Haile Gerima, Bush Mama, 1976, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 97 minutes. From left: First Welfare Recipient (Minnie Stewart), Dorothy (Barbara O. Jones), and Second Welfare Recipient (Malbertha Pickett).
THAT CHARLES BURNETT’S STARK NEO-NEOREALIST KILLER OF SHEEP (1977), Julie Dash’s nuanced historical drama Daughters of the Dust (1991), and Haile Gerima’s cinematic hand grenade Bush Mama (1976) all grew out of the same fecund moment in film history is not immediately apparent on viewing them. While each film has been hailed in its own right as a landmark achievement in cinematic expression, the three feature-length works evince significantly different styles and sensibilities. Yet the sense that Burnett, Dash, Gerima, and others trained in filmmaking at the University of California, Los Angeles, in the 1970s share not only a film education but a commitment to making movies that are simultaneously art and weapon, a commitment that can be grasped in terms of loosely defined, anti-Hollywood aesthetics and black-liberation politics, has motivated critics, historians, theorists, and cineastes to contextualize their work within the framework of a film movementnamely, the LA Rebellion (also referred to as the Los Angeles School).
Variously spunky, raucous, elegant, and contemplative, the films of the LA Rebellion challenged conventional aesthetic strategies and offered visions of black life and existence that stand as insistent politicized alternatives to the images of African Americans projected by Hollywood films. In his 1993 essay “The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers,” Ntongela Masilela, a South African–born scholar who was himself a member of the movement as an undergraduate, observes that the LA Rebellion consisted of two waves of filmmakers whose film training started in the short-lived Ethno-Communications Program at UCLA between 1970 and 1982: The first wave included Gerima (who was born in Ethiopia), Burnett, Larry Clark (the director of Passing Through  and Cutting Horse , not the Larry Clark who made Kids), Ben Caldwell, John Rier, Pamela Jones, Abdosh Abdulhafiz, Jamaa Fanaka, and others; the second, Dash, Billy Woodberry, Alile Sharon Larkin, Zeinabu irene Davis, Barbara McCullough, Jacqueline Frazier, and Bernard Nichols. These filmmakers have made what should prove to be lasting contributions not only to avant-garde and independent American filmmaking but, more broadly, to cultural politics in the United States. While the Los Angeles School’s significance and impact is still being assessed and debatedindeed, even as these filmmakers continue to create compelling works in film and videothe UCLA Film & Television Archive is about to make its rich collection of films and other materials related to the Los Angeles School available to researchers through a new archive specifically dedicated to the LA Rebellion. Further, under the auspices of the Getty Foundation’s “Pacific Standard Time” program, UCLA’s Billy Wilder Theater will showcase more than fifty films in the collection in a series titled “LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema.” In addition to Killer of Sheep, Daughters of the Dust, and Bush Mama, lesser-known films by Burnett, Dash, and Gerima will be included, along with films by McCullough, Davis, Nichols, Woodberry, and others.
Individually, many of the films of the LA School reconceptualize the terms through which black life becomes legible, and they are valuable on their own merits. When considered together as part of a movement, the films offer a conceptualization of black existence in the United States that is remarkably complex, varied, urgent, and still generative today. For example, Larkin’s A Different Image (1982) gives a poetic account of a young African-American woman reclaiming herself and her cultural heritage from the barrage of racist and sexist images that seem to define them. Indeed, the filmmakers of the LA Rebellion sought to undermine the validity of the limiting and dehumanizing images of blackness projected in mainstream Hollywood films and in blaxploitation flicks alike by producing more sophisticated and culturally relevant images. Caldwell’s experimental short I and I: An African Allegory (1977) forwards one of the cardinal tenets of the LA Rebellion: that the minds and imaginations of African Americans have been colonized by Hollywood and other vehicles of white supremacy. I and I is composed of several sections, each filmed in a different style but unified by the figure of a blue-robed visionary, a woman who experiences the loss and historical recovery of her African origins as an allegory for the spiritual decolonization and regeneration of the African diaspora.
