IT’S PART OF THE STOCK COMEDY on actors that certain soaring parts in the Shakespeare folio fire the ambitions of young performers seeking immortality: Think Richard Griffiths’s old ham Uncle Monty in Withnail and I (1987), bemoaning that he “will never play the Dane.” Orson Welles knew that Shakespeare wrote for all the ages of man, and by the middle of the 1960s he was past the age of being fitted for black tights and strutting the boards with Yorick’s skull in hand. In a 1969 interview with filmmaker and Hollywood historian Peter Bogdanovich, Welles would define his limits as an actor as follows: “I’m less than I was. Less versatile.… A thin man can play a fat man, and a young man can play an old man, but it doesn’t work the other way around. As the years limit my range, I like to think that I’ve gained a little bit in focus, in concentration.”
Just a few years earlier, the narrowing of Welles’s range and the expansion of his waistline had coincided to create his last real signature performance playing a character other than “Orson Welles”: his portrayal of Sir John Falstaff, the bloated, boisterous companion of Prince Hal, in his film Chimes at Midnight (1965), a mashup of the Bard’s “Henriad” histories which will be enjoying a weeklong run at Film Forum in a new DCP restoration.
Chimes collates material from the plays in which Falstaff appears as a character with dialogue—Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor—as well as from Richard II and Henry V, and discovers in them a narrative throughline: The abandonment of Falstaff by bosom companion Hal. As the film begins, King Henry IV (John Gielgud) has newly wrested the crown from Richard, but Henry’s son, Hal (Keith Baxter), is disinterested in being groomed for the throne, preferring to while his youth away in prankery and dissipation with Falstaff at the Boar’s Head Tavern, a huge, timbered theater where the rafters ring with laughter, as opposed to the King’s cathedral-cold echo chamber. A rebellion against the king builds under the Earl of Worcester (Fernando Rey, obligingly dubbed) and young Hotspur (Norman Rodway), who Henry admires as a substitute son just as Hal looks up to Falstaff, if askance. Hal’s sowing of wild oats is, as he knows all along it must be, interrupted by the call of duty, and he vanquishes Hotspur on the field at the Battle of Shrewsbury—a stirring montage that descends into a mud-caked melee, and the most overpowering scene of its kind to appear between the respective primes of Akira Kurosawa and Sam Peckinpah. Hal emerges from the battle changed, and the tone of the film changes with him, its former lightness replaced by a creeping elegiac note, as Hal bids goodbye to his feckless youth. Naive Falstaff is the last to know that his Hal has become a regal Henry, and the knowledge destroys him.
Retrospectively it seems as though Welles had been laying the groundwork for his Falstaff and Chimes at Midnight for his entire creative life. The director’s engagement with Shakespeare began early, and via Shakespeare Welles would continue to work through some of his principal preoccupations—the exercise and abuse of power, the relationship between private and public personae—for all of his years. At the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where Welles was a gifted pupil, he first attempted to stage an omnibus production of Shakespeare’s histories, The Winter of Our Discontent, and with the school’s headmaster, Roger Hill, would coauthor a book offering guidelines for the teaching the Bard called Everybody’s Shakespeare. (“Shakespeare said everything,” begins the seventeen-year-old Welles’s introduction to the book. “Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man’s season.”) Welles’s dizzying rise to early celebrity was accomplished in no small part through daring stagings of Shakespeare: His so-called Voodoo Macbeth of 1936 for the Federal Theatre Project, set in the Caribbean and using an all-black cast, or his 1937 Caesar, the inaugural Mercury Theatre production, which drew a direct analogy between the end of the Roman Republic and the contemporary rise of European fascism. (In 1939 he tried to make his portmanteau play following the Falstaff throughline, Five Kings, but the production disintegrated in rehearsals.) During his first self-imposed exile from Hollywood, Welles would direct and star in films of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), and we are still discovering Welles’s Shakespeare—a reconstruction of his fragmentary The Merchant of Venice (1969) premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Festival.
Welles, who thought nothing of performing Shylock’s speech for The Dean Martin Show, was an all-American showman, and he knew how to make his entrances and his exits: Think of the introduction of Harry Lime after an exquisite build-up in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), or Marlene Dietrich’s eulogy to doomed Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958). And though there is little biographical evidence to suggest that when Welles began Chimes at Midnight he believed, per Dietrich, that his future was already “all used up,” the finished film functions as a beautiful swan song, ending with the absurd and pathetic figure of Sir John’s massive, rude coffin. (It was the last fiction feature that Welles would complete before his death in 1985, followed by the hour-long The Immortal Story  and the prankish documentary F for Fake .)
