THE TITLE OF KOREAN AUTEUR Park Chan-wook’s first English-language film, Stoker, operates on two levels. The movie’s main trio shares the same surname as the author of Dracula, just one of many nods to iconic texts. But in the more generic sense of the term, Stoker, written by first-time scripter Wentworth Miller, belies its moniker: Despite its garrotings, incestuous triangulating, self-pleasuring, and bloodletting, this phlegmatic project, fastidiously framed and art-directed, neither stirs up nor excites but lulls.
Park is best known for his “Vengeance” trilogy, whose second installment, Oldboy (2003), has recently been remade by Spike Lee (the redo will be released this fall). In Stoker, he returns to a familiar motif: predetermined protagonists (especially evident in Park’s previous feature, the 2009 vampire movie Thirst). “Just as the flower does not choose its color, we do not choose who we will be,” says eighteen-year-old India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska) in voice-over. With her Wednesday Addams–ish, middle-parted hair and saddle shoes, the accoutrements and fashion choices of this straight-A student suggest that Stoker takes place sometime during the Lyndon Johnson administration—a setting further intimated by the lavish midcentury modern furniture and decor of the mansion India inhabits with her mother, Evelyn (Nicole Kidman), and the recurrence of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s 1967 hit “Summer Wine.”
We are, in fact, in the present day (a character mentions 1994, India’s birth year), though the fussy, anachronistic mise-en-scène helps ensure that Stoker remain embalmed. (Imagine Last Year at Marienbad as directed by Wes Anderson.) The film opens with a funeral—that of India’s beloved father, who used to take his saturnine daughter on hunting trips—and the arrival of a relative she never knew she had, her paternal uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode). Like the character of the same name played by Joseph Cotten in Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), the urbane Charlie is a killer; his bloodlust, which India quickly suspects, both fascinates and repels her. The newcomer’s love of Il trovatore, fluency in French, and gourmet-cooking skills also turn on somnambulant Evelyn, prone to sleeping well past noon, seemingly in perpetual mourning not for her dead husband but for the withering of her own once prodigious gifts.
“She hates to be touched,” Evelyn, explaining her daughter’s coldness, tells Charlie shortly after he shows up. But India loves touching herself, apparently: Her operatic slo-mo orgasm in the shower releases the pent-up thrills over witnessing her first murder. That Charlie’s damaged DNA has been passed onto his niece is reinforced repeatedly and with increasingly diminishing returns. Biochemistry may be destiny, but nothing seems quite as overdetermined as Stoker itself, with two of its principal cast, Kidman and especially Goode, rarely breaking out of their camp-glazed waxworks performing styles. Unsurprisingly, only the redoubtable Wasikowska, who, two years ago, gave the definitive portrayal of Jane Eyre in Cary Fukunaga’s adaptation of the Charlotte Brontë novel, can evince the nuances of her broadly sketched character. “I can’t wait to watch life tear you apart,” Evelyn fumes to India toward Stoker’s end, in a sub–Mommie Dearest exchange. The line is spoken to the only sentient actor in the film.
Stoker opens in limited release on March 1.
Richard Foreman, Once Every Day, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 67 minutes.
SELLING OUT IS HARD TO DO. One becomes known for a certain style, and then what? Several directors—Gus Van Sant and Wong Kar-wai among them—showed up to this year’s Berlinale with the sort of average pictures that made you yearn for their earlier, more definitively individual styles. But the best of the festival, as you might expect, arrived at the edges, with films like Richard Foreman’s Once Every Day and J. P. Sniadecki, Huang Xiang, and Xu Ruotao’s Yumen, both in the Forum Expanded program, traditionally the host of the more challenging modes of cinematic expression.
Once Every Day, Foreman’s first feature since Strong Medicine (1978), translates the maverick director’s theater of metaphysics into cinema. A film that effectively stages an image of film, wherein actors are posed and fed lines as Foreman’s voice guides them through each motion, Once Every Day makes for a fascinating talking point as Foreman transitions his vision from stage to screen.
Long past its heyday as an oil town, Yumen, in China’s Gansu province, is the subject of the eponymous film by Sniadecki (who also codirected the masterful People’s Park), Huang, and Xu. Fusing documentary and staged scenes in a manner reminiscent of Godard from the 1970s onward, Yumen brings dignity and beauty to a place that lies in near ruins, and was the finest piece of cinematic portraiture I witnessed at this year’s Berlinale.
For those yearning for more traditional documentary, Ken Loach was on hand with The Spirit of ’45, a history of the labor movement in Great Britain. Through interviews with subjects from all walks of life, the story of the country’s tragically short-lived experiment with socialism resonates with today’s ground reality, as post-Thatcherite Britain increasingly becomes a space reserved exclusively by and for bankers.
Paul Bowles opened his cage door to fan Daniel Young for an interview shortly before his death in 1999; with the addition of the likes of Gore Vidal and John Waters, the resulting Paul Bowles: The Cage Door Is Always Open makes for an adept and confident debut, suavely exploring multiple facets of the perennial expat’s life without getting too mired in the details. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its simultaneously excavation of the tumult with his wife and fellow writer, Jane Bowles, whose death he may or may not have contributed to.
Finally, I managed to sneak into a European Film Market–only screening of Camp 14: Total Control Zone, about Shin Dong-hyuk, the only prisoner known to have escaped from one of North Korea’s harshest secret labor camps. Well known to readers of Blaine Harden’s acclaimed Escape from Camp 14, the film adds fabric to the story’s texture through interviews with former camp guards who oversaw and participated in the torture and murder of prisoners. Watching the film next door to the site where they Nazis engineered their own network of death, Camp 14 was a sobering reminder that progress, in our world, is still an illusion.
The 63rd Berlinale ran February 7–27, 2013.
