Patrick Lung Kong, Teddy Girls, 1969, color, sound, 107 minutes.
LAST SUMMER, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens hosted a complete retrospective of the films of Wong Kar-wai, with Wong in person, impossible to miss in his famous shades. Very few of his fans, however, recognized the beetle-browed, seventysomething man with jutting cheekbones whom Wong bowed before upon meeting, as a pupil bows before a master. This is a matter that MoMI intends to address with a retrospective of that very same figure: “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Cinema of Patrick Lung Kong,” running August 15 to 24.
Patrick Lung Kong was born Kin-yui Lung in 1934 to a family that had relocated to Hong Kong from Anhui Province, China. The boy was raised by his grandmother, though spent the war years touring with a Cantonese opera troupe—his father was a hua dan, that is, one who plays female parts. Preparing for a career in business at the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, Lung was introduced to Catholicism by a classmate and subsequently converted. This led to his first screen acting, in a church-produced film, and then to a role in something called Crime of Passion in the Hotel for the Shaw Brothers’ Cantonese-language unit; he was rechristened “Lung Kong” and played one of the villainous roles that his sharp features assured he would be typecast in.
Cantonese was the principal spoken language in Hong Kong at the time that Lung Kong was coming up through the system, but Cantonese films were consigned to a second-class role, increasingly marginalized as the 1960s progressed, with big budgets allocated to Mandarin productions. Lung Kong’s dedicated outsider status was reflected in his self-identification with Cantonese cinema—he turned down a lucrative deal to direct in Mandarin for the Shaws, instead signing up with Singapore-based Sun Ngee, and with his second film, Story of a Discharged Prisoner, which opens MoMI’s retro, made his mark definitively. Cheuk-hong Lee (Patrick Tse), nabbed after a botched break-in, comes out of a fifteen-year prison stint determined to go straight, though his old triad boss (Sek Kin) and a meddling police inspector (Lung Kong) have other plans for him. The film is shot in black and white, with a punchy camera style both emphatic and empathetic. It is self-consciously “modern” in its brisk cutting, use of limber handheld camera, and hands-on grasp of burning social issues, its contemporary slang and location shooting on city streets, among the ramshackle squats of Kwun Tong, and at Stanley Prison. This was Hong Kong New Wave, 1967.
The year 1967 has a particular significance to the Hong Kongese, marked as it was by almost daily bombings and violent demonstrations, in which leftists protesting British colonial rule clashed with police. While Story of a Discharged Prisoner expressed something of the period’s political discontent, Lung Kong was not a joiner, and his independence and singularity of vision earned him the admiration of a generation of ambitious young movie buffs. Among the number who visited the set of Discharged Prisoner at Wader Studio was John Woo, who would use the basic elements of the film’s plot for his 1986 A Better Tomorrow, which appeared at a moment when the Cantonese cinema, and the boots-on-the-ground production methods innovated by Lung Kong, had prevailed. A Better Tomorrow’s producer, Tsui Hark (Once Upon a Time in China), will appear alongside Lung Kong at the museum on Saturday the 16th for a screening of the film, whose Chinese title is the same as that of Lung Kong’s, much as the title of his 1969 girl delinquent drama, called Teddy Girls in English, contains the same character (“To fly,” 飛) that appears in the title of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (1990), essentially creating the “Youth in flight” genre which Wong would later mine.
Patrick Lung Kong, The Story of a Discharged Prisoner, 1967, black-and-white, sound, 119 minutes.
Like Discharged Prisoner, Teddy Girls starts off with a careening blast of go-go energy. Some mashers in a discotheque decide to pick on the wrong chick, Yu-ching Hsu (Josephine Siao). She gives them bottles to the skull for their trouble and winds up fighting for pole position inside a girl’s reformatory before bonding with her fellow inmates and busting out to bring revenge to her loathsome stepfather (Lung Kong, again). The film may be the purest expression of Lung Kong’s balance of exploitation’s vulgar vitality—it could be a distant relation of Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975)—with a compassion founded in the Catholic tradition of social responsibility and charity. The latter quality occasionally announces itself in outright didacticism, as in the moralizing coda voiced by Kenneth Tsang’s reformatory head in Teddy Girls. In such moments Lung Kong may seem preachy, although, as critic and screenwriter Shu Kei has observed, no one is successfully saved by the social-service organizations that play such a prominent role in Lung Kong’s early films: the halfway house in Discharged Prisoner, the reformatory in Teddy Girls, or the school for the blind in The Window (1968), which has Tse as a feckless hood, introduced in Rebel Without a Cause red, forming an unlikely bond with the sightless daughter of one of his victims, played by Siao. (This relationship dynamic was an inspiration for Woo’s 1989 The Killer, while I’d bet that Rebel director Nicholas Ray’s wounded outsiders are a point of reference for Lung Kong.)