While DCP rep programming should usually be a matter of last resort, the appearance of a reasonably watchable Chimes at Midnight in any format is cause for celebration. For years the film has been encountered in only the most degraded conditions—for me it was in university, on a bootleg VHS with a noisy sound track that swallowed up the iambic pentameter—but it has here been rescued from rot by Janus Films, embellishing on the work of the Filmoteca Española. (It is expected to be released on home video by the Criterion Collection before the end of 2016.) Even the early release prints of the film that initially appeared stateside were marred by muddy audio and an out-of-sync first reel, elements which are central to Pauline Kael’s sympathetic if skeptical contemporary review of the film in the New Republic.
Now Chimes at Midnight can be watched in something near to the form that it was intended to be seen in, and it appears as one of the very pinnacles of Welles’s art, matching a forceful, visual dynamism to a melting, mellifluous reading of Shakespeare’s text. Welles, filming in Spain, was as ever flying by the seat of his pants—he parted producer Emiliano Piedra with his money by promising a movie of Treasure Island which never emerged—but enjoyed a relatively uninterrupted shoot, a rarity in his vagabond years when he was often driven to suturing together bits of film shot years and continents apart. Welles was nearing fifty when he played Falstaff, wearing a cotton-ball beard and augmenting his already considerable bulk to attain planetoid rotundity. Contrary to Welles’s statement to Bogdanovich, his Falstaff is more convincingly young than Charles Foster Kane ever was old, combining Welles’s boyish, twinkling insouciance with the heft of accumulated years. Like Welles, who obligingly appeared on the talk-show circuit to sing for his supper in later years, Falstaff will lampoon his own obesity and age to win over a crowd, but he only truly grows heavy and old when Hal turns away from him. It is Hotspur, slain on the field of battle, who speaks the line “O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth,” but the words might just as well belong to Falstaff, for his fate is sealed when he ceases to believe in friendship.
Like Welles’s film of Don Quixote, another project never completed in his lifetime, Chimes at Midnight reflects the director’s proclivity for out-of-step dreamers who prefer their lovely, useless fancies to cold, pragmatic practicalities. Welles’s Falstaff played on the public perception of the genius of Citizen Kane (1941) as a prodigy who had squandered his gifts and advantages. Living with the character may also have been a way for Welles to get closer to the ghost of his father, Richard Head Welles, who had made a fortune by inventing a bicycle lamp, then drank it all up and died young. Rather than establishing proprietorship, these deeply felt personal touches open up the material, make it into Everybody’s Shakespeare. Welles’s Sir John Falstaff is a splendid fraud, the outrageous liar at the VFW hall whose history becomes more heroic with every downed boilermaker, or the lecherous lifelong hanger-on who has somehow sustained himself in a state of nonstop carnival; Baxter’s Hal every rich boy who passes a season in bohemia before answering the prerogatives of class duty. It gives us Shakespeare as a spree, complete with its Saturday night and Sunday morning comedown.
Ken Kobland, 2 Jumps in a Row, 2015, black-and-white and color, sound, 31 minutes.
THE SETTING FOR Ken Kobland’s installation 2 Jumps in a Row, 2015, is the bare stage of the Performing Garage, home for over four decades to the Wooster Group. For frequent theatergoers, empty stages are categorically evocative—charged with free-floating memories and anticipations. Thus the beautifully proportioned Garage space, with its spare lighting grid and cement block walls lined with theatrical trunks, is well suited to Kobland’s moving-image diptych, which depicts Moscow at two memorable moments in the recent past: the collapse of Communism in 1990 and the chaos of neocapitalism eighteen years later.
At the edge of the flat stage, a casual grouping of mismatched chairs faces a wide screen built by the artist. The space is not only more expressive than the usual white-box frame for installations but also more accommodating for the viewer. The piece is thirty-one minutes long and plays as a loop, repeating ten times every day. You don’t have to come in at the beginning of the cycle, but since 2 Jumps in a Row makes meaning through internal repetitions, you need to stay at least until the point where you entered. Being able to pull up a chair, the way actors and dancers do during rehearsals, is not merely a comfortable alternative to leaning against a wall or sitting on long, ostentatiously minimalist benches (the usual options in galleries that show time-based work); it suggests that what we are watching on the screen are two instances of street theater.
