THE INTELLIGENT AUSTERITY that marks André Téchiné’s underappreciated fourth film, The Brontë Sisters (1979), is a rarity both for the director, whose work, at least since the mid-1990s, has frequently succumbed to voluble hysterics, and the literary biopic, a genre prone to melodrama. That this is a serious meditation on the creators of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, classic texts whose screen adaptations have too often devolved into clamorous Victorian bodice-rippers, makes its hush all the more admirable.
The dominant sound, in fact, is the scratching of fountain pen on paper. Téchiné’s rendering of this genius-glutted family in grim nineteenth-century Haworth, co-scripted with Pascal Bonitzer (a frequent collaborator of Jacques Rivette’s, whose 1985 adaptation of Wuthering Heights he co-wrote), might have been more accurately titled “The Brontë Siblings”: Just as significant as Charlotte (Marie-France Pisier), Emily (Isabelle Adjani), and Anne (Isabelle Huppert) is the sole Brontë brother, Branwell (Pascal Greggory). “Unrecognized, my talent cannot grow. But I’ll be famous,” Branwell writes to his sisters, a boast never realized, his talents squandered by too many nights at the Black Bull Inn, poor object choices (he was in love with his tutee’s mother, the wife of an imperious reverend), and too much laudanum.
Though prophetically sensing that his doting sisters would eclipse him—Branwell, who died at age thirty-one, effaced himself from a painting he did of all four siblings, an erasure touchingly depicted by Téchiné—the brother is paradoxically the only Brontë whose talents are saluted by their father (Patrick Magee). “We have an artist in the family,” the paterfamilias beams during the film’s opening moments, as his son unveils his group portrait. The praise stings Charlotte, presented here as the most ambitious—though she desires success not just for herself but her two younger sisters, exhorting Emily, “We’ve always written. You must publish that poem—you must!”
Sensitive to the extreme limits the Brontë sisters faced owing to their sex, Téchiné is careful not to overdramatize the fact that Charlotte, Emily, and Anne all published, in 1847, their first novels under male pseudonyms (becoming, respectively, the “brothers” Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell). The director’s insistence on understatement—though never at the expense of diminishing the anguish and thwarted desire the sisters endured during their too-short lives (all died before reaching the age of forty)—clearly guided the performances as well. Assembling three of France’s premier actresses, two of whom— Adjani and Huppert—were in the rapidly ascending phase of their careers, Téchiné, as he reveals in a current-day interview for the film’s DVD and Blu-ray release, demanded a “sobriety of acting,” not wanting the set to be “a competition among stars.” (Perhaps best-known for his later work in the films of Patrice Chéreau, Greggory, also interviewed for the making-of extra, dishes about his on-screen sisters more openly.) While all four siblings are indelibly portrayed, this quartet of exceptionally talented actors is almost overshadowed by one nonprofessional, who doesn’t appear until the last twelve minutes of the film: Roland Barthes, as William Makepeace Thackeray, in his only screen appearance.
The Brontë Sisters is available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning July 30 from Cohen Media Group.
UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS, AC, DC: In Joseph Losey’s astringent 1963 film The Servant, class roles are riotously inverted, an upending of the rigid British caste system that leads to—or was it caused by?—sexual inversion itself.
The catalyst for this socioeconomic topsy-turvy is Barrett (Dirk Bogarde), an impeccably dressed domestic who arrives promptly for a 3 PM interview at the just-purchased Knightsbridge residence of young layabout aristo Tony (James Fox, in his first leading role), passed out from too many lunchtime beers. A punctilious manservant and a font of invaluable design tips (“Mandarin red and fuchsia is a very chic combination, sir”), Barrett anticipates Tony’s every need—except his carnal ones, deliberately barging in on a moment of Cleo Laine–scored intimacy between his master and his snooty girlfriend, Susan (Wendy Craig). This cockblocking is the first step in Barrett’s increasingly depraved scheme, which soon involves the co-conspiring of his “sister,” Vera (Sarah Miles), and leads to Tony’s complete infantilization and debasement. Now under Barrett’s tyrannical rule, the fair-haired son of privilege, constantly staring at himself with horror in his Georgian townhouse’s multiple convex mirrors, is reduced to playing boozy games of hide-and-seek with his employee, the dyad locked into the most pathological cohabitation.
Often pleasingly nasty, the observations about class in The Servant occasionally lose their bite, the satire dulled by the film’s too-obvious role reversal between overlord and hired help. (The film is the first of three that the Wisconsin-born Losey, who settled in London in 1953 after being blacklisted by Hollywood, made with screenwriter Harold Pinter, here adapting the 1948 novel by Robin Maugham, Somerset’s nephew.) And though Parker Tyler dismissed the movie in his incomparable 1972 compendium, Screening the Sexes, as an exemplar of “[p]rivate homosexual blackmail, the process of what may be called organized pansy-ation,” The Servant assumes a richer place in the history of queer cinema in the UK when viewed vis-ŕ-vis other roles played during the same decade by its discordant male leads.