Lung Kong’s own disillusion and estrangement deepened as he found himself increasingly at odds with the Hong Kong film industry and society in general. Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (1970), a free adaptation of Albert Camus’s The Plague, was shorn of at least a half hour and effectively mutilated before release. What remained was still sufficiently inflammatory to make Lung Kong a target for blowback from the leftist press, thanks to his alleged metaphoric linkage of the pestilence and the Communist dissent of ’67—hard to see what all the fuss was about now, but the film’s panorama of a city gripped by panic remains impressive. To this, accusations of oversympathy with former Imperial conquerors were added with Hiroshima 28 (1976), a reunion with Siao that has her playing a tour guide in the ruined postwar city. By this point, this most Hong Kongese of Hong Kong directors had begun to drift into the position of artist-in-exile: Hiroshima 28 was shot on location, and Mitra (1978), Lung Kong’s last film to play theatrically, was filmed during a trip to Iran to premiere his Japan-set film at the Tehran Film Festival. For Love Massacre (1981), chronologically the last directly Lung Kong–affiliated film to play MoMI, he headed for California to play producer for director Patrick Tam. The film synopsizes as a rote slasher, but it’s elevated by a cast and crew loaded with future HK New Wave luminaries—Tam will go on to direct his watershed film Nomad the following year, Brigitte Lin stars, and production designer William Chang, later responsible for the sumptuous textures of Wong Kar-wai’s films, created the film’s Pop art–besotted look. Love Massacre is a direct bridge between pioneer Lung Kong and the new revolution in Cantonese cinema then underway, as well as a bridge to his new home.
Lung Kong left Hong Kong for good in 1982, immigrating to New York, where he lives today in Staten Island. He has spent his retirement years studying calligraphy and the erhu (two-string), has remained active in charitable organizations, and has not directed a single film for public consumption. (He has, however, worked periodically as an actor, most prominently in Jet Li’s Black Mask.) The final numbers that summarize his truncated directorial career—eleven years, a dozen films—belie his importance to Hong Kong, and therefore world, cinema. In keeping the light burning for Cantonese cinema in Hong Kong during dark days, in his devotion to the milieu of lower-class characters and petty gangsters, Lung Kong’s films paved the way for those of Woo, Wong Kar-wai, and Hark—the old saw about the Velvet Underground is applicable here. Lung Kong’s films are not merely transitional, however, but compose an integral body of work unto themselves, made with a verve born of purpose, passionately engaged with the city that they emerged from, attentive to the textures of both everyday and political life. Lung Kong’s films arrived right on time for a generation of Hong Kong cinephiles, but too soon to afford him a long and prosperous career. Luckily, it isn’t too late for New York moviegoers to discover what Hong Kong has known for a long time.
FRENHOFER, C’EST MOI, Paul Cézanne was said to have said about the principal character in “Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu” (The Unknown Masterpiece), a short story by Honoré de Balzac from the year 1831. In the little-known tale, two younger artists, Nicolas Poussin and the more established Porbus, spend time with Frenhofer, an aging master. As the three drink wine and eat smoked ham, they exchange thrilling ideas about art and originality, finally settling on the question of Frenhofer’s unrealized masterpiece, a painting that has been vexing him for years. When Frenhofer finally completes the work, the two ingénues are deeply disappointed by its manifestation—able only to make out a series of strange lines and an obscured foot. Frustrated by their response, in a fit of frenzy and madness, Frenhofer dies in the night after having burned his canvas first.
Balzac’s tale, however arch and exaggerated it might be as a neat parable for all kinds of things—among them neglected genius and painting as a tortuous and torturous journey—has a great deal in common with Fifi Howls from Happiness, a documentary of beauty, intelligence, and wit about the late artist Bahman Mohasses. Like The Unknown Masterpiece, Fifi, too, is about art and iconoclasm. It also features two young artist-pilgrims who come to bask in a mad master’s glory at the end of his life. And yet, in Fifi, there is a fourth, crucial, personage: in the form of the filmmaker, Mitra Farahani, a temptress who hovers on screen and off, coaxing our hero into life in his twilight years.