Shot in black-and-white, the film on the left side of the screen largely comprises close-ups of people crowded into a Moscow square, their faces expressing anxiety and terrible loss. Sometimes they mill about in front of a wall plastered with pages from newspapers, which were still a primary form of communication in a society that had long been late to technological change. Occasionally Kobland’s camera follows crowds into subways or peers at faces through bus windows. Titles in unobtrusive white letters are sparingly used to translate worried conversations between strangers. (“Salaries raised modestly, prices raised greatly.”) Even less often, red Supremacist-styled lettering covers an image with quotations. One of them is a description of Khrushchev, in his attempt to lead the Soviet Union out of Stalinism, as a man “taking two jumps in a row into an abyss.”
In 1990, the abyss created by Perestroika must have seemed even more terrifying, but as we see from the images on the right side of the screen, no sooner had communism fallen than capitalism rushed in to paper over the loss with advertising, designed to whip up a frenzy of desire for consumer goods. Shot in appropriately garish color, the video on the right shows the city in 2008, totally transformed from the drab, barely functioning metropolis of 1990 which we see simultaneously on the left. The juxtaposition of then and now, although in no way systematic, is astonishing and deeply depressing. Neon signs, billboards, and huge video advertisements line the sidewalks and are strung overhead across streets jammed with expensive foreign cars. But if you look past the signage, you see that the buildings and the subways have barely changed, that indeed much of the infrastructure seems on the verge of crumbling. What is newly restored is Russian Orthodox Christianity, its churches resplendent red and gold showcases of wealth, filled with faithful who perform their rituals as if religion had not been on hiatus for nearly a century.
Rather than wandering with his camera through the crowds as he did in 1990, Kobland shot many of the 2008 exteriors through the windows of a car. The unseen driver kept his radio tuned to classic rock and yelled out song titles as each new cut began: “Stayin’ Alive,” “Money for Nothing,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Wasted Years.” His broken monologue floats over the two time zones on the screen, uniting the fall of one totalitarian nightmare and the rise of another.
David O. Russell, Joy, 2015, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Joy and Tony (Jennifer Lawrence and Édgar Ramírez).
DAVID O. RUSSELL’S JOY, a biopic of home-shopping television personality and Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), focuses on its subject’s early years of struggle, though toward the end we get a glimpse of Joy as the self-made tycoon of later days, installed in her office behind the imposing desk from which she runs her empire, which doubles as a buffer from the world.
It’s a potent image, recalling the conclusion of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956), in which Dorothy Malone, scion of Texas oil royalty, is left alone in her deceased father’s office, shouldering a new burden of responsibility. Joy, like Todd Haynes’s justly praised Carol, is in direct dialogue with the legacy of the Hollywood melodrama in which Sirk worked, and broaches some of the same questions that Sirk’s films continue to. To wit: Was Sirk, as he would later claim to sympathetic interviewers, smuggling critiques of American capitalism into his seemingly straightforward tearjerkers, or were the films precisely what they appeared to be? (Those inclined to see for themselves can do so in a knockout retrospective that begins today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)
Based on a script by Bridesmaids screenwriter Annie Mumulol, Joy may be taken on the surface as a celebratory portrait of actualization through the mastery of the business world’s mechanisms—unlike the broken, condemned Malone, Joy ends with an image of poise, power, and self-reliance. (“Inspired by True Stories of Daring Women, and One in Particular,” reads the film’s epigram.) Through the course of the film we see how Joy, out of necessity, develops these attributes. The movie’s narrator, Joy’s supportive, saintly grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), introduces our protagonist as a preternaturally gifted preadolescent with a passion for tinkering. We then reconnect with Joy as an adult, sometime in what appears to be the mid-1980s on what is apparently meant to be Long Island. Few of this little girl’s big dreams have come to fruition: Having foresworn a college scholarship for family obligations, she now works at an airline ticket counter, and shares a house that’s hardly a home with her two kids and her divorced mother (Virginia Madsen), a shut-in TV junkie. Dad (Robert De Niro) barely bothers to disguise his preference for Joy’s half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), who works with him at the family auto-body shop, though after things go south with his current girlfriend, that doesn’t keep him from moving back to share the basement with Joy’s live-in ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez).
