IN THE YEARS of its rise to prominence, Columbia Pictures was famous for a couple of things, neither of them having anything to do with crime thrillers. The first was its possession of the most horrible studio chief in Hollywood, Harry Cohn, an ardent admirer of Mussolini and a serviceable noir heavy. The second was the one employee who Cohn needed and hated for needing him, the studio’s superstar director, Frank Capra.
Not surprisingly, there isn’t a single film by Capra among the twenty-five titles that make up the Museum of Modern Art’s “Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures” series, which runs for three and a half weeks beginning this Friday. The lady in question is Columbia herself, the torch-bearing female personification of these United States who appears on the studio logo. (That, in this case, most of the films that follow her appearance contain some pretty scurrilous material and an unflattering picture of our national life can be mined for some cheap irony.)
MoMA is screening two samples of Columbia’s output from the early- to mid-1930s, when the studio had successfully clawed its way tooth-and-nail out of Poverty Row. Both are heavily indebted to the classical detective group-of-strangers-gathered-at-an-isolated-location model of storytelling. By Whose Hand? (1932) takes place on a night train to San Francisco, while The Ninth Guest (1934) is confined almost entirely to a queer party in a Deco dream apartment where the gathered company are knocked off one by one. The film is generally credited as the progenitor of the boy-count thriller, predating Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939). Proposed alternate title: It Happened One Night.
The ’30s were the decade when Capra put Columbia on the map, but “Lady in the Dark” is squarely centered on the ’40s, the decade that belonged to Margarita Carmen Cansino, reinvented (and anglicized) by the studio as Rita Hayworth. MoMA has Gilda (1946), Hayworth’s most popular teaming with fellow contract player Glenn Ford, and Lady from Shanghai (1947), directed by Hayworth’s estranged husband, Orson Welles, who took brattish glee in undoing the studio’s star-making efforts by chopping and dyeing his wife’s famous locks. (She is ravishingly photographed in both films by cinematographer Rudolph Maté, who must receive some credit for Lady’s surreal visual effects, including the famous aquarium rendezvous and funhouse climax.)
Charles Vidor, Gilda, 1946, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 110 minutes. Gilda (Rita Hayworth).
Alongside Welles we find fellow canonical directors Max Ophuls (1949’s The Reckless Moment) and Nicholas Ray (1950’s In a Lonely Place) in MoMA’s series, but their films, which I trust will live to be projected another day, aren’t necessarily the chief inducement to head for Fifty-Third Street. The program was organized by Joshua Siegel and Dave Kehr, the former New York Times critic who joined MoMA’s curatorial staff in fall of last year, and it’s the first series that shows the fingerprints of carry-me-out-in-a-box auteurist Kehr, who specializes in distinguishing the individual idiosyncrasies of gigging directors who never had high distinction conferred upon them in their lifetimes. When the notes for the series refer to the “crisp impersonality” of Seymour Friedman’s direction of Chinatown at Midnight (1949), for example, this is not meant as a slander. While Capra famously billed himself as The Name Above the Title, here we have names that were happy enough to appear on the paycheck, though in some cases talent exceeds reputation.
“Lady in the Dark” offers a couple of opportunities to sample the somewhat-less-crisp impersonality of Lew Landers—including Man in the Dark (1953), his eleven-day-wonder 3-D noir—as well the early works of William Castle, known more for later experiments in ballyhoo than his workmanlike direction. (Both Landers and Castle contributed to the film franchise created from CBS radio hit “The Whistler,” a whopping four entries of which are playing MoMA, each starring Richard Dix in a different role.)
