Nanfu Wang, Hooligan Sparrow, 2016, HD video, color, sound, 83 minutes.
AN EXCEPTIONALLY VARIED AND STRONG EDITION of the Human Rights Watch Festival opens with the multi-award-winning Hooligan Sparrow, an ingeniously made first documentary feature by Nanfu Wang, who is the recipient of the festival’s Nestor Almendros Award for courage in filmmaking. The film follows Ye Haiyan, aka Hooligan Sparrow, a Chinese political activist who focuses on women’s rights, as she organizes protests against a middle-school headmaster and a government official who allegedly raped female students. Sparrow’s mastery of the internet has made her a high-profile enemy of the state. The videos in which she offers “sex work for free” in order to expose the abuse of women in brothels have gone viral in China and abroad.
Wang, who, like Sparrow, was born to a poor family in rural China, was studying at NYU’s graduate journalism school when she decided to take a couple of small, easy-to-hide digital cameras to China to make a film about Sparrow. In the process, she also put herself at risk of being imprisoned as Sparrow had been before the round of demonstrations depicted in the documentary and as some of Sparrow’s fellow activists still are. Without minimizing the seriousness and danger of the protests, Wang shaped Hooligan Sparrow as a feminist adventure story, and it is thrilling to watch.
One of the few fiction films in the series, Jamal Joseph’s Chapter & Verse is set in contemporary Harlem, where million-dollar apartments are proliferating just blocks away from gang-plagued low-income projects. Lance (Daniel Beaty) is paroled to a halfway house in his old neighborhood after serving eight years. Determined to stay out of trouble, he takes the only job he can find—working for a nonprofit that delivers meals to the sick and the elderly. He is gradually drawn into a mutually supportive friendship with Miss Maddie (Loretta Devine), a resilient older woman who lives with her teenage grandson Ty (Khadim Diop), a sweet-natured kid who’s nevertheless aspires to membership in the vicious gang that runs his block. Lance, whose given name is Sir Lancelot, has an outsized rescue fantasy. His desire to save Ty and do right by Miss Maddie sends him back into his past, forcing him to apply street justice, thereby jeopardizing his plans for a new life.
Jamal Joseph, Chapter & Verse, 2015, color, sound, 97 minutes.
Chapter & Verse is shaped as a first-person narrative. We see the film’s world almost entirely through Lance’s eyes—the eyes of an insider who’s trying to keep his distance—and the richness of detail is what makes the film extraordinary. Joseph eschews easy drama, putting his trust in his characters and the actors who portray them. His sparing use of music is a lesson in itself. Beaty, who cowrote the script with Joseph, is an enormously sympathetic screen presence and he makes Lance’s struggle to take control of his life when so much is stacked against him truly heartbreaking. Joseph and Beaty both live Harlem, which in part accounts for the movie’s ethnographic depiction of the neighborhood. In that, it resembles the portrayal of small towns in Belgium in early films by the Dardenne brothers. And Joseph, who joined the Black Panther party when he was a teenager and spent years in prison for Panther-related activities, knows firsthand how difficult it is for former convicts to succeed on the outside. A longtime professor in Columbia University’s School of the Arts, he has made close to a dozen short films, many related to his work with young people in Harlem community theater and film groups. Chapter & Verse is his first fiction feature, and despite a few predictable plot turns, it is a politically tough, emotionally resonant, thoroughly absorbing debut.
One of the festival’s critical favorites, Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams, is basically a series of interviews with adolescent girls in a Tehran Rehabilitation Center. The girls, almost all of them drug-addicted, have been abused, sexually and emotionally, often by parents who are also drug addicts. Oskouei fought for years to get access to the facility, and one of the conditions of filming was that he not contact the subjects after they were released. The film, therefore, cannot offer any kind of closure to what are dire narratives. We will never know if the girls’ often expressed desire to live what they imagine is a normal life is realized by any of them. But Starless Dreams would be more compelling if Oskouei were not so liberal in his use of metaphoric cutaways. We don’t need to see a bird huddled in a frozen tree to empathize with the fragility of these teenagers.
Even more devastating in its exposure of political corruption and the resulting sociopathic behavior, and more complex in its use of visual imagery, Tatiana Huezo’s Tempestad intercuts two first-person stories told in voiceover. Both are about women’s lives wrecked by the collusion of Mexico’s police forces with the drug cartels. The subjects of the stories recount their experiences of horrifying injustice in soft voices colored by anguish, despair, and resistance. Although there are almost no sync-sound sequences, we have the sense that the images on the screen are projected from the psyches of the two women whose voices we hear. Together they form a subtext for the words, an expression of Mexico as the unspeakable.
