All Relative


Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, The Forbidden Room, 2015, color, sound, 130 minutes.

WITH NEW FILMS from Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Terrence Malick, Guy Maddin, Peter Greenaway, Margarethe von Trotta, and brand new documentaries on Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Jia Zhang-ke, it would seem that one of the central theses of the sixty-fifth edition of the Berlin International Film Festival is that auteur filmmaking is far from dead. Of course, a close look reveals that some of these filmmaking giants are in better form than others. What’s more, the numerous glances into the margins afforded by the festival’s megalithic program—with several hundred films from all over the globe on offer—reveals that many of today’s and tomorrow’s visionaries are neither coming from nor going to predictable places.

It has traditionally been the Berlinale’s Forum section that illuminates those margins. It is therefore fitting that one of its openers was The Forbidden Room, codirected by Maddin and Evan Johnson. Hilarious, absurd, and lots of fun throughout its 130 minutes, The Forbidden Room is a cinephile’s wettest dream, employing a surrealist collage technique to mash up reconstructions of lost D-movie would-be cult classics.

Another Forum highlight thus far has been Seashore—also a collaboration between two directors, Filipe Matzembacher and Marcio Reolon. Seashore’s subtlety marks a decidedly different kind of filmmaking from the wildness of The Forbidden Room: Studious close-ups and long takes relay the story of two teenage friends traveling alone to a family holiday home to carry out a piece of unpleasant business on behalf of one’s father. The filmmakers’ reliance on the visual aspects of cinema, rather than traditional narrative pursuits like intricate plotting, means that much is left out. Yet this only adds to the film’s underlying psychological realism and the tension between the two main characters, one that finally resolves in sexual climax.

Relationship tensions—i.e., love stories—recur more often as a theme in the Berlinale’s main competition. Typical of this is 45 Years from Andrew Haigh, a director obsessed with romantic relationships in all their phases. Known for his depiction of an extended gay hook-up, the 2011 indie sleeper hit Weekend, and the HBO series Looking, Haigh this time turns his gaze on aged hetero couple Kate and Geoff (played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay). The couple are on the verge of celebrating their forty-fifth anniversary when Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his first love, who tragically fell to her death into a snowy lake some fifty years prior, has been recovered frozen in ice and perfectly preserved. This news throws both of them into a state—for Geoff one of obsessive nostalgia, for Kate one of intense jealousy—yet all comes together in a too-precious climax. While deploying considerable restraint in displaying his characters’ psychological complexity, 45 Years is perhaps too rote an instance of British social-realist filmmaking.

To be fair, Haigh’s film is no disappointment when measured next to Queen of the Desert, a tragic instance of a legendary director’s collaboration with Hollywood. Of course, you would be excused for not recognizing it as a Herzog film; none of the director’s stylistic tics are visible. Instead, we are treated to a biopic/love story about Gertrude Bell (Nicole Kidman), a British explorer of the Middle East who became one of the West’s earliest experts of the area, known as the “female Lawrence of Arabia.” Revealing how uncertain he is with his material, Herzog reverts to melodrama, producing what may be the twenty-first century’s first major cinematic example of high camp.

On the other hand, Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups showed what a film made within the Hollywood system—and even about the Hollywood system—looks like when held to an idiosyncratic director’s own terms. While I intensely disliked his previous two films Tree of Life and To the WonderKnight of Cups demonstrates an apotheosis of his new style. It uses similar devices—a constantly moving camera and a soundscaped collage of voices and music—as it follows its successful screenwriter protagonist (Christian Bale) through a Hollywood wastescape, detached from—nay, dead to—all the tragedies and absurdities surrounding him. A rare and eloquent example of poetry on screen, Knight of Cups’s greatness was further evidenced by the numerous walkouts during the press screening as well as the shouts of derision at the closing credits.

Travis Jeppesen

The sixty-fifth Berlin International Film Festival runs February 5–15.

Gregory La Cava, Stage Door, 1937, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 92 minutes.

WISECRACKS RICOCHET at breakneck speed at the Footlights Club, the women-only theatrical boardinghouse in Midtown Manhattan that is the center of Gregory La Cava’s brilliant sober comedy Stage Door (1937). (A typical exchange: “Is the show closing?” “Like a tired clam.”) During many of his productions, La Cava, whose screwball paradigm My Man Godfrey was released the year before, drove studio heads nuts, pledging no fealty to the script and often encouraging overlapping dialogue and improvisation; Stage Door was no exception to this practice. Based, if only marginally so, on the 1936 play of the same name by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman (the latter of whom carped that La Cava’s adaptation, bearing little resemblance to the source material, should have been called “Screen Door”), Stage Door crackles with zingers ad-libbed by a cast that includes Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Eve Arden, and Lucille Ball.