Though most of her immediate family never shows any indication that they’re capable of looking past their own self-interest, Joy does have a few helping hands, like Tony, her childhood best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco), and benevolent Mimi. If there is any doubt that Mimi is a guardian angel, the fact that she continues to narrate Joy’s story after she passes away should put this to rest. Such supernatural occurrences are not unheard of, and the attempted tone of the film might be described as kitchen-sink magic realism. The birth of the Miracle Mop is presented as something truly miraculous, the idea for it coming to Joy in a burst of divine inspiration, and Russell treats this moment of inception as solemnly as if he were shooting Virginia Woolf conceiving of To the Lighthouse. Seemingly the answer to her prayers of escaping her dead-end life, the development and sale of the Miracle Mop only creates more problems, as Joy has to contend with unscrupulous and predatory businessmen. To take care of one, she heads all the way to Dallas for a face-to-face showdown and, emerging victorious into the Texas heat, basks in the artificial snowfall of a toy store’s vitrine—a Christmas miracle on Commerce Street.
Openly concerned with the interplay between mass culture and everyday existence, Joy begins by dropping us into a piece of black-and-white drawing-room drama, only to reveal that we are in fact watching the soap opera that has supplanted lived experience for Joy’s mother. The soap also happens to reflect the domestic turmoil of Joy’s own life in an exaggerated, histrionic register, even haunting her nightmares, but our heroine’s progress through the film may be described as a journey from passive consumer to active producer of mediated imagery, from receiver to transmitter. This happens by way of the at-first hesitant sponsorship of Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), an executive at a newly launched, innovative cable company headquartered in Amish country: QVC. (It stands for “Quality, Value, Convenience.”)
The QVC studios are a wonderland where rotating sets transform kitchen to patio at the push of a button, Joan Rivers lives again (in the person of doppelgänger daughter Melissa), and a sales counter announces new fortunes made in a scant few minutes of airtime. The scenes here, in which Joy discovers her vocation as a pitchwoman, have a liberating brio found nowhere else in the film, though as soon as she leaves the studio her family sets upon her anew, increasingly resembling a predatory pack working together to bring down their prey. The most endearing thing about Russell is that he is—to a degree depressingly uncommon among directors of his stature—actually concerned with the lived lives of Americans hovering between genteel poverty and the middle class, a vast portion of the country that rarely sees itself represented at the multiplex. Problem is, aside from details of production design that might have been inspired by any episode of Roseanne—the laundry hamper on the ironing board in the kitchen and the coffee cup full of ballpoint pens on the table—he rarely depicts the milieu convincingly.
This isn’t to say that Russell or any filmmaker need necessarily constrain themselves to whatever passes for realism, but without a base-level foundation he tends to fall into a pattern of spastic effusion, a violent lurch accompanying each of the short-attention-span shifts in register. (Hal Hartley’s approach to creating a mystical-realist bridge-and-tunnel country is a worthwhile comparison.) Joy’s eventual escape and ascendance, covered in a Mimi-narrated postscript, has an aspect of blue-collar Cinderella wish fulfillment about it, as well as an undertone of melancholy. However, rather than find a way for opposing ideas to coexist and overlap in the same scene—think of the first meeting between the lovers on the floor of Frankenberg’s department store in Carol, which occurs at the busy intersection of class lines and desire both sexual and acquisitive—Russell’s movie staggers from one theme to the next, shrilly insisting all along the way that the viewer feel something.
It succeeds, but the result can’t have been the desired one: Russell’s films so often give one the feeling of being buttonholed at a party by a breathless, insistent boor. His latest is less peppy than pummeling, and in working desperately to keep the energy level up, Russell offers further proof that he uses pop-music cues worse than any other working director. His admirers usually cite his work with actors as his strength, but while star Lawrence is merely miscast—the part calls for someone with a few more city miles on them—practically everyone else is fumbling with untenable, one-note roles. The film’s turbulence might be meant to reflect the messiness of Life Itself, but the result is as phony as the stains meticulously daubed onto Lawrence’s dowdy single-mom blouses. It’s a dizzy, dervish-like movie that can be read as a celebration of capitalism, an economic cautionary tale, both at once, or total political confusion à la Russell’s Three Kings (1999)—but there’s little allure to look closer at a movie that offers little in return for leaving you so wrung out.
David O. Russell’s Joy opens in theaters on December 25.
Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows, 1955, 35 mm, color, sound, 89 minutes.