Though many LA Rebellion films deployed Hollywood conventions subversively, as did Passing Through, which drew on tropes of the action genre to reveal the dangers of the commodification of black musical traditions, none embraced these conventions as wholeheartedly as Jamaa Fanaka’s blaxploitationesque offerings. Fanaka’s Welcome Home, Brother Charles (1975), Emma Mae (1976), and Penitentiary trilogy (1979–87) stand in stark contrast to the poetic and allegorical styles of Larkin and Clark and to the deliberative and elegant cinematography of Killer of Sheep and Daughters of the Dust. Indeed, Fanaka’s movies seem to eschew the ideological underpinnings and political commitments of most LA Rebellion films, yet they must be accounted for as part of the same moment and school.
Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust, 1991, 35 mm, color, sound, 112 minutes. From left: Two Peazant boys (Derrick Coaxum and Neil Howard), Nana Peazant (Cora Lee Day), Daddy Mack Peazant (Cornell Royal).
Like Bush Mama and Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts (1984), many of the films of the LA Rebellion were set in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, which was, of course, the site of the 1965 riots known as the Watts Rebellion (an appellation intentionally echoed in the film movement’s name). That epochal uprising in protest of state violence against black people helped to shape the political and intellectual sensibilities that characterize the film movement; indeed, addressing the inequities brought to the fore by the riots was one impetus behind UCLA’s Ethno-Communications Program, in which African, African-American, Chicano, Asian-American, and American Indian students were recruited and trained in filmmaking: The LA Rebellion, as noted, was a direct consequence of that initiative.
The heterogeneity and dynamism of the LA Rebellion are apparent not only in the films themselvesfrom McCullough’s New Jazz–laden experimental Water Ritual #1: An Urban Rite of Purification (1979) to the blaxploitation-styled Penitentiary trilogybut also in the various discourses around them. Like the practitioners of Third Cinema, a politicized film movement that began in Latin America in the late 1960s and was a key influence on the LA Rebellion, some members of the Los Angeles School produced manifesto-like texts and other written explorations of their film praxis. They studied and critiqued existing film styles and conventions, illuminating the ideologies that underwroteand were reproduced throughthem. In addition to Third Cinema, many of the filmmakers gravitated toward Italian Neorealism, postrevolutionary Cuban documentary, British documentary realism, and Brazilian Cinema Novo for inspiration and antecedents, and they were heavily influenced by the writings of anticolonial intellectuals such as Frantz Fanon, Amílcar Cabral, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o, as well as by Bertolt Brecht and Georg Lukács.
The LA Rebellion has been of interest to film scholars at least since the mid-1980s, when Jim Pines, Paul Willemen, and June Givanni convened a conference whose proceedings would become the seminal volume in the field, Questions of Third Cinema (1990). That collection included essays by Burnett and Gerima, as well as influential pieces by film scholars Teshome H. Gabriel, the author of several pivotal texts on Third Cinema and a film professor at UCLA until his death last year, and Clyde Taylor, whose essay “Black Cinema in the Post-aesthetic Era” draws on the films of the LA Rebellion to make a compelling argument about liberatory filmmaking.
Core thematic concerns of the movement have become of increasing interest to scholars outside of cinema studies. Historian Daniel Widener, for example, sees the films as invaluable documents of African-American life: “They show, first and foremost, ordinary working-class black folks,” he writes in Black Arts West: Culture and Struggle in Postwar Los Angeles (2010), “and they showcase the intersections of race, class, and gender in their lives.” Cultural historian Cynthia A. Young includes a nuanced analysis of LA Rebellion films in her 2006 book Soul Power: Culture, Radicalism, and the Making of a U.S. Third World Left. Both Widener and Young highlight the films’ critiques of state violence while situating the LA Rebellion within a broader history of black intellectual production and cultural practice, including literature, jazz, theoretical inquiry, theater, and other visual arts. The inclusion of the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s “L.A. Rebellion” film series within the story of the birth of the Los Angeles art scene that “Pacific Standard Time” seeks to tell collaboratively across more than sixty cultural institutions offers further opportunities to assess the connections between the cinematic achievements of the LA Rebellion and other artistic enterprises being pursued in Southern California at roughly the same time.
