Andrew Bujalski, Computer Chess, 2013, color and black-and-white, 92 minutes.
“IT’S ALMOST LIKE everyone you see on the street is in a contest to see who can be more positive, who can smile the biggest,” said a director, visiting from a grimmer part of the world, who was introducing his film at the True/False festival. His documentary considered failed utopianism, but I can say no more—this was one of six, color-coded “secret screenings,” premieres not making their official festival premiere, their anonymity guarded by a festivalwide pact of silence. These unique screenings are among True/False’s trademarks, along with the busker musicians who play before every film, and an atmosphere of communal enthusiasm that verges, yes, on the utopian.
True/False takes place in Columbia, a college town in mid-Missouri that was digging out from its second snowstorm in two weeks as festivalgoers and filmmakers traveling from as far as Beirut converged for the event’s tenth anniversary. During True/False’s three days and four nights, visitors and locals packed into screenings of challenging fare, like Leviathan and The Act of Killing, which likely wouldn’t play such a small market otherwise. And while not shying away from heavy films, True/False has gained a growing reputation as a really fun small festival—well deserved, as evidenced by great parties, a hangover-considerate screening schedule, and an all-around feeling of goodwill.
Such universal popularity as True/False presently enjoys must inevitably lead to talk of Jonestown Kool-Aid—but the fact of the festival’s fun should not overshadow that it is programmed with discernment, and offers a lineup that eschews talking-heads infotainment for documentaries that show real formal ambition. There is a special emphasis on hybrid films operating in the limen between fact and fiction, hence the fest’s name. It’s appropriate that Jim McBride, on hand to present screenings of his brilliant 1967 forgery David Holzman’s Diary, was probably the most famous person in town, after Gael García Bernal, slated to present Pablo Larraín’s simulacra-drama No, bailed.
Lo-fi tech fetishism is seemingly à la mode: While No was shot on U-matic video tape to simulate the look of 1980s news footage, Andrew Bujalski used an even more primitive Sony camcorder for his glitch-comedy Computer Chess, a partway mock-doc covering a hotel convention in which the best of chess-playing technology and human programmers, both variously dysfunctional, are pitted against each other. By picking up Computer Chess fresh from a warm reception in Park City, True/False expands its definition of “documentary” ever wider. It’s impossible to deny the method behind Computer Chess’s messiness—and nice to see Bujalski stepping outside of his established niche—but the fictionalized facts of Sergio Oksman’s A Story for the Modlins make for a far more unnerving examination of crippling social anxiety. With a collection of personal effects found abandoned on a street in Madrid for his raw materials, Oksman crafts a cleverly constructed twenty-six-minute film, a window into the private world of a smotheringly close-knit family unit. The photos, letters, and videotapes, laid simply before the viewer as if onto a light table, were the property of the Modlins, a family of American expats: Elmer, an actor whose only claim to history is a non-speaking role in the last scene of Rosemary’s Baby; his wife, a painter of psychedelic Christian kitsch; and their son, doted on to the point of madness well into his teenage years. One can feel the flames of this family hell.
Eliane Raheb, Sleepless Nights, 2012, color, 128 minutes.
Thwarted artistic ambition is also at the center of Zachary Heinzerling’s Cutie and the Boxer, which observes the home life of Ushio Shinohara, a pugnacious eighty-year-old Brooklyn-based Japanese artist, and his overshadowed wife, while looking back over their long, rocky marriage. Cutie was probably the nearest thing to a consensus film that emerged at True/False, but it hits its marks rather too cleanly en route to a preordained destination of affirmation and closure. Cutie and the Boxer (which also captured the best director prize for a documentary at Sundance) will certainly have further festival engagements. I hope the same can be said for a movie that was close behind in popularity, the best in show for my money, and a movie that scoffs at the very idea of closure: Sleepless Nights, by the aforementioned Lebanese visitor, Eliane Raheb. While it finds time for some well-considered digressions, Sleepless Nights is principally about two subjects: Maryam Saiidi, the mother of a teenage partisan who went missing after a firefight in 1982 and who continues to look for her son, and Assaad Shaftari, an intelligence officer who killed hundreds during the 1975–1990 civil war between Pan-Arab and Christian factions. Shaftari fought with the latter—and is the only one to have publicly apologized for his role in wartime atrocities. His limp, gray face is a clay mask of fatigue; his penitent’s masochism makes him force himself to stay in interrogatory scenes, like one where he is ambushed and berated at an art installation memorial to the missing by Saiidi, who keeps her grief heated to a perpetual boil while official culture preaches mealy-mouthed forgiveness. The irony, which Raheb never leans too hard on, is that these two stuck-in-the-past figures, while sworn enemies, understand each other better than perhaps anyone else in the new city that has been rebuilt around them. Sleepless Nights was scheduled to publicly screen for a Beirut audience for the first time after leaving True/False, and it could well be a cultural flashpoint at home—but it also deserves to be seen in the States, even if it doesn’t have the celebrity endorsements (Errol Morris, Herzog) of the film it was frequently compared to, The Act of Killing.