The Human Rights Watch Festival runs Friday, June 10 through Sunday, June 19 at the the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Hooligan Sparrow opens theatrically this summer.
’TIL MADNESS DO US PART is a movie in constant motion, with nowhere at all to go—at times the handheld camera seems literally to be bouncing off of the walls. Even when the frame is still, in the background there are always bodies in listless traffic, shuffling along on their fixed paths. We can infer that we are inside a madhouse; indeed, a closing text specifically informs us that Wang Bing’s documentary was shot between January and April of 2013 at a mental institution in Yunnan Province, in the southwest of China. Save for a brief interlude, the action is entirely kept within the walls of the asylum. The male inmates, with whom the film generally stays, are mostly confined to one floor of the building, but otherwise seem to be left free to wander about as they please, though the options are limited to the bare dormitory cells that they inhabit; the television room where they congregate; and the “corridors” where they line up single-file to receive their medications, wash themselves in a running tap, and wander like restless half-ghosts through sleepless nights. The film is some ways along when the first daytime shots reveal that the walkway is built around an open courtyard, and that there’s nothing to protect the residents from the elements at all.
Day and night are otherwise much the same here, as the medicated, semicatatonic residents never seem fully awake or asleep, in a constant state of killing time and waiting for the relief of an unconsciousness that never comes. Sleep is talked about and exhorted constantly—“Best get some sleep and stay out of trouble,” “Calm down and go to sleep,” “Go to sleep, there’s no point in crying,” or some variation thereof a continual refrain—but real, restorative rest never comes. The inmates lie down, stand up, sit down, pace around, shout, squabble, bellyache, slurp instant noodles, hoard and gobble treats brought by relatives, squat, smoke, shit, piss wherever they happen to be, and pray toward Mecca if they are Muslim, which more than a handful are. (That closing text suggests that institutionalization is a catchall way of taking care of potential dissidents and troublemakers of all sorts.) On-screen text identifies the inmates by their names and the length of their confinement, and the rollcall continues through the considerable length of the film. Some characters we get to know rather well, like the father who asks his visiting wife for news of his young child. (“He can say ‘Daddy hit me,’” she says. “Oh, he remembers me,” he replies.) There is never quiet, but always a steady murmur of creaking doors, conspiratorial giggling, snatches of broken folk song, and horked-up loogies. Any sexual distinctions have fallen away—one middle-aged inmate pitches woo at a woman on the floor reserved for females below, though more frequently we see men routinely sharing cots with one another, either for warmth or for the pleasure of physical contact. The Chinese title, Feng Ai, translates literally to something like “Crazy Love,” or “Amour fou.”
’Til Madness Do Us Part first appeared in fall of 2013 at the Venice Film Festival. It will be having a weeklong run in New York at Anthology Film Archives thanks to distributor Icarus Films, who are concurrently presenting screenings of Wang’s 2012 Three Sisters at the Spectacle Theater. Wang’s films haven’t enjoyed wide theatrical release in the US, and it’s not altogether difficult to see why. They have sprawling runtimes—Madness is 227 minutes, and his 2002 breakthrough West of the Tracks comes in north of nine hours—and are the sort of thing that any honest assessment would file under “difficult” viewing. That said, it is almost imperative to see his latest in a cinema setting; in the comfort of home, the temptation to hit the release valve would be too great. Madness is a thing to be witnessed all at a go, not to say endured, and its power is very much wrapped up in its ability to hold the viewer captive. In the course of the film landmark events come and go—the release of a long-term inmate, the fireworks of New Year—and with each of these comes a glimmer of hope for respite, for something to change, but we always return to the same thing, the same pattern, to pacing the halls. At first the film is jarring, raw, frightening; then, desensitized by repetition, the shocking becomes routine, and one squirms at the recurrence of familiar scenes, which seem to add nothing to what we’ve already learned, though of course they do by the mere fact of their repetition; finally, there is a sort of passive acceptance.
When the credits rolled I was actually shaken, for after so much time in the booby hatch you begin to accept this world as the only one, to almost feel that this movie has become your life now, just circling, circling, circling, and that whatever else you had going on before is just a distant afterthought. This dull acceptance is the mindset that the prisoner settles into, and it is the measure of Wang’s brutalizing accomplishment that he acclimates you the viewer until you almost begin to understand it physically, in your very guts. Several recent Chinese documentaries have adopted an apocalyptic grandiosity—I am thinking in particular of Zhao Liang’s view of the Mongolian minefields as a tour of the infernal regions in his Behemoth (2015)—but ’Til Madness Do Us Part is all the more grueling because its purgatory is so doggedly prosaic, even mundane. There might be some consolation or elevation in the mythic dimension, but Wang’s movie takes place nowhere else but here and on earth.
