Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York, 2002, Super 35, color, sound, 167 minutes.
WE BEGIN IN AN UNDERGROUND WARREN WITH EARTHEN WALLS. The camera, approximating the POV of a little boy whose father is about to lead a small army into battle, cranes to peer at various roughnecks preparing for the fray, sinister in guttering candlelight. The accents are Irish. The setting might be frontier America; it might be after the Apocalypse. As the party emerges aboveground, a crane shot reveals a vast, multistoried timbered structure, part beer hall, part tenement, whose overcrowded population sends up a riotous clangor. Arriving at the building’s main door, an ogreish member of the party kicks it open and, as the camera leads the charge through, tenebrous claustrophobia is left behind for a still, snowy vista that fills the full span of the wide-screen frame. This is Paradise Square, the Five Points, Lower Manhattan, 1846.
In actual fact, it’s Cinecittà, the largest film studio in Italy. The film is Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York. The Five Points—as well as Gangs’ other fantastic dens of iniquity—originated in the mind of production designer Dante Ferretti, then to be visualized in one of his conceptually striking production sketches, and finally built to scale by a small army of carpenters, masons, bricklayers, ironworkers, and so forth. Through February 9, 2014, several sheaths of those charcoal-on-paper sketches, as well as other ephemera from Ferretti’s career, will be on view in the lobby galleries of the Museum of Modern Art.
Ferretti has collaborated with Scorsese eight times to date, beginning with The Age of Innocence (1993) and continuing through Hugo (2011). MoMA’s simultaneously launched twenty-two-film Ferretti retrospective includes all of their movies together except Bringing Out the Dead (1999), while among the artifacts on display are the enormous clock face from Hugo’s Gare Montparnasse, as well as the blueprints for the station.
Approaching the escalators to the Roy and Niuta Titus theaters, you encounter a picture of Ferretti standing in one of those warehouse-like soundstages—at Cinecittà, Pinewood, Shepperton—that have housed his greatest creations. The vastness of the empty space is commensurate in size with Ferretti’s vision, which will fill it. He looks very much the Renaissance artist in his studio, or like Giotto in the scaffolding-covered chapel which Ferretti designed for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron (1971). Being the all-important director, Pasolini got to play Giotto himself, though Ferretti’s displayed sketches, many of them instantly recognizable, reveal his crucial input into the overall look of the films that he has worked on through their unmistakable proximity to the final product.
Dante Ferretti was born in Italy’s Marche region, near the Adriatic coast. This isn’t far from the native country of Federico Fellini, who would employ Ferretti to design his last five movies. When one thinks of the grand theatrical artifice of Fellini’s 1983 And the Ship Sails On, one thinks of Ferretti’s rolling plastic ocean, its mechanics revealed in the final shot; of the cruise ship with its cavernous boiler room, made into a concert hall by the prima donnas and primo uomos of the Italian opera. (Ferretti has, incidentally, moonlit at designing operas since 1977, including Howard Shore’s The Fly, based on David Cronenberg’s film.) Like Fellini, Ferretti was an ambitious, movie-mad young man who came to Rome from the provinces. After studying at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, he began working as a set designer while still a teenager. For nine years Ferretti would be assistant and apprentice to Luigi Scaccianoce, a frequent collaborator of Pasolini’s, until finally taking his mentor’s place on Pasolini’s 1969 Medea.
Pasolini was partial to shooting outdoors, but when using constructed sets he had Ferretti build with his primitivo, presentational style in mind, based on centered, head-on compositions shot from a fixed point. Where Pasolini wanted static canvases for his figures to move against, Scorsese favors obstacle courses for his fleet camera to duck and weave through. All this and more is visible in the centerpiece of MoMA’s show, the so-called labyrinth. The labyrinth is composed of sixteen screens, hung at right angles to one another in the center of the gallery space outside the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1. On both sides of each screen, scenes from Ferretti-designed films are digitally projected—thirty-six clips in total. Once inside the labyrinth, one’s sightline can simultaneously take in Robert de Niro’s Ace Rothstein arriving at the Tangiers Hotel & Casino on the Strip in Scorsese’s Casino (1995), Brad Pitt’s Louis torching his enemies’ coven in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), and a deliberately-stagey false-front cityscape, reminiscent of Baroque theater, in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). The inspiration, said associate curator Ron Magliozzi in a roundtable conference with Ferretti after the press preview, came from the fact that the “labyrinth is a recurring theme in [Ferretti’s] work: corridors, adjoining rooms, caves, maze-themed geography.”
Dante Ferretti, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles – Le catacombe, 1993. Charcoal on board.
As one wanders the labyrinth, the cumulative sum and scope of what Ferretti has raised from the ground in the course of his career appear stunning. Equally stunning is the fact that practically none of it exists, outside of cinematic record, today. The Five Points set is still standing at Cinecittà, and Ferretti has other permanent structures in the works. He is collaborating with architect Renzo Piano on the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, while the most surprising sketch on view is a design for a roller coaster for a cinema-themed amusement park, Cinecittà World, slated to open next year. While Five Points is the exception to the rule of impermanence, by today’s production standards, it is remarkable that all of these places ever did exist in any form other than that of digital data. One of the last Old Masters, Ferretti still supervises the physical construction of vast sets from scratch, after the classical Intolerance model. A builder of worlds, Ferretti builds worlds that are bound to be destroyed—or at the very least neglected. For example: The chandeliers from Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), pendulant and suggestive of penetration, now hanging in MoMA’s entry lobby, were only discovered in a dusty storage room after an epic search.
Ferretti’s production sketches give invaluable insight into his process and, in a way, are worthy objets d’art in their own right. Divorced from their intended role and isolated in a gallery context, however, original artifacts like the clock and chandeliers have less “aura” than they have in an industrially produced and distributed film. At this advanced stage, Ferretti’s art needs the camera to complete it.