As the film opens we are led to wonder: Whatever happened to Bahman Mohasses? A beloved rebel of the modern art scene of 1950s–70s Tehran, he made distinctive sculptures and paintings that featured surreal animal-like forms and figures—contorted, missing hands and feet, exaggerated, lustful. Hard-smoking, foul-mouthed, and full of soulful pessimism, Mohasses had no illusions about the nasty world he lived in; any democracy was as bankrupt as any dictatorship, and all rulers were crooks. “But I am only one John the Baptist preaching alone in the desert. It will make no difference,” he declares at one point, surrounded by works inspired by war and pestilence. It is one of many acid statements to come.
Colorful stories ensue. During the ’60s, Mohasses was commissioned to produce a sculptural likeness of the royal family, but the Shah rejected it, complaining that it was unflattering. At the time of the 1979 revolution, another sculptural commission, The Flute Player, had some of its bulging parts (private and otherwise) removed by agents of the nascent Islamic Republic. (Sweetly, they deny this, and say that the pieces in question simply broke off.) Mohasses left Tehran during the revolution that would oust the Shah and bring Ayatollah Khomeini to power, and his life swiftly became the stuff of rumor and, finally, fabulous myth: They say the last time he was in Iran he destroyed all of his work; he is living in Rome, surrounded by young boys; he is solitary, working in his native city of Rasht, on the Caspian Sea.
He is, it turns out, in Rome. But before turning to the room in the Hotel Sacconi in which he lives, Fifi cuts to an archival film from the year 1967, a pithy feature about the young Mohasses made by Iranian state television in which he is shown to be a frolicking bon vivant engaging in café life, painting feverishly in his studio as if enacting a parody of being an artist (“It is a need for me exactly like taking a piss”), declaring himself of historic significance, and so on. It is a whole film within a film, and even then, rendered in grainy black and white, the subject burns bright.
In Rome, now in his 80s and no longer making work, Mohasses is bewildered by the petite female filmmaker before him. Farahani, whose syrupy voice serves as siren-like narration, clearly wants something from the legendary figure, but like anyone on a treasure hunt, she is probably aiming for the stars. And yet, this is not a standard encounter between the journalist and the murderer, for the artist-murderer pushes back. Mohasses the subject probably directs the director as much as she directs him: Put this in, say this, shoot this…end with this. “I will tell you my life story so that every idiot doesn’t write my biography the way it suits him,” he says.
Death is the specter that hovers in and around this work. More than a knowing film about filmmaking, Fifi is profoundly about what remains. Worrying about posterity, Mohasses announces, is for losers. By now, we’ve learned that the rumors about the artist destroying his own work are true. Among the few works that remain is the Fifi Howls from Happiness of the title, a faceless, handless grotesque of abundant breast that hangs on his wall. “I can’t sell her,” he confides, as if she encapsulates all the truth he knows.
But before he leaves this earth, Mohasses receives one last commission by the two younger artists with whom we began—Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh—both in evident thrall to their iconoclast-hero. One night, they all sit watching Visconti’s The Leopard with its poofy baroque costumery and intrigue, and Mohasses sheds tears. Not unlike Visconti’s fading prince, the aging artist is a distinguished leopard—elegant, knowing, out of place. And yet, his fate, like poor Don Fabrizio’s, will be to leave this earth cruelly, eaten by jackals.
The end of Fifi—which is difficult to watch and inspires equal parts sadness and agitation (for is the film apparatus itself part jackal?)—comes soon after. As the artist chokes on his own blood and declares, matter-of-factly, “I am dying,” the filmmaker, Farahani, who is right there, summons up his voice as if he were addressing her: “This is the most real image I could have given you.”
Fifi Howls from Happiness is now playing at the Lincoln Plaza in New York and opens at the Laemmle Royal in Los Angeles on Friday, August 15.
Frank Simon, The Queen, 1968, color, sound, 68 minutes.
A MAN AND A WOMAN: The words—the title of Claude Lelouch’s smash 1966 French melodrama—appositely appear on the marquee of Manhattan’s Paris Theatre on West Fifty-Eighth Street, just above the bottle-blond head of effete Richard, one of the key figures in Frank Simon’s documentary The Queen (1968). This riveting chronicle of a 1967 drag competition makes Lelouch’s hopelessly het movie seem all the more démodé for the fixed categories in its name.