There are disagreements among the LA Rebellion filmmakers themselves, and among the scholars engaged with their work, about the aims, strategies, purview, and even the name of the movement, and there are those who question whether this diverse group actually constitutes a movement per se. Such discussions are helping to sharpen the focus on the films themselves, on the contexts in which they were produced, on the impacts they continue to have, and on the careers of the filmmakers who made them. While the LA Rebellion archive will effectively delineate the parameters of the movement by defining what counts as its historical materials, the opening of the archive also presents an opportunity to blaze new paths through the LA Rebellion’s times, spaces, and artifacts, to spark new scholarship, debates, and conversations, and to enrich ongoing ones.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive’s film series “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema” is being reprised at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, New York from February 2–24.
*This article originally appeared in the October 2011 issue of_ Artforum.
An associate professor of critical studies in The School of Cinematic Arts and of African American studies in the department of American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, Kara Keeling is author of The Witch’s Flight: the Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense (Duke University Press, 2007).
HAL HARTLEY’S second feature, Trust (1990), has aged gracefully: Its left-handed ambiguities, quizzical juxtapositions, wryly twisted symmetries, blank wit, askance plotting, pungently sketchy characters, and subversive understatement have taken on the stature of a recondite landmark. The iconic performances of Martin Donovan and the late, profoundly missed Adrienne Shelly feel like Long Island’s flatly blue-collar answer to Belmondo and Karina: a half-cocked, mixed-motive duo that bond over abusive parents, mutual despair, word definitions, a parched thirst for knowledge, and a hand grenade. Their sputtering, circuitous, stop-motion chemistry culminates in just about the most oddly romantic denouement of late-twentieth-century cinema—a low-key, high-stakes burst of seriocomic transcendence.
An early indication of the rise of American indie filmmaking, Trust established Hartley as the go-to guy for hard-to-define post-genre exercises. There are the visual/tonal references to Bresson and Godard wedded to vernacular speech and the knockabout vicissitudes of working-class life. There are the sidelong detours (the protagonists’ search for a woman who may have kidnapped a baby). There’s the persistent erosion of the line between the funny and the tragic, the absurd and the poetic, randomness and interconnectedness, without disavowing either end of those tricky equations. Trust was a hard film to read initially, because Hartley’s out-of-the-blue style is at once so head-on and so oblique—it takes a while to pick up where Trust is coming from, to fully take in how utilitarian Hartley’s technique really is.
When he schematically frames a scene ŕ la Godard or invokes the pared-down affect of Bresson, it isn’t with film-school showiness but rather the brusque efficacy of a handyman reaching into his toolbox for the right implement, finding the proper angle with the least clutter, the maximum impact with minimal fuss. It’s all a process of distillation, boiling things down to essentials: loneliness, suffering, endurance, surprise. So along with the diffused stuff of family trauma and even noir mystery, Hartley will unobtrusively insert Tatiesque sight gags (Donovan’s bull-in-a-china-shop barreling past a motley line-up waiting to get their decrepit TVs repaired, or the sleuthing pair trying to pick a needle out of a haystack of M. Hulot commuters). All in a day’s work, locating the congruencies tucked away inside the incongruous everyday.