That La Cava incorporated into Stage Door’s script (which was written by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller) the banter that his actresses—some of the finest comic talents of the era—shared during the film’s rehearsals only enhances the verbal pyrotechnics. The movie’s distaff ensemble provides not only a trove of 1930s slang, show-biz argot, and one-upping insults but also an invaluable lesson in sentence rhythm, as when the more seasoned housemates instruct a newbie on where the stress should fall in her sole line in her stage debut: “Let’s go UP to Westchester.”

Beyond the film’s deep empathy for this passel of aspiring but all too often dispirited performers—the Footlighters commiserate over demoralizing roles, sleazy agents, and the slop served in the dining hall—Stage Door scrutinizes class clash, a specialty of La Cava’s. Here the director pits Rogers, whose various shopgirl and assembly-line-worker roles gave her a kind of prole glamour, against Hepburn, a real-life Connecticut Brahmin. Playing world-weary hoofer Jean Maitland, Rogers—along with other Footlights tenants who often have trouble coming up with the thirteen-dollar weekly rent—ruthlessly mocks the lockjaw enunciation of her new roommate, Hepburn’s Terry Randall. The scioness (her father is the “wheat king” of the Midwest) tries to pass as a nobody, forswearing Dad’s dollars—but making no attempt to hide her ermine-coat-stuffed steamer trunks or curtail her habit of quoting Shakespeare. Yet Terry proves just as quick-witted as her cash-strapped housemates, calling Jean out for “that insolence generated by an inferior upbringing.”

The incognito aristo’s ease with ripostes—and her willingness to stand up to a thoughtless producer on behalf of her sistren—earn her the begrudging respect of some Footlighters. But Terry will become suspect once again when she, a neophyte, lands the lead in a play called Enchanted April, a part desperately wanted by Kay (Andrea Leeds), a beloved housemate who, buffeted by the vagaries of the profession, is slowly slipping into madness. A tragic incident leads Terry to cry in her dressing room on opening night, “Does someone have to die to create an actress?” Uncannily, the line echoes another I had read—in an ingenious article by George Toles about David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive that ran in the fall 2004 issue of Film Quarterly—just the night before I revisited Stage Door: “The only earthly identity that might be strong enough to undo death is that of an actress on the verge of stardom.” Made sixty-four years apart, La Cava’s film and Lynch’s are highly dissimilar in style and sensibility. But they share a star—Ann Miller, who was only a teenager in Stage Door and who made her final screen appearance in Mulholland Drive—and a boundless compassion for women in the cruelest of vocations.

Melissa Anderson

Stage Door screens February 18–20 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York as part of the series “Acteurism: Ginger Rogers,” which runs through March 27.

John Carpenter, Big Trouble in Little China, 1986, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes. Gracie Law and Jack Burton (Kim Cattrall and Kurt Russell).

IN TRYING TO PINPOINT what made John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween a cultural flashpoint, you’ll hit a wall if you’re just looking at the subject matter. Knife-wielding psychos were not unknown to cinema since well before, say, Hitchcock’s Psycho—to which the film owes a certain debt. What Halloween has (and Carpenter’s 1976 Assault on Precinct 13, too) is a very particular combination of flourish and minimalism—that is to say, it’s a matter of style.

The flourish is in the insidious stalking Steadicam, the fact that, as perspicacious Village Voice critic Tom Allen observed, the film “owes more to the expressive possibilities raised by Vincente Minnelli in the Halloween sequence of Meet Me in St. Louis than to any films in the realistic school.” The minimalism in the neutral, clay-colored mask of Michael Myers, the eerie calmness with which Myers observes his would-be victims (Carpenter took the effect from Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents, and used it again in his 1987 Prince of Darkness), and of course that theme music, a brittle cluster of notes played in 5/4 time over an anxious, tinny tick. Carpenter wrote the theme and performed it himself, along with much of the rest of the sound track, on a Moog III synthesizer. He has to date directed eighteen theatrically released feature films, having commanded a firm grip on the pop imagination with works like Escape from New York (1981), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and They Live (1988), then gradually losing his audience, if never his touch. Carpenter made music for all but three of his films, and if he hadn’t directed any of them, he would still be a crucial figure in film history for his contributions to the art of the sound track.

Carpenter’s most recent film, The Ward (2010), was treated to an undeservedly chilly reception, and he now seems content to spend a semiretirement in marathon video-gaming sessions and convention appearances. Though perhaps done with moviemaking altogether, as of February 3 he has a new album, Lost Themes, out on the Brooklyn-based label Sacred Bones, and this is the occasion for a complete retrospective of Carpenter’s films at BAMcinématek. (A personal appearance was canceled, but will hopefully be rescheduled.) The sound-track-without-a-film is a phenomenon that has ramped up in recent years. Sacred Bones has released work from another polymath auteur, David Lynch’s The Air is On Fire and The Big Dream, while groups like Pittsburgh’s Zombi (named for a Lucio Fulci film) specialize in invoking the work of Italian sound track composers like Fabio Frizzi, Riz Ortolani, and Goblin, the last of which is best known for the heavy-breathing “La la la” theme in Dario Argento’s Suspiria.