The Servant opened two years after Bogarde starred as Melville Farr, a married, closeted, extraordinarily virtuous barrister who stands up to a blackmailer in Basil Dearden’s landmark Victim, one of the first films to plead tolerance for homosexuality—a word not uttered on-screen until this film’s 1961 release. The perverse relationship between Barrett and Tony need not be so clearly articulated in The Servant, for it is all but screamed in the increasingly cruel, bizarre rituals the two concoct as they play house. (More direct, visual proof of pansy-ation: A pinup ripped from a beefcake magazine adorns Barrett’s quarters.) In 1970, Fox would be trapped in another posh, debauched dwelling—this time in Notting Hill—in Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s Performance, playing a gangster on the lam who’s turned on by Mick Jagger’s louche pop-star recluse. But the lavender-tinted, Swinging London–era film that The Servant may have the most in common with is Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George (1968). Both the sadomasochistic acts that take place in the Chelsea flat shared by these squabbling lesbian lovers—forced cigar-butt chewing, scone hurling—and Tony and Barrett’s sick indoor diversions suggest that a homo house was not a home but a prison.
The Servant plays at Film Forum in New York July 26 through August 1.
A SON SLICING open his already bled-out mother and then fisting her entrails is just one of Nicolas Winding Refn’s more delicate touches in the Bangkok-set Only God Forgives, a turgid mix of ersatz Greek tragedy, Muay Thai, and shiny, seductive gore.
Julian, the violating offspring, is played by Ryan Gosling, reteaming with Refn after Drive (2011), an equally stylish yet much less overblown genre exercise heavily indebted to Walter Hill’s The Driver (1978). Both films require the actor to be a taciturn, enigmatic sociopath, though here the root of his character’s aberrations, particularly his sexual hang-ups, are glibly made clear as soon as his monstrous ma, a foul-mouthed bottle blond named Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), shows up. This Donatella Versace knockoff has flown into the Thai capital from the US not just to claim the body of her older (and adored) son, Billy (Tom Burke), Julian’s partner in the kickboxing club that fronts their coke-and-heroin ring, but to make sure his murder—for raping and killing a sixteen-year-old prostitute—is avenged.
Julian catatonically carries out his mother’s revenge plan while stonily enduring her humiliations. (“What with Billy being the older brother and having the bigger cock…,” she begins one anecdote to Julian’s date, whom Crystal, after introductions are made, refers to as a “cum-Dumpster.”) Mama wants the head of Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), the police chief who ordered Billy’s death and the deity of the title. Like Julian, prone to slowly balling his hands into fists, releasing his grip, and then staring at his palms, Chang, too, repeats faux-mystic gestures: pulling out a limb-severing sword from the back of his shirt, singing plaintive karaoke numbers.
This distended vengeance cycle plays out under stygian nightscapes bathed in viscera-hued glow. If Bangkok, here lazily depicted as a haven for three-legged dogs, she-male escorts, and other “oddities,” serves as Refn’s vision of a nightmarish underworld, then this hell really is other people—specifically, the Anglo characters in Only God Forgives. Though the casting of Scott Thomas, a mainstay in decorous British and French productions for the past few decades, as a bloodthirsty Real Housewife of Miami initially produces a jolt of dissonance—if not the film’s only vivid moment—the joke quickly fades. This is partly the result of the bilingual actress’s shaky American enunciation, particularly of vowels; Scott Thomas’s broad vocalizations overload an already too-exaggerated cartoon.
Gosling’s silence, however, is even more aggravating than his costar’s squawking. Julian’s near muteness does not imply a tortured soul but instead underscores the dead air, the void of ideas, that defines most of Only God Forgives. The portentousness extends to how Refn describes his relationship with the actor. “Ryan and I become one person when we work,” the Danish writer-director told the New York Times a week before the film’s world premiere at Cannes in May. The statement suggests a transgression of personal boundaries even stickier than Julian poking around in Crystal’s bowels.
Only God Forgives opens July 19.
Ben Wheatley, A Field in England, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes.
CAN YOU ENGINEER A FILM to be an instant cult classic? Doesn’t a movie need to arrive at that status after first being discovered by its audience, via a steady accretion of passionate devotion and years or at least many midnights of fermentation? Look at Eraserhead’s (1977) glacial ascent to immortality—admittedly, long before video and the Internet—or Repo Man (1984), The Big Lebowski (1998) (more than a cult, now it’s a veritable philosophy), even Donnie Darko (2001). The hardiest cult movies typically present some manner of altered reality with a skewed but internally consistent worldview; a highly concentrated, stylized mix of gnomic gestures and identifiable signposts; and the frequent implication (intended or not) that their special properties can be heightened by the sympathetic ingestion of mood-enhancing or mind-altering substances.
Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England is a test case in a couple ways: If you build a cool, trippy, black-and-white field of nightmares, will the jaded cultists and literate stoners and cine-geeks come? This occult, absurdist journey conflates the English Civil War with seventeenth-century practitioners of Magick and their handy employment of hallucinogens—using a mushroom-fueled treasure hunt as pretext for considerable goth havoc and grungy invective packed into a tight ninety-minute workout. It was released on July 5 in Great Britain simultaneously to theaters, on DVD/Blu-Ray, and on VOD, in addition to being broadcast on TV. (There are also plans to screen it outdoors this summer: “See A Field in England, in an actual field in England.”) This represents quite a gamble: It’s not like remaking or even deconstructing, say, The Evil Dead (1981). Wheatley and his partner/writer Amy Jump have imagined from scratch a chaotic universe inside a few thousand square yards of ravaged countryside and populated it with a small band of bad, broken men. Then they’ve stirred in the devil (in the guise of a blood-dark Irish magus), those wild ’shrooms, and some gunpowder, bringing the stew to a full feverish boil and simmering till all hell breaks loose. Throughout, Laurie Rose’s alternately stately and hyperbolic widescreen cinematography lends the mud and gore of this miserable place a sheen of bleached-out gravitas, The Seventh Seal refracted through a lysergic haze.