In his essential, haut-homo compendium Screening the Sexes (1972), urbane arbiter Parker Tyler praised Simon’s film for its “quite unconscious dignity”; one of the more remarkable aspects of this pre-Stonewall document is, in fact, its eschewal of homophobic sensationalism in favor of nonjudgmental curiosity. The organizer and emcee of the pageant, and the occasional voice-over narrator, is Jack Doroshow, alias Sabrina, who says of his female alter ego: “I’m twenty-four years old, but in drag, I come on like 110. . . . Like a bar-mitzvah-mother thing.” Indeed, the contest itself, held at the highly reputable Town Hall, is about as risqué as a junior high homecoming dance, as depilated men in Ronettes-esque bouffant wigs and thick maquillage show off matronly floor-length dresses to the musical accompaniment of a tuxedoed combo. Violating the decorum is Mario Montez, providing a bit of intermission entertainment and introduced by Sabrina as “a hell of a nice guy”: Sporting a ratty wig and five-o’clock shadow, Warhol’s first drag-queen superstar (Andy is seen fleetingly in the audience) sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” horribly off-key, botching the show tune’s platonic as plutonic.
The discrepancy between Montez’s signature guileless performance style and the exhaustingly rehearsed movements of the contestants (“Try to center your chorus line,” instructs Jack, who also barks specific rules about the proper removal of a duster) points to the different ways of “doing” drag—as varied in its possibilities as its practitioners are. The most absorbing moments of The Queen happen not onstage but off it, particularly when the camera lingers in the run-down hotel rooms where the out-of-town contestants (Miss Washington State, Miss Chicago, etc.) are bunking. Here, dressed primarily in LBJ-era standard duds—trim button-down shirts and chinos—they nonchalantly discuss, in a range of regional accents, draft boards, boyfriends, and levels of tolerance back home (“Everybody in that town knew I was gay ever since I was five years old”).
Tyler described The Queen as “all about transvestites and their search for an honest public and private image”; although the word transvestites chafes today, his assessment still strikes me as the perfect précis of Simon’s film. For some, that search included considering gender reassignment, then wholeheartedly rejecting it: “I certainly do not want to become a girl, even if I could have a baby,” avers the contestant from Maryland. Others later accepted it; the abovementioned Richard, aka Harlow, aka Miss Philadelphia, would undergo the procedure in 1972. Harlow, crowned the pageant winner, is read furiously by Crystal LaBeija, one of a handful of black competitors, indignant at placing as third runner-up. Ten years after her loss at Town Hall, Crystal would transform ball culture in Harlem by initiating the “House of ” nomenclature, the taxonomy that structures The Queen’s direct descendant, Paris Is Burning (1990), and that epitomizes the concept of “public image.”
The Queen, which concludes Queer/Art/Film’s “Summer of Drag” series, screens at the IFC Center on Monday, August 11.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR began one hundred years ago this summer, which is another way of saying that this is the hundredth anniversary of the modern world. The historical convulsions set in motion by the events of 1914 changed everything—arts and letters no exception. When hostilities were opened, the Italian Futurists clambered for the clangorous front, while the disillusion of Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit waited on the other side of the trenches. Many of the chief litterateurs of decades to come passed through the crucible of the war: Louis-Ferdinand Céline, a French cuirassier, rode into battle on horseback as men would’ve a century prior, when Europe last experienced all-out war. Siegfried Sassoon caught “friendly fire” in the head and survived, while fellow poet Wilfred Owen wasn’t so lucky, strafed by a German machine gun a week before Armistice. Driving an ambulance in Italy, Hemingway collected some souvenir shrapnel, but Scott Fitzgerald, for all his dreams of martial glory, never got further than Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama. Some years hence, Fitzgerald would have Dick Diver in his 1933 Tender Is the Night visit the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, and muse over the war he’d missed. “You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you can remember,” Diver says of the requisites for fighting in the trenches,
You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafes in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and wedding at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers… Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.