Carpenter broke out as a director while the synthesizer was still being established as a sound track instrument, though electronic scores were then nothing new—Dimitri Tiomkin had used a theremin in his score for Howard Hawks’s The Thing from Another World, which Carpenter would freely remake in 1982, while Forbidden Planet (1956) was scored entirely by Louis and Bebe Barron, formerly collaborators with John Cage. (Forbidden Planet will play BAMcinématek in a “Carpenter Selects” sidebar, along with William Friedkin’s 1977 Sorcerer, sound tracked by the pioneering Berlin electronic group Tangerine Dream.) The Moog, the first commercially available synth, had gone on the market ten years before SorcererBernard Herrmann had used one to score Brian De Palma’s Sisters in 1973—and the synth gained ground in film scoring through the 1970s. In 1978, the year of Halloween, Italo-German Giorgio Moroder, who’d already recorded hits under his own name and for Donna Summer, composed the breakout sound track to Alan Parker’s Midnight Express. The contrasting styles of Carpenter and Moroder—Carpenter skeletal, sinister, pared-down; Moroder driving, danceable, brawny—defined the twin poles of electronic scoring for years to come.

Left: Cover of John Carpenter's Lost Themes (2015). Right: John Carpenter, Halloween, 1978, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes.

Carpenter had learned the 5/4 time signature he used on the Halloween score from his father, Howard Ralph Carpenter, a music professor who taught at the university in Bowling Green, Kentucky, where Carpenter was raised. The sound track is credited, facetiously, to the “Bowling Green Philharmonic Orchestra,” though it’s really just Carpenter and Dr. Dan Wyman, a professor of film scoring at San Jose State University whom Carpenter had met when he was in the film program at the University of Southern California, and who programmed the Moog for Carpenter starting with Assault on Precinct 13. That film’s fuzzy tattoo of notes punched over a nattering metronomic click-clack presaged their work on Halloween, while their next collaboration, on The Fog (1980), a rising tide of apocalyptic premonition, looked toward future studies in Armageddon.

From Escape from New York on, another collaborator helped to shape the music of Carpenter’s 1980s output. This was Alan Howarth, a Clevelander who’d gigged around in prog/jazz-fusion/cock-rock circles through the ’70s before breaking into Hollywood, doing sound effects work on sci-fi movies like Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). It can’t be overstated that the music of Carpenter’s films isn’t limited to the score, but is also in the musique concrete soundscapes: the breaking glass in Precinct 13; the under-the-hood growl in killer-car classic Christine (1983); the ambient rumble in Prince of Darkness. Perhaps the strangest relic of Carpenter’s ’80s is a music video for the Big Trouble in Little China theme, credited to “John Carpenter’s Coup de Villes,” which has the director seated at a Moviola console, plunking a Paul McCartney Höfner 500, and doing his best Jim Morrison croon while menaced by the film’s Fu Manchu–esque villain, Lo Pan. Big Trouble… was a big-budget attempt to establish Carpenter on a Spielberg/Lucas level, though it’s a far more sympathetic reckoning with Hollywood’s history of exoticism than any Indiana Jones adventure. The bluff bravado and cluelessness of its white “hero” (Kurt Russell, impersonating John Wayne) is played up for laughs, while it’s one of the only American movies of the period in dialogue with what was then happening in Hong Kong action. Naturally, it failed to break even.

Though Carpenter worked happily within the constraints of popular genres, it was increasingly clear that he was consigned to be a cult director—a fact reflected in the odd contortions of his career through the 1990s. During these years Carpenter’s key musical collaborator was Kinks guitarist Dave Davies: Village of the Damned (1995) isn’t up to the level of their mesmeric and martial “March of the Children,” though In the Mouth of Madness (1994) is the most perfect (and overt) expression of the director’s career-long conversation with the weird tales of H. P. Lovecraft. (As in Prince of Darkness, which Carpenter wrote under a pseudonym, the film gains a great deal from a sense of conviction—you get the feeling Carpenter actually believes in ancient evil active in the modern world.) Carpenter next teamed with Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn of Booker T. & the MGs to lay down the bluesy swagger that backs John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998), a soundtrack that picks up where that of They Live left off. Vampires is the movie in which Carpenter’s often-verging-on-parody machismo turns plain ugly—a profane splatterfest, it seems an attempt to out-Tarantino Tarantino, a zero-sum game if ever there was one. And while Ghosts of Mars (2001), set in a matriarchy-run future, was a high-concept return to form, the box-office receipts failed to reflect this fact. The Ward showed Carpenter’s attention to the pleasures of ensemble acting undiminished, but he hasn’t worked on as large a scale since.

