Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Beware of a Holy Whore, 1970, 35 mm, color, sound, 104 minutes.
THINK OF EARLY FASSBINDER: ECLIPSE SERIES 39—the Criterion Collection DVD set of five of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s first eleven feature-length films, made whirlwind-fashion between 1969 and 1970—as a portable cross between an art installation and a German delicatessen. The lean, piquant cold cuts of his 1969 debut Love Is Colder Than Death are like a black-and-white platter of blood sausage, gorgeously splayed out in razor-sharp slices. Katzelmacher (1969) is spotty weisswurst, marinated in bile; Gods of the Plague (1969) is raw gangland ham on rye; The American Soldier, pulpy headcheese slathered in nouvelle French dressing. And for the piece de resistance, Beware of a Holy Whore (1970): a big lip-smacking, full-color film-about-a-film club sandwich of the bad, the beautiful, and the borderline psychotic.
Three of these are variations on a genre: Love Is Colder Than Death, Gods of the Plague, and The American Soldier are a vaguely interconnected trilogy of homages to the Hollywood tough-guy films of the Sam Fuller-Raoul Walsh kind. (Recurring characters include a “Magdalena Fuller” and “Franz Walsch,” the latter played by Fassbinder in two of the three pictures.) They bring this type of what Manny Farber first championed (circa 1957) as “underground film” together with the Godard-Warhol-Straub mode (that Farber championed as well). Love Is Colder Than Death luxuriates in the head-on geometry of amazing precisionist compositions, accompanied by hypnotic blasts of incongruous music, like an anti-fashion layout for a nihilist Vogue: Fassbinder’s pudgy, poxy leather-jacketed pimp Franz, Ulli Lommel parading like a kid dressed up as Alain Delon’s dapper Le Samourai for Halloween, an equally baby-faced Hanna Schygulla immediately grabbing the audience by casually removing her stockings. These three are always posing, playing at Bonnie-und-Clyde charades (“I’m looking for round glasses like the cop in Psycho had”), moving in synchronized patterns and rivetingly silhouetted against whitewashed walls.
Before Schygulla, no one in movies ever balanced life-grinding routine and poeticized glamour quite so easily—the embodiment of double (and redoubled) life, she would deservedly become the emblem for Fassbinder’s mash-ups of unsparing reality and acute artifice. In Katzelmacher, the one detour into socially-conscious didacticism in our program, she deftly disappears into the ensemble, playing the least rotten of a pack of craven, good-for-nothing bourgeois friends who socialize, gossip, abuse each other out of boredom but band together to kick the crap out of a poor immigrant who moves onto their turf. This production is the most blatant carryover from Fassbinder’s theater work, everything as pointedly unambiguous as a sitcom devised by a juvenile-delinquent Brecht. Fassbinder plays the foreign man—Yorgo the Greek—as a childlike Forrest Gimp, exacerbating the sense of the film as a one-act sketch that’s been padded out by forty-five or so minutes of redundant if heartfelt malice. The moral being: Life is like a box of Fassbinder films, so you never know what you’ll get—a poisoned bon-bon or a solid smack in the teeth with a rusty monkeywrench.
Gods of the Plague loosely recapitulates his first movie, with some of the same characters (this time Harry Baer plays Franz, with a glassy eye toward the Warhol limp-stud paradigm) and similar plotting, as a way of conducting some fresh experiments, working out new spatial and emotional compositions. With Schygulla doing her first Dietrich turn at “Club Lola Montez,” while being framed backstage in a dirty mirror that lends a distinct Robert Frank–ness to the lowlife vantage point, the movie has all the infectiously bleak cunning of a romantic-triangle opera filtered through the Rolling Stones at their most downbeat and strung-out. Alienation never felt so valiantly bittersweet as when a wounded robber’s Odd Man Out stagger down a deserted boulevard by night segues into an a cappella rendition of “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” staged in yet another mirror. Fassbinder reconnoiters the tension between distance and rapture like a private eye photographing a cheating spouse: businesslike, cynical, mesmerized.
With a dame indolently painting her toenails in the foreground of a poker game among crooked cops (using a deck of pornographic cards to up the seediness quotient), The American Soldier’s opening couldn’t be brusquer if a manhole cover were lifted up and the camera dove in. Inside of ten minutes, the title character (Karl Scheydt) has taken a hapless hooker on a night drive through Alphaville and dumped her like a sack of dirty laundry in Kiss Me Deadly territory, laughing maniacally as he shoots her with blanks. (I think there’s a mocking Mike Hammer/Lemmy Caution metaphor—or several—floating around in this movie-movie fishtank.) He’s trying to get ahold of his old buddy: “Walsch—‘W’ as in war, ‘A’ as in Alamo, ‘L’ as in Lenin, ‘S’ as in science fiction, ‘C’ as in crime, ‘H’ as in hell.” When he tracks Franz down, they have an equally droll post-hardboiled conversation:
“How was it in Vietnam?”
“Oh, yeah? Nothing happened here.”
“Nothing ever happens in Germany.”
This film is a prime example of how Fassbinder learned organization from Godard and vertical integration from Warhol’s Factory: combining prefabricated and/or abstracted elements with unprocessed, randomized ones. But even at eighty minutes, it feels like Fassbinder tires of the procedural repaint-by-numbers course en route, that he’s made his point and completed his studies in positioning figures in phone booths or alongside jukeboxes or putting pinball machines in parlors. The climactic shootout drags out the cliché of the slow-motion death scene in a manner so ludicrously clumsy it means to purge the macho convention once and for all—a ballet of dry heaves.
If Love Is Colder Than Death is Fassbinder’s most underrated film—at once too gnomic and too precociously ruthless—then Beware of a Holy Whore is where Fassbinder incontrovertibly graduates from being a dazzling student of filmmaking to working on a level commensurate with the high masters. Shot for shot, scene for magnificently mortifying scene, this goes proudly toe-to-toe with the insider-straits of Wilder, Minnelli, and Godard; it also makes Johnny-come-latelys like Day for Night, Nashville, or Boogie Nights look like postcards from the edgeless. Could anyone ever order a “cuba libre” again after seeing this? A sardonic monster movie—well, a primer on how filmmaking can serve as permission slip for otherwise semi-decent, halfway sane people to behave as monsters, tyrants, frauds, cheaters, and infantile aggressors/victims—Beware packs a layered wallop of scorn, moral squalor, delicious absurdity, and flickering humanity. Playing the Fassbinder-ish director, Lou Castel’s Jeff is a wonderfully appalling self-projection, both as wish-fulfillment (a blond Adonis, he looks like he should be starring opposite Sandra Dee in a 1950s romance) and worst-nightmare-scenario (he acts like a bitter Caligula who fears he’s about to lose his throne and be forced to turn tricks on the street). It is a grand, sweeping indictment of the pettiness and rancor that can fester inside “art,” and yet it has one of the most perversely transcendental moments the movies have ever supplied. Schygulla dances slowly, this time à la Marilyn Monroe, to Ray Charles’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” while chaos reigns around her. Fassbinder wrapped up his first creative period with a suitable bang. This was no end-of-cinema lamentation, but a beguiling epitaph scrawled in ruby red lipstick on the medium’s grave: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
Early Fassbinder: Eclipse Series 39 is now available from the Criterion Collection.