I don’t know if anyone really tries to write the Great American Novel in the classic John William De Forest sense anymore, but Tinatin Gurchiani’s The Machine Which Makes Everything Disappear is an attempt at the Great Georgian Movie (the republic in the Caucasus, that is). A series of direct-address audition interviews for a film open into vignettes of the auditionees’ lives, taking in city and country, mountain and lowland, Christian and Muslim, sorrow and—well, mostly sorrow. The ambition is admirable, though some admittedly stunning moments cannot overcome an overall lack of shape. By contrast, Cristian Soto and Catalina Vergara’s The Last Station is a movie content to do just one small thing precisely and obsessively, observing the incremental way in which half-ghost residents of a Chilean nursing home go about their lives—such as they are—lives that have shriveled to the barest essence, the excruciating performance of small, intent tasks that, one senses, are the self-assigned “jobs” that give arbitrary meaning to existence. Close observation of these small things, however, provides a perspective on something larger: There is one shot of a shriveled resident lying in bed while a bright playground is visible through a window above them that might break your heart.
Some fun fest!—but all is not misery in Missouri, and there are also moments of programmed levity. For example: Joe Callander’s hysterical two-minute squib of a short, Tina Delivers a Goat, which involves an American do-gooder performing the title’s action for a third-world family while keeping up an oblivious one-sided dialogue that’s edited into a chipper blather. The festival even has an official game show, Gimme Truth!, in which a panel of filmmakers guess as to whether a series of comic shorts are, in fact, “True” or “False.”
The question is never far from one’s mind. For example, did filmmakers Omar Mullick and Bassam Tariq ask their subject to reenact the seaside ending of The 400 Blows for the beginning of their These Birds Walk, centered on an orphanage in Karachi, Pakistan? Omar, a boy of either eight or nine—his impoverished, abusive parents don’t remember—certainly has the raw, brooding magnetism of a young Jean-Pierre Léaud. There are other moments in Birds, though, which simply could not be rehearsed. Letting an ongoing schoolyard fight play out until you want to scream “Stop!”, or following Omar ducking a security guard and tearing up a crowded stairwell to plunge into a mosque, the filmmakers display an extraordinary ability to not let their subject, or a decisive moment, escape. It’s another gutty bit of programming from a festival that feels like a real moment itself. Sometimes Kool-Aid just hits the spot.
The True/False Film Fest ran February 28–March 3, 2013.
Jacques Rivette, Le Pont du Nord, 1981, 16 mm, color, sound, 127 minutes.
“REAL LIFE IS A REIGN OF TERROR,” offhandedly remarks Baptiste (Pascale Ogier), a saucer-eyed, long-haired young woman who brandishes a switchblade to gouge out the eyes of models in poster-size advertisements on the streets of Paris in Jacques Rivette’s typically ludic yet unsettlingly ominous Le Pont du Nord (1981). This apothegm, delivered to Marie (Bulle Ogier), recently sprung from prison for vaguely defined insurrectionist crimes, best sums up this droll, haunting film’s mood: feeling estranged in one’s own hometown, where even the quotidian is marked by the sinister.
Le Pont du Nord, like Rivette’s incomparable Céline and Julie Go Boating (1974) and his minimalist musical Up, Down, Fragile (1995), stands as an act of magnificent collaboration between the director and his main actresses, who, in all three films, shaped the script, largely through improvisation. In each work, the heroines set out on an adventure in Paris. Often these movies highlight—or take as a point of departure—a real-life connection. As Rivette, referring to the lead performers in Céline and Julie Go Boating, explained in an interview about that film’s impetus, “The first idea was to bring together Juliet [Berto] and Dominique [Labourier], who were already friends.” In Le Pont du Nord, the relationship between the protagonists is more primal: Bulle Ogier, a Rivette regular, is Pascale’s mother; separated by only nineteen years, the two could easily be mistaken for sisters.
On the third of the four days that Baptiste and Marie—strangers brought together when the former crashes her moped—spend roaming the French capital, the older woman defines their relationship: “I don’t know if I need you, but I think you sometimes need me.” (The line deepens in poignancy in hindsight: Pascale died in 1984, one day shy of her twenty-sixth birthday, of drug-related causes.) Baptiste acts not only as Marie’s protector but as an ad hoc adjudicator, breaking up a dispute between two boys fighting over the Police’s Zenyatta Mondatta LP. The twentysomething’s altruism is an extension of her odd street vigilantism: In addition to blinding billboards, Baptiste breaks out into kung fu fighting, chopping and kicking the air (and sometimes those she considers a threat to her new friend). “Bring it on, Babylon!” she shouts to the city while zipping along the boulevards on her scooter, greeting Paris’s many lion statues with a righteous fist salute.