While A Field in England has a plot of sorts, it is more a matter of being thrown willy-nilly into the midst of an impermeable supernatural conspiracy in which the characters are caught like so many flies in God’s spiderweb. Christianity is a shell-shocked memory to these haggard souls, while ancient pagan winds whistle through the tall grass and the earth groans beneath their feet. Reese Shearsmith’s pious, fearful Whitehead is an alchemist’s apprentice searching for his ailing master’s stolen papers (and apparently suspected of stealing them himself). He is rescued from a pursuer on the battlefield by a mercenary. Together with this soldier’s soft-headed associate (who is given up for dead until arising on hearing the word “ale”) and another seeming deserter Cutler (Ryan Pope), who speaks of a nearby tavern, they form an alliance of convenience and go off in search of respite and sustenance. (The mercenary insists: “We’re not running away! We’re going for beer!”)
They walk, scrounge some food from the fields, enjoy a bit of sport as one of their number tries to take a shit in peace (scatology no less than astrology directs their bodily humors). A plain and haunting folk song is sung. Finding a rope attached to a winch in the middle of a field, they heave and pull until Michael Smiley’s diabolical O’Neil appears at the other end, trussed like a package from the bowels of oblivion. It is presently revealed that a) Cutler is his manservant, thus in cahoots they have lured the other three to this spot; and b) O’Neil is the rogue magician whom Whitehead has been seeking.
Here is the hinge point where A Field in England goes from passing strange to full-bore crazy. In no time, O’Neil has turned the tables on poor befuddled Whitehead and has yoked him up like a hideously grinning ox to serve as a human divining rod. Some mystical MacGuffin of a prize is buried in the vicinity and O’Neil means to dig it up. Gaping holes follow, in the ground and in flesh/bone. A stroboscopic hallucination flashes across the screen that is nearly as terrifying as Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” video, albeit less overtly sophomoric. As in the previous Wheatley-Jump collaborations, it works most profitably in the interstices between black comedy and psychopathology: Sightseers (2012) is their tidiest concept (an Elaine May/Christopher Guest take on mismatched serial killers), while Kill List (2011) is a disquieting left turn of a movie that pulls the rug out from under your feet with horrific panache. A Field in England is their most ambitious genre experiment yet, and all indications are that it did very well across the board on its opening weekend.
The real test will be if fans go back again and again, to suss out all that densely atmospheric detail and narrative opacity. With savory dialogue (“Whitehead, you simpering dwarf…. Your privy parts are doomed, homunculus!”) and stray images that lodge themselves in your brain (the accusatory pointing finger of a man impaled on a pike), not to mention a straight-faced urological examination worthy of Monty Python, I think its long-range prospects are very good. Remember the old Superman pitch: “You’ll believe a man can fly”? A Field in England will make you believe a man had cause to fear being turned into a frog.
A Field in England is currently available from the UK in multiple formats; it will be released theatrically and on VOD in the USA later this year.
Paul Schrader, American Gigolo, 1980, 35 mm, color, sound, 117 minutes.
THE OCCASION IS NO MYSTERY. Because of his forthcoming new film, The Canyons, Paul Schrader—subject of UCLA Film & Television Archive’s eighteen-film retro—is in the news again. No Schrader film in years has had such a press buildup, thanks to its Kickstarter campaign and Stephen Rodrick’s on-set tell-all for the New York Times and a string of teaser trailers pitching The Canyons as a here-and-now meditation on moving pictures after cinema, set in an era of ubiquitous point-and-shoot exhibitionism where, per a bit of voice-over, “nobody has a private life anymore.”
Schrader had once briefly managed that rarest of tightrope acts, creating uncompromised works with both a rarefied, withholding aesthetic and mass-market appeal, but the sixty-six-year-old hasn’t had a mainstream crossover since 1997’s Affliction, itself mostly a succčs d’estime. With The Canyons, Schrader is going for de scandale, collaborating with tabloid cover girl Lindsey Lohan, XXX matinee idol James Deen, and Bret Easton Ellis, the American Psycho novelist more recently renowned as a dyspeptic Twitter celebrity.
Lohan’s self-destructive substance abuse, Deen’s industrialized sex drive, Ellis’s satire of narcotic materialism: These worldly fetters are Schrader’s familiar preoccupations—though I have not seen The Canyons and cannot comment on the happiness of the marriage. Infamously, Schrader’s origins couldn’t be further from such secular excess. Raised in a strict, abstemious Dutch Calvinist community in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he didn’t see his first movie until the age of seventeen. Once Schrader was on his own, he followed this famine with a gluttonous feast, and sinful movie love lured him to UCLA. Applying the rigorous exegesis that his church upbringing had instilled in him to his new zeal for cinema, Schrader launched himself as a critic, writing on noir loners among other topics germane to his future filmmaking and, in 1972, he published his landmark study Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. The book’s subjects showed Schrader’s continuing interest in matters of the spirit, although by then he had developed sacrilegious tastes. Schrader landed his first Hollywood deal with the screenplay to The Yakuza (1975), cowritten with brother Leonard, but it was an autobiographical purge influenced by Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest that would really make Paul’s name: Taxi Driver.