Let Us Live (1939) is a good introduction to the work of one undeservedly forgotten director, John Brahm, a German émigré who made several ingenious, somewhat baroque films over the decade to come before shrinking into television. Henry Fonda and Maureen O’Sullivan’s engagement is rudely broken when he goes up for murder charges surrounding a stick-up at a movie house, its flashlight-lit staging one of several conspicuous set pieces. Subsequent events contrive to smother the “Aw, Shucks, Gee Whiz” Fonda character’s faith in the American system, and Let Us Live may have an even more dejected ending than the film it most recalls, Fritz Lang’s 1937 Depression-era downer You Only Live Once. (It should be noted that Lang’s particularly vicious 1953 Glenn Ford vehicle, The Big Heat, is also playing MoMA.) Brahm’s visual invention is only equaled here by Joseph H. Lewis, whose Gun Crazy (1950) would later make him a cult property, and who is represented in “Lady in the Dark” by two early, watershed works: My Name is Julia Ross (1945) is a gothic melodrama that offers kidnapping and brainwashing as a metaphor for marriage, while So Dark the Night, from the following year, is a corker of a mystery set in the French countryside.
Edward Dmytryk, The Sniper, 1952, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.
Lewis’s mature talent is evident in both films, while Oscar Boetticher, Jr. shows little enough promise in 1945’s B-thriller Escape in the Fog. Rechristened as “Budd,” however, Boetticher would later direct a renowned cycle of Westerns for Columbia—if there was, per Thomas Schatz, a genius to the studio system, it was in keeping its workers busy enough to develop their talents. Escape in the Fog, which has Nina Foch and William Wright busting up a ring of Axis spies with the help of clairvoyant visions, was released a few months before V-J Day. The designation film noir is inextricable from the end of the war and, more specifically, its immediate aftermath. This is the setting of John Cromwell’s Dead Reckoning (1947), a curio sodden with tropical showers and unnecessary voice-over which stars Humphrey Bogart as Capt. “Rip” Murdoch, an ex-paratrooper who returns from the European front only to find more insidious enemies in “Gulf City,” a Floridian pastiche. Dead Reckoning seems like an attempt to return to the Gilda well with its mildly exotic setting, gambling tables, and even a musical number for the female lead, here Lizabeth Scott’s femme fatale, which wholly fails to eclipse the memory of Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame.” (The film is an interesting showcase for Scott, she of the extraterrestrially planar features and subterranean-deep line readings.)
One foreign menace vanquished, another rose to take its place, and Columbia, like the rest of Hollywood, got a case of the Red Scare jitters. The results were films like Walk a Crooked Mile (1948), a patently silly piece of Cold War skullduggery done with a bit of dash by Gordon Douglas, who would go on to do a brisk business in anti-Communist fare in the next few years. This stretch was not so kind to Hollywood Ten member Edward Dmytryk, who dutifully named his names and returned from blacklist purgatory to the director’s chair with The Sniper (1952), thanks to the intervention of producer Stanley Kramer, who’d recently entered into an ultimately star-crossed agreement to set up his own production unit at Columbia, which meant much butting heads with Cohn.
Dmytryk had helped to invent the hate-crime noir with Crossfire, his 1947 film about an anti-Semitic killing, and The Sniper seems intended to reproduce the success. The issue examined here, however, is woman-hate—not standard-issue film noir “Can’t trust them dames” woman-hate, as found in Dead Reckoning, but the homicidal rage of Eddie Miller (Arthur Franz), a blue-collar San Francisco man who does target practice on local ladies using his Army issue M1 carbine. The Sniper is held up by the presence of a much-too-old Adolphe Menjou—Dmytryk had to use the blowhard red-baiter as proof of his rehabilitation—and psychiatrist speechifying, but Dmytryk quite effectively plays out his sensationalistic story against an uncommented-on background of everyday misogyny, and the film’s last shot is positively chilling. (’Frisco becomes a gridwork of slashing, perilous diagonals thanks to the great DP Burnett Guffey, who also shot In a Lonely Place and both of the Lewis films, and who may be the secret star of “Lady in the Dark.”) Franz’s all-American psycho proves a vital point as regards the crime thriller: While Nazis and Commies have their place, nothing’s so disturbing as the evil we find at home and within.