As that “love battle” betrayed its true gristly toll—countless fingers, toes, arms, legs, ears, noses, eyes, genitals, guts, and lives—the art of moving pictures was entering its bumptious adolescence. British, French, and German troops had dug into the muck that would constitute the Western Front by February 1915, when still noninterventionist Americans were going over the top in D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, the film that defined screen treatment of the battlefield for a generation in its reenactments of the Civil War. (With the Siege of Sebastopol, prequels to the present conflict.) Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1919) and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Little American (1917) are among the earliest screen treatments of Europe’s self-immolation in the massive mobilization of prints that constitutes the Museum of Modern Art’s five-week series “The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy,” a feat worthy of Gen. Pershing. The program traces representation of the war from Griffith and DeMille—for all the innovation of their technique, still indebted to sentimental Victorian dramaturgy—to twenty-first-century offerings like Joyeaux Noel (2005) and War Horse (2011) of which, come to think of it, the same might be said.
There is, however, an identifiable sweet spot in MoMA’s lineup. What was then still called the Great War reached its peak popularity as a screen property in the years 1930, ’31, and ’32—near enough that the war is still fresh in the collective memory, distant enough that it could be faced…or mined for spectacle, as in Hell’s Angels (1930), the megaproduction of a twenty-two-year-old millionaire named Howard Hughes. Hughes took to the sky to shoot the film’s staggering aerial battle scenes, while he left the inglorious task of staging the dialogue to hired help James Whale. Whale was a veteran, having enlisted straightaways in the Worcestershire Infantry Regiment after seeing firsthand the zeppelin attacks on London depicted in Hell’s Angels. Second Lieutenant Whale served with distinction before going MIA during the Flanders Campaign, spending the remainder of the war at Holzminden prison camp, where he pursued a fondness for amateur theatrics that would blossom into a stage career after the war. His greatest success in the theater was the West End production of Journey’s End, a R. C. Sherriff play concerning life in the trenches, starring Colin Clive—in 1930, it would become Clive and Whale’s debut film. (Whale is better remembered today for more fantastic horrors, having twice directed Clive as Dr. Frankenstein.)
Left: D.W. Griffith, Hearts of the World, 1918, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 117 minutes. Right: Rex Ingram, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, 1921, 35 mm, black-and-white, silent, 132 minutes.
Hughes’s flying circus got off the ground in the first place as an attempt to one-up the then-reigning champ of dogfighting pictures, Wings (1927), whose director “Wild” Bill Wellman had been chosen largely on the distinction of his combat experience with the Lafayette Flying Corps. A film whose vertiginous airborne scenes, done without safety net or rear projection cheats, remain simply awesome, Wings will be playing MoMA along with Wellman’s mauled final film, Lafayette Escadrille (1958). Recommended supplementary viewing is his 1933 Heroes for Sale—available on volume three of TCM Archives’ Forbidden Hollywood Collection—a remarkable portrait of the difficulties faced by returning veterans readjusting to the home front, starring Richard Barthelmess.
Barthelmess, a star for Griffith early in his career, plays leads in The Patent Leather Kid (1927) and Howard Hawks’s The Dawn Patrol (1930), both at MoMA. In the latter, he’s the leader of a British squadron who faces a new level of psychological torment when he’s grounded behind a desk, sending other men to their deaths. Hawks, who’d spent his war years stateside as a flight instructor in Texas, got in some “combat hours” here flying an enemy German plane, and The Dawn Patrol is one of the earliest instances in which the director’s ethos of male camaraderie and self-reliance appears in a form recognizable from great later works like Only Angels Have Wings (1939)—a film which Dawn Patrol in many ways presages. (Barthelmess returned from semiretirement for Angels, baring fresh plastic surgery scars.) Curiously absent here is Hawks’s Sergeant York, a morale-boosting biopic of one of the U.S. Army’s most decorated WWI combatants starring Gary Cooper which was released in the precarious summer of 1941, though one can see Cooper opposite Helen Hayes, both supernally gorgeous, in Frank Borzage’s lyric 1932 film of Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.
As represented by MoMA’s program, 1930 was a watershed year—and not only for Hollywood productions. This was the year of G. W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918 and Niemandsland, two of several films from Germany on the slate, offering perspectives from the other side of the trenches. It was also the year of Lewis Milestone’s, er, milestone, All Quiet on the Western Front, based on the novel by Erich Maria Remarque, a German veteran who’d been conscripted out of secondary school, the film following a group of classmates through a similar recruitment and into the meat grinder.