This brings us to Lost Themes, sixty-seven-year-old Carpenter’s first standalone, non–sound track album, born out of improvisations with Davies’s son, Daniel, and Carpenter’s own son, Cody, who records under the name Ludrium. It’s made up of nine tracks with sinister single-word titles—“Mystery,” “Abyss,” “Night”—and six remixes by the likes of Zola Jesus and J. G. Thirlwell. “Vortex” is night-prowl music, sleek, virile drive broken up by introspective passages; the eight-and-a-half-minute “Obsidian” combines pounding, full-throttle runs with lulls of lunar calm; “Fallen” builds to a magisterial, triumph-of-death quality; “Wraith” is the sinister glisten from an unknown object in the dark of space; “Purgatory” begins as a slow stroll through a world reduced to ash, then erupts into anthemic strut. Without a narrative arc to work around, Carpenter tends too much toward closing-credits culmination—the album is altogether too heavy on climax, lacking in the incipient or coaxing gesture. Per Carpenter, these are sound tracks “for the movies that are playing in your mind,” and this is the cold comfort that Lost Themes offers. If there isn’t a “next” Carpenter film to look forward to, at least you can imagine what it might be.

Nick Pinkerton

John Carpenter: Master of Fear” runs February 5–22 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. Lost Themes is now available from Sacred Bones Records.

Kathleen Collins, Losing Ground, 1982, 35 mm, color, sound, 86 minutes.

“B.C. PICTURES and five other major studios announced mainly through the columns that they were not planning to produce any more Black Pictures. There are a few in production, they will be finished. ‘It was discovered that as many ‘Blacks’ went to see Jaws as went to see Sounder?’ […] The industry will of course continue its effort to integrate what has unfortunately been referred to as the white film until an acceptable racial balance has been achieved to the satisfaction of the community at large. ‘In other words, we’re out of work,’ I said.”

This comes from Rhinestone Sharecropping, a 1981 roman à clef exorcizing the creative frustration of the unclassifiable multihyphenate artist Bill Gunn, who’d seen the studio gates shut in his face, and is a fair assessment of “the Biz” after a brief experiment in studio-financed Black Pictures ended. But film history isn’t entirely written with studio money, and some recent repertory programs have been filling in the lacuna. The touring “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” originated by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, showcased the work of the artistically ambitious black filmmakers, both African-born and African-American, who emerged from the UCLA film school from the late 1960s to the 1980s. Now, covering approximately the same period on the East Coast, we have “Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986,” comprising twenty-four individual programs, including features and packaged shorts, beginning today at Film Society of Lincoln Center.

“Tell It Like It Is” opens with a screening of Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground, which will be preceded on opening night by comments from New York City first lady Chirlane McCray, and will stay on at Lincoln Center for a weeklong theatrical run, its first and only official release since being completed in 1982. (The movie comes courtesy of Milestone Films, which had a considerable hit with its long-belated release of LA Rebellion figure Charles Burnett’s 1978 Killer of Sheep.)

The only feature completed by Collins, Losing Ground observes the widening of an emotional breach between a middle-class couple. Sarah (Seret Scott) is a philosophy professor; her husband, Victor (Gunn), a painter and larger-than-life raconteur who prods her to move upstate for the summer so he can work en plein air. While she’s a tightly wound black bluestocking, researching a paper on “ecstatic experience,” he’s a committed bohemian who researches in the arms of a Puerto Rican girl (Maritza Rivera). This leaves Sarah open to the charms of a suave actor (Night of the Living Dead’s Duane Jones) who she winds up acting opposite when, with uncharacteristic impetuousness, she decides to appear in one of her students’ thesis films, described as an “archetypal interpretation of the Frankie and Johnny myth.” The film is a silent “musical,” danced in the language of shim-sham and cakewalk by Scott and Jones, who also gets to mouth one of the finest pick-up lines in all of cinema: “Christianity has had a devastating effect on man as an intuitive creature, don’t you think?” Collins, a film professor at City College of New York, left a small but distinguished legacy when she died at age forty-six in 1988—her fifty-four-minute The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980), which shows her and DP Ronald K. Gray beginning experiments with subjective camerawork that they’ll continue in Losing Ground, will also have a revival.