Nobuo Nakagawa, Ghost Story of Yotsuya, 1959, 35 mm, color, sound, 76 minutes. Iemon Tamiya, Takuetsu, and Iwa (Shigeru Amachi, Jun Ôtomo, and Katsuko Wakasugi).
THE MIDCENTURY JAPANESE avant-garde is an undeniable presence in New York City right now. The Museum of Modern Art’s “Tokyo 1955–1970: A New Avant-Garde” show, in conjunction with a film program on “Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1960–1986,” wraps up this week, just as Anthology Film Archives prepares to screen “Rituals in the Avant-Garde: Film Experiments in 1960s–70s Japan.”
With a program highlighting gems amid the trashy cinematic gewgaws of Shintoho Company, Japan Society’s “Into the Shintoho Mind Warp: Girls, Guns & Ghosts from the Second Golden Age of Japanese Film,” might seem the odd man out here; but these Shintoho films, united in their pulpy surrealism, tapped the same vein of restless, off-the-cuff creativity and transgressive daring that fueled the underground. The comparison offers proof once again that there’s not such a gulf between the avant-garde and the outer limits of lurid pop, both early warning systems of social upheaval.
Shintoho—the name means “New Toho”—had an essentially reactionary origin. The company was formed in 1947 during a labor dispute at Toho, Japan’s leading studio in the postwar period. Originally Toho’s nonunionized, fast-and-cheap subdivision, Shintoho later went independent; it never found sound financial footing, and finally went bankrupt in 1961. During its fourteen-year history, Shintoho released such acknowledged classics as Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu (1952) and Akira Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), and also produced Kon Ichikawa’s first films. These prestige works are distinctly not the subjects of Japan Society’s eight-film selection, culled by Mark Schilling—an intrepid explorer of Japanese pop cinema—from a 2010 program for the Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy. (After New York, the program travels to Philadelphia’s International House, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, and Vancouver’s Pacific Cinematheque.)
Schilling’s program is made exclusively of Shintoho works produced under the reign of Mitsugu Okura, a former silent film benshi storyteller and carnival worker who took over the cash-strapped studio in the mid-’50s and remade it in his own sensationalist, “Step right up!” image. The series kicks off with Ghost Story of Yotsuya (1959) by Nobuo Nakagawa, who, in a nine-film cycle of kaidan-geki (ghost story) films for Shintoho, established himself as the genre’s ace. The Edo period–set tale, adapted from a Kabuki classic, follows a totally amoral ronin samurai and his conspiring servant as they murder their way into an aristocratic home, only to have their social climbing undone by the harassing spirits of the restless dead. The revenge-from-beyond-the-grave formula of Nakagawa’s Ghost Story is closely adhered to by Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (1960), the directorial debut of Nakagawa’s apprentice, Yoshihiro Ishikawa. Nakagawa and Ishikawa both enjoy playing with their prey before putting them out of their misery, running them through a gauntlet of hallucinatory shocks in their films’ last acts. These are augmented by expressionistic use of color, like otherworldly lighting gel gags, or the blossom of blood that appears on the surface of fetid bog water in Ghost Cat.
Teruo Ishii, Yellow Line, 1960, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 79 minutes. Katsuko Wakasugi, Shigeru Amachi, and Reiko Seto.
Nakagawa’s most famous movie for Shintoho, Jigoku: Hell (1960), is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection—as is Nobuhiko Obayashi’s wig-out House (1977), a cult hit on its recent revival that shows the stamp of Nakagawa and Shintoho. Both Ghost Story and Nakagawa’s Death Row Woman (1960), also playing, are domestically unavailable, like all of the films in the Japan Society series. (The lineup is to be screened entirely on Blu-ray, a first for Japan Society.)
Because of Shintoho’s envelope-pushing subject matter and its appeal to youth culture under his leadership, Okura has sometimes been compared to Roger Corman (with Shintoho becoming an equivalent to Corman’s American International Pictures). Like AIP, Shintoho was also an incubator for young talent. Among the studio’s distinguished graduates was Teruo Ishii, who started out at Shintoho as an assistant cameraman and went on to direct eighty-odd features. Ishii is represented in the series by two films that dive headfirst into contemporary lowlife, the Ginza-set Flesh Pier (1958) and Yellow Line (1960), third in the five-film Line series, all of which dealt with sex trafficking rings. Yellow Line concerns an investigative reporter on the hunt for his missing girlfriend and the hit man who’s hijacked her, and takes place amid the narrow, warrenlike alleys of seaport Kobe’s red-light district. Teeming with vivid sketches of lower-depth existence, Yellow Line’s depiction of a contemporary Japan marked by endemic corruption and opportunism is not farm from that in contemporary Japanese New Wave films by the likes of Nagisa Oshima and Shôhei Imamura. Yellow Line’s style is less Neorealism than delirious hyperrealism of a tabloid fable: Kobe’s “Casbah” neighborhood is a remarkable piece of stagecraft, while the clue that initiates the pursuit is a lost red high-heeled shoe, rife with fairy-tale associations.
“Shintoho had a philosophy—everything was speed,” Ishii once said. “The first important thing was speed, the second important thing was speed, everything was speed.” Necessity, as ever, is the mother of invention—the need for speed may explain the frequent recourse to stunning sequence shots in these films, for such long takes limited the number of time-absorbing setups. It also lent Shintoho films a quality of urgency that has not diminished. What they lack in polish, they make up for in pungency.
“Into the Shintoho Mind Warp: Girls, Guns & Ghosts from the Second Golden Age of Japanese Film” opens February 27 at Japan Society in New York.
Hito Steyerl, Abstract, 2012, DCP, color, sound, 7 minutes.