After the boom years of the early ’30s, there was through the course of the decade a marked decline in the output of trench drama, and MoMA’s program reflects a long lull before the vernacular American “Frenchmen” of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957). These were the post-’33 years in which the Production Code made its presence felt, when it became more difficult to deal frankly with the experiences of men at war. This wasn’t the only source of potential censorship: The Road Back (1937), the Whale-directed follow-up to All Quiet on the Western Front, also from a Remarque novel, was cut down before release when Universal Studios submitted to pressure from the German consul in Los Angeles, representing the PR concerns of the new government. These were also the years of Fire over England (1937) and Hollywood Anglophilia, when America’s interests were being subtly aligned with those of our British cousins, and when pop culture had ceased to look backward to the dead of the Somme and had begun to look ahead to an uncertain future. For how could a property as popular as the Great War do without a sequel?
“The Great War: A Cinematic Legacy” runs August 4–September 21, 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Ramon Zürcher, The Strange Little Cat, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 72 minutes.
EVEN THIS NON-GERMAN SPEAKER caught the telling use of the word unheimlich in The Strange Little Cat, writer-director Ramon Zürcher’s shrewd first feature. Unfolding over the course of a Saturday in a modestly appointed, bustling Berlin family apartment, the film incisively defamiliarizes the quotidian.
The feline of the title—a beautiful orange tabby—is merely one of the many creatures busily circulating through this crowded high-rise dwelling. The ginger kitty also shares the same space with a black dog, a moth, and an ever-expanding group of siblings, cousins, in-laws, grandmothers, neighbors, and others. Unclear at first, the relationships slowly begin to establish themselves. Clara (Mia Kasalo), the little girl in the yellow sweatshirt who lets out a high-pitched wail whenever the cappuccino maker is turned on, is the kid sister of soft-butch Karin (Anjorka Strechel) and indolent Simon (Luk Pfaff), both roughly in their late teens to early twenties and visiting home for a few days. Their mother (Jenny Schily), though outwardly calm, seems constantly on the verge of erupting.
The tension that’s so palpable in Mutter, in fact, made me brace for an orgy of violence—which, fortunately, is never realized. But The Strange Little Cat does foreground more common, insidious acts of barbarity, adding to the movie’s odd rhythms and tone: a foot raised, then slowly lowered over the tabby’s head as it eats; a Hacky Sack chucked aggressively at the child who pleads for its return. As in the extended middle-class clans in the films of Lucrecia Martel, the bonds between Cat’s family suggest impropriety. Bathroom doors are rarely closed; the W.C., in fact, is where Karin and Simon engage in somewhat queasy-making horseplay—and where Mom can barely mask her attraction to her brother-in-law (Armin Marewski), who’s come over to fix the washing machine.
Zürcher occasionally takes us out of the film’s confining present tense by using flashbacks to illustrate a character’s peculiar tale, such as Karin’s account of tossing orange peels. Her weird chronicle typifies Zürcher’s unerring instinct for assembling familial rituals: OCD acts, such as Clara’s constant logging of her relatives’ blood pressure, that will be both instantly recognizable—and thus mildly discomfiting—to viewers who recall their own kin’s particular practices. Zürcher’s talent for illuminating the specific also extends to his precise arrangement of bodies in rooms and hallways; the various entrances to and exits from the kitchen, for example, reveal a tightly, yet never fussily so, controlled choreography. Similarly, many of the utterances—the chorus of byes (“Tschüss!”); the constant query of “Where’s ———?”; Clara’s coffeemaker-synched screams—ring sharply as the cacophonous sound track to the mundane chaos that seems to take over whenever blood ties gather. The noises produce a haunting echo in this uncanny valley, reverberating from character to spectator and back again.
The Strange Little Cat plays August 1–7 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Nickolas Rossi, Heaven Adores You, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 96 minutes. Elliott Smith.
“BEHIND THE EYES of the Oregon girls it was raining again in Portland,” Nelson Algren wrote in his 1956 novel A Walk on the Wild Side. “Somehow it was always raining behind the eyes of Oregon girls.” And so it always seemed to be for Elliott Smith, an extraordinarily gifted, peerlessly poignant songwriter and favorite son of Portland, who died in 2003 at age thirty-four of two knife wounds to the chest, an apparent suicide. As if to confirm Algren’s emotional weather report, the bleak refrain of the last song on Smith’s final studio album, released posthumously, was, “Shine on me, baby, cause it’s raining in my heart.” Those who had followed his solo career, consisting of six uniformly excellent LPs over ten years, would not have been surprised by this last will and testament. His searingly literary, harmonically gorgeous songs were populated by junkies, drunks, miserable and misery-inducing women, abusive stepfathers, bad dream fuckers, no confidence men, and inveterate losers who “got in a kind of trouble that nobody knows.”