On a sliding continuum between Raoul Walsh’s Me and My Gal (1932) and David O’ Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, Trust is definitely closer to the former’s primitive-sophisticated stew of slapstick melodrama, sardonic social asides, tough cookies (Joan Bennett, yowza), good Irish eggs (Spencer Tracy, never livelier), and two or three orphan subplots (not to mention a startlingly hip, revue-style mini-parody of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude that would be equally at home in Masculin Féminin or on SCTV). Trust rewrites the movie playbook with casual underdog panache, alternating short punchy scenes with long ruminative takes, whereas the coy Silver Linings serves up its mildly agitated, retro-luncheonette romance like Dancing with the Stars on a deep-fried shingle. Shelly’s Maria is an encyclopedia of untapped intelligence and emotional resources: Whether foiling a would-be rapist with a lit cigarette to the eye or purposefully striding through a fleeing factory mob to save Donovan’s Matthew from himself and his trusty grenade, she’s an eminently unsentimental and believable heroine. Karen Sillas’s Nurse Paine’s square-shouldered walk past the abortion clinic protesters on her way to her job there (then, after sitting down, pouring herself and client Maria a stiff drink) conveys the same resolve, while Matthew’s battering-ram gait has the impracticable comic-strip charm of Popeye exiled to the badlands of Nowheresville, New York.
Hartley called his first film The Unbelievable Truth and here he really nails the interaction between the ironies of devalued lives and their residual possibility of overcoming set limitations of circumstance, birth, bad luck, bad timing, et al. Grace is maybe too fancy a term for it. In Trust, it’s more of an unblinking emotional tenacity that opens up these damaged, inchoate souls to the transformative effect of each other’s tenderness. It’s a highly particularized film that uses allegorical devices as a way of working out issues from Hartley’s past by creating an objective perspective on misbegotten events. Sometimes three little words are worth a thousand pictures. When Maria asks Matthew why the hell he carries that grenade around with him at all times, he answers reasonably: “Just in case.”
Trust is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Olive Films.
Valerie Massadian, Nana, 2011, 35 mm, color, sound, 68 minutes. Nana (Kelyna Lecomte).
NANA BEGINS with a long shot of a farmer killing a large pig as a few people, including his granddaughter, look on. A medium close-up shows the pig being bled, the ordinariness of the act treated with a blunt simplicity characteristic of the film’s style. For the next twenty minutes of this beautifully photographed, stark but lyrical debut feature, we watch Nana—somewhere between age four and five—setting traps with her grandfather, gathering firewood, playing with her mother, and listening to a rather gruesome bedtime story. Life is simple, mother-daughter affections seem genuine, although some unspecified contention is hinted at between the grandfather and his daughter. Then, without warning or explanation, mother walks into the distance and disappears.
We wonder what has happened, and worry about the child left behind, but for the next twenty minutes, the unflustered Nana dresses and feeds herself, gathers wood, makes fires, even reads herself the same bedtime story—all with remarkable, if unnerving self-sufficiency. To see her free a dead rabbit from a trap, carry it home, wrap it in dry weeds, and toss it on the fire is to realize just how attuned she seems to the natural cycle of life and death. When her mother returns only to die inexplicably, Nana drags her body over the ground with the same unblinking demeanor. In the final scene, her grandfather closes up the daughter’s house and takes Nana home with him.
The naturalistic aura, character typology, and setting evoke a nineteenth-century French novel, but Nana has nothing resembling the densely packed narrative of societal problems typical of Émile Zola. Unless we choose to willfully read into the thinly connected tissue of its events, the film is as blithely indifferent to social, dramatic, and psychological concerns as it is free of sentimentality. It addresses us purely as cinema, allowing physical acts and the locations where they occur to speak for themselves. In that sense, it offers us the world as Nana herself must experience it.
Still, we wonder. Why does Nana’s mother leave an angry note about her father’s failure to complete a fence? If she is concerned about Nana’s safety, why does she abandon her? Where has she gone and for how long? From what ailment does she suffer? Where is Nana’s father? From whom did Nana learn the vulgar language that comes to her lips so easily?
To leave such questions suspended seems to be the filmmaker’s way of leaving the viewer as adrift as the protagonist. While the film celebrates a child’s endurance and survival skills, it also restricts its compass to her outward behavior. Refusing to provide fuller exposition and psychology, director Valerie Massadian documents Nana’s external existence, drawing a line between that and how she incorporates everything into her inner world.