Religious ecstasy, the effect of Christianity on intuitive man, and the interplay between folkloric and philosophic Euro-African influences are all at play in another film featuring both Gunn and Jones which can be seen at FSLC, Ganja & Hess (1973), an utterly original vampire film which Gunn wrote and directed. Gunn had broken into studio filmmaking directing the unreleased Stop and scripting Hal Ashby’s The Landlord (both 1970), then spent the remainder of his creative career spiraling further and further out into his own different-drummer creative orbit. Extracts from the Gunn-directed television experiment Personal Problems (1980) will also screen. Scripted by the novelist Ishmael Reed, Personal Problems has for lack of a better description been dubbed a “soap opera,” but what I’ve seen is nearer to Cassavetes than The Young and the Restless, a showcase for Gunn’s idiosyncratic compositional eye and loose, rangy, tumultuous ensemble performances. (The night before the opening of “Tell It Like It Is,” Reed will appear at Maysles Cinema in Harlem to present his short film The Only Language She Knows.)

Left: Camille Billops and James Hatch, Suzanne Suzanne, 1982, sound, 30 minutes. Right: Ayoka Chenzira, SYVILLA: They Dance to her Drum, 1979, sound, 15 minutes.

In Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, a prick from an ancient African ceremonial dagger activates an atavistic bloodlust in Jones’s imperious Dr. Hess, who eventually destroys himself after attending a raucous service at the church where his chauffeur acts as minister. (The almost documentary quality of the church scenes contrasts with the sensual, baroque atmospherics that Gunn develops elsewhere.) The central role of the church, for good or ill, is on display throughout works in “Tell It Like It Is”—One Last Look (1969), a sixty-minute film made by Charles Hobson for New York’s WABC-TV from a play by Steve Carver, is largely shot from a behind-the-pulpit POV. Hobson’s film concerns two families—one official, the other illegitimate—gathered to grieve their dead patriarch at his open-casket funeral, as one after another family member takes their turn confronting his unquiet spirit, which talks (and winks) back. Hobson will be on hand to present the little-seen One Last Look, as well as a selection of clips from Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, the community-oriented television show which aired on New York’s W-NEW from 1968 to 1970, on which he got his start as a TV producer. (Included are interviews with Harry Belafonte and a performance by LeRoi Jones’s Young Spirit House Movers.)

Camille Billops and James Hatch’s Suzanne Suzanne (1982), like One Last Look, interrogates the wreckage left behind in the absence of a dead parent. The subject is Billops’s niece, Suzanne, a recovering heroin addict who discusses the abuse that she suffered at the hands of her deceased father. The film’s arresting climax has Suzanne and her mother, an elegant sometimes-model, arranged together against a black backdrop in a composition reminiscent of Bergman, breaking down as they share together the memory of the beatings that they’d suffered alone. Suzanne Suzanne plays as part of a “Women’s Work Program,” along with two shorts by Ayoka Chenzira: _Syvilla–They Dance to Her Drum (1979), a documentary about the last months of Syvilla Fort, who taught a blend of Dunham technique and other modern influences at her studio on Forty-Fourth Street, and HAIR PIECE: a film for nappyheaded people (1985), a history of hair-straightening torments told through cut-out construction paper animation.

While “Tell It Like It Is” might be taken as an East Coast answer to the “L.A. Rebellion” program, in truth it is a difficult proposition to designate coastal “schools” of black independent filmmaking. Daughters of the Dust filmmaker Julie Dash, a key LA Rebellion figure, was born in Queens, while Billops, though based in New York when she made Suzanne Suzanne, is a USC-educated Californian. More to the point, the African-American diaspora leads back, in a great many cases, to the South and its “peculiar institution,” a past found very present a century or more after Abolition. A program of films by Madeline Anderson, who will be introducing her works in person, begins with her I Am Somebody (1970), a retelling of a 1969 strike by mostly black hospital workers of the Medical College Hospital of the University of South Carolina, Charleston. That integration has done little-to-nothing toward correcting gross economic disparity is the through line of I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1982), made by the married team of Dick Fontaine and Pat Hartley, which follows Harlem-born author James Baldwin as he tours the land of his ancestors and of past political struggles, while interposed archival footage allows older subjects to interact with their younger selves. On the eve of the Reagan election, Baldwin revisits the battlefields of the civil rights movement, from Birmingham to Selma to Philadelphia, Mississippi, to the “enlightened” North, where the author Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) takes him on a guided tour of the gutted slums of his native Newark. (Baraka is the subject of a program of his own which includes his 1968 short The New-Ark.)

The dates bracketing Film Society’s program are not chosen at random: 1968 is the year of Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, of the Newark Spirit House and The New-Ark, and of the epochal Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One by William Greaves. The significance of 1986 can be summarized in a single title: Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It, which will play FSLC, as will Lee’s thesis film Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barber Shop: We Cut Heads. The success of She’s Gotta Have It was understood to have ushered in a new era for black American filmmaking, though Lee, no less (and probably more) than most filmmakers, is only as good as his last movie. The director has turned to Kickstarter to finance his most recent work, which will open in New York while “Tell It Like It Is” is still under way. Titled Da Sweet Blood of Jesus, it’s a contemporary remake of Ganja & Hess, a choice which may be taken as a sign of stalled creativity, or of refreshing his practice by returning to history. One may think of Lee when watching the motormouth student filmmaker in Losing Ground rhapsodizing on “Pearl McCormack in Scar of Shame, Philadelphia Colored Players, 1927” and “Dorothy Dandridge, Bright Road, Gerald Mayer, MGM, 1953,” and acutely aware of his place in a grand tradition.