THE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL ROTTERDAM has long provided an outlet for short, experimental, or just plain eccentric filmmaking, and in recent years it’s gathered these less classifiable films into a single venue (Lantaren/Venster) and screened them together. In this year’s edition, there was an intensified focus on the process of filmmaking itself, as much from avant-garde film veterans as from artists who have worked their way into the movie theater. Among the latter group was Hito Steyerl, whose two-channel video Abstract was presented as a split-frame film. What begins as a didactic exercise—each side of the screen is labeled “This is a shot” or “This is a countershot”—becomes an essay on the essential grammar of film, one with devastating personal and political consequences. We see as Steyerl does: her image on one side of the frame, filming through her iPhone, and, on the other, the views she records, namely a bombed-out Kurdish rebel cave and the Lockheed Martin offices responsible for manufacturing the weapons used in the attack. For the seemingly vast distances separating these two spaces, they’re bridged by Steyerl’s perspective, and through her eyes the video demonstrates just how proximate the shots of cinema are to those of war.
Mohsen Makmalbaf’s feature documentary The Gardener, part of a program on Iranian cinema, offered a different kind of double take. Best known for his role in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990), where he played himself in a real-life story about a man who impersonated him, Makmalbaf is joined here by his son Maysam as they travel to Israel to investigate the Baha’i faith. Each Makmalbaf takes a camera: The father vows to present a “positive” view of the religion, while the son investigates the “negative.” Since they film each other as frequently as they do the gardens of the Baha’i temple in Jerusalem, The Gardener becomes as much an Oedipal dialectic as it is a discourse on faith.
Multiple views are swapped in Michael Snow’s Reverberlin, which consists of an audio recording of a 2002 improvisational music concert Snow performed, on the piano, with “soundsinger” Paul Dutton and alto saxophonist John Oswald. In the absence of video footage, Snow layered clips of the group from other performances, his cuts dense and frequently superimposed, lending Reverberlin a quality of visual spontaneity not always apparent in his more formally rigid films. Meanwhile, in Erik Moskowitz and Amanda Trager’s Two Russians in the Free World, various views are nested compactly within one another. Depending on how you look at it, the film’s subject is either Moskowitz and Trager’s attempt to edit a film; a billionaire and a Russian performance artist’s path to love; or a trio of “spirits” that, like the Fates in a Greek tragedy, orchestrate events invisibly. All three scenarios dovetail on the computer screen where the video is made and unmade, and the line between art and critical discourse is blurred, especially as the characters’ speech is slowed, multiplied, and set to music.
Gabriel Abrantes also draws from Greek theater in Zwazo, a film obliquely about a production of Aristophanes’s Birds in Jacmel, Haiti. As a barker in a brightly painted truck informs us, Abrantes is not only the director of this local ensemble, but an artist keenly attentive to the process of filmmaking, as well as the problems that attend his outsider view. While Birds can be read as anti-imperialist allegory—the scene Abrantes stages includes the birds’ attack on the men who enter their lair—the locals are less convinced by the play’s cathartic release. “Intoxication won’t make you forget,” raps one man over a car stereo. Zwaso attempts a kind of anti-ethnography, its Haiti largely resistant to the intrusive looks that often attend documentary filmmaking, as well as narratives imported from the West, be they the classical truisms of Aristophanes or the modern glitter of Twilight.
Karen Yasinsky’s Life is an Opinion, Fire a Fact offers another take on cinema. Zooming in on the dancing fuzz of black-and-white video static, images (including meticulously hand-animated frames of a man immolating himself, from Tarkovskiy’s Nostalghia ) appear and recede. The shot moves in reverse, matching the sound of a VCR playing, rewinding, then playing again. Yasinksy approaches found footage in a mode of obsessive viewing, one perhaps familiar to many of us: the way we might run a scene forward and back, or pause on a single, trembling figure. Here though the image always escapes, leaving just a blush of color, a blot in the fog of white noise.
The forty-second edition of the International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 23–February 3, 2013.
James Benning, Stemple Pass, 2012, HD, color, sound, 121 minutes.
NAVIGATING THE HUNDREDS of films comprising the Berlinale is nerve-wracking—you always feel like you’re bound to miss the big one, whatever that may be. Lest your Berlinale experience become a marathon of unwatchables showcasing poly-mediocrity James Franco, the best survival tactic is to ignore the hype. Creatures of instinct, some of us simply can’t do otherwise; inevitably, when I bump into someone I know, I’ll be asked for tips, at which point I am left temporarily paralyzed by the retrieval process as my companion’s face forms an embarrassed smile. Because his films so often evince the placidity of the perceptive process itself, it’s surely no accident that James Benning’s new one, Stemple Pass, is often the first I manage to name. Titled after the Montana no-man’s-land where Theodore Kaczynski dwelled, hunted, and sent out his homemade bombs, the film stars Benning’s re-creation of the Kaczynski cabin in the wilds of California and consists of four static shots, one for each season, over which Benning reads a selection of the Unabomber’s writings.
Criminality—its shifting statuses, mutant forms, gray shadings, and glorifications—is foregrounded in a number of documentaries featured in this year’s celebrated Panorama section. TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay away from Keyboard explores the anarchist ethos of the Swedish computer geniuses behind the Pirate Bay, the world’s largest file-sharing site, and Hollywood’s attempts to destroy them. The narrative dramatizes the tension between a status quo too enfeebled by convention to learn how to make money in new ways and a generation already living in a future where “copyright” has become obsolete. Out in East Berlin: Lesbians and Gays in the GDR revisits the Stasi abuse endured by the out-and-proud on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Stateside, a group of young Latino musicians’ mindless homages to Mexican drug lords is contrasted with the sobering daily life of a Juárez crime scene investigator in Narco Cultura.