As Nickolas Rossi’s reverential, meditative documentary Heaven Adores You is at pains to make clear, however, if you actually knew the songwriter, you thought of him as one of the funniest people you’d ever met, a class clown with a goofy, performative sense of humor, someone who could run a joke so far into the ground that it became hilarious again (and again). His smile—a transformative crack in his rough-hewn, taciturn face—was reportedly one of the most infectious enticements to joy his friends had ever known. In the film, Smith’s friend, photographer, and video director Autumn de Wilde recalls being stunned when seeing him for the first time on the cover photo of his third record, Either/Or (1997): “That sweet voice comes out of that intense face?” This was key to Smith’s appeal, his pretty-ugly-but-pretty-enough-for-you Everyman quality. The Beatles were melodic geniuses and were cute to boot. Smith was a Beatlesesque melodic genius who looked like he emptied spent oil pans behind a rural gas station.
He was an ur-hipster—the first musician I noticed wearing greasy trucker’s hats and ironic thrift-store T-shirts as a constant uniform—with an inherent distrust of fame, money, and all-American attitudes, but was gracious enough to defend Céline Dion to any and all because she had been nice to him backstage at the Oscars. (Smith had been nominated for “Miss Misery” from the sound track of Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, a film which featured several of his songs and introduced him to mainstream audiences; unsurprisingly, he lost to Dion’s titanic power ballad from the James Cameron blockbuster.) As hackneyed as the singer-songwriter tag has become in the intervening years, it was radically against the tide to play quiet acoustic music under your own name in the mid-1990s, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which was in thrall to grunge and riot grrrl. It was so uncool it was cool. In short, it was punk as fuck—more truly punk, in fact, than the aggro post-punk rock he played with his band Heatmiser, an outfit that dissolved as Smith’s solo career flowered.
Smith was born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1969, the son of a hippie, Vietnam vet father who was studying psychiatry and a sweet-natured, music teacher mother. They divorced before he reached his first birthday, and his mother moved to Texas and remarried a man named Charlie Welch, a figure so determinative of Smith’s adult psychology and songwriting that he seemed to be a character from an unsubtle bildungsroman. According to Smith, Welch was abusive, at the very least emotionally and physically abusive, though near the end of his life Smith imagined that Welch may have abused him sexually as well, an allegation that his parents deny. (Typical of Smith, he wrote an incredibly catchy, musically upbeat song called “Abused” that dances around the issue and was understandably not selected by his family for inclusion on his last LP.)
While Smith and many of his friends repeatedly reminded the press and fans that his songs were not all autobiographical diary confessions, but instead finely drawn character studies, a number of his lyrics seemed to address his childhood trauma directly, including the revenge fantasy “Roman Candle,” the first song on his solo debut of the same name, and “Some Song,” with its line, “Charlie beat you up week after week, and when you grow up you’re going to be a freak.” As soon as he could (age fourteen), Smith moved from Dallas to Portland, where his father lived with a new wife. He spent his adolescence there as a musical prodigy and National Merit Scholar, far more at home in the downbeat, overcast, lushly green Northwest than in sunny, violent, conservative Texas. As he does for New York and LA (where Smith lived later in life), Rossi illustrates Smith’s journey with sweeping long shots of Portland and environs, so damp you can smell the moss. Smith attended and graduated from Hampshire, the famously bohemian liberal arts college in Massachusetts, and returned to Portland with best friend Neil Gust to start Heatmiser.
The film is at its best when resurrecting the ’90s Portland scene that shaped Smith musically and personally, drawing on intimate, original interviews with Smith’s friends and colleagues of the period—fellow musicians Pete Krebs and Sean Croghan; high school friend, bandmate, and producer Tony Lash; Kill Rock Stars label head Slim Moon; Jackpot! Studio colleague and posthumous tape archivist Larry Crane; ex-girlfriend and bassist Joanna Bolme; and others vividly recall the charmed backwater city on the verge of national exposure. It’s telling that nearly all of the interviewees tear up at some point during their segments, both for their late friend and their hipster paradise lost. Gust and Sam Coomes (Heatmiser, Quasi), both close friends and musical collaborators of Smith’s, are conspicuously absent, but otherwise Rossi thoroughly covers the Portland waterfront.