THE NIMBLEST COMEDY about Nazis ever made, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) brazenly opens with Hitler himself, window-shopping in Warsaw in August 1939, on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland, the assault that marked the beginning of World War II. It’s not the real führer, of course, but an actor dressed as him—though not just in Lubitsch’s movie but in a play within the film, a conceit viewers don’t realize until this Hitler deadpans, after he’s been ecstatically saluted, “Heil myself.”
To Be or Not to Be’s intricate screenplay, cowritten by Edwin Justus Mayer and an uncredited Lubitsch, is densely filled with deceit, disguises, and double entendres; this fizzy production takes quite seriously the dictator who “devour[s] whole countries” while at the same time diminishing the German leader as “the man with the little mustache.” Those who fight to vanquish Hitler’s forces are members of a Polish theatrical troupe led by the husband-and-wife team of Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), both equally solipsistic and patriotic. How these stage stars—a Slavic Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne—and their company aid the Polish resistance movement is too elaborate and ingenious to summarize here. But crucially, this noble mission is set in motion by Maria’s and Joseph’s foibles: her vanity, which is further stoked by the dressing-room attentions of an infatuated bomber pilot (Robert Stack), and her spouse’s all-consuming jealousy.
Supple yet sober screwball, Lubitsch’s film can still astound with its darkly comic dialogue. “So they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt, eh?” Joseph, incognito as a Gestapo colonel, chuckles to the Nazi spy who has just tried to flatter his superior by relaying the nickname bestowed on him by his SS admirers in London. (This is twenty-six years before the infamous “Springtime for Hitler” number in The Producers; significantly, Mel Brooks, the writer-director of that 1968 farce, and his wife Anne Bancroft would star in a 1983 remake of To Be or Not to Be.) Few critics, however, appreciated the humor in Lubitsch’s film, released in this country three months after the US entered the war; the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther sniffed, “To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.”
To Be or Not to Be’s original reception may have also been darkened by a tragic loss among the cast: Lombard, one of the era’s most beloved actresses, died, at age thirty-three, in a plane crash while flying back from a war-bond rally less than two months before the movie’s premiere. In her only collaboration with Lubitsch, Lombard tones down considerably the exhilarating chaos she brought to the screwball classics Twentieth Century (1934) and My Man Godfrey (1936). As a soignée diva, she is the luminous center of To Be or Not to Be, yet her flawless timing and delivery here still recall the incomparable loopiness dominant earlier in her career. No other performer could make the simplest term of farewell—Bye!—sound so fey, so alluring, elevating a lone syllable to a mini symphony.
To Be or Not to Be is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Joaquim Pinto, E agora? Lembra-me (What Now? Remind Me), 2013, digital video, color, sound, 164 minutes.
NOW IN ITS SIXTY-SIXTH YEAR, the Locarno Film Festival remains a cineast’s festival devoted to discovery. Each August, the southern Swiss town, situated ten miles from Italy (an oasis with palm trees and views of the Alps), dresses up in the ubiquitous yellow leopard print (as per Locarno’s mascot) to play host to one of Europe’s oldest festivals. Locarno benefits from a serendipitous combination of Swiss organization and Mediterranean charm, and as such it offers an antidote to Venice’s glitzy industry influence, retaining an enjoyably easygoing atmosphere while also championing cinema as art.
This “frontier” festival, as it’s been dubbed, has always adopted an expansive curatorial stance. To put it bluntly, Locarno exists to showcase films that are “difficult, complicated, or ignored by other festivals,” according to Italian critic Carlo Chatrian, the festival’s new artistic director, who also asserted the importance of celebrating cinematic “histories” rather than cinematic milestones. This year’s edition included a complete retrospective of George Cukor, whose sophisticated 1950 melodrama A Life of Her Own, starring Lana Turner and historically dismissed as one of his worst pictures, turned out to be one of the festival’s purest delights.
Chatrian envisions borders as lines that connect rather than divide. And indeed many of the old divisions are made irrelevant in Locarno’s two main sections, the International Competition and the Filmmakers of the Present (for emerging directors), both of which make no categorical distinctions between fiction and nonfiction, narrative and experimental. This year’s Competition included twenty features and eighteen world premieres, with new work by auteurs Hong Sang-soo, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Corneliu Porumboiu, Albert Serra, Joaquim Pinto, and Joanna Hogg. Concessions to local taste do exist, however, and can be found nightly in the Piazza Grande, the eight-thousand-seat outdoor cinema, where you can catch middlebrow fare or the action vehicle Two Guns—an admittedly perverse choice for the festival’s opening night.
The connective tissue among films this year, including the festival’s winners, was an intense focus on the corporeal. The Competition jury, presided over by Filipino director Lav Diaz, awarded the festival’s top prize to Catalan director Albert Serra’s unapologetically idiosyncratic costume drama Història de la meva morte, and bestowed the Special Jury Prize on Joaquim Pinto’s profoundly intimate documentary E agora? Lembra-me. Serra’s dryly comic film—which he described in a press conference as “unfuckable”—follows Casanova’s (and, by extension, the Enlightenment’s) last days as the debased lover wanders northern Europe and encounters the dark, romantic forces of Dracula. Featuring protracted scenes of arousal, defilement, and neck biting, as well as an extended dismemberment of a cow, Serra’s ponderous ode to excess somehow manages to beguile with its lugubrious tone and painterly digital video compositions. On the other hand, Pinto’s triumphant return to filmmaking is a stream-of-consciousness diary film consumed with the maladies and vicissitudes endured by the human body in the twenty-first century. Shot on multiple formats, it documents Pinto’s yearlong experimental treatment for HIV and Hepatitis C. Much of the film focuses on his relationship with husband Nuno and their life together in remote Azores, and it features a sex scene as tender as it is graphic. João Pedro Rodrigues’s medium length O corpo de Afonso, a highlight of the noncompetition films, consists of the director auditioning naked men—many of whom are unemployed—for the role of Portugal’s first king, in a film in which the metaphorical body comes to include all of that country’s citizens.