Finally, the brain fog of the past few days begins to clear, and I am reminded of surprise discoveries. The quiet Cuban feature La Piscina (The Swimming Pool) unfolds over a single afternoon at a public pool, where four handicapped adolescents have gathered for swimming lessons; it loudly affirms that the Latin American cinematic renaissance is still going full throttle. And I never expected to find myself falling for a Taiwanese romcom, but Arvin Chen’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow was done so well—in terms of its writing, editing, and lead performances—that it upstages every Hollywood-backed production I’ve seen so far. The narrative’s simple premise—a middle-aged man with a wife and son begins an affair with a younger man, drifting back into a life he had left behind when he married—allows for a realistic and intriguing look at how modern sexuality operates behind a veil of Confucian norms. While there is a tendency among gay-themed films from East Asia (well, anywhere really) to fall into cliché or unintentional homophobia, Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow masterfully avoids these pitfalls.
The sixty-third Berlinale runs through Sunday, February 17th.
ICONIC FOR HER DAPPER BUTCH LOOK and pomaded short tresses, Dorothy Arzner, the only female director in the Hollywood studio system during the late 1920s and ’30s, was drawn to stories centering around women’s work: pink-collar toilers in Working Girls (1931), a steely homemaker in Craig’s Wife (1936), burlesque hoofers in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). Christopher Strong (1933) spotlights a more rarefied career choice—aviatrix—and showcases the star-making labor of Katharine Hepburn, appearing in only her second film. As record-breaking pilot Lady Cynthia Darrington, Hepburn swaggers magnificently in jodhpurs and a beret (and, in one spectacular moment, a lamé moth costume, replete with antennae), speeds down English back roads in her sports car, and enjoys an easy, just-one-of-the-lads rapport with her plane crew.
In short, this robust, reckless high flyer would seem an odd match for the milquetoast titular member of Parliament (Colin Clive) with whom she’s having an adulterous affair. The aristos meet cute as the exhibits of a treasure hunt (the same game that would bring William Powell and Carole Lombard together in Gregory La Cava’s My Man Godfrey in 1936). Sir Christopher is presented as “an attractive man who can swear he’s been married for over five years, has always been faithful to his wife, and is not ashamed to admit it”; Lady Cynthia as “an attractive girl of over twenty who can swear she’s never had a love affair.” The virtuous MP, who had been whisked away from poring over taxation codes at 3 AM in his study by his twenty-year-old daughter, herself stepping out with a fruity wedded blueblood, boasts to the party crowd of the connubial harmony he has shared for decades with his wife, Lady Elaine (Billie Burke).
But the legislative official quickly goes weak for this habituée of the aerodome. Cynthia and Christopher share their first kiss at Cannes; as he frets, she declares, “Of course it’s all wrong. But I like it.” During their periods of separation and reunion, Cynthia remains bold, active, determined; as she makes a solo flight around the world, her upstanding lover anxiously tunes into the wireless and scans headlines for news of her progress. Yet even this timid politician has some fire in him, as slyly intimated during a scene consisting of nothing more than Cynthia’s hand by a nightstand alarm clock and the offscreen postcoital pillow talk of the actors. Addressing adultery, sex, and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, Christopher Strong, which was written by Zoë Akins and released the year before the enforcement of the bowdlerizing Hays Code, handles these topics with less hysteria than most recent multiplex fare—at least until the final scene.
“Marriage and children make almost any woman old-fashioned and intolerant,” Lady Elaine chirps to Cynthia toward the film’s end (a worldview that makes her a mommy blogger avant la lettre). Matrimony and its discontents—and the hazards and dissatisfactions of courtship in general—figure prominently in Arzner’s oeuvre, as does sororal camaraderie (exemplified in 1929’s The Wild Party). Men are often superfluous, depicted, depending on where they fall on the socioeconomic scale, as hectoring, no-good drunks or spineless, coddled patricians. The female protagonists in Arzner’s films live by the motto of Christopher Strong’s unforgettable airwoman: Courage conquers death.
Christopher Strong screens February 15 at Film Forum in New York as part of the series “1933: Hollywood’s Naughtiest, Bawdiest Year.”
Cate Shortland, Lore, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Left: Lore and Thomas (Saskia Rosendahl and Kai Malina). Right Lore (Saskia Rosendahl).
FEW FILMS DRAMATIZING the effects of the Second World War on the families of Nazis or Nazi sympathizers have managed to overcome the understandably queasy reluctance of international audiences to embrace the subject. The number of awards loaded on the Australian/German co-production Lore will no doubt facilitate its marketability, though the film’s merits are not entirely unalloyed. Directed by Cate Shortland and based on Rachel Seiffert’s The Dark Room—a novel that spans several generations—Lore concentrates only on the middle story, focusing on the young protagonist of its title and the premature burden she assumes when her parents’ lives are compromised with the fall of Germany in 1945. As everything collapses around them, Father (Hans-Jochen Wagner), who, as an incriminating photo later confirms, participated in the interment and killing of Jews, moves the family into the relative seclusion of the Black Forest. Shortly after he goes off to almost certain imprisonment, Mother (Ursina Lardi) leaves to join him, believing the children will be less prone to discovery without her, and instructs Lore to take her siblings to their grandmother’s home in Hamburg.
Lore (Saskia Rosendahl) embarks on the journey, leading her four siblings through the multi-occupied Allied zones of the recently destroyed German state. In order to sustain their will to walk on, she tells her younger sister and their twin brothers that they will reunite with their parents in Hamburg, though she knows this is untrue. Trading food for the little money and the few pieces of jewelry her mother leaves her, their plight becomes suspicious to unsympathetic locals. They are soon joined by Thomas (Kai Malina), an intense young man who has survived a concentration camp, knows his way around border guards, and carries official papers along with the yellow Jewish star. Appealing to the sympathies of American soldiers, he claims to be Lore’s older brother, lies about their time in the camps, and helps the group through the trickier passages of their journey. This includes a rather unsavory episode—not in the novella—where in order to obtain a boat to cross a river, Lore plays to the lascivious interests of a local boatman as Thomas bashes his brains in with a rock. In another instance, while trying to enter the British zone one of the twins ignores Thomas’s instructions and is shot by Russian soldiers. As unexpectedly as Thomas enters their lives, he exits, at which point Juri, the surviving twin, shows Lore the wallet he stole hoping to prevent Thomas from going. As she peruses it, we learn that Thomas had stolen the identification papers from a Jewish prisoner “already dead,” making us question whether Thomas himself is Jewish.