FOR THOSE STILL IMMUNE to the glories of Douglas Sirk’s cinema, the twenty-five-film retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (most in 35 mm) is a rare opportunity to see what they’ve been missing. Included are four films from the 1930s that he made in Germany as Detlef Sierck, but also such rarities as Mystery Submarine (1950), The First Legion (1951, one of his loveliest, most underrated films), and Take Me to Town and Meet Me at the Fair (both 1953). Among cinephiles and film historians, Sirk’s reputation has soared since the 1960s, when the Dictionnaire du Cinéma declared him the “most neglected director in the whole of American cinema.” The same voices in the ’50s that mocked his unabashed embrace of melodrama (like complaining that opera plots are unrealistic) applauded the bludgeoning style and rhetoric of such diatribes as High Noon (1952), The Defiant Ones (1958), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and Marty (1955).
Sirk’s visual music eluded his critics even as it transcended Hollywood conventions, deepening the melodrama’s cultural and psychological dimensions by hyperbolizing its very mechanics. At their best, his films move beyond naturalism toward what Godard lovingly called “delirium”—where raw, even pathological emotions find their stylistic match. No longer at the “far side of paradise” where the late Andrew Sarris placed him in The American Cinema (1968), Sirk is unquestionably one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers. His late masterpieces—Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), and Imitation of Life (1959) are not only triumphs of composition and light, but powerful refutations of American idealism, a shade or two less dark but no less perversely bewitching than Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958).
Sirk not only survived his critics; he also emerged unscathed from efforts by academics in the ’80s to view his work through the dubious filters of fashionable theories—deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and radical feminism—thereby “justifying” his excesses as a form of Brechtian estrangement. As contemporaries, Sirk was certainly cognizant of Brecht’s theories. But to suggest that the unflinching pathos of his movies is compatible with Brechtian detachment is folly. If there is a “distance” in Sirk’s style, it’s one he shares with fellow émigrés Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Max Ophüls, Fritz Lang, and Robert Siodmak, who, having fled the horrors of Nazism, observed the naïveté of American society with bemused concern.
Sirk came to Hollywood with a formidable pedigree, after honing his skills in structure and scenic design in classical theater throughout the ’20s. Having adapted, staged, or directed Sophocles, Molière, Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe, Strindberg, Shaw, Pirandello, Wilde, and Ibsen, among others, he brought, without the least condescension, a gravitas and cathartic weight to the melodrama. Even his “happy” endings are suffused with unfulfilled longing. In There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), middle-class domesticity triumphs over midlife escapism; All That Heaven Allows (1955) confirms that star-crossed lovers can only find peace in the giddily fantastic Waldenesque world etched in the final image.
Douglas Sirk, La Habanera, 1937, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 98 minutes.
Sirk had explored the dangerous lure of a natural paradise in La Habanera (1937), his last German film: Astree, the Swedish heroine, jumps ship in a sensually depicted Puerto Rico and falls into the arms of the dashing Don Pedro, only to endure a hellish marriage for the next ten years and wage battle for custody of their son. Contention between husband and wife is reflected in the shadowy bars that fragment the mise-en-scène. When Astree leaves after her husband dies of the fever that descends on this paradise, her gaze backward lingers until the camera pans out to sea, reversing the move it made in the opening shot. The camera’s omniscient role, not unlike its fatalistic point of view in German cinema in the ’20s, along with the film’s lighting, narrative structure, and the schism between yearning and reality, would become the hallmarks of Sirk’s style in Hollywood, where it would be enhanced by his brilliant use of color.
His first American movie, Hitler’s Madman (1943), is an indictment of Nazi ideology. Depicting the destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, as punishment for the assassination of its Commandant, the film is somewhat crude but reminds us what drove Sirk (whose wife was Jewish) and his fellow émigrés out of Germany. Collectively, they brought a weltanschauung that darkened the tenor of Hollywood cinema and virtually invented film noir, the quintessential genre of the ’40s. While Sirk’s Sleep My Love (1947) and Lured (1946) have a noir-like air, the genre was more successfully tackled by Wilder, Preminger, and Siodmak. And though Sirk had a talent for comedy, the musical, the western, war films, and period pieces, melodrama proved the most pliable form with which to expose and critique (with boundless compassion, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder noted with envy) the flabby underbelly of America’s cultural mores and social straitjackets. When, following stints at United Artists and Columbia, he went to Universal-International in 1950, these preoccupations intensified—for, as he told Jon Halliday (in Sirk on Sirk, 1972), he was granted freer reign over production details and final cut than anyone else on the lot—especially after his Magnificent Obsession (1954) became the biggest box-office hit in the studio’s history.