“Lady in the Dark: Crime Films from Columbia Pictures, 1932–57” plays July 11–August 4, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Hito Steyerl, How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes.
NOW IN ITS SIXTIETH YEAR, the Flaherty Film Seminar is an annual occupation of the Colgate University campus that gathers around 170 filmmakers, scholars, critics, programmers, artists, and cinephiles in an unlikely, weeklong cohabitation devoted to an exploration of nonfiction filmmaking. Not quite so free-wheeling as a film festival nor quite so focused as an academic conference, the seminar is named for Robert Flaherty, whose own place and stature within the institution of documentary has ebbed and flowed just as documentary practice itself has migrated among different media: from cinema (independent, experimental, and commercial) to television, contemporary art, interactive media, and beyond.
This year’s programmers, the artists Caspar Stracke and Gabriela Monroy, marked this trend in their opening remarks, addressing the increasing incorporation of documentary practice into the art world following Catherine David’s Documenta X in 1997 and Manifesta 5 in 2004, directed by Massimiliano Gioni and Marta Kuzma. Fittingly, two alumni of these events, Johan Grimonprez and Hito Steyerl, initiated the week’s programming with two complementary works: Grimonprez’s Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997), and Steyerl’s In Free Fall (2010). Both works concern hijacking as a trope of midcentury terrorism and political action, and both draw upon similar compulsions, scavenging in the audiovisual junkyard. Grimonprez named his film for the archival process he engaged in when making the film, dialing into history via metadata and keywords, and Steyerl—appearing, appropriately enough, as a Skyped-in image—noted that their films arose on either side of a historical shift in the circulation, even inescapability, of moving images.
With this inescapability in mind, Monroy and Stracke laid out a particular set of concern about the contexts and forms of the moving image, emphasizing in their programming hybrid, essayistic, and collectively made work, including forty films and a half-dozen installations. One persistent theme during the week was the notion of the image as an object to be shaped, collected, and curated by the archivist/artist. Duncan Campbell’s latest film, It for Others, continues his project of collaging archival media, reenactment, and poetic narration, but is still more discursive, polemical, and off-kilter than his earlier work. Departing from Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’s 1953 film Statues Also Die, which critiques an imperialism of objects formed around the European market for African statuary, Campbell’s film constructs a theory of value around the use of images, their extraction, reuse, and recirculation. The Marker and Resnais film, Campbell noted, functions like an artifact in his own film, suggesting the many roles that found or appropriated footage takes on in contemporary cinema: as property, commodity, raw material, or waste product.
Of course, no engagement with found or appropriated media would be complete without addressing the intensification, and even standardization, that digital media and the Internet have afforded in recent years, and here again, Steyerl offered characteristically insightful work. How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (also on view through August 15 at Andrew Kreps Gallery in New York) conflates the imagistic and the human in provocative and playful ways. Here, humanity appears as either a pixel or a nonperson in an architectural rendering, each struggling for recognition. But Steyerl’s work also revels in this anonymization of subjecthood, and the artist herself appears modeling the gestures of digitalization by performing grandiose swipes, pinches, and double-taps, as if operating (or inhabiting) a giant invisible iPad.
If Steyerl’s works are winning mostly in their exuberant play of ideas, Jesse McLean’s works are still more convincing in their rigorous composition and canny balance of irony and sincerity. The Invisible World matches the commodity fetishism of hoarder videos with the artist’s own compilation of science films and Hollywood spectaculars. Both cosmic and colloquial in scope, the work earns its apocalyptic ending through a quiet engagement of the senses. Similarly, in Just Like Us, McLean uses deadpan subtitling to relate the memoir of a former Hollywood body double against images of parking lots and big-box stores. But here again, the once empty posteverything world is mined for surprising emotional resonance, and the insertion of an erotic interlude from Top Gun serves as one part kitsch object and two parts affective release.