’Til Madness Do Us Part runs Friday, June 10 through Wednesday, June 15 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
THE HEBREW PHRASE TIKKUN OLAM literally means repair of the world. Strict Orthodox Judaism considers the term a call for “wiping out all forms of idolatry,” whereas contemporary, pluralistic Rabbis take it as a “commandment for people to behave and act constructively and beneficially.” At first glance, Avishai Sivan’s riveting new film Tikkun might appear to embody a tremulous tension between the more severe biblical reading and the less Orthodox one, even as it transcends sermonizing and moves toward domestic tragedy.
But Sivan, inspired by yet another interpretation of tikkun, complicates the issue. Relating to the belief “in a soul’s cycle or return to the world after biological death […] in order to rectify an unresolved issue,” this metaphysical meaning, suggesting reincarnation, accounts for the film’s mysterious air and powerful hold on the viewer. These qualities, in turn, are enhanced by Shai Goldman’s superb widescreen cinematography. Austerely composed black-and-white interiors are almost Ozu-like: still-lifes of rooms, hallways, unmade beds, and bathroom fixtures that ground the movie’s domestic and social realities. In contrast, exteriors of deserted streets, befogged highways, and futuristic cityscapes have an otherworldly aspect, awash in shades of gray befitting not only the increasing isolation of the protagonist but the spectral quality that suffuses the atmosphere. It’s not surprising that at the 2015 Jerusalem Film Festival Tikkun won not only for best Israeli feature, best screenplay, and best actor, but also for best cinematography.
The narrative’s main character, Haim-Aaron (Aharon Traitel), a young Yeshiva student, lives at home with his parents and younger brother. Striving to become a model Orthodox Jew while struggling with an emerging sexuality that seems foreign to him, Haim fasts to the point of fainting and spends sleepless nights at the school where, when not poring over religious tomes, he writes furiously in a diary kept locked in his desk. Though we never learn the words, we surmise that they record his anguish, particularly over the taking of life—not just human life, or that of the cows his father kills in the slaughterhouse where he works, but of the smallest insect. Refusing to eat meat, at one point he takes a slab of beef from the family fridge and hurls it into the garbage.
Sivan establishes his characters’ demeanors and the family dynamics so forthrightly that we are taken by surprise by the actual event that triggers the movie’s dramatic and thematic line. When Haim’s shower is interrupted by a break in the flow of water (thanks to a persistent plumbing problem), he looks down bemusedly at his fully erect penis, and just as he tentatively moves to touch it, the showerhead suddenly bursts forth with scalding water, catapulting him forward and causing him to strike his head and shoulder against the tub, and fall unconscious. Emergency medics fail to revive him and pronounce him dead, but his father, refusing to concede, continues CPR until, to everyone’s surprise, a pulse is detected. Haim recovers, and after a hospital stay, returns home and resumes his life.
Haim’s “miraculous” survival evokes the reincarnation theme, raising the question of how we should read subsequent events, although it is not immediately apparent what, if anything had been left unresolved in his life. His frame of mind seems to worsen as deeper, psychological conflicts emerge. For example, while it is difficult to ignore the sex=death equation implied by the shower incident, and reemerging later in the film, the link is also a concrete projection of Haim’s inner torment and a reflection of his vulnerability to the stern rulings of his faith. Falling further into a morose state, he becomes increasingly alienated from the student population, and acts in such a bizarre fashion that the elders of the community and school officials treat him as a pariah, eventually casting him out. While it is clear that no one understands him, it also seems likely that the purpose of his survival is precisely to draw attention to the injustice of his ostracism and the inhuman aspects of the community’s behavior—that, in fact, he is the messenger who brings unwelcome news, ignorant though he may be of what that is.
His mother (Riki Blich) questions whether he really goes to Yeshiva at nights. His father (Khalifa Natur), distraught by the behavior of the son whose religious devotion he once revered, teeters between frustrated anger and natural sympathy. Haunted by nightmares in which a crocodile from the sewer warns him that he has obstructed God’s will, Haim’s father, in images that evoke the story of Abraham and Isaac, tries to atone by killing his son in dreams and throwing his body over a cliff. Yet, so affected is he by Haim’s diary, which he scans in a desperate effort to fathom the boy’s thoughts, that, in an impulsive act of displaced sacrifice, he releases the animals awaiting death in the slaughterhouse.
Sivan’s approach is both lyrical and tragic, an indictment of rigid Orthodoxy but a compassionate acknowledgment of the struggle of those who live within it. That these include both the young and the old is clear from the very first scene as we watch an animal confined in the slaughterhouse pen, unaware of what is about to happen. Just before the father kills it, he intones, with more than a hint of forlorn resignation, a prayer to the “Lord who has commanded us regarding kosher slaughter.” It’s a scene that not only sets the tone of what is to follow but foreshadows the shocking, disturbing, if inevitable denouement.