Stomach pains, real and imagined, dog Paul, the film-director protagonist of Corneliu Porumboiu’s wry competition entry When Evening Falls on Bucharest, or Metabolism, which contemplates both the end of celluloid as well as the limits of the body. (The film is composed of eighteen shots, the longest of which runs eleven minutes.) “When you’re filming, you put what interests you in the center, not at the margin,” a doctor tells Paul as they stare at video images of his endoscopy. The director shrugs and walks away—a reaction many had to Porumboiu’s film. However, its careful architecture and one particular dinner scene involving Chinese food left me more than satisfied. Architecture, in the form of a peculiar modernist townhouse, plays a central character in British director Joanna Hogg’s excellent Exhibition, a cerebral, ambiguous film that stars Liam Gillick and musician Viv Albertine (of the Slits) as H and D, a bourgeois middle-aged artist couple looking to sell. Hogg’s film, which deftly trades art-world satire for a much more mysterious exploration of marriage and creativity, is greatly aided by Albertine’s fully embodied performance artist, a possible “objectiphile” disposed to erotic encounters with furniture and merging her body with parts of the house, which she almost never leaves.
On the other side of the world, pilgrims traveling to a sacred Nepalese temple are transported high above the jungle via cable car in Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s mesmerizing Manakamana, which was rightly awarded the top prize in the Filmmakers of the Present section. (The eclectic jury was led by Hartmut Bitomsky and included Canadian musician Peaches, who treated festivalgoers to a performance in the Piazza.) Spray and Velez’s structuralist ethnographic film, produced at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, is a kind of anti-Leviathan, in which the viewer is constantly aware of their position in time and space: The camera never leaves the cable car, and the length of each shot corresponds both to one leg of the journey and to the length of a roll of 16-mm film. Passengers, who face the camera and are framed by the landscape moving behind them (a nod to rear projection), range from a pair of elderly Nepalese women enjoying ice cream to, shockingly, a quartet of bleating goats—all of whom appear as if by magic each time the cable car enters and leaves the terminal. Another journey film in this section is Alexander Carver and Daniel Schmidt’s The Unity of All Things 物之合, an ambitious experimental narrative involving particle physics that was shot in sites as far-flung as Jiuzhai Valley in China and the Sonoran desert, near the US-Mexico border. The film takes on nothing less than the instability of everything, from gender to the nuclear family to the cinematic image itself. Its utopian concerns were echoed in Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s collaboration A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, a tripartite feature exploring variations on collective and solitary experience shot in Estonia, Finland, and Norway that screened in a section entitled “Signs of Life,” named after the Werner Herzog film.
Herzog, who was in town to receive the festival’s top honor, gave a surprisingly pragmatic master class in which he voiced support for shooting features on cell phones. His latest “film,” From One Second to the Next, a texting and driving PSA for AT&T released online to over 1.7 million views, was a late addition to the festival and played alongside Fitzcarraldo in an example of Locarno’s lateral appreciation of cinema.
The 66th Festival del film Locarno ran August 7–17, 2013.
THIS SUMMER HAS BEEN, unofficially and achronologically, a celebration of writer-director Sebastián Silva, a gifted dissector of bad behavior. Last month saw the release of his fourth film, Crystal Fairy, a nimble road movie about American entitlement; this week MoMA mounts a weeklong run of his third, Old Cats, nearly three years after its world premiere at the New York Film Festival in 2010.
In some respects, Old Cats, which Silva coscripted and codirected with Pedro Peirano, recalls Silva’s sophomore project from 2009, The Maid (also cowritten with Peirano). Both films are confined almost exclusively to a single dwelling and center on a fractious nuclear family; two performers from The Maid reappear in Old Cats. Each movie reveals Silva’s mastery of tone shifts, from domestic horror to mordant hilarity—which is more pronounced in Old Cats—to well-earned, never maudlin reconciliation.
The felines of the title, two tubby tabbies deemed “the kings of the house,” share a bibelot-filled, eighth-floor apartment in Santiago, Chile, with an elderly couple, Isadora (Bélgica Castro) and Enrique (Alejandro Sieveking). As he reads Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art in bed, she awakens and shouts, “I don’t want to!” Though Isadora’s cry is the first hint of her senility, it also suggests a repressed truth: This is how she would like to respond to any proposal by her obnoxious daughter, Rosario (Claudia Celedón), who’s just invited herself over for tea.
Rosario’s arrival and the ensuing tumult—supposedly allergic to cats, she hollers, “Fuck! Put those pigs away!” before even entering her mother and stepfather’s apartment—unfold as one of the spikiest, funniest portrayals I have ever seen of an adult child who has cast herself as an eternal victim. In between trips to the bathroom for a bump of coke, this disheveled middle-aged woman erupts into tears and recriminations after Isadora shows little interest in underwriting yet another of her daughter’s pathetic business schemes—this time marketing “healing” soaps—and refuses to sign a power-of-attorney form that would transfer the apartment to Rosario.
When Rosario’s girlfriend, Hugo (Catalina Saavedra), née Beatriz, shows up, those who have seen The Maid will be delighted by this ingenious casting: In the earlier film, Celedón and Saavedra played, respectively, the mistress of the house and the titular servant. Bedecked in Yankees cap and cargo capris, Hugo, just as much a swindler as her lover though nowhere near as enraged and indignant, tries the soft sell with the soap scheme, constantly deferring to Enrique and Isadora as señor and señora. Perilously close to caricature, Rosario and Hugo are saved from one-dimensionality by their strangely touching loyalty and affection for each other. Even Isadora, when not in a befogged state, recognizes their devotion, telling Hugo, “Thank you for loving my daughter.”
As in The Maid and Crystal Fairy, the causticity in Old Cats is eventually tempered by a genuine belief in the decency—or potential decency—of the characters, no matter how flawed (or boorish or boisterous). And no one is absolved of responsibility: to oneself, to others, to the chubby kitty purring loudly on a lap.
Old Cats plays August 20 through 26 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Asli Özge, Men on the Bridge, 2009, color, sound, 83 minutes.