In general, Shortland’s approach avoids the mawkish and sentimental pitfalls that plague such material, and the film is so well acted that it is hard to believe that Lore and her siblings are not actually related. It is also effectively constructed and impressively photographed, the lyrical lushness of the German countryside at odds with the horror of the events. All the more disappointing that Shortland and co-writer Robin Mukherjee betray the novel’s subtler style by descending on occasion to the crude and sensational. The boatman’s murder is a case in point. Its message—that even the “innocent” may resort to violence in wartime—is as bludgeoning as the act visited upon the unsuspecting victim. Lore’s later remark to Thomas under her breath, “What have we done?” only underlines the obvious. More credible, though just as untrue to the source, are the titillating touches induced by Thomas’s frustrated desire for Lore and her cruel rebuffs that clearly imply her repugnance of his Jewishness. While their silent, erotically charged interactions are compelling and befit their ages, they are inventions of the screenwriters.
The mystery of Thomas’s real identity has the desired ironic effect, but it also sets up a conclusion that reverses Seiffert’s more disturbing open-ended denouement. As a symbol of arriving safely at grandmother’s house, Lore places the small porcelain deer she has kept intact through the journey on a table with others, symbolically reconnecting it to the world before the nightmare of Nazism and the war. Soon after, however, when grandma upbraids Juri at the dinner table for poor manners, Lore repeats his behavior, stuffs bread in her mouth, and spills milk on the table, after which she destroys all the porcelain figurines.
Following this display of rebellion against order, we last see her thumbing through Thomas’s wallet and looking more thoughtfully at the photos of the Jewish prisoner’s family. While this telegraphs what Lore has learned about the world and the lives of others, it also strains for the kind of comforting reassurance that Seiffert avoids. Her conclusion has no confrontation scene at the dinner table and leaves us with an image of Lore looking forward to a vaguely amnesiac future. Preferring to redeem Lore and explicitly condemn the blindness and denial that engulfed Germany for decades, Shortland somewhat softens the brute honesty of her otherwise affecting movie.
Lore opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, February 8th.
VARIOUSLY CALLED AN “OLD-ASS ANARCHIST” (Amiri Baraka), “the most popular modern poet” (Michael McClure), and a “romantic idealist who accepts living in an imperfect world” (Nancy Peters), poet/painter/publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti is that rarest of birds, a creator-impresario-activist whose tireless dedication to radical literature and politics changed the course of postwar cultural history. His best-known book of poems is the proto-Beat lyric collection A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), but his legacy is better described by the title of his 2007 volume Poetry as Insurgent Art. Through his writings and life example, Ferlinghetti challenged poets to “come out of [their] closets” and “conquer the conquerors with words.”
Veteran of World War II and numerous revolutions, disciple of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Prévert, publisher of “dissident thought” from, among countless others, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Bukowski, and Sam Shepard, and, as proprietor of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, host to experimental, political, and international writers for six decades, Ferlinghetti has packed several lifetimes’ worth of experience and achievement into an admittedly long life (he is ninety-three). Christopher Felver’s thorough, reverential documentary Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder attempts to distill it all into a manageable length, with talking-head encomia from Ginsberg, McClure, Billy Collins, Dennis Hopper, Robert Scheer, and others, but the amount of ground covered gives the film a feel of a travelogue, like a suitcase coated with such a dense palimpsest of destination stickers that the luggage itself disappears. Scheer recalls that Ferlinghetti was the calm in the middle of the storm of the “San Francisco Renaissance” in 1950s North Beach, and with his serene, avuncular manner and warm, wry grin, the poet remains something of a cipher despite the documentary’s detailed exposition of and commentary on his life.
His beginnings were bleak. The son of an Ellis Island Italian immigrant who died before he was born, Ferlinghetti lost his mother to madness while he was still an infant. His aunt Emily took him to France for his first five years, only to return the child to New York City where, due to penury, he was removed from her care by social services and placed in an orphanage. Securing a job as a governess with the wealthy Bisland family of Bronxville, Emily brought the boy to live in the Bislands’ mansion, where he availed himself of the well-stocked library and learned to memorize and recite poetry at his hosts’ request. Emily eventually left and never returned, and the Bislands took him on, sending him to board at the Mount Hermon School after he was arrested for stealing pencils from a five-and-dime store.
Inspired by Look Homeward, Angel (1929), Ferlinghetti attended Thomas Wolfe’s alma mater, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His wartime tours in the Navy included manning a subchaser on D-Day and visiting Nagasaki six weeks after the atom bomb had incinerated the city, an experience that made him an “instant pacifist.” Taking advantage of the GI Bill, he earned an MA at Columbia after a brief stint in the mailroom of Time magazine. He moved to Paris, fell in with future Shakespeare & Co. bookstore founder George Whitman, and studied for a doctorate at the Sorbonne. His education complete, Ferlinghetti returned to America, settling in San Francisco in 1953. That year, he founded City Lights with Peter D. Martin, who edited a journal of the same name, as the first paperback-only bookstore in America. Martin left two years later, and Ferlinghetti started the publishing arm of City Lights with his debut book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World, in what was to become the iconic Pocket Poets Series. Under this imprint, Ferlinghetti published works by, among others, Kenneth Rexroth, Gregory Corso, William Carlos Williams, and the volume that propelled him to national fame, Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956).