As seems his wont, Sivan holds a number of surprises on the path toward that end, including Haim’s encounter on the road with a young woman, which is nothing less than heartbreaking—too moving and unsettling to give it away beforehand.
Tikkun opens Friday, June 10th at Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center in New York.
Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann, 2016, color, sound, 162 minutes.
FROM WITHIN the media hothouse that emerges annually around the Cannes Film Festival, every edition unfolds as a narrative in progress, from the off-season speculation to the announcement of the lineup through to the bleary days and boozy nights of the event itself, culminating with the final punctuation of the awards ceremony. Which films were not ready and which were snubbed? Did the official competition snatch up the strongest titles or was it upstaged by the parallel sections? Based on the composite of juror personalities and preferences, and the vagaries of behind-the-scenes politics, what will win? These discussions must seem especially trivial outside the bubble of the Croisette, and they are ephemeral and quickly forgotten even within, given how little agreement there typically is on such matters. What was unusual about the sixty-ninth edition was the speed and conviction with which the Cannes press corps agreed upon this year’s takeaway theme, which was that the jury messed it up, badly. Faced with an uncommonly robust and varied competition, the nine jurors led by the Australian director George Miller unveiled a roster of winners that prompted press-room heckles and Twitter insults—in part for the films that were awarded but mainly for those that were not.
No one in their right mind would take jury prizes as reliable guides to excellence or posterity. Bold, statement-making choices—like the Palme d’Or for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) from the Tim Burton jury—are exceptions, as a look back at previous laureates will show. Far more common are compromise picks, bids at topical relevance, safe bets that conform to festival-sanctioned notions of seriousness and quality. This year’s palmarès were in keeping with tradition: Ken Loach, who holds the record for most films in competition, picked up his second Palme d’Or for the welfare-state broadside I, Daniel Blake; most of the other big winners (Xavier Dolan, Cristian Mungiu, Andrea Arnold) already have multiple Cannes awards to their names, and with the exception of Dolan’s histrionic family-reunion chamber piece It’s Just the End of the World, all had their share of admirers. The extreme rancor that greeted these profoundly unsurprising prizes could be attributed to the total shut-out of the festival’s most universally adored film, the German director Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, which screened on the first weekend to laughter, tears, and several rounds of spontaneous mid-movie applause.
The across-the-board enthusiasm for Toni Erdmann represented something truly rare at Cannes: a consensus favorite in what is otherwise an arena of cross-purposes and deep, even tribal divisions. In outline the movie—about a filial rift that is gradually bridged—seems familiar enough: Ines (Sandra Hüller), a no-nonsense corporate consultant/hatchet-woman on assignment in Bucharest, endures a surprise visit from her big-lug father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), a retired music teacher with a fondness for pranks and disguises. The genius of Toni Erdmann—named for Winfried’s bewigged, dentured alter-ego, the clownish fiction that sets in motion the film’s epiphanies—is the way it simultaneously deepens the central relationship while widening in scope to consider the dehumanizing toll of corporate culture, the insidious creep of globalization, the tragicomedy of generational estrangement, the demands on women in the workplace, and so much more.
Paul Verhoeven, Elle, 2016, color, sound, 130 minutes.
“Are you happy?” Winfried asks Ines early in the film. It’s an irksome query (“Happy is a strong word,” Ines demurs), yet Toni Erdmann keeps asking it, never shying from the pain that often comes with answering that question. Not yet forty, Ade announces herself here as a true heir to John Cassavetes. An unsentimental humanist—and a very funny one to boot—she shares with Cassavetes an alertness to the role of performance in the theater of everyday life and a belief that the most revealing human behavior takes place on the edge of social acceptability. Pitched in a realist register that can tilt without warning into the surreal, filled with broadly comic set pieces (a karaoke showstopper, a nude birthday party) that are also grace notes of extraordinary subtlety, Toni Erdmann at its best suggests nothing less than the Cassavetes of Love Streams.
While Toni Erdmann was hardly an out-of-nowhere surprise for those who knew Ade’s similarly sharp and clear-eyed Everyone Else and The Forest for the Trees, in the context of Cannes—which has largely overlooked the Berlin School, the most vital wing of contemporary German cinema—it felt like something new, perhaps even part of a larger gesture of rejuvenation. The festival’s unmatched sense of brand loyalty has lent a plodding inexorability to its parade of pantheon veterans, as well as prompted frequent observations that the true discoveries can be found outside the main competition, away from the glare of the Palais des Festival’s much-photographed red carpet. Not so this year. Many usual suspects were present and accounted for, but France’s Alain Guiraudie and Romania’s Cristi Puiu, midcareer risk-takers who had won prizes in the parallel Un Certain Regard section, were elevated to the competition for the first time, and a pair of Cannes newbies—Ade (on her third feature) and Brazil’s Kleber Mendonca Filho (on his second)—were installed in the firmament right away.