Neither those who hired Ferretti for one-offs, like Jordan, Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Julie Taymor, nor longtime colleagues like Pasolini, Scorsese, and Fellini were created by Ferretti. In each case, there is a distinct, preexisting authorial voice that Ferretti is seeking to give expression. A genial, humble man, Ferretti is emphatic in saying that he doesn’t work alone, crediting his success not only to his directors but to his collaborator of thirty years and wife, set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo.
Ferretti is less an author than a conduit, a great enabler. Though his signature is unmistakable, his work is only fully activated through collaboration with the right filmmakers—that is, filmmakers who don’t confuse design with direction. In this sense, the “success” of any gallery show in capturing the genius of a film-world figure may be inverse to the success of that figure in making cinema per se. So where LACMA’s Kubrick show could only hope to capture a fraction of what constitutes its subject’s art, MoMA’s Tim Burton show had no trouble getting the full measure of Burton’s.
Ferretti has worked in fantasy films and period pieces, creating imagined worlds and reviving lost ones—though that distinction isn’t so easily drawn. Ferretti recalled being pressed for details of his dreams by Fellini, until he took to inventing them. “Fellini knew I was a liar,” he said, “but he liked the idea.” Likewise, Cocoanut Grove in the ’40s and ‘50s could never have been so riotous and glamorous as Ferretti makes it appear in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2005). Ferretti doesn’t seek to re-create. Instead he makes magnificent imitations of life, begun in the bold, dynamic strokes of his production drawings. These will set the stage for drama presenting neither dream, nor history, nor quotidian reality, but the lucid amplification of all three. This amplification is one definition of cinema.
“Dante Ferretti: Design and Construction for the Cinema” and “Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen” are on view at the Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters and Galleries at the Museum of Modern Art through February 9, 2014.
TWO ABSORBING DOCUMENTARIES screening in the “Motion Portraits” sidebar at the New York Film Festival offer vastly different expressions of penitence. In Nadav Schirman’s In the Darkroom, Magdalena Kopp, the former wife and accomplice of international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, rues her association with various far-left militant groups in the 1970s and ’80s—a past that has left her with “no more pride.” John Wojtowicz, the leader of the bizarre bank robbery in Brooklyn that inspired Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), in contrast, volubly and proudly looks back on that 1972 heist in Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s The Dog.
Berg and Keraudren’s doc, which they began in 2002, is not the first project to allow Wojtowicz, who died in 2006, to sociopathically show off: He reenacts his crime, as scenes from Lumet’s film appear intermittently on another screen, in Pierre Huyghe’s two-channel video The Third Memory, 2000. Kopp has also recounted some of her past in front of the camera before, serving as one of the talking heads in Terror’s Advocate, Barbet Schroeder’s 2007 documentary on the slippery, charismatic French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who defended her after her arrest in Paris in 1982 for possession of explosives. (Vergès, who died last month, returned the favor, appearing in Schirman’s film.)
Like Wojtowicz, Kopp also has the distinction of being re-created by someone else, even if by a performer not as iconic as Al Pacino: Nora von Waldstätten played her in Olivier Assayas’s epic bio-pic Carlos (2010). If Wojtowicz, by his sheer motormouthed, sexed-up lunacy, is the more entertaining subject of the two, that’s not to suggest that Kopp’s funereal demeanor isn’t fascinating in its grim way. Her face framed by a black bob and bangs, the woman who once forged passports for the Revolutionary Cells consistently remarks on her own passivity: “That was the moment I could’ve turned away. But I didn’t,” she says of her decision to go underground in the late ’70s with Johannes Weinrich, her lover at the time, soon to be supplanted by Carlos, for whom Weinrich served as henchman. Of her years with Carlos, she professes, “I didn’t have the courage to leave.” Whether or not this remorse is genuine, Kopp, now in her mid-sixties and living in the Bavarian town she grew up in, is unequivocal about her punishment: “I sit around here and brood and brood and brood and brood.”
A romantic attachment also led to Wojtowicz’s act of terror: As viewers of Dog Day Afternoon will recall, he held up a Chase Manhattan branch, keeping seven bank employees hostage for fourteen hours, to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation. Or is that reason only part of the story, just another example of Wojtowicz’s prodigious mythomania? Among several archival treasures Berg and Keraudren unearth is a clip from a show on Manhattan’s public-access Channel J, featuring that aforementioned paramour—Liz Eden, née Ernest Aron, though Wojtowicz favors the expression “my male wife”—confronting her ex on air about why he really robbed the bank. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Wojtowicz compulsively makes claims like “I’m the gay Babe Ruth. I beat the fuckin’ system. I won.” If Kopp’s remaining years will be spent brooding, Wojtowicz spent every single day after his botched crime boasting.
In the Darkroom screens September 28 and 30; The Dog screens October 1 and 8. All screenings take place at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center; go to filmlinc.com/nyff2013 for details.
SWEET BUT NEVER AS STICKY as its onanistic title character’s wadded-up Kleenex, Don Jon proves as winning as its irrepressible writer-director-lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This buoyant comedy about Internet-porn addiction, which marks the feature helming debut of the thirty-two-year-old actor, more effectively analyzes the simultaneous appetite for and detachment from sex abetted by the Web than Steve McQueen’s grim, moralistic, high-toned Shame (2011).
“Real pussy is all good, but it’s not as good as porn,” Jon Martello avers in voice-over early in the film, each vowel roughed up by his thick Jersey cadence. This buff Lothario bartender has no problem luring the hottest females he meets at various nightclubs in the 201 area code to his fastidiously kept apartment (Jon loves to Swiffer). But after his various bedmates have drifted off to postcoital sleep, Jon can’t resist opening his laptop to beat off to pixelated XXX action—an urge he can’t abstain from at any other hour, either. Not even a seemingly blissful relationship with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, a perfect Garden State cupcake)—“the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Jon boasts to his friends and family—can cure his craving for pornhub.com.