Paul Schrader, Blue Collar, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 114 minutes.
Schrader would go on to write three more films for fellow lapsed seminarian Martin Scorsese—Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and Bringing Out the Dead—but his alma mater’s retro focuses exclusively on Schrader’s work as a director. He debuted in that capacity with 1978’s Blue Collar, a Detroit-set crime pic with real tragic heft, in which Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto, and Harvey Keitel play disenfranchised auto-industry line workers who knock over their union headquarters. The America of influential unions and a robust native worker class that the film depicts seems as distant today as the America of Grapes of Wrath, though Schrader exhibits a good hand with the textures and rituals of middle- and lower-middle-class life. This is further evident in the Grand Rapids chapters of Hardcore (1979), the tour of Cleveland and surrounding Rust Belt territories in Light of Day (1987), and the New England gothic of Affliction. No one negotiates a tracking shot through the cramped interior of a foursquare house better than Schrader, and every piece of homey decor is always detail-perfect.
The decor that would become Schrader’s signature, however, had more to do with the tawdry, neon-lit porno underworld explored by George C. Scott in Hardcore. Schrader’s fascination with the flesh-peddling business continued with American Gigolo (1980), starring Richard Gere as high-end pay-for-play boy Julian Kaye. Deeply impacted by an early relationship with Ray & Charles Eames, Schrader envisioned his films as fully synthesized works of harmonious design, and Gigolo is the work in which his austerely sumptuous mature style gelled. This was accomplished through close collaborations: Gere’s choreographic performance harmonizes with the spaces created by “visual consultant” Ferdinando Scarfiotti, production designer on Bertolucci’s The Conformist, as well as with the score by Italian synthpop maestro Giorgio Moroder. Scarfotti and Morodor would work with Schrader again on his 1982 horror-fantasy Cat People, while another Giorgio, Armani, would also became a valuable collaborator, here providing the linen suits which Julian can be seen scrupulously laying out, a week’s worth of outfits in careful color-coded array.
Schrader’s films, built around such contained, ritualistic moments, depend on the tensile suspense that comes of waiting for a scrupulously upheld control to finally reach its breaking point, as something haphazard overruns the formal framings, deliberate dollies, and careful color combinations. It happens at the conclusion of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a death-trip biography of Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, when Mishima’s endlessly dress-rehearsed final act ignobly flops, while Auto-Focus (2002), a biopic of sex-addict Hogan’s Hero star Bob Crane, slyly withdraws tripod shots as its subject becomes increasingly dissolute, creating an incremental descent into chaos. (Though Schrader usually has a tin ear for comedy, Auto-Focus and Patty Hearst, his 1988 parody of radical politics—neither, significantly, from Schrader’s own screenplays—are both movies which find the mordantly funny side of destructive obsession.)
UCLA wisely chose Light Sleeper (1992) for the opening night of the series. It’s a perfect primer to Schrader’s art, as well as his most emotionally accessible film, thanks to a rich, rueful performance by regular collaborator Willem Defoe, playing a Manhattan drug dealer with a strictly white-collar clientele. It also marks the beginning of a decline—not necessarily of Schrader’s talents, but of his ability to operate successfully within a changing cinematic landscape. In the twenty years after Light Sleeper, Schrader produced some fine work (Affliction, Auto-Focus, 2007’s Gigolo reworking The Walker), some hobbled, star-crossed projects (Sirkian melodrama Forever Mine , Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist ), and some flat-out missteps (1994 HBO movie Witch Hunt). Never again, however, did he tap the zeitgeist as he had for a moment in the ’80s.
Schrader will be much in evidence at UCLA to introduce his films though, as a critic, he raised reservations about the auteurist overemphasis on matters of directorial personality as opposed to the importance of personality-transcending archetype emphasized by the puckishly paganistic Parker Tyler, a formative influence. Is Schrader returning to the zeitgeist, or is the zeitgeist returning to him? Today the man whose American Gigolo sought a spiritual release from acquisitive numbness returns to a film landscape dominated by critiques of capitalist excess that criticize by embodying: The Great Gatsby, Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and, presumably, old collaborator Scorsese’s forthcoming The Wolf of Wall Street. It may be that, by virtue of merely standing still, Schrader has a shot at coming back into fashion.
Hardcore: The Films of Paul Schrader, presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and UCLA Department of Film, Television, and Digital Media, runs July 12–August 5, 2013 at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles.
A QUEST FOR A HALLUCINOGENIC CACTUS in the Atacama region of Chile brings together an unlikely quintet in Sebastián Silva’s agile Crystal Fairy, a film that confirms the thirty-four-year-old writer-director as one of the sharpest observers of the passive-aggressive strategies that shape group dynamics. Shifting his focus from the particular horror and hilarity of nuclear-family dysfunction found in his previous features The Maid (2009) and Old Cats (2010; codirected with Pedro Peirano), Silva here traces the battle of wills between two young Americans abroad, each unendurable, though in varying degrees.