As in most Rivette movies, the French capital also has top billing in Le Pont du Nord; filming, on 16 mm, exclusively outdoors to avoid the expense and hassle of interior shots, the director takes particular advantage of the City of Light. Marie’s severe claustrophobia—incapable of entering a bakery, she politely insists the proprietress bring two croissants to her just outside the doorway—leads Rivette to be even more inventive with his Paris location shots than usual. Meetings between Marie and her lover, Julien (Pierre Clémenti), on top of the Arc de Triomphe are followed by scenes set by the dilapidated warehouses near the Quai de Bercy area. The city itself becomes an ominous maze, its twenty arrondissements parts of an occult board game that Marie and Baptiste are trying to master. That they never can suggests an inversion of the ownership in the title of Rivette’s 1961 debut film, Paris Belongs to Us: We are the property of Paris.
Le Pont du Nord screens in a new 35-mm print at BAM in New York March 22–28.
Thomas Heise, Volkspolizei 1985 (Police Department 1985), 1985, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 60 minutes.
EVOKING HEMINGWAY’S The Sun Also Rises, an international crowd descended on Pamplona, Spain, late last month. But rather than for the running of the bulls of San Fermín, filmmakers gathered for a rigorously curated program at Punto de Vista, an expansive documentary festival that includes artists’ and experimental moving images. Last year, budget cuts forced the formerly annual event to go biennial, and this eighth edition is the last to be programmed by artistic director Josetxo Cerdán. Taking its name from Jean Vigo’s notion of a “documented point of view,” the intimate festival tends toward challenging nonfiction work that examines its subjects while pressing the limits of the genre itself. The festival’s ethos was best evinced by a work-in-progress screening of Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, in which the order of the much anticipated three-part film was altered last minute and played from Final Cut Pro.
A palpable through-line of the festival was the study of people’s relationships to place, a particularly central concern in Eric Baudelaire’s The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images. Baudelaire’s work turns the theory onto the theorist, using filmmaker and Japanese Red Army member Masao Adachi’s fukei-ron ideas of landscape as a formal apparatus through which Adachi’s own story—as well as that of Red Army member Fusako Shigenobu’s daughter May—is explored. Their narrations are heard over Baudelaire’s Super 8 images of present-day Beirut and Tokyo. Employing the film stock’s propensity for nostalgia, these images conjure Adachi’s two-hundred-plus film reels that were destroyed in the 1982 Siege of Beirut, and simultaneously question their capacity to “reflect the image of power in society” as Adachi’s theory postulates.
Also in competition was Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews, a work that considers the residents of Westport, Mississippi, and the surrounding waters of the Tombigbee River. We see the workings of the Columbus Lock and Dam, re-creations of river baptisms (which Everson underwent as a child), and the river in the wake of a water-skier. In the solemn tolling of the church bell and the viola that mournfully repeats the same notes, we feel the despondent echoes of all that was lost in the Mississippi flood of 1973.
In the special section, jury member J. P. Sniadecki’s Yumen, a collaboration with Xu Ruotao and Huang Xiang that premiered earlier in the month at the Berlinale, also ruminates on the delicate bonds between people and their landscapes. The now-defunct oil town of Yumen in northwest China and its barren, postindustrial terrain is imbued with melancholy and magic through an eclectic mix of C-pop and striking images that border on sci-fi. Subverting the bleakness that the decrepit buildings and hollowed earth command, the protagonists persist with artistic expression—dancing in the empty, hoary gorges, and painting swaths of expressionistic line portraits on the crumbling walls of past prosperity.
Receiving special jury mention, El Modelo, Germán Scelso’s polemical portrait of a disabled beggar on the streets of Barcelona, parses the current socioeconomic struggles within Spain. Jordi, who suffers from cerebral palsy and has limited use of his left arm and leg, begs for money from the racially diverse clientele at the Internet café where Scelso works. Jordi puts his disability to his advantage, stipulating cash, alcohol, and intimate details of the filmmaker’s sex life in exchange for being the film’s subject. Scelso parallels Jordi’s self-aware and exploitative approach with his own provocative form—his crude depiction is seen in the use of extreme close-ups of Jordi drinking beer and smoking cigars; he’s even shot from above a toilet stall while urinating, with the filmmaker entering just after the act to take down the hidden camera. Questions of class, race, religion, economy, and politics cumulate in stark interviews with Jordi, and climax when he stands naked before a projected image of da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.