The image doubling suggested by McLean’s video was just one instance of many hauntings and correspondences in the program. In one discussion, featured artist Karen Mirza spoke of exorcizing the “ectoplasm of neoliberalism,” but there were more salutary forms of possession, too. Jill Godmilow’s What Farocki Taught (1998), in which she attempts a shot-for-shot remake of the German director’s The Inexhaustible Fire, is a peculiar kind of channeling, once again bringing home the Vietnam War, the manufacture of napalm, and the deep and extensive modes of involvement of a country’s citizens in the atrocities its governments commit.
Flaherty’s ghost, too, is always present at the seminar—often in discussions about representational politics and the ethics of othering—but actually very little in this year’s edition could be described as traditionally anthropological. The closest came in Cao Guimarães’s The Soul of the Bone, which begins reassuringly as a deadpan vérité portrait of Dominguinhos, a seventy-two-year-old cave-dwelling hermit, then veers into psychedelic ethnography, with the old man, wizard-like, summoning a ring of fire and strumming an eerie Jandek-like dirge on a detuned guitar. Situated in a program alongside Patiño’s In Landscape’s Movement, an HD upgrade of Caspar David Friedrich, Guimarães’s film inspired conversations about images of Man in Nature, but there’s something more anthropocenic about Guimarães’s dense, fragmented images, which find Dominguinhos collecting rainwater in Coke bottles, using the ends of plastic bottles as finger-bowls, and expounding visions to gawking tourists arriving by bus.
Still more works effected a certain polyphony by means of collaboration, splintered perspectives, and hybrid authorships. All of Eric Baudelaire’s films serve as correspondences—often literal ones—between the filmmaker and his collaborators, giving his work a wayward epistolary form. In Letters to Max, a new work previewed here in a presentation with brief excerpts, Baudelaire engages in a sustained correspondence with the ambassador of Abkhazia, a country on the Black Sea that, without official statehood, effectively does not exist. Three of the featured artists were explicit partnerships, such as Brad Butler and Karen Mirza of the organization no.w.here. Their project The Museum of Non-Participation suggests a degree of institutional critique in their work, but also a desire to engage beyond such circuits, forming new networks and ley lines from Karachi to Zuccotti Park to Tahrir to Bethnal Green. With its dizzying mixture of textures and media—film and video, performance, writing, and curation—their work seems more the result of their participatory practice than of a particular formal program. Indeed, Deep State, a collaboration among Mirza, Butler, the writer China Miéville, and many others—a history of revolutionary struggle from Occupy into the distant future—is formally and tonally all over the place, but the obvious collective fever in which the film was made seems more its point than its crazed hybrid construction.
By contrast, the works of Raqs Media Collective (here represented by Shuddhabrata Sengupta, but also including Monica Narula and Jeebesh Bagchi) suggest a more coherent aesthetic program—for better or worse. The Capital of Accumulation, an oblique, unstable diptych compiling Rosa Luxembourg’s missing body, talking animals, and a forensic analysis of global capital, suggests a consistent compositional logic at work: the structure of accumulation itself as an organizing principle, often overwhelming and exhausting the viewer with logorrheic overload. If this proved frustrating for the Flaherty audience, there was perhaps a lesson about accumulation nonetheless: Saturation is a process of accumulation whereby nothing ultimately is retained.
The work of the collaborative studio CAMP, represented here by Shaina Anand, seems by comparison to strive for a much tidier organizational logic. Rather than modeling accumulation, From Gulf to Gulf to Gulf opts for seriality and the structural logic of the supply chain, mapping images sourced from the cellphones and Bluetooth networks of sailors and traders navigating the “free trade zone” from India to Dubai to Somalia and back. In all their work, CAMP’s response to the ubiquity of images seems first to be concerned with their origin and circulation beyond the commodities market. In The Neighbor Before the House (2009–12), eight evicted Palestinian families in various neighborhoods in the city of Jerusalem/Al-Quds are given access to CCTV cameras so that they can spy on the Jewish settlers currently occupying their homes. The result is, perhaps inevitably, an unnerving exploration of issues of surveillance, control, and the position of the camera, but there’s something comforting about the film, too: As kids yell orders to “zoom in!” and family members fill in details of local history, the project becomes a kind of joyous collective imagemaking.