Obnoxious, entitled Jamie (Michael Cera), bunking with his Chilean friend Champa (Juan Andrés Silva), knows no other Spanish besides hola and gracias, though he considers himself an expert on the quality of his host nation’s cocaine, which he hoovers at a party. After prattling on about The Doors of Perception and mocking other revelers, the twerp notices the hippie-haired, peasant-skirted free spirit of the title (Gaby Hoffmann), the kind of woman who proclaims, “We’re all one self, man.” In a rare moment of blow-induced magnanimity, Jamie invites Crystal to join him, Champa, and Champa’s amiable younger brothers, Pilo (Agustín Silva) and Lel (José Miguel Silva) on their magical mystery tour in search of the mescaline-producing San Pedro cactus. (The brothers are played by the director’s real-life siblings.)
The next day, however, Jamie, packed into a Suburban with the hermanos and camping gear, has completely forgotten his offer to his compatriot, who calls him from the town plaza where they had agreed to meet the night before. He wants to ditch her, but Champa insists that they not abandon Crystal; the Chilean serves not only as translator between his siblings and the Americans but as reproacher, patiently pointing out his pal’s boorish behavior. The shock at the foreigner’s piggy actions that the less English-fluent Pilo and Lel can’t express in words still registers indelibly on their faces. Of course, there’s no need for the siblings to talk about Jamie—whose monomania about acquiring the cactus has made him even more repellent—behind his back: They can trash him openly en espańol.
Yet the most insidious—and entertaining—undermining takes place between Jamie, his matted hair in the larval stage of dreadlocks (suggesting how unbearable he’ll be not just to listen to but to look at in another six months), and Crystal, prone to walking around her all-male traveling companions completely nude, her prodigious bush an immediate conversation stopper. “Am I making you uncomfortable, Jamie?” she patronizingly asks, sensing his eye rolls behind her bare butt. Though he tries constantly, Jamie cannot enlist the brothers in his anti-Crystal crusade; the sibs are too bemused, if not charmed, by her Mother Earth, Mayan-calendar jibber-jabber.
Crystal’s odd allure isn’t lost on viewers, either, thanks to a spectacular performance by Hoffmann. Though this hirsute practitioner of healing rituals and magical passes is revealed in the film’s final act to indulge in far less benign pursuits, the actress imbues the easily caricatured role with complexities from the start, hinting at Crystal’s own inability to take herself seriously. Cera, also impressive, proves that he can play more than the neutered, nervous nice guys that have been his stock-in-trade since the debut of Arrested Development in 2003. But Crystal Fairy belongs to Hoffmann, who should need no talismans or Castanedan ceremonies to emerge from the semiobscurity that followed after a high-profile career as a child actress.
Crystal Fairy opens in limited release on July 12.
John Cassavetes, Opening Night, 1977, 35 mm, color, sound, 144 minutes.
“I SEEM TO HAVE LOST the reality of the reality,” says mercurial stage actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) to her increasingly exasperated director, Manny (Ben Gazzara), during yet another mutinous rehearsal in John Cassavetes’s magnificent backstager Opening Night (1977). The ninth of the writer-director’s twelve films, Opening Night profoundly plumbs this disorientation, foregrounding the porous boundaries between performing and being, acting and acting out.
Myrtle’s unraveling is rooted in both a traumatic incident—an adoring, seemingly unstable teenage girl is struck down by a car just moments after the actress gives her an autograph—and a professional crisis. The play she is starring in, currently in tryouts in New Haven, is titled The Second Woman, an even more patronizing way of describing “a woman of a certain age.” Myrtle’s unruly behavior onstage—performing drunk, changing her lines, directly addressing the audience—is her act of self-destructive protest against the limits of her role. “If I play this character the way everybody wants me to play her, my career is over.” A strategy simultaneously desperate and heroic, her outrageous insurgency will forestall professional, if not actual, death.
In her artistic defiance (and prodigious tippling), Myrtle may be thought of as an analogue for the iconoclastic Cassavetes—not only Rowlands’s spouse and frequent director but also her costar, in a doubled sense, here. (They would act opposite each other twice more, playing an unhappy couple in Paul Mazursky’s Shakespeare adaptation Tempest from 1982 and brother and sister in Cassavetes’s penultimate movie, 1984’s Love Streams.) Cassavetes’s Maurice in Opening Night is both Myrtle’s ex-lover offstage and her husband on-; in the latter capacity, he is the performer in The Second Woman most frequently at the mercy of her capricious behavior.
In this heady multiplication of actual and fictional roles—husband and wife offscreen and onstage in the play within the film—viewers, too, might lose their grip on “the reality of the reality.” This exquisite delirium is only heightened by Myrtle’s escalating unpredictability; watching her miraculously make it through The Second Woman’s first night on Broadway after showing up at the last possible second, so intoxicated she can barely walk, is a more terrifying—but ultimately exhilarating—experience than the worst performance-anxiety dream.