The festival highlight, though, was Thomas Heise’s eleven-film retrospective, which ranged from Why Make a Film About These People? (1980), a film he made as a student in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), to his most recent, Consequence, which looks at the 24/7 operations of a small crematorium. His singularly incisive portrayals of the lives of those from the former GDR is neither nostalgic nor pointed—he reveals the people in relation to their circumstances without reducing his subjects to symptoms of political turmoil. Heise chronicles several members of a family over nearly a decade in Newtown (The State of Things) (2000) and Children. As Time Flies. (2007). In Police Department 1985 (1985), Heise observes the ins and outs of the Berlin People’s Police Department. Fassbinderesque mise-en-scènes of officers watching the USA v. GDR hockey game in a rec room adorned with gaudy floral wallpaper are contrasted with long tracking shots of Berlin-Mitte streets and the recordings of police statements: A woman describes her domestic abuse incident and a man, arrested for trespassing, explains that he just realized that these walls were meant to contain them, not to keep the “others” out.
The eighth edition of Punto de Vista ran February 19–24, 2013.
LAST NIGHT I saw Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers for the third time. Not because I had to—I’d already taken enough notes to write five pieces—but because I wanted to, the way I want to hear certain albums a hundred times over. The way Alien (James Franco), the misfit drug dealer who nearly steals the movie from its quadruple-heroine collective (Selena Gomez, Rachel Korine, Vanessa Hudgens, and Ashley Benson), keeps Scarface on repeat, “for-ev-ah.”
Loops and repetitions are what Spring Breakers is made of—beginning with the delirious slo-mo bacchanal that puts you inches from the totally bare or fluorescent-bikini-covered breasts of a sea of girls, er, coeds, er, young women going wild on a sun-drenched Florida beach. When the camera has its fill of gravity-defying boobs, it switches to buttocks, and then to hot-pink-tinted lips fellating red, white, ’n’ blue popsicles, then back again, over and over until you might wonder when the story is going to begin or if this giddy, tawdry, MTV-on-ecstasy spectacle is all there is—a visual ground for the movie’s genius ambient sound track that punctuates Cliff Martinez’s anxiety-driven electronica with Skrillex’s dub-step riffs and intermittent backbeats of assault rifles cocked or fired. Close your eyes and make up your own pictures. Because some of those on the screen, their dazzling mix of pop excess and stringent form notwithstanding (even Warhol stuck to halftones for the “Death and Disaster” paintings), are just too ugly. And I’m not referring only to the glimpse of the kid passed out or maybe dead on the floor beside a stopped-up toilet. Did she OD on Skittles? Can a movie be too colorful to swallow?
But eventually a story emerges, a simple fairy-tale-turned-upside-down as by Angela Carter, except Carter never claimed that survival is what matters above all else. Four bored college students—Faith (Gomez), Cotty (Korine), Candy (Hudgens), and Brit (Benson)—are crazy to escape to Florida for spring break. The opening sequence, in retrospect, could be what they imagine their liberation will be. Having insufficient funds, they rob a Chicken Shack with squirt guns and a sledge hammer. “Pretend like it’s a video game. Act like you’re in a movie,” counsels one of the interchangeable blondes. Mission accomplished, they board a bus and head for “St. Pete” where they join the party-in-progress. It’s a beer-drenched, bong-inspired paradise until the police descend and the quartet are cuffed and get to spend a night in jail in their bikinis, only to be bailed out by Alien (Franco), a cornrowed, grillz-sporting drug dealer and rapper wannabe.
Harmony Korine, Spring Breakers, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 94 minutes. Alien (James Franco).
Faith is reluctant to get into Alien’s ride (a white Camaro with BALL’R plates), and she grows warier when he gives them a tour of the ’hood where he grew up, the only white kid on the block. His childhood best friend, Archie (Gucci Mane), is now the drug lord whose sovereignty he wants to overthrow. “This isn’t the way it was supposed to be . . . I feel uncomfortable. I want to go home,” Faith repeats again and again, as Alien whispers in her ear and caresses her cheek, like De Niro seducing Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear. But Faith is stubborn and she boards the bus that will carry her back, hopefully not only to her Students for Christ worship sessions, but to the history class where the others should have listened harder when the teacher droned on about slavery, Reconstruction, and the legacy of racism in America. Anyone who thinks that Spring Breakers is apolitical hasn’t noticed the signposts along the way. Faith may have split (and Disney may close its doors to Gomez, its daughter so outrageously come of age), but her voice literally lingers on, her hallucinatory phone call to her grandma—“I’m starting to think this is the most spiritual place in the world. It’s way more than having a good time . . . ”—floating above images that grow increasingly violent and nihilistic as the movie hurtles toward its Day-Glo apocalypse.