The sixtieth Flaherty Film Seminar ran June 14–20, 2014, at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York.
YVE SAINT LAURENT, who died in 2008, has already been the subject of three documentaries. David Teboul’s diptych from 2002 consists of the straightforward biography Yves Saint Laurent: His Life and Times and the trancelike Yves Saint Laurent: 5, Avenue Marceau 75116 Paris, which features the unwell designer in his atelier as he oversees the creation of one of his last collections. Pierre Thorreton’s L’Amour fou (2011) traces the eminent courtier’s fifty-year relationship with Pierre Bergé, who was, at various times, YSL’s lover, business partner, caretaker, and protector (and often all four at once), and who is the film’s primary interlocutor. Reviewing the decorous L’Amour fou for this column, I noted the emphasis on the noun in the title at the expense of its modifier: “There’s plenty of love in Thorreton’s documentary—it just needs more crazy.” Jalil Lespert’s biopic Yves Saint Laurent attempts to address the extremes of Bergé’s sexual and emotional life with YSL—a top-bottom, push-pull dynamic brought on, in part, by the designer’s infidelities, fragility, and prodigious substance abuse. Yet these episodes are staged with a dutiful, dull, never-too-undainty pageantry, a symptom of this trivial film’s unadventurousness.
As it happens, Lespert’s project is the first of two dramatizations of the designer’s life to come out this year; Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, which I haven’t seen but eagerly anticipate, premiered last month in competition at Cannes, where it was picked up for US distribution. (There’s a precedent for this weird synchronicity of dueling haute-couture docudramas: In 2009, both Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, the latter more execrable than the former, opened in France.) But only Lespert’s film, like Thorreton’s before it, was made with the cooperation of Bergé, who, as head of the Saint Laurent Foundation, lent the production several original costumes.
It is not Yves Saint Laurent’s sole instance of borrowing. Though the film concentrates on a two-decade period—between 1957, when YSL (played by Pierre Niney, a near carbon copy with his odd, lanky beauty), then twenty-one, became the head of Dior and met Bergé (Guillaume Galliene), and 1976, the year that both the fashion icon’s cocaine-corrupted body and his romantic relationship with his helpmeet were beginning to fall apart—it also has an unfortunate framing device lifted from L’Amour fou. Thorreton’s doc has as its throughline the 2009 auction of the astonishing art collection the two men amassed; Lespert’s movie uses the preparations for this event as an occasion for Bergé/Galliene, now in septuagenarian drag, to narrate intermittently in voice-over, mawkishly addressing his beloved directly: “You had the stuff of genius. Me, I knew how to accompany you.”
YSL’s brilliance with design, cut, and fabric is rarely shown, save for the courtier’s adjusting a sash just so in an early scene, or propitiously pulling down and flipping through a Mondrian catalogue. After the designer’s signature 1965 mod dresses inspired by the De Stijl artist are shown being modeled at a photo shoot for a few seconds, Bergé’s reminiscing becomes even more extraneous: “Your Mondrian collection was pure genius.” Like off-the-rack clothing, this study of a remarkable talent and relationship follows standard patterns.
IN OUR ERA OF HASHTAG FEMINISM, few chronicles of the movement’s second wave remain as bracing as the restless documentary Town Bloody Hall by direct-cinema stalwarts D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. A record of the “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” held on April 30, 1971, in Manhattan’s Town Hall, a venerable performance venue on West Forty-Third Street, the event was sponsored by the Theatre for Ideas, which New York magazine hailed in 1969 as “the forum for [the city’s] intellectual elite.” Occasioning this colloquy was the appearance, in the March 1971 issue of Harper’s, of Norman Mailer’s incendiary essay “The Prisoner of Sex,” his reply to the drubbing he got by Kate Millett in her landmark feminist treatise Sexual Politics (1970).
