MAHOGANY, THE DIANA ROSS VEHICLE from 1975 that has launched a thousand drag tributes, is the first and only film directed by Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records, which financed the movie; it was originally slated to be the seventeenth feature helmed by Tony Richardson, the British New Wave stalwart. According to an article in the New York Times from February 1975, Richardson—best known for Look Back in Anger (1959), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), and Tom Jones (1963)—was sacked midway through Mahogany’s production because the Motown impresario, who had managed Ross’s career while she was the lead singer of the Supremes, “did not feel Richardson was capturing the feeling of ‘blackness’ necessary to the story of a girl from the Chicago ghetto who achieves success as an international fashion model and designer.”
That “girl” is Tracy Chambers, played by Ross three years after her screen debut as Billie Holiday in the highly successful 1972 biopic Lady Sings the Blues and five years into her career as a solo recording artist. Tracy works as the secretary to the priggish head of the display department of Marshall Field’s, though her off-hours are devoted to fashion classes; the El ride back to her South Side walkup provides the precious few minutes needed to complete the sketch of a design begun in night school. That lavish garment, and several others, will be realized about halfway through Mahogany, as Tracy leaves Chicago for Rome at the invitation of Sean (Anthony Perkins), the sociopathic fashion photographer who discovers her on a shoot at the upscale department store.
In leaving the boot-strapping Windy City for the decadent Old World, Tracy is also abandoning Brian (Billy Dee Williams), a community organizer running for alderman who’s disgusted by his girlfriend’s profession (“Baby, I don’t understand this whole trip”). Williams, once known as the “black Clark Gable,” also played Ross’s love interest in Lady Sings the Blues; in Berry’s film, the actor must revile the other “feeling” necessary to a project about fashion: queerness, which Mahogany simultaneously celebrates and repudiates. Visiting Tracy on a surprise trip to the Italian capital, Brian, whose preferred attire consists of Shaft-inspired ensembles of thick turtlenecks and leather coats, is treated by his lady to a bespoke suit, though the outfit makes him uncomfortable: “I feel like an ol’ sissy walking around in this thing.” He squirms even more at a party thrown by Sean—whose sexual deviance is confirmed by his inability to get it up for Tracy—after a gender illusionist tries to finger-feed Brian a canapé. Butch guest and effete host will soon be tussling in Sean’s gun room; despite the tricked-out, macho redoubt, even here the photographer shoots blanks.
Perkins, who died of complications related to AIDS in 1992 (one year after Richardson’s death from the same illness), had played a queer character before, albeit a far more sympathetic one, in Frank Perry’s adaptation of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays (1972), in which he acted opposite Tuesday Weld as B.Z., a tormented bisexual movie producer. Yet the gayest signifier in Mahogany is, of course, Ross, who also served as the film’s costume designer. (Perhaps the most lavender moment in ’70s cinema occurs when Tracy shows her designs to an indifferent dress manufacturer played by Bruce Vilanch.) The outré japonaiserie that makes Tracy an haute-couture superstar isn’t quite as outlandish as her outbursts at her nonbilingual staff in her atelier: “Don’t give me that ‘non capisco’ shit!” And in the string of rhetorical questions that make up the bulk of the movie’s theme song, which became a number-one hit for Ross, is embedded a query that could have served as a salvo for homosexual intifadists forty years ago: Do you like the things that life is showing you?
Mahogany screens Monday, June 8, at the IFC Center as part of the series “Queer/Art/Film: Black Summer Nights.”
THE CENTRAL QUESTION of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, which made headlines for banning selfies and reportedly insisting that women wear high heels at evening galas, was one of inclusion and exclusion. In other words: What does and doesn’t belong on this hallowed red carpet?
The nucleus of Cannes has always been its official competition, a closely watched shortlist of twenty or so titles that compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or. An annual snapshot of the state of the art, this is historically where the firmament of world cinema is established. The competition consumes the festival’s media oxygen and dictates the schedules of most festivalgoers. Competing titles are guaranteed press conferences and reviews in the daily trade publications. They are also granted the defining accolade of the Cannes red carpet, a ceremonial black-tie walk past the throng of photographers and celebrity rubberneckers up the steps of the Grand Theatre Lumiere. It is along that same carpet, scuffed and stained in the harsh morning light, that the sleep-deprived, lanyard-clad festival proletariat scramble en route to 8:30 AM press screenings of many of those films. The competition, in short, is synonymous with Cannes. But this may well go down as an edition in which a recurrent observation of recent years took hold as an indisputable fact: The competition is not the be-all and end-all of Cannes, and to treat it as such does a disservice to the most significant films in the festival.
This year’s official selection, widely and correctly dismissed as lackluster, included the usual pantheon auteurs, a few new names, and many red-carpet-ready movie stars. But the omissions became even more glaring when the Directors’ Fortnight, the parallel event down the Croisette founded in the wake of the 1968 shutdown, made a show of poaching titles known to have been rejected by the main festival. (These included Philippe Garrel’s generally liked In the Shadow of Women and Arnaud Desplechin’s near-universally loved My Golden Years, which failed to make the cut for a nineteen-title competition that included five French films.) But if the core selection left much to be desired, the festival as a whole offered some truly memorable high points. By my count, there were no fewer than three extraordinary films: Cemetery of Splendour, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first feature since his surprise Palme d’Or for 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; Miguel Gomes’s three-volume, six-hour-plus Arabian Nights, each part premiering on alternate days, a Scheherazade-like exercise in deferred gratification; and the Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-hsien’s reinvention of the martial-arts genre, The Assassin, his first film in eight years. Of these three—works so rich, and richly pleasurable, that I opted to expend precious festival time on repeat viewings of each—only one, The Assassin, showed in the competition.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Rak Ti Khon Kaen (Cemetery of Splendour), 2015, HD video, color, sound, 122 minutes.