Korine’s filmmaking chops reveal themselves not only in memorable individual scenes: The three variations of the Chicken Shack holdup and Alien’s gonzo “Look at my shit” monologue—“I got guns . . . I got my blue Kool-Aid . . . I got shorts . . . I got Calvin Klein’s Escape . . . ”—the most delirious product placement ever. Or Alien and his three blonde “soul mates” (the girls in pink ski masks, toting assault rifles) robbing spring breakers in their bedrooms to the sound of Britney Spears’s “Everytime,” the sequence edited like a music video that begins like a cover—Alien, seated at a white baby grand on a patio overlooking the Gulf of Mexico at sunset, croons the opening bars as the girls, their lips poking obscenely through their masks, cavort around him—and segues into the real thing, in every way. But also in Korine’s direction of Franco, his way of giving the actor the time and space he needs to reveal the terror and confusion beneath Alien’s borrowed black-gangster signifiers. And in his collaboration with the aforementioned composers (Martinez and Skrillex), a superb editor (Douglas Crise), and an ingenious cinematographer (Benoît Debie) shooting in 35 mm embellished with squiggles of low-res video, like acid flashbacks inside your head.
And yet the most extraordinary thing about Korine’s direction is how he gradually shifts the position of the viewer from self-possessed outsider looking in to complete immersion during a denouement where there is no one worth rooting for. But as the speedboat carrying Alien, Candy, and Brit toward the inevitable shootout with Archie and his gang skims the Gulf, we find ourselves holding our breath, as if we had been sucked into an all-nighter of “Grand Theft Auto” where nothing mattered except picking the avatar that gets to play another day.
“Spring break, bitches. Spring break, for-ev-ah . . . ”
IN THE AUGUST 1975 issue of Ms., Pam Grier, who graced the cover—the first African American to do so—was hailed in the headline as “The Mocha Mogul of Hollywood.” (Jamaica Kincaid wrote the story.) Roughly twenty years later, Quentin Tarantino, in an interview with Vibe, called the actress “the Queen of Women.” The exalted monikers are almost indistinguishable from her ID on the poster for Coffy (1973), her first blaxploitation triumph: “the baddest One-Chick Hit-Squad that ever hit town!”
But before these lofty nicknames were bestowed on her, Grier had to break out of prison—repeatedly—in the Philippines. Born in 1949, Grier, who left Denver for Hollywood in the late 1960s, was encouraged to read for B-movie maestro Roger Corman. He immediately offered her a role in the Jack Hill–directed The Big Doll House (1971), her first in a string of women-behind-bars movies set in the Southeast Asian nation. In her last, Eddie Romero’s Black Mama, White Mama (1973), Grier plays a prostitute and part-time smack dealer shackled to a blue-blooded insurrectionist. As the actress recounts in her autobiography, Foxy: My Life in Three Acts (2010), “I had no concept of categories like A, B, or C movies. A movie was a movie, and I intended to deliver an A performance, no matter what anybody else did.” She carried a copy of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares with her everywhere. But not even a performer with decades of Method training could match Grier’s panache when delivering lines like, “Some jive-ass revolution don’t mean shit to me!”
Many of the leitmotifs in Black Mama, White Mama would appear in Grier’s blaxploitation pictures: breasts bared within minutes, catfights, evil honkies, villainous lesbians (often the last two categories are one and the same). As the title character in Foxy Brown (1974), which, like Coffy, reteamed the actress with director Hill, Grier seeks to avenge the murder of her undercover narcotics agent boyfriend. She infiltrates a high-end prostitution ring; frees herself, using her tongue and a razor blade, from the two peckerwoods holding her captive in the woods; teams up with a black vigilante group called the Anti-Slavery Committee; and, most perilously, triumphs over a score of short-fused butches in a dyke bar. (An actor prepares: Grier, as Kit Porter, would later run a trendy sapphic eatery/boîte on Showtime’s The L Word.)
Though typically effusive, Tarantino’s evaluation of Grier in these outrageous, wildly entertaining revenge movies isn’t too far off the mark; to pay his respects to his sovereign, he wrote Jackie Brown (1997), an adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s Rum Punch, for her. In her first lead role since Friday Foster (1975), Grier gives the best performance of her career. Playing a forty-four-year-old stewardess for a third-rate airline who supplements her $16,000 yearly salary by smuggling wads of cash in and out of Mexico for a gunrunner, Grier has never appeared more dignified than she does in the opening-credits sequence of Jackie Brown. Filmed in profile, she stands perfectly still on an LAX moving walkway—her hauteur, undimmed by decades in the service industry, transforming her blue polyester Cabo Airlines uniform into regal raiment.
Matteo Garrone, Reality, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes. Luciano and Maria (Aniello Arena and Loredana Simioli).