Mailer, in suit jacket and striped tie, moderates the symposium, alternately provoking further outrage from, flirting with, or railing against the four panelists (and/or the audience), who speak in alphabetical order: Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York chapter of NOW; Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch (1970); Jill Johnston, cultural critic for the Village Voice; and Diana Trilling, literary-critic doyenne. (Conspicuous by her absence, Millett is mentioned throughout the evening. The same year that Town Bloody Hall was shot, Millett released her own documentary Three Lives, a triptych of autobiographical accounts by women.) True to the name of the event’s promoting institution, the conversation demonstrates both theater and ideas, with the former more in evidence, whether onstage or among the literati-glutted attendees. Preemptively declaring that NOW “is considered the square organization of women’s liberation,” Ceballos delivers a vanilla speech that is significantly enlivened when spectator Gregory Corso storms out, yelling, “All of humanity! Not just half of humanity!”
Discord also erupts among the panelists. Matronly Trilling upbraids Greer, who had earlier swaggered to the rostrum resplendent in boa and feminist-fist pendant, for her misreading of Freud in The Female Eunuch. The Australian writer—whose exasperated utterance supplies the film with its title, and who appeared a week after this symposium on the cover of Life, which called her the “saucy feminist that even men like”—tartly halts the rebuke with this declaration: “One of the characteristics of oppressed people is that they fight among themselves.”
Or sometimes love: The highlight of Town Bloody Hall—and a defining moment of sapphic sabotage—occurs when Johnston, whose free-associative manifesto begins, “All women are lesbians except those who don’t know it yet,” is joined onstage by two ardent female admirers, this threesome soon collapsing onto the platform in a tangle of groping limbs. The spontaneous same-sex make-out session also prompts Mailer’s best line of the night: “Hey, you know, it’s great you paid twenty-five bucks to see three dirty overalls on the floor when you could see lots of cock and cunt for four dollars just down the street.” Simultaneously twitchy, abusive, arrogant, and self-deprecating, the moderator constantly bears out this tart description found in a 1961 essay by James Baldwin, relaying what the black musicians worshiped by Mailer said of him: “They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic.” Yet this turbulence isn’t limited to just the hectoring, curly-headed MC; the entire debate at Town Hall is defined by a manic, stimulating energy—the kind that’s hard to replicate via Twitter wars.
Town Bloody Hall screens on Saturday, June 21, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series “Flaherty at MoMA: Turning the Inside Out.”
BASED SOLELY on its intro and outro, the sixth edition of BAMcinemaFest, New York City’s signature summertime film event, could easily be declared the best yet. Though vastly different, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which opens the festival, and Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which closes it, are the perfect bookends, each movie, whether deliberately or not, a profound reflection on the meaning of time. Linklater’s remarkable fiction project (eloquently assessed by Amy Taubin in the current issue of Artforum) was made over the course of twelve years, following the development of Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, who was six years old when shooting began in 2002, from first grader to incoming college first-year at UT Austin. Witnessing Coltrane and his character transform from tyke to budding man in less than three hours is a singularly moving experience; I can only hope that Linklater and his lead actor return to this compressed longitudinal-study format for a second installment, in which we trace Mason’s growth from voting age to thirty.
Twenty-five years have passed since Lee’s film, shot almost entirely on location on one block in Bed-Stuy and spanning roughly twenty-four hours, opened in the US. Celebrating the silver jubilee of this effulgent, electrifying movie, one of the most essential ever made about New York, inevitably invites reflecting on how much the city, especially Brooklyn, has changed from the final year of Ed Koch’s mayoralty to the first of Bill de Blasio’s. (Not to mention the arc of the writer/director/star/producer’s career: The commemorative screening of Do the Right Thing on June 29 both concludes the festival and kicks off BAMcinématek’s Lee retrospective, which runs until July 10.)