Ferlinghetti and his bookstore manager Shig Murao were arrested by the San Francisco Police on obscenity charges for publishing and selling Howl. Charges against Murao were dropped, but Ferlinghetti, backed by the ACLU, stood trial and won a landmark First Amendment case in front of a notoriously conservative, born-again Christian judge. The trial received international attention (Ginsberg remained in blissful “exile” in Tangier throughout), and secured Ferlinghetti a place in the small pantheon of renegade publishers who, like Grove’s Barney Rosset and Hustler’s Larry Flynt, significantly contributed to free-speech law in this country. It also made him a patron and mentor to the emergent Beat generation of writers, an association that defines him to this day (though he rejects the label for his own work).
In the decades that followed, Ferlinghetti essentially kept doing more of the same—publishing avant-garde American, English, and international literature in translation, as well as hard-left political history and commentary, with consistently admirable results (though without the sensationalism of the Howl scandal). City Lights continues to thrive into the twenty-first century, with Ferlinghetti, ever the anarchist, announcing with pride in the film that the institution has never taken a government grant in its entire history. He will surprise those with a superficial understanding of the ideological underpinnings of America’s polarized politics by declaring himself a philosophical anarchist (anti-statist) while advocating for democratic socialism and single-payer healthcare, equally decrying state power and “corporate monoculture.”
It’s too easy to call Ferlinghetti “one-of-a-kind,” a charming old rad of a type they don’t make anymore, and leave it at that. As Felver’s film demonstrates, we need more men like him. Now, more than ever. As Brando’s Colonel Kurtz muses in Apocalypse Now, “If I had ten divisions of those men, then our troubles here would be over very quickly.”
Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder opens February 8th at the Quad Cinema in New York.
Left: Cover of Time magazine, August 31, 1970. Right: Advertisement for the opening of Kate Millett's Three Lives, 1971.
KATE MILLETT’S DOCUMENTARY Three Lives, a triptych of autobiographical accounts by women, opened at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York on November 5, 1971, to a positive, if not especially enthusiastic, review in the New York Times; critic Vincent Canby described it as “moving, proud, calm, aggressively self-contained.” A year earlier, more provocative, if not condescending, language had been used to characterize Millett in the mainstream press: Shortly after the publication of her feminist landmark Sexual Politics, Time magazine, which ran an Alice Neel portrait of Millet on the cover, called her the “Mao Tse-Tung of Women’s Liberation.”
A rarely screened artifact of the cultural revolution that Millett and other second-wavers were spearheading, Three Lives is, like the 1909 Gertrude Stein novel with which it shares a title, both radical and accessible. An advertisement for the documentary, made by an all-female crew and billed as “a Women’s Liberation Cinema production,” featured this straightforward tagline: “a film about women . . . what it’s like to be us.” Consciousness-raising captured on 16 mm, Three Lives is an act of intimate excavation. Its subjects delve into the past so that viewers—specifically, those who would be included in the first-person-plural pronoun in the ad copy—may somehow recognize and thus be able to articulate their own experiences.
The three women who appear in the documentary share only one trait: white skin. In her late twenties or early thirties, Mallory, the director’s younger sister, recounts a joyless marriage to a businessman. Speaking in a hard Minnesota twang as tie-dyed curtains in a Bowery loft blow behind her, Mallory recalls further misery and alienation when she, her spouse, and their young daughter relocated to the Philippines (“I was living in this huge Aztec sacrificial altar”). She fled this wifely prison, almost losing the right to ever see her child again in the process, for a life of extreme privation in New York, where her goals are crystallized: “to be important, to be recognized.”
In contrast to Mallory’s abject uxorial existence, Lillian Shreve, a chemist in her early fifties, reflects fondly on her marriage of twenty-three years. That Lillian has led a less tumultuous life may explain why her segment is the shortest in this seventy-minute film. But just as she is about to disclose, offscreen, what led to her supportive husband’s nervous breakdown, an episode Lillian considers one the greatest challenges in her union, the audio cuts out. Not a silencing, this deliberate interruption seems deployed to ensure that the focus doesn’t stray too far from “what it’s like to be us.”
Spared the details of a mental collapse, the viewer is then introduced to the film’s most confrontational interlocutor: Robin Mide, a twenty-one-year-old erstwhile “nice Jewish girl from Queens” who left her Far Rockaway family home at seventeen for a life of avant-garde theater, dope, and bisexuality—though she shuns all labels, particularly lesbian. “I do a lot of things that are not acceptable to a lot of people. I go to bed with women. I go to bed with men,” she says, filmed, at one point, in a room filled with toilets and cable spools. Inaudible offscreen comments stoke her into an increasingly agitated state. “You box me in, I’ll kill you,” Robin, credited as one of the codirectors, threatens—either to whoever is standing behind the camera or to the world at large.
Within the trajectory of filmed first-person accounts in the US, Three Lives falls between, both chronologically and structurally, Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967), whose only subject is a flamboyant black gay hustler, and the Mariposa Film Group’s Word Is Out (1977), in which twenty-six interviewees from around the country speak about their experiences as gay men and lesbians. (Millett’s film is also linked to another documentary, shot in 1971 but not released until 1979, in which she is conspicuous by her absence: Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall, a chronicle of the infamous “dialogue on women’s liberation” among Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and others.) Born of the then thriving personal-is-political impulse, Three Lives records a specific moment in another era yet still remains vital and absorbing today. Or, as Robin reminds the filmmakers, “You have to remember: Nothing stops.”
Peter Adair, Holy Ghost People, 1967, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 53 minutes.