HARDY CINEPHILES love nothing more than to acknowledge a fresh trend or some heretofore unheralded new wave. But even the most devoted among them may have been slow to recognize the surge of activity represented by a startling series at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. “Rebel Yell,” a weeklong program dedicated to work by a new generation of Turkish women filmmakers, constitutes “a modest showcase for a major phenomenon,” in the words of programmer Rasha Salti.
The series is a timely one. Whereas recent international retrospectives on directors such as Yilmaz Güney have alerted more viewers to the rich history of Turkish cinema, relatively little attention has been paid to the growing presence and importance of women in a film culture where they’d been virtually invisible. (By Salti’s count, female directors were responsible for only fifty-two of the approximately 4,400 movies made in the country from the 1950s through the ’80s.) None of the women to emerge since the New Turkish Cinema wave of independent filmmakers in the ’90s have attained the festival-mainstay status of peers like Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Fatih Akin, a tendency that Salti clearly seeks to correct.
Many of the directors represented in this showcase share an affinity for shifting between documentary and narrative modes. A native of Istanbul who studied under director Yavuz Ozkan, Pelin Esmer earned no shortage of praise last year for her second feature, the sensitively rendered drama Watchtower. The same commitment to care and craft distinguishes The Play (2005), her contribution to the Lightbox series, an affecting yet often exuberant documentary of a group of rural women whose hard lives are ignited by new passions when they attempt to stage a play in their mountain village in southern Turkey.
Asli Özge, another filmmaker from Istanbul now based in Berlin, shares Esmer’s roots in documentary practice. In fact, Men on the Bridge—which plays “Rebel Yell” on August 25—began as a nonfiction film about people who work on or around Istanbul’s Bosphorus Bridge, the bustling meeting point for the city’s European and Asian communities. Özge instead opted for a fascinating doc-fiction hybrid in which nonprofessionals play characters based closely on themselves. (Since the Turkish police department wouldn’t allow one of Özge’s primary subjects to play himself on-screen, the role went to the officer’s brother.) The result is a bracing, perceptive look at modern Istanbul, one attuned to the city’s various cultural and economic tensions and still remarkably intimate.
With its understated naturalism and keen sensitivity to the impact of sociopolitical conditions on human relationships, Men on the Bridge evinces a kinship between Özge and her contemporaries in her adopted German home, filmmakers like Angela Schanelec, Maria Speth, and Maren Ade. Those directors’ best efforts also serve as useful reference points for Belmin Söylemez’s Present Tense, which screens August 22. A first feature that earned prizes at festivals in Istanbul and Adana in Turkey and in San Francisco, Söylemez’s measured character study benefits from a superb performance by Sanem Oge, here portraying Mina, a young woman who finds refuge from the collapse of her marriage through employment as a fortune teller. In the film’s most sardonic touch, this fraudulent seer is really only able to reflect on her own situation as she interprets the swirls and streaks in her clients’ overturned coffee cups. Less suspect than Mina’s iffy soothsaying is what the film itself has to say about the perils and pleasures of human connection as experienced by people who struggle to feel like they have a place in the world. At least “Rebel Yell” suggests that directors like Esmer, Özge, and Söylemez are finally finding a stronger foothold.
“Rebel Yell: A New Generation of Turkish Women Filmmakers” plays August 22 to 29 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto.
THE FIFTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom occasions a New York screening of the rarely shown documentary King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis (1970). Consisting primarily of newsreel footage, the movie chronicles Martin Luther King Jr.’s stewardship of the civil rights movement from 1955 until his assassination thirteen years later. This vital commemorative event takes on even greater urgency when viewed against the backdrop of quite recent, dispiriting legal decisions: the Supreme Court’s dismantling of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in June and George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case last month. Just as important, King: A Filmed Record also counterbalances the unconscionably cartoonish dramatization of the civil rights era in Lee Daniels’s The Butler, now in theaters.
Produced by Ely Landau, King: A Filmed Record was originally shown as a one-time-only event on March 24, 1970, nearly two years after the reverend’s murder on April 4, 1968. (The three-hour-long documentary, according to the New York Times review, played at more than fifty theaters in the five boroughs of New York alone.) A brief prologue juxtaposes speakers of fiery rhetoric—“We’re going to put every cracker in America on his knees! We want black power”—with snippets of King’s speeches espousing nonviolence and interracial harmony. From there, the documentary proceeds linearly, inexorably, stirringly, devastatingly, detailing the cycle of action and reaction, of courage colliding with hate, that defined the years covered in the film: bus boycotts, Freedom Rides, and marches met with fire-hosings, clubbings, and bombings.
This history, from which we are only a generation or two removed, is presented without narration and with an economy of titles listing dates and names—whether those of King’s allies (Fred Shuttlesworth, Reverend C. T. Vivian) or foes (“Bull” Connor, Sheriff Jim Clark, who sports a button declaring NEVER on his lapel). Ten people in the film appear without any ID at all: a multiracial group of prominent actors (eight men, two women) who recite from unidentified texts. Often disjunctive, sometimes ridiculous, these interstitial segments, directed by Sidney Lumet and Joseph L. Mankiewicz, aren’t entirely without interest: I’ll never forget the slight twitching of Ruby Dee’s left hand during her reading, as if she, still charged with raw emotion, were revolting, ever so slightly, against a staid exercise.
Of course, there are few speeches from this country’s history as soaring, as transcendent as those delivered by King, whether in front of national monuments or from church pulpits; this invaluable film’s greatest asset is the presentation of several of these electrifying orations in their entirety. But just as unforgettable are those moments of “the moral leader of our nation,” to use A. Philip Randolph’s description, captured in moments of unscripted delight: King, soon to address a church in Chicago regarding the open-housing movement there in 1966, beams as Mahalia Jackson sings “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho”; he laughs as an associate presents him with a series of gag gifts for his birthday. “Thank you very much. I’m just getting older is all,” he says to his well-wishers. This birthday—King’s thirty-ninth—would be his last.
King: A Filmed Record…Montgomery to Memphis screened at BAM as part of the series “A Time for Burning: Cinema of the Civil Rights Movement,” which runs through August 28. It will also screen at Film Forum on August 28 at 7:10 PM.
Zachary Heinzerling, Cutie and the Boxer, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 82 minutes. Noriko Shinohara and Ushio Hinohara.
CUTIE AND THE BOXER (2013), a film that splits open the breast, depicts a complex, decades-long marriage between two artists living in close quarters. Far from a tribute to lockstep marital harmony, the film is a document of overlapping primary colors—of two crystalline, earnest characters that collide again and again, yet remain only subtly changed.
Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko live in a catacomb of paint-splattered walls—part studio, part archive, part family home—somewhere in Brooklyn. For over forty years, through poverty, alcoholism, childrearing, and obscurity, the Shinoharas have patched together a life of sedulous artmaking. Now, Ushio is eighty (Noriko is a good two decades younger), and Zachary Heinzerling, a first-time filmmaker in his twenties already decorated with Sundance accolades, has made a visual diary of their insular world.
The project took half a decade and included a hundred shooting days, of which only the last year and a half made it to the screen, though the collage-style editorial approach makes it difficult to tell how much time has passed in the film. Save for Noriko’s gradual enfranchisement and a few interruptions in day-to-day life—Ushio’s absence while he is in Japan, the mounting of a couple of art shows—one feels as though we may be watching a single Groundhog Day–like afternoon, over and over.
The film opens with Ushio’s eightieth birthday, a rare marker of time. Noriko rouses the gruff, sleepy old man from bed to give him a cupcake, and after some rummaging they find a number three candle, which Ushio crudely squishes onto the dessert. As the film unfolds, we surmise, through archival footage and “present day” documentation, that Ushio’s impish, egomaniacal demeanor hasn’t changed much since he moved to New York from Japan in 1969. Ushio still looks much like his athletic, coarse-gestured self, and he still sports a (now silvery) mohawk. Noriko looks similarly eternal, her age betrayed only by her pearly braids.
Though Ushio is the more famous artist, Heinzerling chooses to center the film on Noriko, a solid choice, as her evolution into a stronger, more confident human being makes for a captivating narrative arc. Noriko’s gentle touch—the heart-wrenching way in which, veiled in tristesse, she washes their cat, prepares an intricate dinner, or regards a flower—is made all the more salient when juxtaposed with Ushio’s rough, noisy mien. Ushio is frequently shown engaged in the transfixing, belligerent process of his art, moving between “action paintings” made by punching canvases using boxing gloves dipped in acrylic, motorcycle sculptures, and sprawling compositions featuring characters seething with multicolored, polymorphous angst. Noriko skirts around him, making delicate paintings in Ushio’s interstitial space.
Noriko’s art during the period of the film takes the form of “Cutie and Bullie,” a hand-drawn comic from which the movie derives its title. Cutie and Bullie are avatars for Noriko and Ushio, and the series functions as a kind of catharsis where, on the safety of paper, Noriko can paint Cutie’s victories, riding a naked Bullie like a cowgirl. Heinzerling brings Cutie and Bullie to life in the film, animating them in little vignettes. Noriko’s characters are exquisitely drawn, and through these scenes we learn the artists’ tragic backstory—of Ushio’s alcoholism, of the unstable environment and ensuing poverty that enveloped their son Alex, and of Noriko’s shame around these facts.
When Ushio goes to Japan to try to sell a few of his miniature motorcycle sculptures—packed clumsily into suitcases without any padding—Noriko, visibly relaxed, shows her Cutie and Bullie ink drawings to a giggly friend, who approves. After Ushio returns, a gallerist comes for a studio visit; Noriko urges him to see Ushio’s work as well, and the pair are invited to do a joint show. Ushio chooses the title “ROAR!” which Noriko later, surreptitiously, changes to “Love Is a Roar!” In a tender scene, we watch Ushio process his wife’s role behind the title change, as Noriko argues that he’s only with her because he is poor, and he needs someone to figure out the subway maps. Ushio, still plainly conscious of the camera, pats her thigh and says, in a rare moment of vulnerability, “I need you.”
“We are like two flowers in one pot,” Noriko tell us. “Sometimes we don’t get enough nutrients for both of us. But when everything goes well, we become two beautiful flowers.” The film-time gestates in adulterated humus. But even here, the tenderness between Noriko and Ushio is powerful, as is their lightheartedness, in spite of—because of—their sadness. Are the flowers not Noriko and Ushio themselves, but their robust, lifelong devotion to their work? Their ardor is captured sincerely by Heinzerling, and displayed honestly, and the entire film suffuses a broken radiance. How rare to observe two twenty-first-century verité protagonists so devoid of ironic reflexivity, and how sweet.
WIDELY DISMISSED upon its release in 1966, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds, a dystopian makeover movie, has achieved cult status in the five decades since; the final installment of the director’s “paranoia trilogy,” which also includes The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964), Seconds is now considered by many to be a trenchant look at the technocapitalist horrors of Cold War America. (In an essay accompanying the Criterion Collection’s DVD and Blu-ray of Seconds, critic David Sterritt exalts: “It’s less a polemic than a punch to the sociopolitical solar plexus.”) Yet for this admirer, the movie’s fascination lies not in its predictable liberal critique of the soullessness of tony suburbs and evil corporations but in the tension between text and (perhaps) unwitting subtext, in teasing out who bears the greater authorial stamp: Frankenheimer or Rock Hudson, the film’s lead.
In other words, Seconds is, intentionally or not, a great movie about the closet. I am not the first to suggest this: Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992)—Mark Rappaport’s clever project in which a surrogate for the DL screen idol, the first major celebrity to die from AIDS, in 1985, narrates his own life from beyond the grave—uses clips from Hudson’s filmography, including Seconds, to demonstrate that his homosexuality was obvious all along. But Frankenheimer’s movie, in which Hudson doesn’t appear until the forty-minute mark, abounds with other queer signifiers—even if they are the result of what cinema scholar Patricia White has termed “retrospectatorship,” of viewing the past from a contemporary position.
Seconds opens with extreme close-ups of an eyeball (recalling the intro of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, released the year before), wildly distorted, as much of the movie is, by cinematographer James Wong Howe’s fisheye lenses and canted angles. The camera peers too intimately into a man’s mouth, ear canal, nostrils—orifices unspeakably violated. The apertures may or may not be those of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph, one of three former Hollywood blacklistees cast by Frankenheimer), a sweaty, fidgety middle-aged banker who’s handed an address—34 Lafayette Street—just before his commuter train departs Grand Central for Scarsdale. At the home Arthur shares with his wife, who will later describe their marriage as “a polite, celibate truce,” the financier is tormented by late-night telephone calls from a once-close (too-close?) tennis-doubles partner, whose disembodied epicene voice sounds a lot like the killer’s in Cruising. (Significantly, these phone chats and other scenes from Seconds are reworked in Carter’s Erased James Franco from 2009.)