Sirk’s stylistic virtuosity did not make him any less a director of actors. Many gave their best performances under his baton. George Sanders was born for his role as the elegant crook François Vidocq in A Scandal in Paris (1945). Middle-class motherhood as domestic trap—a fixture of the melodrama—is explored with great range and subtlety through Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman, and Lana Turner. Rock Hudson, Universal’s biggest male star in the ’50s, made eight movies with Sirk, though Sirk saw immediately that he was incapable of the internal “split” that made characters interesting, and which finds its visual correlative in the mirrors and shadows that often divide his frames. Within this aesthetic, Hudson was the immovable object, the uncomplicated hero—perfect as Captain Lightfoot (1954), less so in Battle Hymn (1956)—against which Sirk would play off characters in deep conflict. An exception is the moment in All That Heaven Allows when Ron (Hudson) demands that Cary (Jane Wyman) choose between him and her selfish children. When she walks out, his genuine shock is registered by the only shot in the film that enshrouds him in shadows.
Douglas Sirk, Written on the Wind, 1956, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes.
The split in Imitation of Life allows Sirk to explore racism in American society through the self-hatred of the Susan Kohner character, but its dynamic is most unnervingly demonstrated in Written on the Wind, the hothouse atmosphere of which is far more corrosive than its source novel (in which tobacco, not oil, is the source of the family’s wealth, and a less neurotic Ann Charlotte—Dorothy Malone’s character—actually wins the object of her desire!). Sirk’s treatment of the Hadleys is not just an overripe indictment of American capitalism and the dysfunctional spawn of the wealthy. Less appreciated, if not ignored, are his psychological astuteness and nonjudgmental treatment. Lang, Preminger, and Wilder also excoriated the falseness of the American dream, but without Sirk’s charity and sympathy for human failings. In this sense, the film may well be the pinnacle of his lifelong interest in illness and disease. Rooted in German culture of the ’20s, this tendency to see the problems of people and society in pathological terms no doubt owed much to Freud, whom Sirk read in German and whose popularity and influence was at its height during the decades of Sirk’s Hollywood career.
No surprise then that the film’s leads, Hudson and Lauren Bacall, are reduced to mere foils, against which the Hadley scions, played by Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, act out their self-destructive pathologies. Sirk grounded the emotions generated by the material not only in the pain and suffering of unadmirable characters, but with keen awareness of the ego deficits that ruled them. In clinical terms, Malone and Stack do not so much act as act out their neuroses and insecurities. A pair of open wounds oozing noxious self-loathing, they literally sprawl through and poison every scene. Yet, consistent with the fragility of the insecure narcissist, they can turn on a dime when easily hurt, reduced to the pleading posture of the unloved child. We see it when Kyle, told he may be sterile, falls into instant despair, and when Mary Lee, riding high with a lame scheme to blackmail Mitch into marrying her, shrivels into girlish shame when he reminds her how far they’ve come from “the river,” the pastoral haven of their youth.
At once achingly beautiful and Hollywood at its most baroque, the film epitomizes all that is grand, idiosyncratic, and moving in Sirk, even as it flagrantly plays into the hands of those who dismiss it as kitsch. Viewers laugh at the shot of Malone clutching the metal oil rig—a phallic symbol if ever there was one. I now take it as Sirk’s jab at those who can’t see the heartbreak beyond it, whose focus on camp blinds them to both the object’s cold, hollow impotence and the woman who has lost everything—father, brother, the one man she couldn’t have, and any ability to free herself of self-disgust. With that cruel blow Sirk dares us to smile at the obligatory “happy ending.”
The idyllic “river” we see in a flashback of Mary Lee’s, and where Kyle asks to go just before he dies, had significance for Sirk as well. He told Halliday in 1972 that he aspired early on to make a series of films about middle-class America, with its losses and disillusionments. It’s hard not to see how personal this ambition was, a vision that reflected his own separation from his homeland and his inability, upon his return to Germany in the ’60s, to feel comfortable there ever again. Split between countries and languages, he no doubt at times also longed for the river.
JONAS MEKAS IS A FILM DIARIST. He is also an archivist and a historian. His films are a tool for the preservation of knowledge about how artists worked and lived in the second half of the twentieth century and on into the present. They are about aesthetics and economics, about the ties of friendship and family, about the pleasures of eating and drinking and talking into the night. All of this is recorded with cameras so unassuming that people have always taken them for granted. I sometimes wonder why no one ever says, “Jonas, put away the camera. I don’t want my words to be recorded for posterity, especially when I’m half-drunk and not entirely coherent.” But no one ever does.