The word minimalism too easily comes to mind in the face of such a work, but here it is less a formal choice than a recognition of the boundaries beyond which one cannot enter a child’s consciousness. If we believe Massadian that she “did not impose any word or gesture” on her actress, we might almost conclude that the central portion of the film is a passage of cinema vérité, to which the filmmaker has attached a titillating beginning and quasi-tragic end. However we read it, Nana is a genuine curiosity that deserves to be seen.
Nana has its New York theatrical premiere January 25–31 at Anthology Film Archives.
Derek Jarman, Journey to Avebury, 1971, 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes.
THE FIRST PART of “Back and Forth,” a film series currently on view at South London Gallery, opened with a stream of grainy snapshots, images of the British countryside tinged in burnt sienna, ocher and acid yellow, green and violet hues, all part of Derek Jarman’s ten-and-a-half-minute film Journey to Avebury (1971). The work invokes a sort of postmodern John Constable landscape, a pastoral version of Andy Warhol’s Empire. It’s amazing how landscapes can recall so much, here the trajectory of art in Britainfrom nineteenth-century Romanticism to the lives of the YBAs: Sarah Lucas and Damien Hirst left the city to make work in the countryside and Tracey Emin took up the nation’s unforgiving coastline in a series of drawings reflecting on seaside town Margate.
Journey to Avebury played in the first of three screenings of 16-mm film and video works that will run over the next two Wednesdays at the gallery. The first segment revolves around landscapebe it emotional or physicala motif ripe with social, historical, and symbolic implications. Jessica Warboy’s Stone Throat (2011), for example, raises question about our position within the natural world. In a series of sumptuous, abstract shots, there is an image of a hand resting on the rocky surface of this volcanic island. This is the coastline of Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), but within this five-minute film, the human being is presented as just one element of a much bigger picture (all Warboy shows is the arm), creating a sort of “man lost at sea” feeling.
In tracing the Romantic landscape from such diverse points of perspective, this screening became a figurative landscape of its own, taking the viewer on a journey through the way in which the landscape has manifested itself in more contemporary practices. Charlotte Moth’s Study for a 16mm film (2011) is a dreamy exploration of a household landscape, particularly of its objectsdrapes, tables, vitrines, and cake stands. Images linger and change, often relentlessly, studying the same compositional frame from various angles with different tints before moving slowly and intently to the next subject. Moth’s work was followed by Isabelle Cornaro’s Celebration (2012), in which black-and-white stills from Disney films flicker silently on screen. The film concluded with a finale of vibrant, multicolored Rorschach prints. Here we watch colors and strokes of ink disperse and emerge from the white screena seascape come alive.
In Louis Benassi’s Midnight-De-construction (2003–10), the artist films himself literally taking a hammer to the work in his studio. Here is a portrait of the emotional landscape and the way it incites and dominates the artistic processwe watch as he destroys his own artworks and collected objects. The twenty-one-minute-long film is at once irreverent, tortured, exasperating, and liberating. The theme of liberation continues in Auto-Destructive Artthe Activities of G. (1963), which was filmed by Harold Liversidge and features artist Gustav Metzger. In the video, Metzger stands on London’s South Bank and stretches a nylon screen between two poles, which he proceeds to paint over with acid, dissolving the fabric as London slowly comes into view. And with that, the screening came to an end.
“Back and Forth” will continue at South London Gallery on Wednesday, January 23 and Wednesday, January 30, 2013.
Beatrice Gibson, The Tiger’s Mind, 2012, 16-mm film transferred to HD, color, sound, 23 minutes.
“She might have said, we were looking for a revolution in language. That would have been typical of her. I would have said, more like loitering in its suburbs. He would have interjected, could a comma really save the world?”
“I think this transcript would make a terrible film, it’d be awful.”
ONE DAY, a circle got together with a girl called Amy and they schemed to make a book about experimental notation in music. Before long, the wind, a tiger, a mind, and a tree were roped in, and what came of it all was a film. A book, too. The film’s press release, itself a work of extraordinary notation, declared it an “abstract crime thriller.”