In between these superlative films are twenty-some feature-length works, two featurettes—including another excellent rep offering, Manfred Kirchheimer’s little-seen Stations of the Elevated (1981), a hypnotic chronicle of graffiti-festooned subway exteriors and other signs and symbols specific to late-1970s Gotham—and a handful of shorts, most made by emerging directors in American independent cinema. It would be scandalously unfair to expect the efforts of neophyte filmmakers to even begin to approach the monumentality of Linklater’s or Lee’s (or even Kirchheimer’s) projects, though I don’t think it’s too outlandish to ask that a movie endure in the memory longer than the fifteen minutes it takes to walk from BAM to my apartment.
Many titles in BAMcinemaFest did not withstand this low-bar test of time, but several others did. Of the comedies on view, none offered as much consistently inspired silliness as Madeleine Olnek’s The Foxy Merkins. Olnek’s second feature, much like its predecessor, Codependent Lesbian Space Alien Seeks Same (2011), is a lo-fi divertissement that proves to be more than just a jokey title. Both also feature Lisa Haas, whose bulk and sartorial choices suggest Andrea Dworkin—making it all the more pleasingly incongruous that her Merkins character, Margaret, should be a dyke hooker, advised to solicit clients outside Talbots by her friend in the sapphic skin trade, Jo (Jackie Monahan, another Space Alien vet who shares Merkins co-writing credit with Olnek and Haas). Merkins sends up both male-hustler movies (Midnight Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho in particular) and the upscale, conservative daughters of Gomorrah with unerring goofiness.
Shot on Super 16, Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan’s For the Plasma has the distinction of being the festival’s lone world premiere and its most beguiling, unclassifiable entry. Quarter-lifer Helen (Rosalie Lowe) summons her friend—if that’s the right word—Charlie (Annabelle Lemieux) to assist her with some mysterious research involving data provided by CCTV cameras in the woods of an arcadian small fishing village in Maine. “How long have you been doing this?” the newcomer asks the pro, who responds, “A week or a year—makes no difference.” The reply typifies the seductive strangeness and arbitrariness of the plot: Most of Helen and Charlie’s conversations are delivered with zero affect until a raging blowup between the two occurs late one night, never to be acknowledged afterward. For the Plasma is a modest project of big ideas: about solitude, collaboration, conspiracy, magical thinking.
Another filmmaking duo, Lev Kalman and Whitney Horn, also tracks big-brained twenty-somethings in idyllic spots—this time, around the globe—in their delightful L for Leisure. Set during 1992 and ’93 and beautifully shot on 16 mm, this achronological account of a group of graduate students during school-year downtime was clearly made under the sign of Whit Stillman and Éric Rohmer, but the film wears its influences lightly. Similarly, the period details—the Capri Sun pouches, the absurd height of all waistbands for both male and female attire, the flyers for the campus “AIDS dance”—are exact without ever becoming fussy, all the more impressive when considering that this ludic time capsule was made by directors who were only ten and eleven during the years depicted. Like Boyhood and Do the Right Thing, L for Leisure invites us to look back while pointing the way ahead.
The sixth annual BAMcinemaFest runs June 18 through 29 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
Lav Diaz, Century of Birthing, 2011, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 360 minutes.
NORTE, THE END OF HISTORY (2013) tells a Filipino tale. The film begins on the northern Philippine island of Luzon with a disillusioned former law student, Fabian Viduya (Sid Lucero), espousing to friends his “new morality,” according to which a society rebuilds itself by extinguishing its undesirables. For Fabian, these dregs include a local usurer and her daughter, both of whom he soon stabs to death. Joaquin (Archie Alemania), an impoverished DVD salesman, is framed and imprisoned for the crime, leaving his wife Eliza (Angeli Bayani) and sister-in-law Ading (Hazel Orencio) behind to raise their children without him. In time, Fabian comes to watch this broken family from a distance and consider whether and how he can—or should—help them.