THE TONE AND THRUST of Matteo Garrone’s Reality could not be less like those of Gomorrah (2008), his unflinching portrait of the Neapolitan crime world. There is a genuine sweetness in the new film that belies the fate of its protagonist, whose slow descent into a gentle madness is almost indiscernible. Luciano (Aniello Arena), a working-class fish merchant who moonlights in crooked resales of kitchen merchandise, seems relatively happy in his modest life with his wife (Loredana Simioli) and children. Everybody knows everybody in the apartment complex where they live, and everybody knows everybody’s business. Indeed, the comforts and drawbacks of community life are as central to the film’s sociology as they are to its style, the latter no better illustrated than by Marco Onorato’s fluid, peripatetic-like cinematography and Alexandre Desplat’s literally enchanting original music, both qualities evident in the opening shot. An aerial view of Naples, Vesuvius looming in the background, passes over the populated city before closing in on a Cinderella-like coach moving through the narrow streets to a glitzy wedding complex, attuned to the whimsical chimes of Desplat’s score.
Weddings bring out the barely suppressed clown in Luciano. To everyone’s amusement, he hoots it up in drag with Enzo—an inflated media celebrity of the hit television show Big Brother, who’s been hired to boost the faux sincerity of the confectionary atmosphere. A poignant shot of Luciano holding his young daughter while gazing longingly at Enzo’s departing plane hints just enough of his sadly pedestrian dreams to motivate the rest of the story. Everyone encourages Luciano to try his luck at getting on Big Brother. When he does, he is so convinced that he has wowed the producers and is so enthusiastically applauded by his neighbors that he begins a journey into unreality from which he never recovers, and which the film traces with an artful fusion of neorealism and make-believe.
Resembling a marriage of early (I Vitelloni ) and late (Amarcord ) Fellini, the film’s play with the line between social realism and subjective fantasy is beautifully captured by Onorato’s camerawork, sustaining the spatial and temporal continuity of everyday Neapolitan life, while simultaneously embodying Luciano’s impulses to slip beyond its boundaries. This tension is inscribed in the guileless affability of Arena’s face and body language, recalling the grand tradition of Italian cinema’s naïfs. When the camera is not moving, crosscutting stresses Luciano’s difference from his neighbors, as in the scene when they debate whether the producers of Big Brother have sent spies to check on his life. Orwellian connotations abound when, suddenly, every unfamiliar face is cause for suspicion even as it upholds Luciano’s belief that he is still a contender. To impress these imaginary observers, he resorts to random acts of charity, giving away furniture to the less fortunate as his wife tries to rein him in. While watching Big Brother on television, he is convinced that a performer has stolen his dance techniques. Even a cricket on the wall assumes prognosticating import.
Eventually, a friend suggests Luciano seek guidance from a local priest, which leads to a pilgrimage to Rome. Though Garrone avoids simplistic parallels, it is hard not to wonder whether the mass assembly of the faithful that Luciano attends reflects just another form of delusion. Still determined, however, Luciano escapes the crowd and finds his way to the Cinecittà studios where Big Brother is produced, climbing fences and walls to sneak into the fabulous television complex. He gazes unobserved through various two-way glass mirrors as the show’s chosen participants go about exercising, showering, and lying around. Stealthily entering the chamber, he quietly stretches out unseen on a lounge chair. The mundane nature of the place and the people seems to escape him. But while his childlike smile and his slightly demonic laughter suggest that he has arrived at Never Never Land, the camera pulls up and away to another aerial view, this time of a nighttime Naples, reducing Luciano to a brightly lit box in the frame that becomes smaller and smaller and less and less distinguishable from a padded cell. (This ending is more than a little ironic in that Arena is presently serving a prison sentence for murder.) At the fade-out of the shot, REALITY glitters across the screen like a marquee. Avoiding the shrill and the obvious, Garrone’s fable is as charming as it is unnerving, an image of the media as a contemporary Oz whose allure is predictably hollow but no less insidious.
Reality opens Friday, March 15 in New York and Friday, March 22 in Los Angeles.
Andrzej Zulawski, Possession, 1981, 35 mm, color, sound, 127 minutes. Anna and Mark (Isabelle Adjani and Sam Neill).
IN TWO OF HER MOST high-profile films, both biopics, Isabelle Adjani played women who spent the last several decades of their long, tormented lives in mental asylums. Though the actress’s output has slowed considerably since Queen Margot (1994), she remains a peerless interpreter of derangement in the cinema of the 1970s and ’80s.
Born in Paris in 1955, Adjani committed a near-heretical act by abandoning a twenty-year contract with the Comédie Française—her country’s most prestigious theater corps, which she had joined at age sixteen—to play the lead role in François Truffaut’s The Story of Adele H. (1975). Based on the life of Victor Hugo’s youngest child, Truffaut’s film takes place mainly in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1863; the obsessive Adèle has crossed the Atlantic to pursue ex-lover Albert Pinson (Bruce Robinson), a debauched British military officer who wants nothing more to do with her. “I have the religion of love,” Adèle proclaims; in service to her faith, this erotomaniac will sink deeper into abjection. She spies, operates under false names and identities (at one point even crashing a party as a silk-hatted gentleman), fakes a pregnancy, and procures whores for Pinson, all in the hopes of being closer to him. Throughout her increasingly desperate acts, she has recurring nightmares of drowning and furiously takes fountain pen to paper to record her cracked reality. (Adèle’s own diaries served as the template for the film’s script.) The power of Adjani’s performance—as her piercing blue eyes flash with even more terrifying brightness—stems from her intuitive understanding of her character’s greatest tragedy: that, even in her most unhinged moments, Adèle spoke with unassailable logic. “Do you think people can control their feelings? It’s possible to love a man and still despise everything about him,” she cries to a judge, bewildered by his emotional obtuseness.
