Cook County

12.01.10

Left: John Cook, Langsamer Sommer (Slow Summer), 1974–76, black-and-white film in Super 8 mm, 83 minutes. Production still. Photo: Michael Pilz. Right: John Cook, Schwitzkasten (Clinch), 1978, black-and-white film in 16 mm, 97 minutes. Production still. Photo: Helmut Boselmann.


DISARMINGLY AND DECEPTIVELY CASUAL, the three films by John Cook showing at Anthology Film Archives follow notoriously slippery scenarios: bohemians screwing around, griping, and sometimes working, in Slow Summer (1976); a striving boxer and his supportive wife, in I Just Can’t Go On (1972); and a frustrated young man trying to get a foothold on life, in Clinch (1978). Slippery in the sense that these milieus tend to attract formulas and pronouncements from filmmakers that only take us away from actual lived experience. But Cook, a Toronto-born fashion photographer who moved to Austria in 1968 (he passed away in 2001), managed without much fanfare to take insightful cinematic snapshots of those around him (and, directly and obliquely, of himself), during a pronounced lull in Austrian film production.

The black-and-white Slow Summer, which also appeared in MoMA’s “To Save and Project” series, gets praise—as many artists’ self-recordings of microscenes do—as a loose document of existence arising out of cooperative shoestring production and nonprofessional casting (aka visiting friends). Drifting among cohorts in Vienna, Cook complains about an ex-girlfriend to partner in crime Helmut, watches friend Michael Pilz (a producer and filmmaker) argue with wife Hilde, and takes photos of a string-bean model. Signing the self-portrait, this “slow summer” action (also called a “Scheiss Sommer” at one point) is nostalgically framed as a movie that Cook and Helmut are revisiting, complete with breaks to switch reels.

Cook’s work is more striking when portraying people in orbits outside his own. I Just Can’t Go On offers a fascinating update of Leo Hurwitz’s vérité landmark The Young Fighter (1953) with its odd loving couple: a young ex-con Gypsy boxer and a bouffant-haired middle-aged Austrian widow with children. Fleet footage of each at work and at play is overlaid with their voice-over thoughts on the quotidian occurrences that define and reflect character. The boxer’s account of snubs related to his ethnic background leads into an offhand, breathtakingly precise description of discontent and how a life can go awry. The better-funded Clinch (aka Headlock), adapted from a novel by Helmut Zenker and shot in color that pops, tracks a young guy with a blond nimbus of hair as he wins our sympathy (by comparison to his horndog landscaper colleagues), loses jobs, gets kicked out by his family, and treats a woman well, shabbily, then better. Refreshingly unpretentious and never hopeless (nor retreating into absurdity), Cook’s film shows someone just now learning to pull things together.

Nicolas Rapold

“The Films of John Cook” runs December 3–5 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.