“Manny, I’m in trouble—I’m not acting,” Myrtle confesses to her director a day before the show’s Broadway debut, further scrambling our perception of reality and fantasy, sanity and insanity. Haunted by visions of that dead young fan (and youth itself) and enraged by the irony (and implicit sexism) that her above-the-title role as a “second woman” will circumscribe rather than expand her career options, Myrtle becomes the consummate dramaturge of chaos. “I’ll do anything to make my character more authentic—I always have,” this impossible, brilliant performer avows as the cries for her dismissal from the play grow louder. Myrtle’s credo points to the genius of Cassavetes’s oeuvre: high-wire, triumphant acts that excavate unbearable truths.
Opening Night screens at BAMcinématek July 6 as part of the series “Cassavetes,” which runs July 6–31.
Drew DeNicola, Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, 2013, color, sound, 110 minutes. Andy Hummel, Alex Chilton, and Jody Stephens.
IT CAME FROM MEMPHIS… but it wasn’t blues, rockabilly, or soul. It was, in some ways, a second coming of the Beatles, though without sales or notoriety. It was a 1972 album called #1 Record by a band dubbed Big Star, names at first hopeful and then—as cocksure fantasy slid into disappointing reality—bitterly ironic. It became a locus of tragedy and the cornerstone of a cult (built up by rock critics and musicians), and it remains, along with two further LPs (barely) released under the band’s name, some of the best, most timeless music made in the 1970s.
Big Star was born in 1971 when the trio of Chris Bell (guitar/vocals), Andy Hummel (bass/vocals), and Jody Stephens (drums/vocals)—all fans of British Invasion music, which they’d played in cover bands—asked local celebrity Alex Chilton to join their fledgling group. Chilton was a veteran of the Box Tops, a kind of country-soul Monkees overseen by songwriter-producers Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, which Chilton had joined when he was still a minor. The Box Tops had a number of chart hits, beginning with 1967’s “The Letter,” all sung by Chilton in a seasoned R&B growl that belied his age and impish appearance. In Drew DiNicola’s long-awaited, legend-justifying Big Star documentary Nothing Can Hurt Me, Memphis producer Jim Dickinson remembers the young, pre–Box Tops Chilton at age eleven or twelve: “Alex was what I’d call an art brat. His mom ran an art gallery and his dad was a hobbyist clarinet player. William Eggleston had given him peyote, and he was running around with his eyes spinning and his hair sticking out, and I thought, ‘This kid’s going to have a unique life.’ ”
Chris Bell, the band’s other principal singer-songwriter (and the real founder, aesthetically and otherwise, of Big Star), was a private-school kid with talent to burn, a healthy appetite for psychedelics (according to his college friends, Bell had a “full-body purple aura” whenever they took acid), and extreme emotional sensitivity masked by youthful bravado. He was likely gay, thought it isn’t publicly known whether he ever actualized his sexuality; in later years, it became clear to friends and family that this was a source of unresolved personal torment, leading him into alcoholism, hard drugs, and born-again Christianity in an effort to sublimate his impulses. In 1971, Bell was a rabid Beatles/Byrds fan in the era of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and wanted to make music in that mode, regardless of prevailing trends.
He was fortunate to have a local laboratory for his recording experiments: Ardent Studios, run by world-class engineer John Fry. Fry taught Bell and others the art of multitrack recording and let anyone who showed promise have keys to the studio for late-night sessions. The importance of Ardent to Big Star’s pristine sonics cannot be overstated. Fry had an uncanny ear and top-notch equipment, and his studios had an unparalleled “room sound”—rarely do acoustic guitars sound better than on an Ardent track. Bell, Chilton, and the others spent nearly a year recording with Fry and adding their own after-hours overdubs, resulting in the lushly layered, elegantly produced #1 Record. For his Big Star material, Chilton abandoned soul mimicry and allowed himself to sing in his “real” voice, which at the time was positively angelic. Bell’s voice, while as melodically adept, was thinner and raspier, but its tonal counterpoint to Chilton’s was ideal, akin to the razor-and-plum blend of Lennon and McCartney.
Ardent had signed a deal with local soul label Stax, taking on its overflow recording sessions and, in return, agreeing to be its pop/rock subsidiary. #1 Record was released under this aegis, but Stax had little experience promoting rock music to white audiences and at the time was throwing all of its marketing weight behind Isaac Hayes’s Hot Buttered Soul. Review copies of #1 Record received uniformly positive write-ups, but copies of the LP weren’t making it to stores, let alone radio playlists. Bell, once so convinced that their music would be successful, became despondent and erratic, erasing some master tapes the band had been working on and quitting Big Star. Following a suicide attempt, he decamped to Europe with his brother in search of a solo record deal that never materialized.
The remaining three initially thought this was the end of the band, until Ardent promoter John King convinced them to record another album. King organized the first-ever rock critics convention in Memphis, ostensibly to help the writers unionize, but really to make them a captive audience for a live Big Star performance. With Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Richard Meltzer, and others present, the three-piece Big Star had a rousing reception and were recharged by the experience, going back to Ardent and recording Radio City, a less meticulous but equally brilliant LP. Because of a distribution deal with Columbia gone bad and Stax facing bankruptcy, Radio City was even more poorly promoted and distributed than #1 Record, and it sank without a trace, despite containing the radio-ready “September Gurls,” one of the most perfect pop songs ever recorded. Hummel left the band and returned to college.