These four newcomers—along with Paul Verhoeven, back in competition for the first time since Basic Instinct with Elle, a rape-revenge/rape-fantasy head-spinner in which the roles of victim and predator are far from fixed—made for the most exciting Cannes competition in years. In Staying Vertical Guiraudie combines the formal control of his 2013 breakthrough Stranger by the Lake with the shape-shifting fabulism of his earlier films. The result is, among other things, a sidelong look at the human cycle of birth, procreation, and death, the last represented in an unforgettable conflation of euthanasia and borderline necrophilia. Puiu’s Sieranevada adopts the staple situation of countless domestic dramas: an extended-family gathering, in this case the memorial of a patriarch in a labyrinthine Bucharest apartment. Brilliantly staged, it’s a film of partial glimpses and slyly obscured information: Rituals are anticipated and delayed, doors open and close, and the camera hovers at thresholds and in corridors, panning quizzically left and right. As the claustrophobia intensifies, the heated back-and-forths—from reminiscences of the old Communist days to theories about the present age of terror—coalesce into a pointilist portrait of personal and social malaise. Mendonca Filho also works on both micro and macro scales in Aquarius, his much-anticipated follow-up to his 2012 debut, Neighboring Sounds, constructing a film that is at once an up-to-the-minute study of Brazil’s class and economic tensions; a sensuous memory piece about the meanings we invest in places, objects, and music; and a lovingly tailored vehicle for the ever luminous Sonia Braga. (The Aquarius cast and crew were also responsible for the festival’s most stirring red-carpet walk, holding aloft signs describing the attempts to impeach Dilma Rousseff as a coup d’etat.)
Cristi Puiu, Sieranevada, 2016, color, sound, 173 minutes.
The best films at Cannes 2016, all of which left empty-handed, were the toughest to classify, and they were a necessary antidote to the prevailing tendency toward familiarity. The Cannes gauntlet often makes me think of a remark by the late, great Jacques Rivette when I interviewed him in 2008. Explaining why contemporary film culture no longer interested him, the lifelong cinephile said: “It should not be that every filmmaker makes the films you expect of them. [… I]t’s as if the filmmakers have come through on their contracts.” So it can feel with the marquee names that dominate the festival, and the sense that some of their films—the Dardenne brothers’ The Unknown Girl, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, to name several accomplished if underwhelming examples from this year—verge on the mechanical, running as if by clockwork.
As has been the case for some time, Cannes remains light on discoveries, though the Semaine de la Critique parallel festival for first and second films did crown a worthy winner in Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas, a suggestively ambiguous, stunningly shot spiritual western–cum–head movie set in the Atlas Mountains. There was also one bright spot among the out-of-competition titles, The Death of Louis XIV, a dream pairing between Albert Serra, contemporary cinema’s great time traveler, and the one and only Jean-Pierre Léaud. The aged avatar of the nouvelle vague plays the extravagantly wigged Sun King in his final days, slowly succumbing to gangrene in his bedchamber, surrounded by devoted servants and pets and a retinue of hopeless doctors. With its hypnotic interplay of shadows and candlelight, Louis XIV provided some of the festival’s most ravishing images, as well as a mordant punchline for the ages, applicable not least to the Cannes ritual and its annual cycle of high and dashed hopes: “We’ll do better next time.”
The sixty-ninth Cannes Film Festival ran May 11 through 22.
A WHILE BACK it occurred to me that I should really do something about my drinking. One day in a moment of clarity I looked around and discovered that whole swathes of my life were shrouded in a fog that gave my memories the uncertain, jumbled aspect of a dream, and I couldn’t even trust to my recollections of intimate interpersonal relationships. I think this was about ten or twelve years ago—I can’t recall exactly—and I never did get around to putting a plug in the jug, instead just floating along merrily, merrily, merrily. If any of this, even just the mental fog bit, sounds the slightest bit familiar, you might be susceptible to the films of South Korean writer/director Hong Sang-soo, and the bibulous, regret-wracked head-cases who populate them.