This is what happened. In 1967, the British experimental composer Cornelius Cardew grew obsessed with the idea of a score that would involve words instead of music. The result was The Tiger’s Mind, a pithy composition drawing on six characters that reads a bit like a naive children’s story. The year before, Cardew had completed his epic 193-page Treatise, a graphic score involving circles, squares, numbers, and other symbolic miscellanea. It had no instructions. Depressed by musicians’ inability to relate to the enigmatic script, he opted to try his hand with words. “The merit of The Tiger’s Mind is that it demands no musical education and no visual education,” he said back then. “All it requires is a willingness to understand English and a desire to play.” Cardew, who had come of age alongside rigid compositionalists like Stockhausen and Boulez, hoped to put improvisation at the fore of his practice. Here’s an example of Tiger’s instructions:
The tiger is fighting
Amy jumps through the circle
The tiger sleeps
She comforts the tiger
More than four decades later, the London-based artist Beatrice Gibson picked up the script at the prompting of Cardew’s biographer, John Tilbury. Gibson, whose past projects have involved a science-fiction film set in modernist social housing and another born of discussion groups held with residents of English retirement homes, has long been interested in strange models of collective production. Here, she decided to revisit The Tiger’s Mind with the intention of using it as an engine for producing speech, and enlisted six friends who would assume the roles of the tiger, the mind, the tree, the wind, the circle, and a girl called Amy. Each would in turn stand in for the various elements of a production—props, music, Foley, special effects, author, and narrator, respectively.
Over the course of three weeklong meetings, Gibson’s characters—each of them artists in their own right, among them the avant-garde musician Alex Waterman and the artist-architect Céline Condorelli—engaged the Cardew script, at times celebrating its glorious polyphony and at others coming to heads over how to possibly make sense of it. In reading the transcripts of their discussions, all of which have been printed in a heroically dense book edited by artist-typographer Will Holder and published by Sternberg Press, one watches the group wrestle over the possibilities or, as it happens, the impossibilities of the task before them. As the conversations progress, the Author—that is, Gibson herself—assumes the role of the Circle, a sort of framing device that strains to make sense of this all (for “the circle is perfect and outside time”). By the middle of the second weeklong meeting, she’s grown tired of all the talking. Words have become intolerable. She picks up her camera.
What emerges is a ravishing film shot on 16 mm set in and around a breathtaking modernist villa in an anonymous country setting. Cardew’s spirit haunts the piece, as does the Author’s, whose narration is at once enigmatic and mournful. What follows is indelible: an abandoned room with an overturned chair and strange billowing gold curtains—marks of fractured domesticity? The eerie sound of footsteps on a garden’s gravel path reveals no walker. There is more: a woman—we do not know who she is—uttering words we (again) cannot hear; stereo equipment incongruously installed in a lush forest; creepy, hysterical laughter and a noir-ish ambient sound track; a life-size porcelain tiger.
Before long, the narrator informs us that all six characters are dead. It seems that in seeking a new language built around objects (at some point Gibson admits she “became tired of words”), her ship has sunk. But perhaps her ship was bound to sink all along: After all, the script assigns a single Author, but aren’t there at least six? Cardew’s original 1960s vision of utopian improvisation and emancipatory collectivism fails spectacularly as each character’s contribution—from Tiger’s props to Mind’s music to Wind’s effects—compete for primacy over the final form of the film. In the last (unforgettable) moments, the porcelain tiger shatters into a million pieces, like a scattered purse, dying a rapturous slow-motion death. By now, the film’s anxious, dystopian tenor has become one with the failure of Cardew’s experiment.
In a final confession, the Author admits:
I invited them here.
I thought that it might make better images.
And all I encountered was the glaring reflection of my own narcissism.
The Tiger’s Mind is on view through January 19 at The Showroom in London.
Nicolás Pereda, Greatest Hits, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 103 minutes.