For all of its broad humor—there are running gags about Jon’s Sunday rituals, which include tallying his sins of the flesh during confession and guido shouting matches with his father (Tony Danza) during family dinner—Gordon-Levitt’s film is one of the more astute about highlighting pop-cultural pathologies that do nothing but exacerbate already rigid, unhealthy gender roles. Jon’s porn habits may have ruined his ability to be truly sexually intimate with a woman, but Barbara’s own fixation with romantic dramedies—another type of movie promoting wildly unrealistic ideas about relationships—proves harmful as well. (She is especially enraptured by Someone Special, a film-within-a-film featuring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway that sharply sends up, down to its banal, Nicholas Sparks–esque title, the cloying genre.) “When a real man loves a woman, he’ll do anything for her,” Barbara says, indicating how deeply she’s been indoctrinated into Mars–Venus thinking—brainwashing that begins early, as a party for a little girl that the couple attends shows every single guest under ten in pink princess gowns.
Other spoofs embedded in Don Jon reveal, without ever becoming didactic, porn’s inexorable influence on other media. During Sunday supper, the Martellos watch a TV commercial with an oiled-up model doing obscene things with her lunch: “Charbroiled Cod Sandwich: More Than Just a Piece of Meat,” goes the tagline. (Considering the real-life TV spots for M&Ms, in which the anthropomorphized candies seem just seconds away from a Plato’s Retreat–like orgy, perhaps this fake ad doesn’t seem so far-fetched.) Jon eventually meets someone with whom he can realize what he had previously been able to achieve only from devouring dirty websites: the ability to “lose” himself. Don Jon’s story arc may be conventional, but it contains one of the most radical lines I’ve heard in a film this year: “I’m not thinking about marriage, and she isn’t either.”
Don Jon opens September 27.
“THE RIVER THAT SINGS” was the name given to the stretch of the Tennessee River running through Muscle Shoals, Alabama, by its original Native American residents, who believed that a spectral young woman lived in the river and sang songs to them. A small town in the northwest corner of the state, Muscle Shoals is today world-renowned for its “big sound,” having been an improbable recording Mecca for R&B, rock, country, and pop artists from the early 1960s to the present. The town acquired this reputation through the tireless efforts of one man, the stern, indomitable Rick Halla “tough guy,” as Keith Richards massively understates it in his tubercular croak at the beginning of Greg “Freddy” Camalier’s moving, life-affirming documentary.
Raised in a ramshackle, dirt-floor house in rural Franklin County, Hall rose from extreme poverty and endured an almost unbelievable series of personal tragedies to become one of the greatest record producers of all time. Sheer force of will enabled him to transcend the following horrors, any one of which could permanently derail an ordinary man’s life: His younger brother was scalded as a child by boiling laundry water (when they removed his clothes at the hospital, his skin came off with them; he died days later); his parents separated, blaming each other for their son’s death; his mother became a prostitute in a nearby town, her family hearing of her new “career” within months; Hall’s first wife was killed in a car crash with Hall at the wheel; his father died in an accident on a tractor Hall had bought for him. Over the course of the film, Hall tells these stories in a stoic, matter-of-fact way. I don’t recall him smiling once in all of the interview segments shot for the project. He has many reasons to be proud, and he clearly is, but it’s a grim sort of pride.
After an abortive start in the late ’50s with two partners who fired him for being a workaholic, Hall singlehandedly moved FAME (Florence Alabama Music Enterprises) Studios to an old tobacco warehouse in Muscle Shoals. His first big success was “You Better Move On,” a 1961 recording by local bellhop Arthur Alexander, which the Rolling Stones covered early in their career. Hall used the proceeds to build the facility where FAME resides to this day. Having helped license Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” to Atlantic Records, Hall forged a relationship with legendary producer Jerry Wexler, who brought Wilson Pickett and other Atlantic artists to record at FAME, resulting a series of R&B hits for the label. During initial sessions with Aretha Franklin, Hall got in a brawl with Ted White, Franklin’s husband at the time, after which Wexler refused to work at the studio. He did, however, poach Hall’s session band to finish the rest of the LP (and later to record many of her greatest hits) in New York.
The early history of FAME Studios paralleled the civil rights movement and was a microcosm of it. Even in George Wallace’s Alabama, racism was not tolerated on Rick Hall’s turf. Regular FAME recording artist Clarence Carter remembers that before working at the studio, he reflexively called white men “Mister,” but the color-blind camaraderie between the artists and musicians disabused him of the habit. “Music played a big part in changing ideas about race in the South,” Carter observes. The singers Hall recorded at FAME in the ’60s—Arthur Alexander, Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, among others—were African American; his storied session players, eventually nicknamed the Swampers, were (like Hall) Caucasian and could have been called the Average White Band long before the ’70s funk combo existed. The Swampers were not merely white but, as Bono jokes in the film, they resembled “guys who worked in a supermarket.”
The Swampers’ core players were Barry Beckett (keyboards), Jimmy Johnson (guitar), David Hood (bass), and Roger Hawkins (drums), frequently augmented by Spooner Oldham (organ) and various horn sections. They weren’t Hall’s first session band, but they recorded most of the tracks for which Muscle Shoals is celebrated, first at FAME and later at their own studio, Muscle Shoals Sound, which they built with Wexler’s help in 1969. They were all exceptional musicians, but drummer Roger Hawkins stood out, not least because of the howling mismatch between his dorky looks (early ’80s computer programmer) and badass grooves.
Sonically speaking, Stax-produced R&B tracks were spare and dry; Motown’s were ornate and wet. Muscle Shoals productions were somewhere in between, but they were consistently funky, as many of the famous musicians interviewed for the film note. Not in a wah-wah pedal sense, but in terms of feel. You can hear it in Franklin’s “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” the track that launched her as the “Queen of Soul”; you can hear it in Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances,” with its driving breakbeats and horn stabs; you can hear it in the Etta James scorcher “Tell Mama,” which rekindled the peroxide-haired blues diva’s career; and you can hear it especially in the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” with its heaven-sent drum and bass breakdown.
The Staple Singers, “I’ll Take You There,” 1972.