Scenes from the Life of Raimund Abraham (2013) is a radical instance of cinéma vérité. Formally, it is not a great Mekas movie. It doesn’t have the beauty, eloquence, and coherence of Walden (1966) or Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man (2012), although it pulls together a penultimate and a final scene to make you weep and laugh and weep again over the irony that this puny digital artifact most likely will outlive everyone depicted in it, and has already outlived the architect who is its subject, Raimund Abraham. And in doing so, it will have realized its purpose: to carry lens-based sketches of the past into the future.
If you know nothing about Abraham—a Viennese avant-garde architect best known as a theoretician, who also realized one of New York’s most extraordinary buildings, the Austrian Cultural Forum (25 feet wide by 280 feet tall, built on a sliver of land at 11 East Fifty-Second Street and resembling, according to Abraham, “a guillotine”)—you can turn to Google. What you will not find there is the intimate life of the man—how he behaved with his friends, how he cooked them dinners (meat, meat, and more meat, for instance, an entire lamb skinned, basted, and set to pan-roast), what he talked about, how he explained his practice to others and to himself, the tour he gave a few friends of the interior of his great building (at least forty-five minutes of this epic six-hour movie portrait), and his unmistakable joy in having accomplished it. “Maybe the most important moment of my life,” he says at the opening.
Abraham and Mekas were close friends. Perhaps Mekas has film and video footage of Abraham that he hasn’t included in this portrait or in his previous movies. But since the hand of Mekas the archivist rather than Mekas the artist is at work here, I doubt that much was discarded. As a result, many of the images—shot on consumer video and, later, on digital cameras—leave a lot to be desired. And the same goes for the sound. Abraham’s last lecture in the Great Hall of Cooper Union is barely audible. For the most part, however, none of that matters. What is impressive, thrilling even, in Scenes from the Life of Raimund Abraham is the close proximity to a brilliant architect and his circumstances, which it is not unduly romantic to describe as the participants themselves would: as the last community of visionary artists.
And although many will not agree, I find the absence of ego in Mekas’s work here thoroughly satisfying. In part it’s an issue of technology. When Mekas shot with a 16-mm camera, film was so expensive that he developed a technique of shooting in short bursts so he could make a single roll last a week. The density of the images and the speed of the editing yielded kinetically exciting, often exquisitely distilled images. Mekas includes three or four sequences of Abraham shot on film during the 1970s, not just so we see the youthful and rather dashing man, but also so we mark the difference between filmmaking as art and filmmaking as the archiving of images. Home movies shot off-the-cuff on video are seldom pleasing pictorially, but they have the advantage of the long take—of continuity in time. And when the camera belongs to an observer as acute as Mekas, one who knows his subject as intimately as he does, the viewer has the experience of being truly there—of being inside a life, not for a few seconds but for long enough to drink a glass of wine or to sit in the Great Hall, watching a series of powerful, often enigmatic, drawings that are Abraham’s illustrations for a lecture that one must strain across time and space to hear.
Jonas Mekas’s Scenes from the Life of Raimund Abraham has its New York theatrical premiere on Saturday, December 19, and Sunday, December 20, at 4 PM each day at Anthology Film Archives. Mekas will appear in person at the Saturday screening.
Nathan Silver, Stinking Heaven, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 70 minutes. Ann (Hannah Gross).
A TALE OF REHABBED JUNKIES shot on junky, rehabbed video equipment, Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven is a singularly bleak smash-up psychodrama. Silver’s fifth completed feature since 2009 comes in at a slender seventy minutes; he works at a brisk clip, and like the much larger filmography of South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo, Silver’s work thus far can be experienced as a series of evolving drafts, reworkings that give the feeling of working toward something rather than acting as a testament. In addition to Stinking Heaven, this year Silver premiered a four-minute squib of a short, Riot, a reediting of camcorder movies of the young filmmaker and his claque of white neighborhood friends recreating the Los Angeles riots in a backyard in suburban Massachusetts, oblivious to mandates of political correctness. The home-movie aesthetic is important to Stinking Heaven, shot on an Ikegami HL-79E, a 1980s vintage broadcast camera. More than providing a nostalgic patina, the obsolescent technology and the 4:3 broadcast television framing remind us how our perception of photographic realism is attached to a teleological sliding scale.