Arthur heeds the caller’s directive to proceed to the address he was given earlier, an escapade that involves a detour to…the Meatpacking District. Soon the purpose of this convoluted trek is revealed: A spokesman for an entity known only as the Company explains to Arthur that, for a hefty sum, the syndicate will stage the miserable manager’s death so that he may be “reborn” as a younger, more handsome, single version of himself. After a series of plastic surgeries—scenes instantly linked to the gruesome rhinoplasties and face-lifts of Behind the Candelabra, if not more broadly evocative of conversion therapy (though here a process that makes the subject more, not less, gay)—Arthur Hamilton/John Randolph becomes Tony Wilson/Rock Hudson, the dull businessman now a “solid, mildly successful” painter with a diploma from the École des Beaux-Arts.
Tony is dispatched to Malibu—does the Company hope he’ll run into David Hockney in West Hollywood?—where he begins and tears up sketches of female nudes, is ministered to by a manservant, and meets Nora (Salome Jens), who takes him to a bacchanalia in Santa Barbara. The revelers aren’t Radical Faeries but decidedly hetero, free-loving, grape-stomping nudists; reluctant Tony is the last one to shuck his windbreaker. Even in Nora, a blonde, lissome woman who serves to stoke the erotic fire that had been long extinguished when Tony Wilson was Arthur Hamilton, there is something thrillingly discordant: She looks uncannily like Edie Windsor.
Seconds is available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning August 13 from the Criterion Collection.
Agnes Martin, Gabriel, 1976, 16 mm, color, sound, 78 minutes.
WHAT THEY WERE ABOUT, Agnes Martin would never quite say. Up close, their surface resolves in iterated lines that skim or settle into the canvas’s tooth; at mid-distance, their right-angled spread becomes a quivering moiré; a few steps further back and their flutter freezes in an aquarelle plane. Abstract nouns like “beauty,” “perfection,” “surrender,” “happiness,” and “freedom” thread through the artist’s sibylline statements, which less cohere than uneasily coexist, hinting at a grand, overarching significance while never settling on a singular meaning. Theirs is a cadenced, continual slide between opposed poles: flickering and stable, hazy and material, congested and spare.
“They” are, of course, grids, Martin’s great subject, rendered in subtle permutations of graphite and paint. Her decision in 1976 to make a film thus seems a digression, an eccentric footnote to a body of work singularly obsessed with line. It was her only foray into the medium; a later attempt to stage an epic about the Mongols’ conquest of China ended only in reels of destroyed footage. Martin’s choice to take up a 16-mm camera came just two years after her storied return to painting, following a seven-year hiatus and a flight from Coenties Slip to Cuba, New Mexico. Yet Martin insisted that Gabriel, screening this Sunday at Anthology Film Archives in a vivid new print, plumbed the same themes as her canvases. “It’s about happiness,” she announced in Art News the year of its release. “Exact thing with my paintings. It’s about happiness and innocence.”
Gabriel follows its titular protagonist, a ten-year-old boy who lived near Martin on the mesa, as he ambles through an untouched landscape of hushed meadows and softly banked streams. A picturesque vista of purple-gray mountains furnishes its opening shot. The camera’s frame is fixed but ever so shaky, betraying the presence of Martin’s hand behind its lens. Cut to a medium shot of water swelling and ebbing along a pebbled shore at a legato lilt. The title intervenes atop a stretch of sand, then Gabriel appears before the Pacific Ocean, perfectly still, his back turned to the camera. Sand, water, and sky divide the frame into six stretches of color: mauve, dimmed purple, spumy white, slate, turquoise, and slate again. Bach’s Goldberg aria plays, its notes pleasantly trilled by the record player’s needle. Motion slows, the air wafts: a perfectly lovely day.
For the film’s remaining seventy-odd minutes, Martin’s camera loosely observes Gabriel’s hike. His journey appears in fragments—here he advances up a hill, there he idles in a grove—interspersed with fleet shots of nature (flowers ruffled by the breeze, lily pads patterning a pond) that fail to cohere in space or in time. In a recurring sequence, Martin cuts between various views of flowing water, each held long enough to arrest our gaze without letting it linger. Purling streams and sun-specked riverbeds appear in swift succession, each a non sequitur to the image that precedes. Martin approaches these shots as she might a painting, her fixed framing recalling the obdurate dimensions of her signature six-foot-square canvases. (Tellingly, at Gabriel’s close, she credits herself not with direction but with “camera composition.”) At moments, she films in slight unfocus, abstracting tussling waves into a turquoise haze. Such effects seem less nurtured than accidental. For an artist who thought in graphite and gouache, the camera must have seemed a foreign object, and Martin handles it awkwardly. As Gabriel traverses the frame, she zooms in, then rapidly retracts the camera’s focus, as if unsure how best to render movement in a space removed from the canvas’s plane.
While point of view shots occasionally intrude—the boy looks skyward and a single wispy cloud fills the frame—Gabriel’s economy remains doggedly external: a translation to celluloid of Martin’s desire to make painting “as unsubjective as possible.” While she lavishes nature with repeated close-ups, Gabriel’s face is never privileged with the same. Martin prefers to capture him from behind, her camera steady as he recedes. No motive is offered for his hike, and he expresses little, if any, emotion, doing no more than impassively, dutifully walking—often, it seems, at Martin’s express command. Sketched in the vaguest of contours, Gabriel becomes a symbol: “innocence,” writ large. His ruminative detachment suggests an “untroubled mind,” that vacant yet focused state which Martin so exalted, and which she associated with children.
“Classicists are people that look out with their back to the world,” Martin averred in a series of statements published in 1972. Her words summed the tradition with which she insistently identified her art. Yet, while Martin aligned classicism with the exultant emotions elicited by nature, she denied that her canvases were abstracted landscapes—mappings of the fields of her father’s wheat farm or the fluent flats of the Southwest. Never mind her suggestive titling (White Flower, Falling Blue, Leaf in the Wind), or her intimation of the grid’s connection with the plain. Recall the shot of Gabriel stilled at the water’s edge, and you’ll see the bands of muted color that characterize Martin’s paintings from the mid-1970s onward.