“IF ART IS ONLY A BUSINESS, AS WARHOL SUGGESTS,” scrolls boxy, yellow text down a black screen, “then music expresses a more communal, transcendental emotion which art now denies.” The words are Dan Graham’s, pronounced near the end of his 1982–84 video Rock My Religion, an eccentric study which locates rock’s origins in Shaker ritual and the born-again fervor of the Great Awakening. Such moments of ecstatic effervescence—that emotional state of which post-AbEx art seems most skeptical—are the subject of two documentaries screening at Light Industry on February 5. The event couples Graham’s 1983 video, Minor Threat, a looped recording of a November 1982 concert by the titular punk outfit at the Bowery’s CBGB, with Peter Adair’s 1967 film Holy Ghost People, a straight-faced accounting of an evening service at a Holiness church in Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. Apposing the stylized slamming of young punks with the enraptured convulsions of Pentecostals seeking out the Holy Ghost, the pairing humors Graham’s alignment of rock and revivalism to provocative effect.
Low-key visuals and a refusal to judge unite the two projects. Shot on a handheld, 16-mm camera, Adair’s film nurses the vérité ambitions that so often attended the use of this technology in the 1960s. Yet while Adair plays the impartial observer, Graham is both filmmaker and fan. Now angled up from the mosh pit, now trained in a close-up on vocalist Ian MacKaye, his perspective shifts between crowd and stage in long takes. The club’s dim lighting—together with the camera’s poor resolution, jerky frame, and intermittent cut-outs to static—mean that Graham’s footage is often illegible. Enveloped in black, bodies appear only in pieces: torsos taut as they vault back, then launch forward; fists clenched as they beat the air; legs swung sideways midleap into the pit. Thus fragmented, the video reads as an anarchic, impersonal melee among white males, their violence poised precariously between necessary release and all-out brawl. Order is restored only when a set ends and the surge abates. It’s these interstitial moments, where Graham’s camera samples comments from concertgoers—“Yo, what’s with the video?” “OWW!” “Do you have a napkin?” “Aren’t you dying?”—that lend a sense of camaraderie to an otherwise rough scene.
Just as the exuberance of Minor Threat’s performance hinges on the hysteria of the crowd, so too does worship at Scrabble Creek’s Holiness congregation. The hour-long film was Adair’s first, shot while he was still in college. His style is direct and unassuming, his camera tracing restless, irregular arcs around his subjects as they shake, speak in tongues, and writhe on the floor. These performances of ecstasy, with each believer drawing on the zeal of others, soon reach a manic pitch where logic empties into tautology. “If God don’t want me to die of a snake bite, he won’t let me die that way,” says a soon-to-be-bitten preacher as he handles a venomous reptile. Interviews with the devout in the film’s opening minutes make the dependence of their emotional extremes on collective energy clear. In one, a homely woman appears in an unadorned room, jolting her neck and blinking repeatedly as she recites a spontaneous sermon. Full of lurching, garbled phrases, her monologue seems more stilted than sincere. Rapture, as Graham’s punks would attest, is difficult to achieve alone.
Left: Alexander Mackendrick, The Man in the White Suit, 1951, 35 mm, black-and-white film, 85 minutes. Sidney Stratton (Alec Guinness), Frank (Patric Doonan), and Bertha (Vida Hope). Right: Alexander Mackendrick, Sweet Smell of Success, 1957, 35 mm, black-and-white, 96 minutes. Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and J. J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster).
IN THE AUTEURIST heyday of the early ’60s, when you could still rush out to see the new John Ford or the new Raoul Walsh alongside the new Godard or the new Antonioni, the American-born, Scottish-bred director Alexander Mackendrick was a singularly elusive sort of auteur. Between the whimsical joys of his Ealing comedies from the ’50s—like The Man in the White Suit and The Ladykillers (but how whimsical or joyful were they, finally?)—and the corrosive New York noir of Sweet Smell of Success (underseen and underrated long after its 1957 release), it was hard to find blatant stylistic or thematic connections. When the director resurfaced in the ’60s with two seeming adventure movies that subverted most genre expectations—the surprising, commercially ill-fated Sammy Going South and his haunting, long meditated adaptation of A High Wind in Jamaica—the question of what Mackendrick was really about, and where he might be going next, became even more fascinating. Then, in 1967, came the more than slightly rancid beach comedy Don’t Make Waves—a hopeless project redeemed by the intransigent seriousness with which Mackendrick treated his jerry-built material, right down to the oceanfront bungalow capsizing in a mudslide with most of the cast inside—and after that, silence.
As it turned out the oeuvre would stop there, with the nine features he completed between 1948 and 1967. Mackendrick accepted the job of dean of the film school at the newly opened California Institute of the Arts in 1969; he would stay on for nearly a quarter of a century, until his death in 1993, a revered and evidently sometimes confrontational presence. Now, unexpectedly, we hear from Mackendrick again, with On Film-making (Faber & Faber): not the book he might have chosen to write about the craft of directing, but something perhaps more exciting—an assemblage of his classroom handouts that recreates vividly the atmosphere of his teaching. The students are very much in the room, and you can sense the tensions that must have resulted when their yearning for free-form self-expression came up against Mackendrick’s devotion to imparting the fundamentals of technical knowledge and discipline.
It must indeed have been difficult—if you saw yourself as the next Godard or Dennis Hopper—to be asked to “put aside your hunger for instant gratification and creativity, at least for long enough to understand some basic ideas and practical pieces of advice that you are perfectly entitled to discard later.” Or to be told: “Be sure to write in sentences with subjects, verbs and objects. . . . From the very grammar of the sentence structure in which an outline is written, I can sense whether or not the student has got the hang of cinematic narrative progression.” The oldest lesson in the world—that one must first know the rules in order to break them—was to be reiterated many times over: “The truth is I cannot help you explore what is often called Modernism in cinema. This is one reason why I keep referring to ‘movies’ rather than ‘cinema.’ The craft of storytelling is rather un-Modernist. It’s old. Ancient, in fact.” Self-expression must be tempered to the needs of others: “You should assume your audience is always bored.” He covered the walls of his classroom with mottoes such as this: “Student films come in three sizes: Too Long, Much Too Long and Very Much Too Long.”