Chilton and Stephens enlisted Dickinson to produce a third Big Star record, a Chilton solo album in all but name. Known for his spontaneous, one-take production style, Dickinson gave the increasingly chaotic, drug-addled Chilton a great deal of latitude, resulting in a sprawling sonic diary about “deteriorating relationships.” Alternately beautiful and bleak (often both), the songs on what came to be known as Third or Sister Lovers (Chilton and Stephens were dating sisters at the time) were products of the mid-’70s social scene around Eggleston, whose 1973 photograph The Red Ceiling was the cover image for Radio City. Writer Ross Johnson recalls in the film: “The standard artistic equation for that scene was horror equals beauty, beauty equals horror…if something was somehow just wrong, it could become a thing of beauty. Alex [Chilton], Jim [Dickinson], Bill [Eggleston]…for me, that’s all the same body of work.” To give us a feel for this period, clips from Eggleston’s 1974 film Stranded in Canton—consisting of wasted Memphis scenesters of the time singing, mugging, and ranting—are intercut throughout Nothing Can Hurt Me.
William Eggleston, Stranded in Canton, 1973.
Although “completed” near the end of 1974, Third/Sister Lovers wasn’t released until 1978, by obscure indie label PVC. Its proper sequencing has never been determined. In 1978 Bell also released his astonishing single “I Am the Cosmos/You and Your Sister” (with Chilton singing backup on the B-side) on future dB Chris Stamey’s tiny Car label. The two songs were the definition of pain transmuted into beauty and reminded anyone who heard them that Bell was the original author of the Big Star sound. In late December of that year, Bell crashed his car into a telephone pole and died. By this point, Chilton had already moved to New York and become something entirely different.
Outside of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, few songwriters have more perversely denigrated (and desecrated) their fans’ most adored music than Alex Chilton. With Dylan and Reed, you sense arrogance and a need to control the narrative; with Chilton, despite his puckish sense of humor, you sense wounded sensitivity and profound disappointment. What happened? The armchair psychological read (which I think is not far from the truth) is that Chilton, having cut his teeth in a successful packaged act with little room for original contribution, opened his heart and creative soul for the Big Star records, only to have them meet with total commercial indifference. Unable to deal with this rejection (and with punk concurrently ascendant), Chilton armored himself with a sneering, ironic attitude—abetted by the ’77 CBGB scene he joined after moving to New York—which he maintained for nearly two decades afterwards, eschewing Big Star and even Box Tops songs for slapdash, off-key covers of “Little GTO” and “Volare.”
Even after rapturously received Big Star reunion shows in the ’90s and ’00s (with Stephens and two members of the Posies), Chilton often downplayed the quality and importance of the material, referring to it as “young-sounding” and “immature.” This is hard to credit. Are jaundiced pisstakes like “Bangkok” (“Here’s a little thing that’s gonna please ya / Just a little town down in Indonesia…”) and “No Sex” more “mature” than “Give Me Another Chance,” as harmonically gorgeous and heart-rending a song as pop has ever produced? The film provides some context.
Stephanie Chernikowski, a photographer assigned by the Village Voice to shoot Chilton soon after his arrival in the Lower East Side in 1977, recalls how he gave her a copy of Big Star’s Radio City with a mixture of pride and humility. “Despite claims to the contrary,” she says, “he knew he’d done something.” When she later asked him why he didn’t continue on in that stylistic vein, he replied, “I can’t write that way anymore.” She goes on to say that punk offered him a way “to get a lot of his anger out from the debacle of Big Star being totally ignored.” Ultimately, the most significant contribution Chilton made to punk was to champion and produce the early recordings of the Cramps, whom he took down to Memphis to record in Sun Records honcho Sam Phillips’s studio. He ended up playing lead guitar for several years in a similarly shambolic “shockabilly” outfit called Panther Burns, fronted by Memphis eccentric Tav Falco, after which he continued to defy fan expectations in various obnoxious ways for many years.
I was lucky enough to see Big Star at what would be their final show, at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple in November 2009. It was an amazing set, with Chilton in fine voice and flashing an occasional smile. The following March, he died of a heart attack, on the eve of a planned Big Star gig at SXSW. The organizers initially considered canceling the show, but many famous friends and admirers agreed to come to Austin to front the songs, and the evening was fittingly magical. Clips of this concert pepper the final scenes of Nothing Can Hurt Me—Michael Stipe singing the rhythmically shaky “Kangaroo,” for instance, as Stephens tries to find the one beat in a roiling sea of sound. This is what Nothing Can Hurt Me does best: gathering a multigenerational extended family of Memphis scenesters, musicians, artists, critics, and biological family members, all of whom have some connection to Big Star, thereby revealing the energy field that generated and nurtured the band through all its disappointments. Big Star were “too individual, too Memphis, too unrecoupable,” Dickinson’s widow concludes in the film, “but they changed music. They turned pain into beauty.” There’s no better alchemy than that.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me opens Wednesday, July 3 at the IFC Center in New York.