Nick Pinkerton

“Tell It Like It Is: Black Independents in New York, 1968–1986” plays February 6–19 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Thibault Le Texier, L’Invention du desert (The Invention of the Desert, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 7 minutes.

IS THERE A MAJOR FILM FESTIVAL that takes artists’ film and video as seriously as Rotterdam? What too often figures as a marginalized sidebar emerges here as a key focus, with dozens of screenings covering the broad spectrum of experimental practice. From curated programs to installations in hotel rooms open 24/7, from gorgeous photochemical film to the wilds of digital psychedelia, from an eight-performance retrospective by Bruce McClure to the world premiere of Kevin Jerome Everson’s eight-hour Park Lanes (2015), Rotterdam had it all.

In the shorts section, several standout films explored the affective resonances of place. Luke Fowler’s Depositions (2014) worked with footage from the BBC Scotland archive to posit fading ways of life as a challenge to the present, while Nicolas Boone’s Bailu Dream (2015) led the viewer in a single take through an area in Sichuan, China, destroyed by an earthquake in 2008 and reconstructed as a copy of a French village. Revisiting locations of Vertigo in the wake of a friend’s suicide, Mary Helena Clark’s The Dragon Is the Frame (2014) reminds the viewer with lyric beauty that the first trauma in Hitchcock’s classic statement on the fragility of appearances is not the apparent suicide of Madeline Elster but the loss of a friend. In The Old Jewish Cemetery (2014), Sergei Loznitsa employs grainy black-and-white 16-mm film to trace with precision what were once the borders of Riga’s Jewish ghetto. Throughout, fragments of a commemorative plaque offer clues of what might have taken place in the impoverished neighborhood, but it is not until the film’s conclusion that the inscription is readable in full. While so much documentary practice traffics in excavating visible traces, Loznitsa delivers a portrait of place replete with absence and implication.

Despite their immense formal and thematic differences, these four films share an investment in using the camera to capture fleeting moments of life that remain beyond the filmmaker’s control. Fowler does so while explicitly articulating a broader critique of standardization, but all adopt cinematographic styles that emphasize the contingency and chance of recording. Thibault Le Texier’s L’Invention du desert (The Invention of the Desert, 2014) appropriates images from computer-generated architectural renderings found online to stage the horror of a world in which this vulnerability of the real has been entirely tamed by machines. Simulacra of shopping malls and apartments are accompanied by a voice-over recounting how the singularity has arrived and computer intelligence has overtaken humanity: “The perpetual movement of life was no longer adapted to us—so we got rid of it.” This perpetual movement—in all its unruliness and mundanity—is precisely what comes through in the work of Fowler, Boone, Clark, and Liznitsa. It takes on an ethical charge when set against the fantasies of control and mastery that inhere in the worlds fabricated by computers, calculated as they are down to the last pixel.

Such questions of how different forms of imagemaking configure their relation to the real are at the heart of Ben Rivers’s Things (2014), which shared this year’s Tiger Award for Short Film with Ben Russell’s Greetings to the Ancestors (2015) and Safia Benhaim’s La Fièvre (A Spell of Fever, 2015). In a four-part structure based on the seasons, Rivers fruitfully moves into more thoroughly semiotic territory than in any of his previous work, though without losing any of his trademark sensitivity. The film opens with the famous image of the bird-headed man from the Lascaux caves before cutting to a picture of a woman that could have been pulled from a 1950s pulp novel. Millennia apart, these shots stage the persistence of the anthropological desire for the production of images of ourselves. This notion undergirds the film’s twenty minutes, as Rivers creates a self-portrait through objects and images that form an intimate part of his life. But in so doing, he also grapples with the specific limitations and affordances of a host of forms of representation, including photography, literature, drawing, and sculpture. In reading Robert Pinget’s Fable (1971), he finds an image obscene in cinema but communicable in literature; in a squirrel’s hilarious encounter with his carved-coconut double, he provides an account of sculptural tangibility. The final section, “Autumn,” is a CGI rendering of the filmmaker’s apartment that echoes the interiors of L’Invention du desert. On the soundtrack, Rivers periodically sighs as a machinic eye roves through the space. In the film’s closing shot, a digitally rendered hand reproduces the Lascaux painting on the digitally rendered wall, but there is a key difference between original and copy: The buffalo and rhinoceros that had surrounded the man are gone. Nature has been vanquished and the man is left alone with the small bird, modeled after his own image—a seeming allegory of CGI’s estrangement from the vicissitudes of the world.