The moral conflict propelling the remainder of Norte (reviewed by James Quandt for Artforum’s April 2014 issue) keeps with the career-long approach of its maker, Lav Diaz, whose films flow from life experience. His own parents were rural people not unlike Joaquin and Eliza. Fabian’s character loosely overlaps with that of the real-life dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who terrorized the Philippines during a sixteen-year period of martial law (1971–1987), through which the fifty-five-year-old Diaz and his family lived.
Norte, which was shot in the area where Marcos grew up, will be opening for a weeklong run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on June 20. Diaz’s official twelfth feature is his first to receive US commercial distribution, thanks to the Cinema Guild. Fewer than half his works have screened publicly in New York, a delinquency that Lincoln Center will address with Norte’s accompanying retrospective, “Time Regained: The Films of Lav Diaz.” The seven-film series has been scheduled with large gaps between screenings, highlighting the importance that Diaz’s films place on the interplay between immersion and breathing space: Following the June 22 showing of his mysterious, delicate epic Melancholia (2008), the films will appear through February 2015 at a rate of no more than one per month.
Lav Diaz, Death in the Land of Encantos, 2007, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 540 minutes.
Norte is Diaz’s most popular film to date, an honor assured since its world premiere in Cannes last year. More so than any of his prior great works, it embraces a vocabulary of conventional narrative filmmaking, with Diaz and mainstream cinematographer Larry Manda creating rich CinemaScope frames full of tracking shots across colorful, glistening sunlit fields. However, as Diaz has said, “Color is deceptive.” The gorgeous land his film depicts produced his nation’s greatest monster.
Diaz has produced his films independently since frustrations with his country’s studio system helped him to go his own way in the early 2000s. He invariably begins shaping them around their chief locations, all Philippine save for the Jersey City nest of Filipino immigrants in 2001’s Batang West Side (screening October 19). Norte’s sleek look differs from his typical approach, in which he photographs the sites himself at a distance in black-and-white with a small, handheld digital camera. His strong and often beautiful aesthetic choices help to mark the action as allegorical, with the landscapes reflecting human psychology.
A frequent Diaz shot consists of a person or small group crossing a stretch of road in its entirety, emphasizing the labor involved in the characters’ journey. For instance, Melancholia’s three leads wander disguised through the barren streets of the small Philippine town of Sagada, motivated by the hope that the area’s endless rain will wash away their memories of dead loved ones. Their journey evokes another taken by a trio of childhood friends through their typhoon-ruined hometown in 2007’s Death in the Land of Encantos (screening August 24). In both films, the characters roam in search of ways to find peace with themselves.
Diaz is less interested in misery than in survival, a theme that his work best registers over time. Many of his films are long by traditional standards—Norte runs just over four hours, and each film in the retrospective comes in between five and eleven. He has also made stunning works ranging from eight minutes in length to eighty, and stages similarly universal stories across the films regardless of their scale. Diaz places his central figures in difficult circumstances to reveal their creativity and strength, while mobilizing haunted witnesses around them who serve both as foils to the action and as his own, self-critical mouthpieces. Perhaps none is more overt than the filmmaker Homer (Perry Dizon) in 2011’s Century of Birthing (screening September 21), who yearns to make art that can speak for his people.
Yet, as with Dostoyevsky—a writer whose work has been formative for Diaz—all the films’ characters give voice to their maker’s concerns. The weary police detective longing for the Philippines during his American self-exile in Batang West Side; the scarred young woman committed to preserving her life story for her daughter’s sake in 2012’s Florentina Hubaldo, CTE (screening November 30); and the nomad seeking a purpose in 2006’s Heremias (Book One: The Legend of the Lizard Princess) (screening December 21) are just three examples of figures embodying struggles that Diaz has felt, believes that others feel, and hopes to share. They are—as Gilles Deleuze once described Dostoyevsky’s people—“engaged in impossible situations” that form the facts of life.
And regarding the series’ closing film, 2005’s Evolution of a Filipino Family (screening January 24 and 25, 2015), I will say only this: It’s worth the wait.