As teacher, Mackendrick does not expound a personal vision; he rarely talks about his own films, and when he does so it is in the most modest terms. If he gained a reputation early on at Ealing Studios for being gifted at conveying ideas through visual means, it was because “I wasn’t very good at writing dialogue.” When he brings up Sweet Smell of Success, it is to focus—at fascinating length—on the screenwriting genius of Clifford Odets as, by a tortuous process, he shapes a rudimentary episode into the classic 21 Club sequence, that most Shakespearean of movie scenes. What he wants above all to convey is what hard and deliberate work it all is to achieve those effects that on the screen look like spontaneous inspiration. The book amounts to an insistently detailed exhortation to put forth mindful effort into every phase of filmmaking. Consider his note on “the value of listening and watching with real attention and concentration”: “These are not passive activities. . . . Nor are they things that are done well without considerable effort and a good deal of experience.” An obvious observation? As he writes elsewhere, “There is no danger in being obvious if what you are being obvious about is also exciting.”
Far from treating technique as a set of mechanical procedures, he sees it as a means to break through excessively verbal, rational, abstract habits of mind. Cinema precedes language: “To translate certain concepts into cinematic forms comprehensible without words, the student may actually have to unlearn habits of verbal thought and return to patterns that are in some ways more primitive.” To control and direct the power of film requires such a massive and complex effort precisely because the medium is so “richly loaded with sensory, emotional, and intuitive informational data,” working “at a level not necessarily subject to conscious, rational and critical comprehension.”
In such passages Mackendrick begins to suggest the quality of his own films, under whose controlled surfaces and exquisitely lucid story lines a potential for chaos and violence swirls almost palpably. His reasonable and civilized art is profoundly in tune with instinctive forces that can manifest themselves as ecstatic celebration but also as tribal warfare or relentless perseverance in a private mission. It is a recurring feature of Mackendrick’s films that those who seem most harmless—the bedraggled boatman of The Maggie (1954), the sweet, slightly dotty widow of The Ladykillers (1955), the ostensibly innocent children of A High Wind in Jamaica (1965)—prove quite capable of destroying business magnates, professional criminals, and bands of pirates.
In these obscure battles it is often far from obvious where our sympathies are to be enlisted. The Man in the White Suit (1951) is objectively an account of the destruction of an idealistic, otherworldly scientist by the combined forces of the British textile industry, desperate to prevent him from marketing a fabric that doubt they can be read in the troubled currents his films chart with such precision. His parents had eloped to America, but his father, a civil engineer, died in the flu epidemic of 1918, when Mackendrick was six years old. His mother took him back to Scotland but lapsed into alcoholism and later became fanatical about religion. Leaving the Glasgow School of Art without a degree, he spent over a decade in advertising, becoming an art director at J. Walter Thompson. When the war broke out, he found himself working on government projects, most notably for the Psychological Warfare Branch, which sent him to North Africa in 1943 and then to Italy. After the Allies took Rome, Mackendrick briefly oversaw the Italian film industry and produced documentary footage that included the execution of one Fascist official and the death of another at the hands of an angry mob. Returning to London after the war, he was hired as a staff scriptwriter by Ealing Studios, that quintessentially English organization that billed itself “The Studio with the Team Spirit” and that became best known for a brand of comedy at once cozily fanciful and laced with antiauthoritarian satire.
Mackendrick’s first feature, Whisky Galore! (1949), was crucial to the emergence of Ealing, and it remains an immensely satisfying film. Like all Mackendrick’s comedies, it is deeply absorbing but doesn’t provoke a great deal of laughter; the gags are incidental to a deadly serious sort of war, as the inhabitants of a Scottish island band together to thwart an English official from confiscating the cases of whisky that a shipwreck has miraculously tossed up on their shore. Neither the ferocity of the islanders nor the final humiliation of the hapless Englishman are fudged by Mackendrick; the ending is right and fitting but not heartwarming in the usual movie-ish way. Likewise, the film’s visual beauty in no way assuages the real conflict at its heart.
The most underrated of his Ealing comedies, The Maggie, pushes the ferocity almost beyond the point of comedy, as a tenacious boatman fighting for survival triumphs over the American businessman who has mistakenly hired him to transport a valuable cargo. By avoiding any easy resolution in the battle of tradition versus modernity, native versus interloper, Scotland versus America, Mackendrick creates a comic situation that can end only on a note of pain swallowed with as much dignity as possible. Neither cynical nor sentimental, The Maggie laconically and eloquently conveys the sense of cultures finally unable to bridge the distance that separates them. In its more gentle way, it implies levels of cruelty fully up to the high-level urban savagery of Sweet Smell of Success. Mackendrick was a perfectionist who—after making the most of Ealing’s protective environment, which nurtured him as a filmmaker—finally had trouble dealing with the casual ruthlessness of the international film world. He was fired from several important projects, apparently for being stubborn and slow to produce. When he did finally succeed in making his adaptation of Richard Hughes’s 1929 novel A High Wind in Jamaica, it was taken away from him and cut by a fourth. What survives is still an extraordinary film, of bravura lyricism in its visuals and unyielding harshness in its emotional drama: a great children’s movie about the destructive power of childish innocence, in which, true to his credo, Mackendrick goes beneath the verbal to find a world of “feelings, sensations, intuitions and movement,” a world of direct and terrifying contact. Great teacher that he apparently was, it is impossible not to regret the films he ought to have made. The sustained intelligence and beauty of those we have remains bracing.
This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of Artforum. “Alexander Mackendrick: Filmmaker, Teacher & Theorist. A Centennial Celebration” occurs at REDCAT in Los Angeles on Wednesday, February 6.