The critical cliché “a reworking of familiar themes” doesn’t begin to do justice to the acts of monomaniacal reconfiguration which make up Hong’s filmography, distinguished by often chaotic, rambunctious behavior penned within intricate formal frameworks. This is not to say that Hong’s output—seventeen features in the twenty years since he debuted with The Day a Pig Fell into the Well (1996)—hasn’t gone through changes. With the passage of time he has tried new things with the camera, going from largely static framings to making expressive punctuating use of the zoom lens, and his films have also altered in ways that denote his growing international reputation, working with foreign stars Isabelle Huppert and Jane Birkin in, respectively, In Another Country (2012) and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (2013), and trying his hand at (mostly) English-language productions with the former and Hill of Freedom (2014). Nevertheless, taken as a whole, Hong’s work gives the impression of an obsessive consistency of vision, with each new film a rearrangement of familiar scenes (marathon drinking sessions that veer into sloppiness, fumbling come-ons, emotional meltdowns), characters (often filmmakers, film-school professors and students, or festival staffers, always pushy, narcissistic older men and the younger women who can’t get free of them), and preoccupations (anguished extramarital romance, deceptive memory, the history-pregnant Korean landscape, the tiny ramifications of every decision which contribute to make little ultimate difference). He is a genre unto himself, the very mention of his name instantly conjuring images of tables cluttered with overloaded ashtrays and dead soldiers, empty bottles of beer, soju, red wine, Johnnie Walker, and anything else conducive to seeking oblivion.
Hong’s Right Now, Wrong Then, which won the Golden Leopard at the sixty-eighth Locarno International Film Festival and is slated for US release on June 24, has the requisite scorched-earth drinking sessions, one of which takes a turn that’s mortifying even by Hong’s standards. Not only does it rework elements of previous Hong movies, but it reworks itself—with a twice-told diptych structure, the film plays through two possible versions of events over a twenty-four-hour period when a married, Seoul-based arthouse director, Han Chun-su (Jung Jae-young), stays over in Suwon to screen his films and has a dalliance with a young painter (Kim Min-hee) that ends curtly the first time, somewhat more tenderly the second. Even this broke-backed structure is nothing new, per se, for Hong has long been experimenting with breaking his features into constituent interrelated parts. His third film, Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (2000), which made a star of the doomed Lee Eun-ju, employs its own version of the once-and-then-again, flawed-mirror-image structure, later seen in Woman on the Beach (2006) and Like You Know It All (2009); triptych In Another Country gives an ambiguous triple-role to Huppert; Oki’s Movie (2010) is made up of four segments of uneven size with an uncertain chronological relationship to one another, the last a self-contained “doubled” narrative; and the chronology of Hill of Freedom is determined by a shuffled stack of letters read in the incorrect order.
Hong Sang-soo, Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, 2013, color, sound, 90 minutes. Seongjun and Haewon (Lee Sun-kyun and Jung Eun-chae).
All of the titles mentioned above, and several more besides, will be screening at the Museum of the Moving Image for three subsequent weekends starting this Friday, many of them on rare imported 35-mm prints. (Hong began shooting digital in 2008 with Night and Day, and hasn’t turned back since.)
The experience of watching Hong’s movies in bulk—or soaking in them, if you prefer—only serves to doubly emphasize their many points of similarity and departure. They are without exception driven by discourse, much of this lubricated with booze or broken down through overindulgence, while offering little of what might traditionally be classified as dramatic incident, though Virgin Stripped Bare contains an attempted rape undone by flailing, piss-drunk incompetence and both The Day a Pig Fell into the Well and The Power of Kangwon Province (1998) feature crimes of dispassion. The later films, however, tend to shy away from this sort of thing, preferring instead to focus on matters like a filmmaker fudging his duties on a festival jury (Like You Know It All), the fragile mental state of a young woman whose mother has just moved overseas to Canada (Nobody’s Daughter Haewon), or a failed film director crying his guts out to an ex-girlfriend during a visit to Seoul and forgetting all about it the following morning (The Day He Arrives ).
Hong avoids sinking into monotony while ceaselessly rearranging new variations on well-worn themes through a heightened attention to minute atmospheric specificities that distinguish each work, including season, weather (often overcast and inclement), and location. Hong’s films are an ongoing tour of South Korea—and not only Seoul and its various neighborhoods. The eighteenth-century Hwaseong Palace in Suwon plays a central role in Right Now, Wrong Then where the characters, as is often the case in Hong’s movies, are in the role of sightseers. In Haewon the Namhansanseong Fortress in the mountains southwest of Seoul is the scene of a agonized breakup and makeup, while Kangwon Province concerns two halves of the same sundered couple visiting the mountains of Gangwon-do. This isn’t a matter of seeking out fresh postcard views—while I happen to find Hong’s films beautiful, they are rarely beautiful in obvious, picturesque ways—but an extension of his tendency to strew his films with mysterious symbols, seeming to encourage us to seek obscure messages behind the detritus that people, including generations long past, have left behind: a prayer written on a temple tile, a mislaid pair of gloves, a milk carton on a bench, a smudge of blood on a hotel sheet, a stray cigarette butt, an empty bowl of noodles, a puked-up hunk of octopus, a nagging wound on the heart of another.