One of the most pitiful scenes in Truffaut’s movie shows Adèle, now living in a poorhouse, having spent all of her father’s generous allowance to try to win Albert back, sleeping on her steamer trunk so that no one can steal the pages contained therein. This fierce attachment to one’s creative work is also the focus of Camille Claudel (1988); Adjani, playing the title role and also serving as executive producer, had been consumed for four years with adapting the life of the sculptor and Rodin muse and mistress. (The film was the directorial debut of Bruno Nuytten, a former romantic partner of the actress’s who had been the cinematographer for three of her earlier films.) Running at just a little over two-and-a-half hours, Camille Claudel suffers from typical biopic bombast and bloat. Until Claudel’s plummet into insanity, which takes up the last hour, Adjani astutely portrays the artist’s pride, independence, and unwavering determination to create. But after the final break with Rodin (Gérard Depardieu), Adjani relies heavily on histrionics: cackling, boozing, smashing, conspiracy-mongering. (The lunacy onscreen could not even begin to match what Adjani was facing in real life shortly before Camille Claudel’s release: French newspapers were falsely reporting that she was dying of AIDS, slander that the actress, in a 1990 article in the New York Times, believed was most likely punishment for her condemnation of anti-immigrant beliefs in France and her concomitant admission that her father was Algerian.)
At the midpoint between The Story of Adele H. and Camille Claudel, Adjani gave the performance of her career in Andrzej Zulawski’s West Berlin–set Possession (1981) as Anna, one half of an unraveling married couple destroying themselves—and seemingly the entire world—through binges of jealousy, rage, and despair. “I don’t know!” are Anna’s first words, spoken to husband Mark (Sam Neill), home after a long trip away for his mysterious job. Anna’s confusion, grief, and hysteria intensify after she’s admitted to Mark that she’s been having an affair—with not only an older, New Age–y German but a viscous, tentacled creature—and climax during an unforgettable, unsurpassable scene in a U-Bahn passageway. Hurling her groceries against the wall, Anna violently twitches and flails, eventually falling to her knees, moaning like an animal and oozing copious amounts of blood and white goo from her orifices. It’s a testament to Adjani’s deep commitment to the role that the liquids do not appear to be special effects.
“Adjani” runs at BAMcinématek March 8 through 21.
THE EARLY 1970S were
the heyday of the concert film: Between 1970 and 1973, Woodstock, Gimme Shelter, and Wattstax, to name just a few iconic examples of the genre, opened theatrically in the US. Released in 1971 but rarely screened since, Right On! showcases a different kind of concert (though one staged without an audience): twenty-eight spoken-word pieces by hip-hop forerunners the Original Last Poets, whose electric performances rival, if not surpass, those by Jimi Hendrix, Mick Jagger, and Isaac Hayes in the films above.
Directed by Herbert Lanska—whose previous movie, Sweet Love, Bitter (1967), featured a main character loosely based on Charlie Parker—Right On! takes place almost entirely on a Lower East Side rooftop. (With this setting, Lanska’s film joins other contemporaneous roof pieces: the Beatles’ impromptu concert atop Apple Studios in 1970’s Let It Be, Jefferson Airplane jamming near the parapet of a Midtown Manhattan hotel in 1972’s 1 PM.) The sound and the fury of Right On! begins with the beating of conga drums, which grows increasingly louder. Over the percussion and under a cloudless blue sky, Felipe Luciano, in a white tank top and black beret, shouts, “Hey, now,” the interjection repeated by his cohorts, Gylan Kain and David Nelson. His muscles tensing and neck tendons popping, Luciano continues his free verse: “Tell ’em they blew up Harlem, Newark, Detroit, and Watts / And my aunt got shot in the head just for lookin’ out the window, man!” Mixing history recaps with local news, these lines call to mind Chuck D’s remark that “rap is CNN for black people.” But many of the OLP’s black-nationalist-fueled spoken-word compositions go beyond mere bulletins, expanding into brutal diagnoses and blunt imperatives (never more so than in “Die Nigga”).