“It is not a work Martin herself gives any indication of wanting to bracket away from the rest of her art. Yet it should be,” Rosalind Krauss cautioned in her catalogue essay for the artist’s 1992 Whitney retrospective. Her fear was that Gabriel would congeal Martin’s grids as “crypto-landscape[s],” the subtleties of their facture lost in the drive to identify this field or that parched expanse. Krauss wanted to claim Martin as a modernist of the classical sort, her paintings an inquiry into the objective ground and subjective experience of perception. Yet, while Gabriel does not concern vision in the abstract, it does deal with a certain perceptual attitude: “a patience to look and look again,” as photographer Zoe Leonard described. It is that same sensitive, iterative gaze that so defined Martin’s paintings. Faced with Gabriel’s nature montage, one cannot help but see Martin behind the lens, her hand lightly trembling as it did when she drew graphite across canvas.
The isolated figure, back facing the frame, is not simply the classicist turned away from “the turmoil” (to use Martin’s phrase), but the rückenfigur of Romantic landscape painting. When Gabriel stands at the shore, we see not only Martin’s banded canvases but Caspar David Friedrich’s Monk by the Sea, 1809. Martin’s classical pursuit of “order,” “rightness,” and “structure” was tinged with a romantic longing for dissolution: “merging,” “formlessness,” and “breaking down,” as she divulged. For all its emotional cool, Gabriel evokes the sublimity that dwells in the everyday: William Blake’s “To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower.” Rather than an aberrant, and potentially harmful, addendum to an otherwise faultless oeuvre, Martin’s film illumes the contradictions that structure her art and the anxiety (both the artist’s own and that of her interpreters) that attends its relationship to nature. It’s a film, like her paintings, at once elusive and concrete, that interests us precisely because it is irreconcilable.
HERE IS A WOMAN who rode liberation to the top, becoming the first porn star in America, gigantically famous, beloved by Hugh Hefner and Johnny Carson alike, a lover of Sammy Davis Jr.’s, author of two best-selling autobiographies, and later, rose with the second wave as the nation’s number-one babe against pornography, friend of Gloria Steinem, author of two more best-selling autobiographies, both utterly and believably contra the first two, and yet—nobody looks at Linda Lovelace and thinks, “Now she was smart.”
A new biopic feels unlikely to change that. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, Lovelace follows the Bronx-born Linda Susan Boreman through nine years, four last names, and a lie detector test. Leading the cast with her cow-eyed bathos is Amanda Seyfried, and even in brown contact lenses and brown wigs, each browner and uglier than the last, she is pretty the way Linda wasn’t—symmetrical, milk-skinned. Another difference: She can act. Arresting, credible, and still the best thing in Mean Girls (2004), it’s only surprising it took Seyfried, twenty-seven, this long to triumph. (Lindsay Lohan, of course, was set to star as herself/Linda Lovelace in another biopic, Matthew Wilder’s Inferno, but—like Lovelace on the set of Laure—was too drugged or not willing enough to work.)
Epstein and Friedman’s imagining is based not on any of Linda’s four memoirs, one of which (the harrowing Ordeal) was optioned ages ago by Ron Howard, but on the “only authorized biography of Linda Lovelace,” written by a guy named Eric. Her two children, Dominic and Lindsay, and her erstwhile, earnestly antipornography lawyer, Catharine MacKinnon, are all said to have cooperated on the film.
Thus Lovelace is pro-family, anti-porn-industry propaganda, and at the same time, a well-spun and sunlit biopic. There are at least two stories to every side.
The film begins with Seyfried in nothing but freckles. She’s smoking in the bathtub, so we know she’s depressed. We do not know whether at this point she’s Boreman or Traynor or Lovelace or Marchiano and it matters not, so classically cool is the image: all smoke, no steam. You can almost hear the paternal voice-over. She’s white, thin, and beautiful. So why is she so sad?
In the IRL saga of Linda Lovelace you can find a complicity of answers, one of which is that she wasn’t sad at all, but rather desperate. Where Lovelace lies is telling, so here, expurgated and with extreme reluctance, is a fact-check: She was spotted sunbathing, not go-go dancing, by Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard), who was not a casually sleazy stranger but her best friend Patsy’s friend. It was Patsy (Juno Temple), not Chuck, who showed Linda the first porno she saw. When (in 1971) she ran away with Chuck, she straightaway worked in his strip bar, then made 8-mm porno “loops” (like short films, or long GIFs) and sold/was sold for sex, only after all of which she starred “as herself” in Deep Throat (1972), while in Lovelace, she seems not to have done porn or know she’s doing it till Harry Reems—played by the succulent Adam Brody—unzips. And after Deep Throat, as unseen in Lovelace, she smoked pot and got on painkillers and went around with male movie stars and was generally perceived as a carefree if drug-addicted superfreak.
As Hilton Als says of a friend in his new book, White Girls: “She was a good actress, but only in real life.”
I did not expect more biographical accuracy in Lovelace than I did otolaryngological accuracy in Deep Throat. Still, it’s strange to see scenes from the latter depicted, or repicted, more faithfully in the former than the facts or the look of Linda’s world. In the porno scenes, she wears period-apropos costumes. Offscreen, say on honeymoon with Chuck, she wears Jeffrey Campbell platforms you could find on sale right now. Her present feels suspiciously like last year’s Instagram.
Slowly, as this becomes clear, a solarization occurs. The loud, gorgeous, too-saturated colors of contemporary pornography are those of Linda’s “real” existence in Lovelace, and even when the film gets dark, the earlier scenes of happiness recapitulated alongside bonus footage of green-lit beatings, threats, guns, a choking, a bit of blood, and once a violet bruise, her abuses are filmed to look soft-core. Yes, what Chuck calls “passion” we now see as rape. We see him hold her, hostage. We see him leave a hotel room and six men enter and she screams. But little is explicit, and it’s 2013. If the directors even once let Seyfried look ugly, or showed us what she wants, we’d believe her. Since they don’t, Lovelace at its cruelest is still mostly a revision of my RedTube history. (The worst things—both the things that happened to her and the things she did herself, although who knows precisely the difference—aren’t shown, but I’ll give you one word: Dogarama.)
Linda’s Deep Throat is the inverse, shot in the happy softened hues of suburban life. Plot-wise, she smiles and slurps her way to a marriage proposal from one of the cocksucked, thus winning in porno the very happy ending that evaded her (twice) in life. But not in Lovelace. The film’s washed-out denouement has her calling Linda Lovelace “a fictitious character,” then saying, with remarried pride, “I’m Linda Marchiano.” She later re-divorced, but the film doesn’t tell you that. It stops, shy. That the movie lies doesn’t matter, but that it lies to protect her does; in Lovelace the verdict rests on the second layer of Linda’s story, played as not alternate reality but revelation, clean and total, concealing the human or animal shiftiness that in a real story lies beneath.
