humanity for the sake of preserving your life. What is most powerful about the script and Dixon’s tight-lipped performance is that it makes us aware that Duff’s rage cuts two ways. His fury is directed both at the racist power structure and at himself for being less than a man. The film is complicated, being as much a father-son story—Duff has an alcoholic dad and a young son living separately in hopeless poverty in Birmingham—as it is a story about a marriage that may or may not be able to withstand the economic blight and emotional devastation of racism.
In Birmingham, at the same time as Nothing But a Man was made, Martin Luther King Jr., having delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, still marches. The first orders for school desegregation have incited a wave of white violence, including the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in which four little girls are killed. Roemer and Young made a deliberate decision to keep all this out of the movie. The impact of civil rights will not reach small towns in the South like the one where Duff and Josie live for many years. Indeed you could have taken a camera to Birmingham in 1964, just as the filmmakers did, and seen no sign that “change is gonna come.” The film is toughest for not holding out that hope to Duff, although small seeds have been planted, perhaps through his experience as a black unionized worker. It is left for us to hope that in the future they will grow.
Left: Philip Scheffner, Revision, 2012, color, 106 minutes. Right: Ilian Metev, Sofia’s Last Ambulance, 2012, color, 75 minutes.
ONE MORNING IN 1992, in a cornfield in northeastern Germany just over the Polish border, two Romany men, illegal immigrants from Romania, were shot and killed by local hunters who supposedly mistook them for wild boar. Investigation of the case was shoddy. Neither of the victims’ families was informed that a trial took place. The two killers were deemed innocent. Twenty years later—in a time when the two would be considered citizens of the European Union—director Philip Scheffner carried out his own investigation, resulting in Revision, one of the highlights of this year’s DocLisboa. Scheffner uses a brilliant technique, allowing each of his subjects to listen to an audio playback of his or her testimony and approve or revise it in front of the camera. As the film probes, a picture of a racist and xenophobic region emerges. Around the same time, a nearby refugee center had to be evacuated after it was burned down by Molotov cocktail–wielding neo-Nazis supported by local residents—an event that the police didn’t feel compelled to stop. None of those participants was even arrested, let alone brought to justice.
I’m not sure which idiot on the Nobel committee came up with the idea of awarding this year’s Peace Prize to the EU. Revision underscores the absurdity of the decision—it’s a bit like offering Switzerland an award for financial transparency. Speaking of money and the EU, Bulgarians might like to know when the infrastructural funds are going to show up. Sofia, the country’s capital, has a pitiful total of thirteen ambulances to serve its two million inhabitants and, as evidenced by Sofia’s Last Ambulance, which won a special mention from the jury at the DocLisboa awards ceremony, the roads are laced with potholes. In his second film, Ilian Metev put together an affecting portrayal of a doctor, nurse, and driver’s battle against the morale-draining forces of an inefficient system that lacks the resources to enable them to perform the basic functions of their job.
Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) established Thom Andersen as one the most important cinematic essayists of his time. This year, he returns with Reconversion, an exploration (and, in many instances, excavation) of the work of the Pritzker Prize–winning Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura, whose lifelong obsession with ruins merges effortlessly with a modernist aesthetic. His buildings in Portugal give us a whole other perspective on the meetings of Europas Old and New that parallel the confrontations evoked by Revision and Sofia’s Last Ambulance.
Moving away from this relatively tiny and troubled continent (which any Portuguese will tell you is collapsing under the weight of the current financial crisis), Xu Xin’s Dao Lu (Pathway) gave us the simple story of one man’s life—which also happens to be the story of China in the twentieth century. And while I was sad to miss Wang Bing’s Three Sisters, which won the jury prize in the features competition, I felt lucky to revel in the joyful pageantry of People’s Park. Libbie D. Cohn and J.P. Sniadecki filmed the single-shot feature from a handheld camera in a wheelchair as they moved through the eponymous locale in Chengdu on a Saturday afternoon in July 2011.