After Either/Or and the Oscar nomination, Smith signed to DreamWorks under artist-friendly veteran executive Lenny Waronker, and with some help from LA maestro Jon Brion and producers Rob Schnapf and Tom Rothrock, recorded and released two brilliant, high-gloss LPs (XO  and Figure 8 ), adorning his acoustic guitar and piano with ornate chamber-pop arrangements, playing most instruments himself, and multitracking his voice in complex harmonic blends. Even as his career was at its peak (perhaps because of this), Smith was drinking heavily and flirting with the hard drugs that would nearly destroy him. Alarmingly, when living in New York, he would walk through the subway tunnels late at night, blind drunk, looking for Mole People or perhaps an easy way out of a trajectory he wasn’t sure he wanted to be on. Other times he’d call local friend and roommate Dorien Garry in the middle of the night, three sheets to the wind, ominously pleading with her not to be mad at him if he “did something to himself.”
Casual listeners may be surprised by half-sister Ashley Welch’s claim in the film that Smith—whose eponymous second record was essentially a heroin concept album, painting such nuanced, convincing portraits of strung-out half-lives that Lou Reed would have had to hit the bricks back up to Lexington 125 but quick to top them—had never used heroin when he wrote those songs. Croghan and Crane concur, flatly stating that the early heroin songs were about junkies Smith observed in Portland, not himself; instead, he exploited the metaphorical possibilities of addiction as a way to write about ordinary human misery and dysfunctional relationships. In this he recalled William S. Burroughs, using tableaux of drug addiction as stages where other human feelings and failings, rituals of power and abnegation, could be dramatized and explored.
Sadly, the drugs took over with fearful symmetry, as if Smith had tempted fate by describing heroin addiction too acutely to be able to escape its warm embrace—a dark karmic payback. His smack and crack years were in LA, first in a bona fide Disney dwarf cottage and then in a mansion in the hills of Malibu, where he had come to record and live with producer David McConnell. From these and other sessions, Smith’s posthumous LP From a Basement on a Hill was cobbled together by Schnapf and Bolme, with Smith’s family having the final say on which tracks to include. Songs McConnell knew were slotted for the record, “Suicide Machine” and the aforementioned “Abused,” were rejected by the family for being too close to home. Both are great songs, but so are the others that made the cut. Far from being a botched grave robbery, Basement is as strong a musical statement as Smith ever made, with clear evidence of growth and experimentation and, as ever, near-perfect songs, some of which are truly heartbreaking in light of what happened. Unfortunately, with an apparent mandate to avoid any tawdry or exploitative corners of Smith’s life, Rossi gives this period and album short shrift, which is a mistake. I could see the same episode as the basis for a feature-length screenplay, taking as its guidestars Performance (1970), Pink Floyd The Wall (1982), Last Days (2005), and perhaps Moon (2009).
Smith’s last months found him cleaning up with reckless rapidity, dropping drugs, alcohol, coffee, refined sugar, and his oversubscribed battery of psychiatric meds. Living hopefully with girlfriend Jennifer Chiba, he seemed to be on the mend and working on new music. But as Chiba later indicated, the security blanket of substances had kept a lot of unresolved trauma tamped down and unseen for decades; Smith’s precipitous detox allowed these painful, previously hidden memories to flood back. After an argument, Chiba went to the bathroom. Hearing a scream, she ran into the kitchen to see Smith with a kitchen knife stuck in his chest. She removed the blade and called for help. Smith died in the hospital that day.
Rossi’s first involvement with Smith was to film the ad hoc tribute that arose in front of the Solutions Audio store mural in LA, used for the cover shot of Figure 8. By traveling back in time with his camera to explore everything that led up to that day, Rossi fills in texture where there was once only tenderness. This is a sweet, generous film, as sweet and generous as its subject was known to be. The dark stuff will have to wait.
Heaven Adores You plays Saturday, August 2 at the Inspire Theatre in Las Vegas, and Saturday, August 9 at the Kino Cinemas in Melbourne. Further screenings will be announced on the film’s website.