How should we interpret these hieroglyphs? Hong himself is a reticent interviewee, and in Right Now, Wrong Then, Oki’s Movie, and Like You Know It All, he wrings material from the often-debasing tradition of the post-screening Q&A, though I suspect he gives us something like an answer from Yu Jun-sang’s director-surrogate in the last film, who offers that “Random things happen for no reason in our lives. We choose a few and form a line of thought… made by all these dots, which we call a reason.” Here we have the basic paradox of Hong’s art—he wends a swerving path between these random dots while giving the appearance of absolute understanding and deliberation. It’s a truism that Hong’s films are unusually preoccupied with macho bluff and posture, and he exemplifies his theme in form, presenting a cool, composed exterior while trying not to let on that he, and we, are hopelessly lost.
SATISFYING DOCUMENTARIES about artists are rare. This year there are already two: Timothy Marrinan and Richard Dewey’s Burden, as in Chris Burden, acquired at Cannes by Magnolia Pictures for release in the coming months, and Marcie Begleiter’s Eva Hesse (2016), currently playing at Film Forum and distributed across the US by Zeitgeist Films. The dramatic turns in the lives—and work—of both artists invite movie treatment. But what makes the films a cut above most art documentaries is that they depict their subjects’ accomplishments not simply as evidence of maverick genius, but as contingent on a particular art-historical moment. And they give that moment its due.
Contingent, 1969, happens to be the title of one of Hesse’s late great polymer pieces, this one comprising eight translucent panels of cheesecloth coated with fiberglass and rubber. They were made to take the light; on the cover of Artforum in May 1970, they look as if they emit their own golden glow. For the documentary, cinematographer Nancy Schreiber recorded several of Hesse’s late sculptures in museums here and abroad, and the images evoke something of the revelatory experience of coming upon the actual objects, whether for the first or tenth time.
Eva Hesse’s release coincides with the publication, by Hauser & Wirth in association with Yale University Press, of Hesse’s diaries, edited by Barry Rosen. Approximately nine hundred pages long, albeit some consisting of only a half-dozen lines, they are a typed version of the handwritten journals that were found after Hesse died and which have been archived at Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum since 1977. High-resolution scans of the originals were made in 2013 and are available for study at the museum. The journals were for Begleiter an important primary source, but I can’t imagine who thought it was a good idea to publish almost all of them. (Hesse’s sister held back one volume.)
The published journals, which begin in 1955 when Hesse was a painting major at Cooper Union, note her ideas about her chosen mediums (first painting, later sculpture) and about art and aesthetics. She kept a rough inventory of books read at school and after, and made frequent entries about her family relationships, crushes, friendships, and her marriage to the sculptor Tom Doyle. As a dedicated analysand—she entered psychoanalysis in her late teens and continued for most of her life—she recorded her dreams in detail. Hesse was a Holocaust survivor. Born in Hamburg in 1936 to Jewish parents, she escaped Germany when she was barely three years old, accompanied by her five-year-old sister, on one of the last Kindertransports. The sisters were placed in a Catholic orphanage in Holland until their parents also escaped and joined them. They came to the US in 1940. Everyone else in their extended family was killed. When Hesse’s mother learned at the end of the war that her parents had died in the camps, she took her own life. Eva was nine. “We were always too scared, you and I, ” she later wrote in her diary, addressing her father just after his death in 1966. He had feared that she would never make a living as an artist, and she always regretted that he died without knowing of her success. But the source of their lifelong shared anxiety had nothing to do with art.
Much of the diary is couched in the language of psychotherapy. Although Hesse was not a particularly skilled writer, the diaries suggest how profoundly her life and work were shaped by the value she placed on the unconscious. It accounts in part for the surrealist elements in her drawing and painting, and later for the dialectic in her sculpture between rational, minimalist concepts and the sensuous, ephemeral, unpredictable materials from which they took shape. Midway through 1967 the diary entries become sparse, then there is a hiatus of more than two years, until late in 1969 into the first months of 1970, when she writes about her ultimately fatal illness. She’s surprised that she is not afraid of death, and while this does not impress her as courageous, it certainly seems so to the reader. The diaries are valuable—and moving—for these pages as well as for the scattering of notes about her process, especially during her transition from painting to sculpture and after. Wearisome, however, are the hundreds of pages devoted to her obsession with Doyle, who she met and married in 1961. The relationship quickly went downhill, but even after they separated, Hesse hung on, in fantasy and in her diaries, rationalizing, strategizing, reassuring herself that her love would win out. Had she lived longer, and given her fabulous sense of the absurd, she might have laughed as she put this hackneyed melodrama script in the shredder.