Alexandre Larose, brouillard - passage #14, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes.

In 1920s French film theory and practice, superimposition was hailed as a way of claiming film as art by injecting subjectivity and making clear that the image was no mere copy of reality. By 1946, in “The Life and Death of Superimposition,” André Bazin argued that this once-vital technique had become but a cheap and ineffective convention for representing the supernatural. At Rotterdam, superimposition was alive indeed, appearing as a privileged device in the work of numerous filmmakers, often to striking visual effect. Positively virtuosic was Alexandre Larose’s exquisite brouillard – passage #14 (2014), a single unedited roll of 35-mm film exposed thirty-nine times as the filmmaker walked down a forest path to the water. But in works such as Basim Magdy’s The Dent (2014) and The Many Colors of the Sky Radiate Forgetfulness (2015), Ben Russell’s Atlantis (2014), and Filipa César’s Mined Soil (2015), forms of multiple exposure and rephotography function as more than an aesthetic; they provide a way to negotiate between reality and representation, leapfrogging over Bazin’s dismissive understanding of superimposition to return to the complex interplay of recording and subjective intervention that characterized its use in the ’20s.

Two terrific films married historical strategies of abstraction with a contemporary interest in cultural reference. Jodie Mack’s Razzle Dazzle (2014) might appear as a pretty, glittery bauble, and indeed it is. But as a flicker film constructed of brocaded and sequined fabrics, it should also be understood as a feminist intervention into the austere tradition of Color Field abstraction most closely associated with Paul Sharits, the subject of a documentary by François Miron that made its international premiere at the festival. Mack works with the tactility and luminosity of these textiles, playfully posing their chintzy cultural associations as a challenge to modernist purity. Jean-Paul Kelly’s The Innocents (2014) concludes with an abstract passage of colored circles that recalls the visual music tradition. This closing section retrospectively sheds light on the film’s opening, in which a series of found photos—including images of Julian Assange and pornography—are punctured by holes colored around the edge. These rhyming sections bookend a reenactment of the Maysles’ Truman Capote documentary, in which fiction and reality merge. Together, the film’s three parts work to question how style and representational convention shape our encounter with supposedly “true” images.

Three reels from Anne Charlotte Robertson’s Five Year Diary (1981–97), recently restored by Harvard Film Archive, offered an utterly singular experience as devastating as it was rewarding. These intimate Super 8 chronicles of mental illness, environmental concern, and daily experience have a split sound track, with one channel consisting of Robertson speaking in states of psychic distress, while the other offers her more lucid reflections on sound, image, and life. Addressed to her future true love and conceived partly as a form of therapy, these films possess a candor that far surpasses most of what gets called “diary film,” to the point that they are sometimes uncomfortable to watch. But even so, if the eighty-five minutes exhibited at Rotterdam are any indication of the quality of the thirty-six-hour opus, Five Year Diary is a major work deserving of a central place in the history of women’s experimental filmmaking—something that sadly eluded Robinson in her lifetime.

Erika Balsom

The forty-fourth International Film Festival Rotterdam ran January 21–February 1, 2015.

God Parts


Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God, 2013, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 170 minutes.

FIRST LOOKING DOWN into the still water of a pond dusted with lightly falling snow—the photography is pure black-and-white, which is to say there’s nothing but black and white—the frame rears up to look out across a disorderly, frost-crusted landscape with a distinctly medieval aspect, dotted with a few ragged muzhiks. “This is not Earth, it’s another planet,” asserts a narrator, grumbling in Russian, though this claim is up against the evidence of our eyes.

This is the disorienting opening of Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, an epic at once claustrophobically immediate and otherworldly. The premise—thirty Russian scientists from an unidentified point in time have been sent to covertly observe life on a planet which is identical to Earth but lags centuries behind in development, never having experienced nor ever likely to experience a Renaissance or an Enlightenment—comes from a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, two brothers whose science-fiction works were popular with Eastern Bloc readers, and whose Piknik na obochine (Roadside Picnic) was adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky into his 1979 Stalker. (The Strugatskys’ Hard to Be a God was reprinted last summer by Chicago Review Press.) In an opening narration tightly packed with vital exposition—pay attention, it won’t be repeated—we’re given a succinct rundown of the planet’s rival factions and nation-states (Oltregolfo, Irukan), and introduced to the film’s protagonist, Don Rumata, played by the brawny and swaggering Leonid Yarmolnik. Rumata is an earthling who poses as a nobleman “descended from Goran, a local pagan God,” and his brusque manner disguises an outraged sensitivity, for it is his fate to stand witness without intervention as another despot, Don Reba, carries out a purge of the local intelligentsia.