While planning sessions for his 1973 album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Paul Simon called Stax label head Al Bell and said, “I want those same black players that played on ‘I’ll Take You There.’ ” “That can happen,” Bell replied, “but these guys are mighty pale.” Camalier illustrates this with a funny, Sergio Leone–style shot of three surviving Swampers—schlumpy, middle-age honkies to a man—walking toward the camera over a slight hill in front of their studio as the song plays on the sound track. Franklin recalls of her first trip to Muscle Shoals in 1967, “We didn’t expect them to be as funky or as greasy as they were.”
After the split with the Swampers in 1969, Hall focused on country and pop artists, while Muscle Shoals Sound hosted an endless parade of rock stars, all drawn to the vibe the Swampers had created with Hall at FAME in the ’60s. During the ’70s, artists who made the pilgrimage to record at Muscle Shoals Sound included the Rolling Stones, Traffic, Elton John, Bob Seger, Rod Stewart, and Bob Dylan (who recorded his Christian albums there).
Muscle Shoals has the dubious honor of being the seedbed of Southern Rock. A young Duane Allman pitched a tent in FAME’s parking lot in the late ’60s and became a session guitarist at the studio, convincing Pickett to cover “Hey Jude,” among other contributions. After failing to interest Hall in recording “hippie music,” Duane auditioned musicians at FAME for what became the Allman Brothers Band. Several years later, Muscle Shoals Sound recorded an unsigned bunch of longhairs from Jacksonville, Florida called Lynyrd Skynyrd. These sessions went unreleased until after a plane crash killed half the band in 1977, but to this day, the first time most people hear the names “Muscle Shoals” and “Swampers” is in a tribute verse from “Sweet Home Alabama,” which accompanies the end credits of the film.
This is somewhat misleading for the uninitiated, as the superficial impression of Skynyrd (with their Confederate flag stage backdrop) is of unreconstructed rednecks, while the Muscle Shoals story is almost entirely about bridging racial divides through music. Sam Cooke didn’t record “A Change Is Gonna Come” in Muscle Shoals, but he might as well have, the song so perfectly capturing the spirit of the studio—the river, the hard knocks, the bruised optimism, the civil rights undertones. “It was revolutionary,” Bono proclaims near the end of the film. For once, he’s right.
Muscle Shoals opens in theaters on Friday, September 27.
Richard Linklater, Slacker, 1991, 16 mm, color, sound, 100 minutes.
RICHARD LINKLATER’S SLACKER has the most evocative cast list in movie history: “Roadkill” (Jean Caffeine), “Dostoyevsky Wannabe” (Brecht Andersch), “Been on the moon since the ’50s” (Jerry Delony), “Tura Satana look-alike” (Heather West), “Pap smear pusher” (Teresa Taylor), “T-shirt terrorist” (Mark Harris), “Sidewalk psychic” (Gina Lalli), “Traumatized yacht owner” (Lori Capp), “Recluse in bathrobe” (Bongo Don Stroud), “Shut-in girlfriend” (Janelle Coolich), “Conspiracy-A-Go-Go author” (John Slate), “Video backpacker” (Kalman Spelletich), “Having a breakthrough day” (D. Montgomery), to name only a handful. Instead of being the extras, the tail-end nobodies after the Important Actors and Journeymen/women, these are the stars. And in their flat, persuasively ordinary way, nearly all of them shine.
Linklater’s 1991 film is a masterpiece of screwball ethnography, examining that tiny but vociferous Anglo-American branch of the Slacker tribe ensconced in an Austin enclave bordered by the university and the state mental hospital. Their designations don’t just reflect characters; they embody worldviews, the portable reality each person here carries around like a talisman, a banner, or that hilariously cumbersome video backpack. In the process, worlds don’t so much collide as graze each other in passing, as the camera slips from one seemingly random five-minute-or-so encounter—typically centering on a personal monologue/rant—to the next. Oddly, no one in the film takes public transportation, but anyone who rides it will be familiar with the mode of discourse, and with the whole merry-go-round of monologists and ranters, soul-barers and bullshitters.
In its unostentatious, lo-tech, 16-mm way (with effective inserts of 8 mm, Super 8, and Pixelvision), Slacker was cinematically savvy. Amid the movie’s casual everyday textures, Linklater was able to pay his respects to Eraserhead (1977) and Videodrome (1983) without making a big deal about it: He operated in stealth mode, flying under the radar, even as Slacker would become an inadvertent touchstone. Its title got swept into the big zeitgeist marketing smoothie that came to include Nevermind (1991), Generation X (1991), and (on the higher visibility/lower credibility end of the spectrum) Reality Bites (1994). As Bob Dylan said in his own slacker anthem back in 1966: “They all fall there so perfectly / It all seems so well timed.” But really, from “Stuck Inside of Mobile (With the Memphis Blues Again)” to Harvey Pekar’s menial-living comics in the 1970s, the groundwork had been in place for quite a while. The surprise of Slacker was in part the novelty of its subtly organized kitchen-sink aesthetic, its informal formalism, and deadpan nonjudgmental attitudes, but in another sense it was: What took you guys so long?
Twenty-odd years later, a lot of the fringe-dwelling antigovernment/quasi-libertarian ideas percolating in the minds of these steadfast marginals and dropouts and “drag worms” (Austin slang for street people) have gained traction. Jerry Delony’s bravura rap about missing persons and space colonization could have supplied the underpinning to The X-Files (and maybe it did). Conspiracy theories are like porn nowadays—ubiquitous, thanks to the Internet and squawk radio and cable agit-prop. (Video backpacker’s “contraband tapes” suggest a Cronenberg/Orwell/McLuhan nexus in search of a medium.) There is a shot of a trailer truck emblazoned with the name Ron Paul: then a former Texas congressman running as the Libertarian Party candidate for president, an even more obscure gag than the paperback of The Grifters sticking out of someone’s back pocket or the copy of Growing Up Absurd that lends the last sequence a dizzy punchline. In the interim, Paul has become a rock star—bigger than Madonna’s pap smear, he’s a hero to a lot of neo-Slackers.