THE MUSEUM OF THE MOVING IMAGE is serving up some offbeat fare at its 2013 “First Look” series. Take Greatest Hits, Nicolás Pereda’s latest exercise in downbeat Mexican life. Gone are the framing strategies of his previous films that gave the illusion of some vague theme making sense of eventless existence. In his new work, people hang around at the kitchen table or the living-room couch—two of them played by Pereda regulars Gabino Rodríguez and Teresa Sánchezchatting idly and endlessly about nothing much. No one is rushing off to work, although they talk a lot about schemes for making money. Just as we’ve resigned ourselves that nothing unusual is likely to happen, the long-lost husband and father of Sánchez and Rodríguez arrives, although another actor had been playing that part in the first half. Then, when members of the film crew pop up, we think maybe we’ve been watching a Mexican version of the landmark television series An American Family (1973). Or perhaps everything we’ve seen thus far is another memorization exercise, like the one Gabino rehearses over and over of song titles (the “greatest hits” of the title). Handsomely shot in wide-screen with an emphasis on long takes, the film has a sly way of getting under your skin, as if these entrapped lives—fictional or non—were the comic underside of the lives of those fools in the rest of the world consumed by business and purpose.
There is also lots of waiting and longueurs—although far less talk—in Bruno Dumont’s Hors Satan (Beyond Satan). If the title seems a bit noncommittal, think The Exorcist (1973) meets Ordet (1955). The film is saturated with a tension induced by the enigmatic male protagonist (David Dewaele) and the mysterious acts of mercy and murder that come to him as easily as breathing. If there has been a unifying theme in Dumont’s work in general, it may be that there’s nothing weirder than life in the French provinces, where boundaries between good and evil are unapologetically porous. Set near the Calais coast, the film’s austerely photographed exteriors convey a desolate beauty that induces our “hero,” and the young woman (Alexandra Lemâtre) under his protection, to kneel in recognition to some unidentified pre-Christian god. The man lives outdoors, his body immune to fire and the elements. Minutes into the film, moved purportedly by unassailable logic, he blows away the girl’s abusive stepfather. When a neighbor’s daughter seems inexplicably deranged, he applies the ultimate mouth-to-mouth cure, part exorcism, part rape—an act he repeats with a sluttish young woman, forcing a foamy substance from her mouth. Though he shuns intercourse with Lemâtre’s character, he does one better by bringing her back to life after she is raped and killed by a local hunter. Neither God nor Satan, Dumont’s protagonist is in touch with the unnatural order of things, dispensing miracles and murders as forms of archaic justice, as if in obedience to the same deities worshipped by Medea. And just as Medea is spirited away by the gods to escape punishment, our man moves on to the next village.
Bruno Dumont, Hors Satan (Beyond Satan), 2011, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes.
Nothing could be less detached in style—or seemingly so—than Siberia, a direct video portrait of the unraveling of a love affair between Dumont and the filmmaker Joana Preiss. Traveling together to Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway (Dumont participated in a film festival at Vladivostok), the two film each other with an often suffocating visual intimacy that only underscores the absence of the real thing. As the affair moves inevitably toward dissolution, we are apt to remember that even the very personal is prone to rhetoric—especially when a movie camera is involved.
Among the other documentaries in the series, Thom Andersen’s Reconversăo (Reconversion) is an entrancing look at the work of the celebrated Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura. A series of long takes of primarily private homes in Porto and other cities exhibit the man’s signature style, which is to incorporate a modern design within the on-site ruins of a previous century, integrating the lines and shapes of the latter into the living spaces of the former. As photographed by Peter Bo Rappmund, the images are stunning, arousing envy as well as admiration. By the time the amiable Souto de Moura makes his appearance, we easily connect his plain-speaking eloquence with what we have seen, Andersen’s narration and Rappmund’s images having made his aesthetic so palpable. Unlike poets and painters of the Romantic era, for whom ruins were melancholy remnants of death and decay, the architect sees them as living organisms, constantly breathing and testifying to movement in time. The movie’s magnificent cinematography actively echoes this sense of temporality as Rappmund’s images (consistent with his recent work Tectonics, shown at the 2012 Views from the Avant-Garde series at the New York Film Festival), shot at fast speed and using stop-motion technique, reduce people and vehicles to particle phenomena or fleeting swipes across spaces that fail to contain them—a paradoxical commentary on the transience of existence and the durable presence of ruins.