Lanska occasionally inserts cutaway footage during these two-dozen-plus performances, most prominently during the OLP’s paeans to the ladies—lusty, macho, earnest apostrophes. A young, naked mother is shown cradling her infant during “Black Woman” (“Black woman, black woman / I want to create a beautiful world for you, black woman”); a figure in a window frame smiles shyly in “Black Lady (Say Blackness)” (“Hey, bundle of screams and laughter / Can I plant a seed of blackness in you?”). The supplements, though, were unnecessary, for the performances by Kain, Luciano, and Nelson are kinetic, potent, precise. The three men—who formed the OLP in Harlem in 1968 and originally performed this material at New York’s Paperback Theater in 1969—exude infinite charisma, gliding about their black-asphalt outdoor stage with balletic grace. Each movement or pause is significant; even the trio’s changes in clothing—one dashiki replaced by another, a flare-collared shirt swapped for a turtleneck—have a certain poignancy.
A good deal—though certainly not all—of what’s heard in Right On! falls under Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s definition of poetry: “the best words in the best order.” Perhaps even more memorable than that aperçu is the Original Last Poets’ equation, literally shouted from the rooftops: “Poetry is black people.”
Right On! screens at the Museum of Modern Art March 6–11.
Dan Sallitt, The Unspeakable Act 2012, digital video, color, sound, 91 minutes. Jackie (Tallie Medel).
I REMEMBER THINKING as I watched Dan Sallitt’s The Unspeakable Act at the 2012 BAMcinemaFest that it’s an American version of an Éric Rohmer film. The comparison was validated by the final credit, a thank-you to the French master of movies as conversations on morality and ethics, where light—from the sun, the moon, or a carefully placed lamp—often has the last word. Nine months later, a more immediate comparison comes to mind: The film is an antidote to Lena Dunham’s Girls.
The unspeakable act of the title is sister/brother incest. Seventeen-year-old Jackie (Tallie Medel) is in love with her eighteen-year-old brother, Matthew (Sky Hirschkron). The two siblings live with their mother and slightly older sister in a modest but quite lovely house with a lawn, trees, and a front porch in a Brooklyn neighborhood that is neither hip nor gentrified. There’s another brother who’s living abroad, and with whom the mother communicates by letter. She’s a writer who never publishes—a woman of many words, few of them spoken.
For Jackie, her brother Matthew is what theories of romance categorize as “the impossible object of desire.” Since Matthew is determined to find someone from a different gene pool to share his life with, his imminent departure for Princeton precipitates a crisis. Jackie doesn’t want to accept that it is the beginning of the end of their intimacy, which has been, as far as actions are concerned, entirely platonic. “Your brother is very conservative,” their mother remarks apropos of something else, but Jackie understands that the comment is directed at her. She longs for her brother to stay with her forever because he is the person with whom she is most closely bonded, but, temperamentally, he couldn’t be less like her. He’s the self and the other rolled into one.
After Matthew leaves, Jackie becomes seriously depressed. Mom suggests psychotherapy and, hallelujah, the therapist doesn’t prescribe drugs. Instead, it’s the old-fashioned talking cure, and, initial resistance notwithstanding, Jackie thrives. Medel is a remarkable young actress who conveys Jackie’s complicated thought processes and emotional responses—both subtle and bold—with fluidity and a total lack of self-consciousness. She and Sallitt have created a character who aspires not to be “the voice of her generation,” but rather to follow her own rigorous path to knowledge, whether anyone loves her for it or not. Wryly commenting on having achieved “transference,” she speculates that she might end up as a therapist herself: “First you wonder how your own head works, and then you get interested in other people’s heads”—a wise and generous enough statement to make her my role model for life.
Anthology Film Archives, where The Unspeakable Act plays through Thursday, is also showcasing Sallitt’s earlier features: All the Ships at Sea (2004), Honeymoon (1998), and Polly Perverse Strikes Again! (1986). Over the years, Sallitt has accumulated a dedicated group of supporters, who champion his films because they are about serious adults trying to articulate problems that aren’t at all cool (religion and faith; sex and friendship). I find Sallitt’s films prior to The Unspeakable Act at best miscalculated in their attempts to depict characters who are severely repressed using dour, inexpressive mise-en-scènes, stagey dialogue, and wooden acting. The Unspeakable Act shares many of the stylistic choices of these earlier films. It is framed for the most part in static, medium shots with minimal editing within scenes. It is dialogue-heavy and, with the exception of Medel, the actors sound as if they are uncomfortable speaking someone else’s words. What’s different is that this film is awash in color—dusty rose and soft peach, vivid yellows and greens—and that the light dappling almost every scene is exquisite. It is impossible to separate the inner light Medel brings to the film—she is a radiant actor with a rare gift for being in the moment—from the way that Sallitt and cinematographer Duraid Munajim bring the light of the world to her. The result is a film as sensuous as it is intelligent. You might think of it as the first real film of Sallitt’s career.