Or as the jacket copy on the film’s newly restored Blu-ray version calls them: “aggressive nonparticipants.” Linklater’s benign view of what an AmLit major might call “Bartleby”-ism always troubled me. Likewise a card-carrying slacker, I came from a slightly different pop-subversive whatsis: the whole Lester Bangs/Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000/Situationists/Mekons/All That Is Solid Melts into Air couch-potato utopian/dystopian party-of-ones that was just a heartbeat away from sweeping the nation with our irresistible rallying cry, “Spectators of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your theater chains!” And at the end of my first brush with an insufficiently critical/confrontational Slacker, I thought, “Is that all there is?” Little did I know Linklater had intended to cap it by playing Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is” over the final credits, but Leiber and Stoller wouldn’t grant the rights (and he couldn’t have afforded them anyway).
That would have been far too cute, besides putting up a convenient this-doesn’t-mean-me prophylactic barrier, and equally untrue to the open-ended aesthetic of the movie. As the supplemental material on the disc makes clear, Slacker could have been a darker film, a more straight-up satirical one, or a combination of both. (In an early treatment, a skinhead tells a girl: “Sure you Jews are Christ-killers, but what have you done for us lately?”) The route Linklater wound up taking has a found-art beauty that is the result of a lot of preparation, diligence, luck, and tremendous responsiveness to what’s available on any given day—maybe epitomized by the scene where the late D. Montgomery has somebody pick a card from a deck of Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies (don’t leave home without them).
Linklater has said he wishes he could have made the movie as one long take. (Austin Ark?) One of the nice bonuses on this Blu-ray is the inclusion of his prior feature, the attractively autodidactic It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988). Shot in Super 8 in a series of long tripod takes, it demonstrates that while books may not be able to teach you how to plow, a camera can teach you how to make movies. As long as you have the patience to listen to what you see.
FILM NOIR meets Chris Marker–style cine-essay meets tranny fabulousness in The Last Time I Saw Macao, the first feature-length work codirected by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, longtime artistic collaborators and romantic partners based in Lisbon. This playful, poetic rumination on place and memory explores the psychic pull of not only the titular former Portuguese colony, where Guerra da Mata spent his childhood in the 1970s—and which was returned to Chinese control in 1999—but of cinema itself.
A key reference here is Josef von Sternberg’s Macao (1952), an RKO noir starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell as an ex-GI and a chanteuse who’ve recently arrived in the casino-glutted territory in the South China Sea. Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata spectacularly open their film with an homage to Sternberg’s B movie: A cheongsam-bedecked Cindy Scrash (one of the unforgettable supporting transgender performers in Rodrigues’s 2009 feature, To Die Like a Man) erratically but spiritedly lip-synchs, as tigers roar and pace behind her, to “You Kill Me,” one of Russell’s numbers in Macao.
After the razzle-dazzle of this curtain-raiser, The Last Time I Saw Macao seamlessly shifts moods. Though this is the first and only full-figure shot we see of Scrash—or of any of the movie’s other major figures, who are depicted simply as body parts, usually hands or feet—we continue to hear her. A letter sent by her imperiled character, Candy, to Guerra da Mata, summoning his help, sets the film’s noir element—and his memories—in motion. His voice-over, toggling between sober first-person recollections (“Thirty years later, I’m on my way back to Macao, where I haven’t been since I was a child”) and thriller-plot narration, are heard over exquisite static compositions of the region’s neon-bathed port city and its wilder terrain.
This amalgam of autobiography, travelogue, and mystery—even pulpier than the one that drives Sternberg’s movie—is further enriched by Rodrigues’s occasional voice-over, reporting that also does double-duty, alternating between the dispassionate and the personal. “This is Macao, an ex-Portuguese colony that never was,” he says early on, a wry musing that evokes the sensibility of the text heard in Marker’s Sans Soleil, a hybrid project similarly centered on the Far East. (Like that masterwork from 1983, The Last Time I Saw Macao lovingly lingers on cats.) But Rodrigues also speaks from the position of someone intimately involved with Guerra da Mata—the “I” of the film’s title—tenderly asking him, “Do you remember the story you told me?”
In many ways, The Last Time I Saw Macao is a subtle love story: one that conveys not only the closeness between its makers but also their deep affection for an undersung work from Hollywood’s golden age and the actress they’ve chosen to inhabit both the past and the present, the make-believe and the real. This enchanting film is also a paean to anamnesis itself, an act that proves that the only reliable quality of memory is its profound unreliability.
The Last Time I Saw Macao opens September 13 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center in New York. One screening each day will be accompanied by Mahjong, Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata’s latest short; additionally, “Beyond Macao,” a program of earlier shorts by the directors, screens September 16.
IN THE BEGINNING there were movies, and for a moment, we’re told, they were enormous, consuming, everything. Throughout the twentieth century, though, those towering movies and the great, unified masscult audience that they served were brought down to size by a thousand little cuts, by television and cable and video games and home theaters. Then finally, mercifully, the digital revolution and the Internet, Netflix and VOD and illegal downloads, killed the movies stone dead, as they would everything.
The Everything Is Festival completes the cycle: Having defeated the cinema, the Internet has become the cinema. For the fourth year, EI’s found-footage and comedy bacchanalia—this edition subtitled “The Dreamquest”—was held in Cinefamily, on Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood. Before 2006 this same theater space, as the Silent Movie Theater, ran a program of strictly pre-1929 fare. Today the marquee still reads Silent Movie Theater, but the framed silver screen icons hung on the walls inside had been playfully defaced as part of a carnivalesque festival makeover—part loft rave, part haunted house.