In the last scene, Linda goes to see her fascistically religious mom (Sharon Stone, who should really play Candida Royalle), now in an old folks’ home. All is redeemed. They embrace. It is 1980 and with her near-last words—“I am a mother and a wife; that is where I found my joy”—Linda’s practically campaigning for Reagan.
And didn’t Reagan win? Smart thing.
Only Lovelace makes believe that Linda was dumb, that she meant everything she said and nothing she did, that she was the artless pornographer as a young girl, forever a young girl, never a woman who wanted any of this, not the sex, the porn, the orgies, the orgiastic if fast-fading fame, the conversion to feminism, which comes at the end of the film and which afterward she also renounced. And not the money! That’s the least forgivable thing in Lovelace: She never talks about wanting, hardly even needing, a cent. Which she did. She needed money when she made Deep Throat for $1250, all pocketed by the ruthless, peccant Traynor. She needed money when she made Deep Throat Part II (1974) and also when she wrote Ordeal (1980), and when she crusaded against porno she got $500 per speaking appearance but said “they made a few bucks off [her], like everybody else.” And when at fifty-two she posed in stockings, for Leg Show, she had medical bills to pay.
The directors can’t afford their girl even this basic and basest desire. Instead, they go and make her pure. It’s Chuck, always in legal trouble, who needs cash: “Do I have enough? Linda, do we have enough,” he says, and a star is born. The script reads like courtroom drama, a reenactment for the jury, in which the only character witnesses are people who knew Linda in high school. She was a nice girl. She’s quiet. She is shy and asophistic to a fault. Her single scar doesn’t pass for a flaw; she is almost no character. Seyfried’s tiny, physical sensitivity, her minutely expressive face, is all reduced to a series of close calls, so that she’s perfect in freeze-frame but nothing actually moves. What we get is only moving.
Lovelace takes the audience, too, for stupid. What’s at surface a morality play is beneath it a submission to tropes. Catholic matrophobia gives way to patriarchal bondage (except we’re supposed to believe her dad, a cop, is a good guy, as if anything could be more pro-state), while the promised liberation becomes regret unpreceded by need. The happy hooker/sad hooker dualism, already so done, meets a cheated end.
In 1972, Linda found millions of Americans willing to think any woman would believe that her clitoris was in her throat, and in 1980 she entered a world ready to accept that a woman regretted, without complexity, every sex act she’d ever committed. But this year—what gives? Must a heroine still be proven innocent? We only have to Google to find that Linda Marchiano did not keep her second husband, did not stay friends with Steinem, did not become independently wealthy, ran out of best-sellers, died in a car accident at age fifty-six, and did not get what she wanted, if only anyone would tell us what that was.
Lovelace opens in theaters and On Demand on Friday, August 9.
WHEN A NONACTOR appears in a movie role, it is as if a draft rushes in from some door left open backstage, rustling against the conventions of how movie people hold themselves, how professionals look at the camera or throw their voice. When it works, casting a nonactor has a bracing effect, since risk still clings to the best of these performances: Iggy Pop in Dead Man (1995), the double amputee Harold Russell in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, for which he won an Oscar for best supporting actor), the philosopher Brice Parain in Vivre sa Vie (1962), Truffaut’s leading role in The Wild Child (1970), and the entire casts of The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Close-Up (1990). In other cases, the casting of nonactors can feel like a stunt. In Gummo (1997), or in any of Quentin Tarantino’s performances, we never feel that we are looking at a character at all.
David Bowie has appeared in more than two dozen films, but he remains a nonactor. Every time I see David Bowie in a movie, I mentally blurt out, “Oh look, it’s David Bowie.” This is different, I think, from being a bad actor. He simply is a nonactor. His characters should perhaps come with a subtitled tag, like in documentaries or reality TV. This more or less is what happens in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat (1996). Although Bowie’s performance as Andy Warhol is already essentially a long Saturday Night Live impression, the first time he appears, someone onscreen helpfully exclaims, “That’s Andy Warhol.” Lest we forget.
Most of Bowie’s directors have tried to exploit Bowie’s sphinxlike unreadability by having him play nonpersons: vampires, extraterrestrials, goblins, weirdos, ciphers. His first starring role was in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), playing an alien being on a journey to save his dying planet. Bowie becomes first an “inventor” of advanced technology, then declines into an eccentric shut-in addled by television and gin, with his mission half-forgotten by the narrative and character. Although borrowing liberally from the persona of the Ziggy Stardust concept album, the role of alien entrepreneur is actually closer to the Howard Hughes story that Martin Scorsese would make into The Aviator (2004) than to any recognizable science fiction. The film’s cynicism runs deep but is directed at targets I don’t recognize as belonging to reality. Roeg made excellent films about fearful, isolated, and inscrutable characters in the 1970s, Walkabout (1971) and Don’t Look Now (1973), but The Man Who Fell to Earth is not one of them. The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Bowie’s withdrawn, catatonic performance, are iconic, but in a bad way, like Brian De Palma’s equally shallow and unmotivated Scarface (1983).
One solution to Bowie’s nonacting is to have him perform alongside Jim Henson’s Muppets, who are not actors either. In the George Lucas–produced Labyrinth (1986), Bowie plays the Goblin King, a kind of Wicked Witch to Jennifer Connelly’s Dorothy. The towering wig and gauntleted costumes, which would lend any other actor an air of outrageous, pre-Raphaelite camp, instead look oddly comfortable on Bowie. In all his roles, Bowie seems to be doing a waxy impression of Peter O’Toole: fragile, ambiguously wounded, subtle. He is grossly miscast in Labyrinth, which plainly calls for a Tim Curry type who could gleefully hoist a skull-goblet to his Muppet minions.
Martin Scorsese had the right idea in filming Bowie in The Last Temptation of Christ (1988). Bowie, playing Pontius Pilate, begins speaking in a long shot, so that when we cut to his face, we are already engaged with his character’s cynicism and the dry arrogance of bureaucracy, rather than Bowie’s winking eccentricity. Furthermore, Bowie is playing his scene across from an impossible character, Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe). This must be somewhat like performing with a CGI character like Jar Jar Binks or Gollum. The result is that Bowie’s innate vacancy as an actor translates believably into Pilate’s beleaguered lack of empathy. At the same time, the viewer cannot help but wonder how, say, Willem Dafoe would have played the scene.