The tenth edition of DocLisboa was a triumphant one for the festival, which opened several new sections despite a 20 percent budget cut thanks to the Portuguese government’s decimation of the Ministry of Culture. It is now under a fierce and vibrant all-female directorship—sadly an idiosyncrasy in the festival circuit—and its closing ceremony speeches affirmed the fighting spirit necessary to sustain intellectual and artistic rigor in an environment of political and economic repugnance. DocLisboa gave us a model for a festival that is not merely a showcase for films, but a zone in which polemic can flow freely and—who knows?—maybe even change something along the way.
The 10th DocLisboa festival ran through Sunday, October 28.
SEE STEVE PAXTON tongue-kiss a frog in George Manupelli’s Cry Dr. Chicago (1971), screening one day only (Tuesday, November 6, 9 PM at Anthology Film Archives). See Paxton’s extended death scene in which he staggers through the grass, an arrow piercing his heart, before falling face first in a stream. It’s as bravura an example of giving up the ghost as Laurence Olivier’s famed swan dive at the end of Hamlet (1948), except that Paxton is poised on the tipping point of satire. Deadpan satire, of course.
Paxton aside, there’s nothing sufficiently alluring about Cry Dr. Chicago to separate anyone from their Twitter feed on election night. Newly preserved by Anthology and programmed as part of the Judson Dance Theater’s fiftieth anniversary, it seems as lugubrious and sophomoric as it did four decades ago. That said, the movie is not without historic interest, primarily as documentation of members of the art collective, the ONCE Group who collaborated with Manupelli on what was in fact a Dr. Chicago feature film trilogy, Cry Dr. Chicago being the third and the only one shot in color. (The films are available on DVD individually and as a boxed set. Paxton fans take note: He is equally fascinating in all three, looking like a combination of a small-town college quarterback and a Pasolini Christ figure.)
The premise of the trilogy is that Dr. Chicago (Alvin Lucier), a sex-change surgeon, is perpetually on the lam, fleeing the Feds and, in Cry Dr. Chicago, hotly pursued by his nemesis, a French gangster–cum–business tycoon (Claude Kipnis). Dr. Chicago is never a pretty picture, with his moth-eaten black felt hat and ill-fitting shades, his lopsided moustache and his stringy, unwashed hair grazing his shoulders. He’s always accompanied by an entourage of nubile women, among them his sullen, chain-smoking assistant Sheila (Mary Ashley). Chicago and Sheila are most frequently seen side by side, fully clothed, in bed, while around them other women and Steve (Paxton), a mute backwoods healer, strip down to their skivvies as the camera lens zooms toward and settles near their flailing thighs.
The Chicago trilogy was directed, shot, and edited by Manupelli, who is more justly famed as the founder of the Ann Arbor Experimental Film Festival. He taught at the University of Michigan in the School of Art and Design, where the ONCE Group was partly based. Although he is an accomplished cinematographer with an eye for surreal decorative detail, Manupelli owes more than he probably would want to admit to Warhol’s mid-1960s talkies: the absurd premise, the ridiculous professionalism of the central character, the paranoid vision of the establishment, the minimal camera strategy (master shots punctuated by the occasional lackadaisical pan, tilt, or zoom), and, most notably, the improvised dialogue. In the Dr. Chicago movies, the titular Doc does most of the talking, and, to put it mildly, Lucier is no Ondine or Viva. It’s only in the area of sound recording and design (both credited to the composer Robert Ashley) that Manupelli gets the better of Warhol. But with dialogue as lame as Dr. Chicago’s, that’s a mixed blessing.
At 6:45 on Tuesday night, Cry Dr. Chicago is preceded by “Judson Through the Eyes of Filmmakers.” Among the highlights: Babette Mangolte’s superb film rendering of Trisha Brown’s Watermotor (1978) and two Paxton videos, Magnesium (1972) and Chute (1979).
“Judson Through the Eyes of Filmmakers” and Cry Dr. Chicago play Tuesday, November 6 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. There will be election updates throughout the evening.