Is Everything Is a “film festival”? Its program is loaded with figures and formats (Vine Film Festival, Cute Animal Film Festival) associated with Web culture. I saw exactly one 35-mm print projected there—more than you’ll see at many perfectly respectable film festivals these days. The print was The Dragon Lives Again (1977), starring Bruce Leung, one of the numerous “Lee-alike” imitators who popped up in the wake of Bruce Lee’s death. The film concerns Bruce’s adventures in the afterlife; between boner jokes and specious moralizing, Lee/Leung fights his way past knockoff versions of James Bond, Zatoichi, the Man with No Name, and soft-core queen Emmanuelle. With its junky, pastiched unseriousness, The Dragon Lives Again exemplifies the qualities valued by the EI programmers, for whom the ridiculous is sublime.
Everything Is is short for Everything Is Terrible!, the name of a Chicago-based collective of VHS crate diggers formed in 2007 by Dimitri Simakis and Nic Maeir, who began dicing up their finds into found-footage mixtapes. While programmers across the country struggle to bring in young audiences, EIT has successfully managed to “eventize” its one-night-only appearances and high-energy traveling live show—nearly all of the programs that I attended during the nine days of EI were sold out. This year’s EIT showcase, Everything is Terrible! Does the Hip Hop, was themed around the clueless co-option of urban culture by commercials, workout tapes, educational films, and, generally, honkies. The screening was preceded by Simakis and cohorts charging out in laser tag–futuristic get-ups to chuck glow sticks into the fired-up crowd, then followed by a lanky kid called “Trash Humperdink” rapping onstage.
Derrick Beckles’s TV Carnage, EIT’s most noteworthy precedent in the found-footage mixtape game, has employed increasingly complex associative-leap edits and callback loops. EIT, by contrast, tends to collate its material in straightforward chapter sections, often relying on the simple shock of recognition for a punch line, à la Girl Talk. (Does the Hip Hop, however, does do an inventive job of using interstitial songs and matching beats to segue between segments.)
It was far from the only piece of cultural dumpster-diving going on. As much lecture as screening, Cinefamily’s Most Outrageous Video Games used slide shows and custom-made montages to illustrate a discourse on various phases in the history of the medium, including the pornographic gaming boom most infamously represented by interactive rape-fantasy Custer’s Revenge, the clunky experiment of the faux-cinematic CD-ROM, and a montage of post–Mortal Kombat carnage called “Pixelized Blood.” (For those wanting more, an upstairs room at Cinefamily had been designated “The Island of Misfit Video Games” and made into a cluttered, makeshift arcade, replete with Custer’s Revenge on Atari 2600.)
Trailer for Mondo Public Access.
Every screening came with that extra something, a Cracker Jack prize. Mondo Public Access, a program ripped from the airwaves across the contiguous forty-eight states, was followed by a live musical performance from David Liebe Hart, auteur of LA public access’s simply unbelievable The Junior Christian Science Bible Lesson Program, who attained a measure of cult fame on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! Bellowing a song about a visiting alien curing his porn addiction, fanny pack-wearing Liebe Hart was accompanied on-stage by grandmotherly Francine Dancer, another local public access mainstay, doing a rheumatic hoochie-coochie striptease.
It’s one thing to laugh or cringe at Dancer’s inelegant Little Egypt show, the incompetent stagecraft of Liebe Hart’s program—or the messianic, narcissistic sci-fi fantasies of Las Vegas real estate broker–cum–actor/writer/director Neil Breen, who was here with his latest, Fateful Findings—before the privacy of one’s own laptop. It is quite another to do so right in front of them, to their faces. This element of uncomfortable confrontation raises the EI experience above the level of collective YouTube jamboree, forces the spectator to ask the hard question: “How do I feel about this?” The answer to that is too complicated to go into at length here, but what’s sure is that, in arbitrarily assigning self-awareness or lack thereof to a performer—or judging their very competence to put themselves forth as a performer—you reveal little but your own prejudices. And intentionally or not, beneath the surface of the clumsy entertainments produced by outsiders like Liebe Hart, Dancer, and Breen—beneath much unearthed in the excavations of EIT/ Cinefamily—are jarring truths, the distorted mirror image of a corporatized popular culture that has immured itself from American reality.
Over the last two decades, no native humorist has chronicled that reality and its myriad absurdities better than Idiocracy writer-director and Beavis & Butthead creator Mike Judge, on-hand at Cinefamily to present and live-narrate his own found-footage mixtape. Composed of oddities which Judge taped from TV and re-edited in the 1990s, the “Judgemental Sampler” offered a valuable vantage on Judge’s obsessive connoisseurship of everyday insanity. The showcase for Maria Bamford, whose confessional comedy relies heavily on mining her OCD and suicidal episodes, was somewhat less prepped, though Bamford is a wonderful ad-libber, and it was nice at least to see someone drawing out women in numbers—throughout the fest the lines to the men’s bathroom were epic. Traditions like the potpourri Talent Show and the Found Footage Battle Royale continued unabated. A quiet, deferential young man humorously called “The Sadist” won the latter, in which the can’t-be-unseen takeaway was an instructional video illustrating homespun Chinese remedies for impotence.
After each screening, the crowd was invited to take a break on the theater’s back patio, where VHS tapes of the kind you usually find set out on the curb were up for grabs, and pop-up restaurant JUNK was serving watermelon Oreos and burgers on halved glazed donuts. And there on the patio, before a midnight screening of Dan Kapelovitz’s Triple Fisher, a shuffling of the three major network’s separate made-for-TV movies about the “Long Island Lolita,” you might see vocational scumbag Joey Buttafuoco posing for Instagram snaps with what I suppose were fans and well-wishers. (I didn’t see Francine Dancer getting the same reception.)