“My whole life has been absurd,” Hesse remarked in an interview with Cindy Nemser a few months before her death. (The interview was published in the issue of Artforum which had Contingent on the cover. “That’s me,” Hesse is reported to have said when a friend pasted the cover on the wall of her hospital room.) Nemser tape-recorded the interview, and Begleiter uses some of it in her film, the only time we hear Hesse’s girlish voice with its New York Jewish inflections. The filmmaker weaves primary source material—the audio recording, bits of home movies, still photos, letters between Hesse and her close friends, excerpts from the diaries, and images of Hesse’s work from early paintings and through her last sculpture, Untitled, 1970, the fiberglass-over-polyethylene over–aluminum wire abstract piece that evokes broken picture frames or dismembered legs suspended from the ceiling and kneeling on the floor.
It’s a measure of Begleiter’s documentary skills and her commitment to Hesse’s work and vivid presence that such scant materials have resulted in a portrait that is so lively, intelligent, and moving. But Hesse and the art world of the 1960s is also brought to life by the cast of artists, curators, critics, friends, and family members that Beglieter assembles. Begleiter uses a clip of Sol LeWitt from Michael Blackwood’s 1988 documentary 4 Artists, and she also shows the famous letter LeWitt wrote to Hesse with “Just Do” written in large letters in the middle. It was part of an epistolary exchange during 1964–65, when Hesse was living in Germany where Doyle had a residency. Hesse was blocked in her work, traumatized by the return to the scene of the Holocaust and by the disintegration of her marriage because of Doyle’s alcoholism and womanizing. Nevertheless, LeWitt’s “Just Do” had an effect: Hesse went to Germany as a slightly whimsical, slightly surrealist, post-abstract painter and returned as a maker of hybrid 2D/3D works that were both minimalist and disquietingly organic, and led to the development of some of the most expressive, purely sculptural works in American postwar art.
One of Hesse’s longtime friends, outsider artist Rosie Goldman, observed that “everything that happened to her, good and bad, empowered her.” Hesse’s longtime friends largely speak about her personal life, but it’s Hesse’s contempories in the art world—Richard Serra, Robert and Sylvia Mangold, Carl Andre, Dan Graham, Nancy Holt, who was then married to Robert Smithson—who testify to her work’s strength and uniqueness, and also to what the New York art world was in the ’60s. Soon after Hesse returned, Lucy Lippard, one of Hesse’s first supporters and the author of Eva Hesse (1978) invited her to be in her 1966 show “Eccenctric Abstraction.” She said that she partially conceived the show around Hesse because “she wanted to see these cold, hard grids [in LeWitt, Andre, et al] screwed up a bit and messed with.” Lippard says she didn’t quite realize at the time, but what she was talking about was wanting to see work that was female. Hesse was aware of the sexism of the art world, which she thought was the reason she was often slighted by critics, but she also wrote that “excellence has no sex,” and she was proud to be the only woman in the “Nine at Castelli” warehouse show in December 1968. It made her “just one of the boys.”
One of the most interesting figures in the film is Doug Johns, who in the late ’60s ran Aegis Reinforced Plastics. He helped Hesse fabricate all of her polymer pieces, living and working with her in her studio until the last months of her life. “She wasn’t manipulating materials, she was the materials,” observed Lippard. If you suspect that the plastics Hesse used might have had something to do with her brain cancer, there is a particularly chilling photo in the film. It’s of Hesse sticking her head into Accession III, 1968, a fiberglass box pierced by thousands of narrow fiberglass plastic tubes, which reminds me of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup. (Hesse met Oppenheim during the year she spent in Germany.)
“Matter matters,” says Serra, “and I think it’s really clear in Eva’s case that the material manifestation of the form comes out of an intense investigation of matter.” Of course, one can say the same of Serra’s work. Serra and Hesse are two of the greatest pure sculptors to emerge from the minimalist, process-oriented ’60s. They are two side of the same coin, each married to a single material, although it is a sign of deeply entrenched sexism that while we do not hesitate to embrace Hesse’s description of her work as “personal” and “expressive,” we do not use those words in relation to Serra’s work, which is just as personal and expressive—and gendered. There is no way to know what Hesse might have done had she not died at thirty-four. But those twenty-odd pieces she made between 1967 and 1970 are as great as any twenty Serras.
Their greatness has something to do with their beauty, but it is also because we recognize that, for all their fragility, they are deeply adversarial. They are made of material that goes against everything that art is meant to be. It is transient (Hesse said that the instability of the materials she used is a problem, not for her but for collectors) and not entirely under the control of the artist’s hand. Begleiter ends her film with something that Hesse said during the Nemser interview: “Life doesn’t last. Art doesn’t last. It doesn’t matter.”