The setting of Stinking Heaven is identified as “Passaic, New Jersey 1990” by a single on-screen title; after that, viewers are left to fend for themselves. The movie opens as Betty (Eleonore Hendricks) shares a druggy idyll with her girlfriend, Ann (Hannah Gross), passing a jerry-rigged water bottle crack pipe, then stripping down to plash in an outdoor swimming hole. After the first of many vaulting elisions, we catch up with Betty as she is married to grizzled, middle-aged Kevin (Henri Douvry) in a living-room ceremony officiated by Jim (Keith Poulson). Gradually the dimensions of Betty’s new life come into focus: The house is a communal living space for recovering addicts—per their charter, they “Choose to be together, choose to be sober”—presided over by Jim. They pay the bills with money earned by selling a homemade kombucha drink at local flea markets and, more importantly, with checks from a relation of Jim’s who owns a scrapyard.
Silver’s Soft in the Head (2013) takes place in a homeless shelter whose exclusively male population is stirred up by the appearance of a young female in their midst; his Uncertain Terms (2014), is set in a shelter for pregnant teenagers. In Stinking Heaven, the filmmaker again deals with the interaction of fragile group ecosystems and volatile outside elements. These are some of the same concerns which come about in directing an ensemble performance piece, and this connection is lent a self-reflective touch by the fact that the commune members are themselves, after a fashion, filmmakers—what we see of their group therapy consists of members helping one another to reenact their rock-bottom moments while someone stands to the side and videotapes the action for posterity. These exercises are sprung on the viewer unannounced; when, for example, Kevin barges into the living room in his underwear, shrieking about having been beaten up and pissed on outside of a bar, it’s only after the initial shock has worn off that we detect the presence of a camera.
Silver had his cast cohabit for the duration of the heavily improvised shoot so that the circumstances of the production might more closely mirror those of the story being told, and he is simultaneously engaging with a realist tradition that seeks to pin down quicksilver emotional truth using the tools of fiction filmmaking while questioning whether such an endeavor is even possible. (And what, if any, validity there is to the cult of “overcoming.”) Stinking Heaven is a movie at odds with itself, as its characters find themselves at odds with one another. In Silver’s abrasive films, the communal enterprise is a sort of autodestructive art, in which mismatched, out-of-sync gears grind one another down, finally bringing the entire mechanism to a halt.
Nathan Silver, Stinking Heaven, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 70 minutes. Courtney (Tallie Medel).
If we can point to any single catalyst that sets the breakdown in motion in Stinking Heaven, it’s Ann’s reappearance in Betty’s life. (Joining the group, Ann seems more motivated by spite toward her ex than a desire to get straight. This drives out Betty, never to return to the film, and triggers Kevin to relapse.) But in fact the seeds of the group’s destruction are planted even earlier. While married to Lucy (Deragh Campbell) and ostensibly the group’s authority, Jim takes every opportunity to slip into the communal van for interludes of afternoon delight with Courtney (Tallie Medel), Kevin’s daughter, who looks on with big, Kohl-rimmed eyes from an adjacent bunk bed while her father and Betty share their first night of connubial bliss.
It’s a scene-stealing part for Medel, whom I first clocked playing a teenager carnally obsessed with her older brother in Dan Sallitt’s 2012 The Unspeakable Act—and it is worth noting that the subject of incest seems to have a peculiar pull for filmmakers originating in the small, claustrophobically tight-knit New York independent film scene. (See also Alex Ross Perry’s 2011 The Color Wheel.) Silver’s cast mixes indie veterans like Campbell, Gross, Medel, and filmmaker Jason Giampietro, very funny as the group’s crooked-grinning instigator, with little-known gigging middle-aged actors like Douvry, Eileen Kearney, and biker-bearded Larry Novak, making for a motley combination of histrionic performance styles. Adding to the suffocating air in the house is Silver and DP Adam Ginsberg’s penchant for smothering, shallow-focus close-ups, which also have the benefit of omitting background details and allowing the filmmakers to, with a minimal budget, make a more or less convincing period piece set on the brink of the Lollapalooza era. (The setting is not so prominent a part of the story as in Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman’s tenure-track time capsule L for Leisure , though Paul Grimstad’s synth score does evoke period-specific Angelo Badalamenti dolour.)
The movie doesn’t end so much as burn out. Centrifugal force spins the members of the commune off on their different courses, the narrative shakes itself to pieces, and Jim takes up an offer of a job at the junkyard. Stinking Heaven isn’t a great leap forward for its director, but Silver’s practice isn’t the sort that invites that kind of tutelage-to-mastery conversation. It’ll be right back to the drawing board—or the scrap heap—and another jagged rattletrap collection of spare parts.