Here the joke isn’t so funny anymore—burgers on donuts is a gross fourth grade double-dare and, even assuming he isn’t getting paid to show up, what’s the good in further congratulating Joey Buttafuoco for his dingy, two decade-old notoriety? “If everything is terrible, then nothing is” goes the EIT motto, but a few of us fuddy-duddies must persist in thinking that some things are more terrible than others. The most truly terrible work that I saw at EI, however, was the film most likely to receive play on the traditional festival circuit, György Pálfi’s Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen—which, sure enough, had a sidebar appearance at Cannes. Collaging clips from 450 different films, ubiquitous blockbusters and Hungarian classics and hard-art fare, Pálfi creates a fluid, linear narrative. The narrative, however, is “Boy Meets Girl,” and in hitching together fragments of these disparate, complex movies to tell this rudimentary ur-story, Final Cut effectively reduces the entirety of film history to the lowest, most insipid and sentimental level, as if the medium’s last century has been spent reiterating one epic weepie.
Having built an audience, one hopes that Everything Is will begin to challenge it—to violate the sugar-high, all-thriller no-filler ethos with some work requiring a bit more patience. On the whole, though, the lively EI gave the impression of vitality for the next century of moviegoing. This was not a cut-and-dry matter of desanctifying the holy cinema into a great big secular living room. Adding a performative, eventizing element to screenings is, after all, as old as the flickers, as old as “Roxy” Rothafel or Sid Grauman. At the Silent Movie Theater, it didn’t feel that the Internet had invaded the traditional domain of the movies—but that the cinema, that great, tenacious synthesizer, has slyly begun to annex the Internet into itself.
The fourth Everything Is Festival ran August 12–21 in Los Angeles.
James Franco and Travis Mathews, Interior. Leather Bar., 2013, HD video, color, sound, 60 minutes.
ON PAPER, the premise of Interior. Leather Bar. is irresistible: Two directors collaborate to reimagine the forty minutes of footage that William Friedkin claimed to have cut from 1980’s Cruising—whose infamous scenes set in s/m pleasure domes still rank as the most explicit depictions of homo lust in a big-studio movie—to avoid an X rating.
But doubts about the execution of this promising-sounding project set in immediately, as we observe the filmmakers—James Franco and Travis Mathews—vaguely discussing their interest in revisiting this scandalous gay landmark thirty-plus years later. Graduate-degree collector Franco haltingly summarizes the argument against gay marriage laid out in The Trouble with Normal (1999) by the queer-studies pioneer Michael Warner, the actor-writer-director’s professor at Yale; Mathews rehashes standard lines about the dangers of “assimilation into straight culture.” After this uninspired colloquy, an actor named Val Lauren, who is to play a character based on Al Pacino’s undercover cop in Friedkin’s film, enters the room to announce: “Personally, I don’t like this project. But I support [Franco’s] mission.”
What follows is an hour’s worth of more of the same: muddled, half-thought-out inquiries into male sexuality and Franco worship. Interior. Leather Bar. becomes less a re-creation of Friedkin’s “lost” footage than a haphazard making-of document (some, if not all, of which is scripted), a meta conceit with increasingly diminishing returns. Heterosexual and married, Lauren, a longtime friend of Franco’s—he plays the title character in Sal, Franco’s 2011 film about the final hours of actor Sal Mineo—asks other performers milling around on set, at least one of whom says he has never heard of Cruising, “Are you comfortable with physical contact with dudes?” Whether this is a genuine, unscripted query as opposed to a line of dialogue is soon beside the point, for Interior. Leather Bar. advances nothing but false dichotomies—and Franco’s own inflated sense of his role as provocateur.
“I think he’s an artist who’s really interested in the range of human creativity,” one auditioner says of the celebrity co-director. With all the fratty charm we’ve come to expect from anyone wearing a backward baseball hat and wielding a camcorder, Franco has a chat with Lauren after the two have been caught looking aghast while a scene unfolds involving boot worship, paddling, and orgiastic moaning—all of which we hear but never see. (Though erect cocks, blow jobs, and deep kissing are shown intermittently throughout.) “Sex should be a storytelling tool but everyone is so fuckin’ scared of it,” Franco, now assuming the more enlightened position, scolds his friend, who later blurts, “I don’t know what’s going on here!” Franco admits he doesn’t, either, though he is certain of the perverse “power” of this project, the result of his “just being here and in a Disney movie.” (The actor had recently finished filming Oz the Great and Powerful.)
Perhaps a more charitable way to look at Interior. Leather Bar. is not as an utter failure to grapple with Cruising’s complicated history and reception, both then and now, but as a descendant of William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968). In this heady, truth-tweaking film-within-a-film-within-a-film, Greaves, after he’s asked by a permit-requesting cop in Central Park what he’s shooting, can only offer, “It’s a feature-length we-don’t-know.” But there the similarities end: Greaves’s crew, instructed to film the filming, is on the verge of mutiny. These are the harshest words Lauren has for Franco: “He’s got a purpose to it, even if that’s to quench his own curiosity.”
Interior. Leather Bar. screens September 7 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of NewFest, which runs September 6 through 11.
A GOOD MANY PATRONS rely on the Toronto International Film Festival to provide views of places they may never otherwise see for lack of funds, ambition, or courage. But of all these vicarious journeys set to begin when the festival launches its thirty-eighth edition on September 5, none may be as unusual or as immersive as the one presented by the latest creation from Sensory Ethnography Laboratory, which makes its North American premiere this week alongside many other marvels in TIFF’s Wavelengths program.
A multidisciplinary initiative at Harvard University under the direction of Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the SEL has fostered a decidedly experiential take on ethnographic documentary forms, and the fusion of nonfiction filmmaking and avant-garde tactics makes the lab’s products ideal fodder for Wavelengths, TIFF’s experimental purlieu. Indeed, Manakamana—co-directed by Pacho Velez and Stephanie Spray—is as much a standout in this year’s Wavelengths as the previous SEL effort, Leviathan, was in last year’s slate. But whereas Leviathan, a study of life (human and otherwise) on a fishing vessel off the coast of New England, induced more than a few cases of motion sickness, Manakamana offers a more serene viewing experience. Filmed on 16 mm, it comprises eleven fixed-camera shots of various passengers on a newly built cable car that ascends to the Manakamana Temple in Nepal. Your company on this succession of rides ranges from devout pilgrims to garrulous young metal musicians to several goats. All prove to be as worthy of scrutiny as the gorgeous mountain scenery that’s visible over their heads and shoulders.