The first (and not last) execution in Hard to Be a God has a “wise guy” drowned in an outdoor latrine. Arbitrary acts of casual barbarism mount as we follow Rumata on his appointed rounds, while further dumps of exposition arrive as suddenly and torrentially as the cloudbursts which keep this planet’s inhabitants mired in mud, as they are mired in merry, brutish ignorance. A viewer is not less likely to be confused—clarifying matters of who and where and why for an audience is of secondary importance to German, who delights in shooting smothering banks of obfuscating fog, and whose principal occupation here is the construction of a total, inescapable environment in which to wallow. Where many a fantasy/sci-fi novel is preceded by pages of helpful maps which illustrate for the reader the borders of the imaginary terrain in which their scene is to be set, German flings his audience headfirst into the slops and expects them to make their own way.

Like many an agent to the colonies, Rumata has succumbed to the dissipation around him. He’s first introduced waking from a debauch, and through the course of a long day he grows steadily drunker on both toxic spirits and the sense of his own baffling invulnerability. As heavy and imposing as Rumata’s creaking carapace of armor, the film is welded together from wending Steadicam shots which closely explore his looming body and snuffle about his adopted home’s crevasses and cracks—as in an early shot where a hoodlum uses his pike to prod a bare ass hanging from a second-story outhouse—occasionally pulling back to reveal its expanses. One never has a sense here of a cordoned-off area where the camera cannot turn for fear of banishing the illusion, and the City of Arkanar gives an impression of interminable expanse while being perfect down to the last detail of tooled leather, weathered woodwork, and haphazard clutter.

When Rumata isn’t dominating the frame—and he quite often is—we experience the world through his point-of-view, complete with toadying subjects gawping, groveling, or presenting their broken idiot grins to the camera, fourth wall breaks which recall the Fellini of Satyricon. (The perspective will occasionally divert to the objective from a subjective POV in a single shot.) The film’s credits list two cinematographers (Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko) and four camera operators, though it manages a remarkable visual consistency, space distinctly delineated into multiple planes by light and shadow as in a film by Von Sternberg, if Von Sternberg had ever decided to make a film about the scrofulous inhabitants of a sodden, squelching pigsty planet.

This tonal consistency is all the more remarkable when one considers that Hard to Be a God, German’s sixth and final film, was shot intermittently between 2000 and 2006, and was in postproduction for a still longer period. Its director did not survive to see the process through, dying in February of 2013—the same year that Hard to Be a God finally premiered at the Rome Film Festival, the sound mix having been completed by his son, director Aleksei A. German, and Svetlana Karmalita, his wife and coauthor of the film’s screenplay.

German completed his first feature in 1967, which should give you some idea of his prolificacy, or lack thereof. In conjunction with Anthology Film Archives’ weeklong run of Hard to Be a God, the theater will be screening three of his landmark earlier works. The wait between German films was not solely a result of his perfectionism, evident in the incredibly detailed sequence shots which make up his latest. Trial on the Road (1971), set during the German invasion of the USSR in World War II, shows a penchant for elaborately engineered, scrolling takes of troop transports and caravans of fleeing peasantry, but what held up its release fifteen years was its failure to conform to the ennobling version of Russian participation in the war, for the film’s antihero (a stone-faced Vladimir Zamansky) is a Soviet defector who has fought for both sides. Trial on the Road was based on a story by the novelist Yuri German, Aleksei’s father, whose work also provided the basis for Aleksei’s 1984 My Friend Ivan Lapshin—in the face of official amnesia, German deals in the transmission of history as a sort of family heirloom, something to be conveyed in textures, postures, and attitudes rather than in facts and figures. Ivan Lapshin is a memory piece which winds together the stories of the residents of a communal apartment and their circle—a police inspector, an itinerant actress, a journalist—in a typical provincial town in 1935. Watching it and 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, you can trace the development of German’s muscular, thrashing style, as well as see the fondness for practical jokes, horseplay, and general prankishness which will turn antic in the grotesquerie of Hard to Be a God, rife with snot rockets, micturition, and pantomime humping.

Hard to Be a God is German’s only film not to be set in post-1917, pre-Khrushchev Russia, though its miasmic, moronic bog-planet may be taken as a flexible metaphor for the unfinished revolutionary Russia of 1964, when the Strugatsky brothers’ novel was published; the Putin kleptocracy, which German saw the beginning of; or a twenty-first-century slum planet devolved into peasant superstition and cackling cruelty. The urge for civilization struggles to survive in the sucking muck, though German shows little hope for the future. One “wise guy” approaches Don Rumata brandishing the broken wing of a crude Da Vinci–esque flying machine. “We’re learning to fly,” he says. “Mostly downwards.”

Nick Pinkerton

“Films by Aleksei German” plays January 31–February 10 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.