Peter Nicks, The Waiting Room, 2012, digital video, color, 81 minutes.
ENHANCED CINEMA VERITÉ, Peter Nicks’s The Waiting Room drops us into the middle of the emergency room of Oakland’s Highland Hospital, which has become, by dint of our failed health care system, the primary care facility for a population of some 250,000 Californians, most of them without health insurance. We are, of course, like the director and his compact crew, merely observers. Nevertheless the thought occurs that, but for the grace of a regular paycheck with benefits or a substantial rainy day fund, there go you and me. Refusing didacticism, statistics, or analysis, The Waiting Room is, by virtue of the experiences it documents, an irrefutable argument for the necessity of universal health care, here and now. The movie depicts real human beings, every one of them deserving better than what they get.
Nicks condensed five months of shooting into one composite day that focuses on a rough half-dozen patients and three health care providers, all of the latter group worthy of sainthood at the least. And no, I’m not implying that they are putting on a kind face for the camera. For the patients, the most difficult part of visiting the emergency room is the waiting, which for some can last not hours but days, depending on how they are triaged and how many serious trauma victims suddenly appear to take precedence over everyone else. Unlike a series such as ER, The Waiting Room’s focus is not on these adrenaline-rush crises (though at one point three young men with gunshot wounds are wheeled in, one of whom does not survive) but on the chronically ill or those with garden-variety infectious diseases who rely on the emergency room because they can’t afford a primary care physician.
There’s a young girl with a raging fever and a scarily rapid heartbeat caused by a strep throat. Her father lost his insurance when he was laid off and is distraught and humiliated that he can’t provide for his daughter’s basic needs. A young man who has a large, likely cancerous, testicular tumor is referred to Highland when the private HMO that provisionally accepted him (he and his girlfriend are confused about the details) discovers he can’t afford membership or the copayment for the surgery he urgently needs. There is a middle-aged man who has worked for twenty years laying carpets. He has painful bone spurs in his back, but because he has no insurance, he can’t have them removed because public hospitals can’t cover surgery that is considered “unessential.” All the ER doctor can do is offer him Vicodin, which he doesn’t want to take because he’s afraid it will make him too sleepy to work.
Trailer for Peter Nicks’ The Waiting Room, 2012
“I just want you to turn around and see all the beautiful people here,” says the remarkably kind triage nurse, hugging a frightened, elderly Southeast Asian man. (We’ve previously seen her walk a nearly blind diabetic woman outside and down the driveway so that she can get on the right bus to take her home, a kindness that’s far beyond the stipulations of her job description.) She’s right about all the beauty of the people in the waiting room, who, for the most part, despite pain and anxiety, seem empathetic to one another’s needs. It is their openness that makes a project like The Waiting Room possible.
Because cinema verité by definition does not permit talking-head interviews or explanatory voice-overs, even such masters as Frederick Wiseman are partially stymied when their subjects are institutions. Observing how people operate within an institution seldom reveals its structure and purposes. That is, unless the institution is so dysfunctional that dealing with its problems is front and center 24/7, as is the case here. Nicks does, however, bend the vérité rules by using as voice-over some of what the patients and health-care workers must have said in footage that we don’t see. In other words, he doubles up on the verbal information provided by the characters. I don’t fault him for not being a purist, although given how engrossing, informative, and moving the film is, he could have done without the swelling music at the end, or the sped-up sequences of the waiting room as if to prove that thousands of patients come and go every week. These are minor quibbles. In a year of exceptionally strong documentaries, The Waiting Room is one of the most urgent and effective.
Reprised by popular demand, The Waiting Room plays daily at 1 PM through January 3 at the IFC Center in New York.