Nearly as remarkable if more enigmatic is the journey in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, another 16-mm effort and the first collaboration between two young Wavelengths habitués. The handiwork of Ben Rivers, director of Two Years at Sea (2011), and the Chicago-based Ben Russell, this typically cryptic but often astonishing not-quite-feature follows an unnamed figure (played by musician Robert A.A. Lowe) through a desolate landscape in northern Finland, a rather more social commune in Estonia, and a grotty music club in Norway. The duo’s key concerns about performance, identity, and interpersonal dynamics are most prominently foregrounded in the delightful vignettes starring the commune’s frequently nude members. The young musicians in Manakamana might be most impressed with the transcendent finale, which situates Lowe amid a supergroup of avant-metal heavyweights like Liturgy’s Hunter Hunt-Hendrix.
Ben Russell and Ben Rivers, A Spell to Ward off the Darkness, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 95 minutes.
The Paris-based actor-turned-director Mati Diop also returns to Wavelengths with A Thousand Suns, a wry and poignant film that traces another kind of journey, one that ventures between eras rather than places. Diop’s subject is Magaye Niang, star of the seminal Senegalese film Touki-Bouki (1972). When the now-elderly actor attends an outdoor screening of that film in Dakar, a flood of memories prompts an increasingly surreal and incongruously snowy reverie.
Set in an ordinary German apartment that becomes a universe unto itself, Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat develops its own means of bending perceptions of time and space. The title offers a clue as to why the actions of this apartment’s residents can seem disjointed or contradictory: This may very well be how the daily rituals of humans seem from a feline perspective. Zürcher’s ingenious debut feature suggests what Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) might’ve been like if Jacques Tati had got around to making it first.
While the hermetic oddness of Zürcher’s film might prove a challenge for the rest of the international festival circuit, it seems entirely par for the course in Wavelengths. Along with five programs of shorts and new medium-length works by Jean-Marie Straub, Miguel Gomes, and João Pedro Rodrigues, the lineup also includes North American premieres for two of Venice’s most adventurous competition entries: Stray Dogs, by Taiwanese master Tsai Ming-liang, and The Police Officer’s Wife, the first feature in thirteen years by Into Great Silence director Philip Gröning.
The most divisive entry among the features may very well be the program’s most cantankerous. An anarchic odyssey patterned in large part after Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971), Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s La última película combines musings on the end of cinema as a celluloid-based medium with the fictional tale of a blowhard American director (played by bona-fide filmmaker Alex Ross Perry), who comes to Mexico to see if the Mayans were right about the end of time. Though this exercise in cinematic self-immolation could puzzle viewers who don’t already write for Peranson at his magazine Cinema Scope (myself included), the film compensates for its more wayward impulses with its caustic sense of humor and abundance of rapturous imagery.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5–15.
Nicolas Philibert, La Maison de la Radio, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 103 minutes. Alain Bedout.
LOCATED ALONG THE SEINE in Paris’s sixteenth arrondissement, the massive, circular building of the title of Nicolas Philibert’s often frustrating documentary La Maison de la Radio houses his subject, Radio France, a public broadcaster that encompasses seven national networks. The overwhelming array of programs—ranging from newsmagazines to quiz shows to interviews with a sexagenarian Moroccan slam poet to air time devoted to live, in-studio Gallic hip-hop performances—available to listeners is glibly conveyed in Philibert’s film, with more time spent on the assembling of soft rather than hard news, on workplace jokes instead of journalistic craft. Imagine a documentary on NPR more besotted with the inanities of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! than with, say, Nina Totenberg’s Supreme Court analyses.
Shot primarily from January to July 2011 but structured as if unfolding over one twenty-four-hour period, La Maison de la Radio promisingly begins with a cantankerous editor upbraiding a tyro reporter over his story on Syria. “No one hears quotation marks on the radio,” she reminds her chagrined employee; their exchange provides insight into the particular challenges of transmitting complex information via a solely auditory medium. When Philibert focuses his attention on news-gathering and script preparation, later seen as blind journalist Laetitia Bernard taps furiously at her Braille keyboard before going on the air, La Maison plays as a thoughtful, curious chronicle of dedicated professionals. But these engaging segments are dwarfed by desultory scenes of rehearsals by the Choir of Radio France, a contestant on Le Jeu de 1000 Euros racking his brain to answer a trivia question, and two goofballs interviewing the physical comedian Jos Houben.
Philibert’s misguided, darting attention in La Maison de la Radio is particularly curious given the deep focus of two of his best-known documentaries, To Be and to Have (2002), a country-school portrait, and Nénette (2010), about the star-attraction orangutan at the zoo in Paris’s Jardin des Plantes. The long, observational takes in both yield ample rewards: The conjugation of auxiliary verbs is elevated from the mundane to the majestic in the former, and seventy minutes of almost nothing but a russet-haired simian watching those who gawk at her becomes an intriguing exercise in voyeurism in the latter. La Maison de la Radio fares even worse when compared with two other recent, immersive documentaries by Frederick Wiseman on Parisian institutions: La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet (2009) and Crazy Horse (2011), about the French capital’s classy nudie cabaret. In their work, both Philibert and Wiseman dispense with the usual nonfiction-filmmaking signposts, such as narration, identifying intertitles, and talking-head interviews. But in his latest project, Philibert appears no longer concerned with demanding viewers’ close attention.
Watching La Maison de la Radio is akin to distractedly punching the “search” button on a car stereo, impatiently flitting past the FM stations. Perhaps if Philibert had given his film a running time typical of a Wiseman production (three hours maybe, rather than 103 minutes) or narrowed his focus (Evelyne Adam, the host of a call-in request show, warrants her own cine-profile), this documentary wouldn’t seem so insignificant. Radio is often acclaimed as the most intimate of media; here, it seems the most superficial.
La Maison de la Radio plays at |Film Forum in New York September 4 through 17.