IN SEPTEMBER 1977, Anthony McCall teamed with journalist Andrew Tyndall to make a narrative feature. A transplant to TriBeCa from London, McCall was then best known for his “solid light” films: tracings of simple geometries in space by the projector’s beam, here treated not as a conduit for images but as a haptic material in its own right. Positing film as a matter of light, movement, and time, the series, culminating in June 1975’s Long Film for Ambient Light, transposed Minimalist sculpture’s concern with durational, “primary” experience into cinema, literalizing the former’s inherent “theatricality” while upholding its interdicts on illusion and language. For McCall and Tyndall to then declare, in their “Sixteen Working Statements” of December 1977, “the photographic image; written text on the screen; [and] words on the sound-track” as “three of the essential cinematic modes” was its own sort of heresy.
The product of McCall and Tyndall’s collaboration, Argument, screens July 2 at Light Industry in Brooklyn. Shot on 16 mm, the feature cemented McCall’s defection from the London Co-op line which, at its most extreme, enclosed cinema in an echo chamber, able to comment only on its own apparatus. Inspired by his engagement in the SoHo-based collective Artists Meeting for Cultural Change and the hard-edged radicalism of friends Joseph Kosuth and Sarah Charlesworth, McCall abjured his “solid light” series as an effete exercise in self-reflexivity. His newfound Marxism drew on the militancy of Jean-Luc Godard, whose 1972 Letter to Jane, codirected with Jean-Pierre Gorin, was a touchstone. Rejecting the severe formalism of Co-op aesthetics and the esotericism of so-called visionary cinema, McCall and Tyndall called for a film whose radical politics found real-world grounding. Screened first in Edinburgh and London, then in a small seminar settings in the East Village and TriBeCa, Argument, the duo averred, would exploit the “ghettoization of the art community” to furnish the theoretic, social, and economic grounds for a “non-idealist and politically useful avant-garde.”
Such expansive ambitions make it difficult to distill what, exactly, Argument argues. Its knotted politics are underscored by its transparent construction. The film divides into fourteen segments, all roughly five minutes in length and involving some composite of image, text, and sound. In each, strategies specific to television and advertising, such as the moving “ticker” and superimposed text, meld with the static framing typical of structuralist film.
A glossy spread of a faceless male model, clad in blue cable-knit and arranged atop the Arts & Leisure and Business & Finance sections of the New York Times, furnishes Argument’s opening shot. Photographs of fellatio, Walter Cronkite, and a corpse-strewn field cut in and out. Now and then, a statement in white Courier type fills the screen as a male voice reads its converse. “The effectiveness of a work is measured by the number of people who see it,” the text declares; “The effectiveness of a work is measured by the way people use it,” the voice simultaneously intones. Such disjunctures between text and sound, coupled with the abruptness of the montage, serve to hold conflicting meanings in tension. The irresolution between the three registers begets a distracted sort of spectatorship—one can either look, read, or listen, but not all at once—that forecloses a fixed understanding of the film’s salvo of assertions.
Argument’s subject, broadly construed, is bourgeois ideology, and it tasks itself with a thoroughgoing deconstruction: a splitting open of the ostensibly natural unity of mass cultural signs. The film’s debt to critical Marxism of the French variety is marked, with voice-overs and on-screen texts parroted from a twining of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies with Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle. “Symbolic environment,” “co-optation,” “avant-gardist spectacle,” “monolithic,” “mystifies,” and “multinational capitalism” buffet the screen like so many theoretical readymades, while an alternating cast of male narrators decry the “supermarket shelves of the art world” and brand aestheticism “a tool of depoliticization.” Such cynical quips—the stuff of sober scholarly tomes—flank excerpts from advertisements (“Individual imagination / Individual creativity / Individual innovativeness… A business necessity. – ad for Philip Morris Jasper Johns exhibition” is a repeated slogan) and fragments of news reports on such topics as erstwhile CIA director Richard Helms and the union row with textile giant J.P. Stevens & Co. Adding to the jumble is the inclusion of ironic in-jokes—a scrim of text in the film’s opening segment recounts the indiscretions of one “Jean-Pierre Nouvelle Vague”—that cloud the line between fact and fiction.
Formalist art criticism, radical chic, and middle-class apathy are among the film’s other targets. Both strident in tone and insistently unsettled, Argument mounts its case in multiple, incongruous lines whose failure to persuade in any one direction is precisely the point. The labor of sense-making thus falls to the viewer who performs this (often exhausting) task collectively, in intimate, focused discussions following the film’s run. Tuesday’s screening at Light Industry maintains the workshop style of Argument’s initial showings in the fall and winter of 1978, where a select group of filmmakers, artists, and critics (Yvonne Rainer, Hans Haacke, Richard Serra, J. Hoberman, and Amy Taubin among them) gathered, armed with a staple-bound collection of critical texts. A discussion—or, better yet, an argument—with McCall and Tyndall is set to unfold after the film’s close, with reprints of the original Argument booklet available to peruse.
“Films in themselves do not change anything,” the duo contend in their essay “Against the Numbers Theory,” the booklet’s third. “The film is not only what is on the celluloid, but also how, where, and to whom it is shown.” At once slippery and didactic, structural and narrative, Argument alights somewhere in between, much like the experiments in “solid light” that McCall so hastily renounced, suspended as they were among projection, sculpture, and environment. Still trenchant over thirty years on, Argument is a rare, provocative prototype for a cinema where context becomes content.