Cemetery of Splendour was a late addition to Un Certain Regard, the festival’s secondary competition—shabby treatment for a recent Palme d’Or winner, and even less explicable after the film screened to a rapturous response. Set in and around a hospital ward full of narcoleptic soldiers who may be waging war in their sleep on behalf of long-dead feuding royals, this sun-dappled waking dream is immersive and enveloping, suggestive in many ways of Apichatpong’s recent forays into the art world. The soldiers are hooked up to dream machines with glowing fluorescent tubes that resemble Dan Flavin sculptures; the shifting colors that fill the room and saturate the frame approximate the perceptual magic of a James Turrell light installation. This was a festival with its fair share of afterlife stories, some more interesting (Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore) than others (Gus Van Sant’s The Sea of Trees), but all sentimentally invested in closure and redemption. To slyer and sharper effect than ever, Apichatpong merges supernatural phenomena and mysteries with Thailand’s historical phantoms and present-day national traumas.
Gomes, who is said to have passed on a spot in Un Certain Regard for the Directors’ Fortnight, took an increasingly common subject—Europe’s ongoing economic woes—and reimagined it wholesale. Filmed during Portugal’s recent plunge into austerity, Arabian Nights strives for what its opening titles call “a fictional form from facts.” For a full year, Gomes and his cowriters worked with a team of journalists and a lightning-quick production crew to transmute actual events into the stuff of fable, all of it channeled through the epic shaggy-dog form of the classic folk tale. Scheherazade mastered the teasing art of the cliffhanger as a hedge against death, and Gomes’s film is, accordingly, both urgent and playful, commingling documentary material about the unemployed, local elections, and working-class bird trappers with visions of exploding whales, talking cockerels, ghost dogs, and erection-bestowing magic potions. An immense work of exhilarating freedom, it attempts just about every storytelling device and narrative mode imaginable, veering from political satire to Brechtian theater to tear-jerking melodrama, always conscious that its fantasy dimension is a license for directness, a path to a more meaningful truth.
Even when they conjure the past, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s films exist fully in the moment—which accounts in part for the singular force of his historical dramas—and The Assassin, a hypnotically beautiful evocation of Tang Dynasty–era imperial intrigue, is no exception. An early fight—filmed first as an abrupt flurry of close-ups and then from afar in a long take—sums up Hou’s commitment to rethinking, moment by moment, the rules and, in particular, the staging of the wuxia film. The plot concerns a highly skilled female assassin (Shu Qi, in a near-wordless, brilliantly gestural performance) dispatched to kill a provincial governor (Chang Chen), who also happens to be a cousin to whom she was once betrothed. It’s true, as some predictably complained, that Hou’s fondness for narrative ellipses and disdain for close-ups makes it tricky to diagram the relationships among the characters. But the masterful layering of sensory effects—the caressing camera movements and trance-inducing sound design, the startling shifts between mythic landscapes and opulent interiors awash in gauze and brocade—has the effect of sharpening a sympathetic viewer’s subliminal attention. As always in Hou, what remains unspoken—the invisible forces and secret passions governing the characters—emerges with a stealthy clarity. Readable as an allegory about present-day China-Taiwan relations, The Assassin is above all pure cinema: a hallucinatory interplay of color, movement, and light and a mesmerizing study of bodies in space.
Miguel Gomes, Arabian Nights, 2015, 16 mm and 35 mm, color, sound, 379 minutes.
The jury, led by Joel and Ethan Coen, awarded Hou the Best Director prize in a closing ceremony that concluded with the unexpected bestowal of the Palme d’Or to Jacques Audiard’s indifferently received immigrant drama Dheepan. While it was hard to imagine anyone getting too passionate about Dheepan—the decision smacked of a split jury’s compromise vote—the competition did produce what are almost certain to be two of the year’s biggest critical causes. Todd Haynes’s midcentury lesbian romance Carol, which had reviewers swooning, is an immaculate, purposefully muted Patricia Highsmith adaptation that dares to romanticize the illicit pleasures of the closet. The jury passed over Cate Blanchett, poised as ever in the title role, for her costar, an excellent Rooney Mara (who shared the Best Actress prize with Emmanuelle Bercot for Maiwenn’s My King). The runner-up Grand Prix went to the competition’s most talked-about film, first-time Hungarian director Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul, which follows a Sonderkommando on a mission in an extermination camp, sticking to his circumscribed perspective via a camera that is practically affixed to the protagonist and rendering the surrounding horrors as a shallow-focus blur. Nemes is without question a gifted technician, but this brazen act of showboating seems less a considered challenge than a glib response to the vast body of writing and thinking on the representability of the Holocaust, beginning most obviously with Jacques Rivette’s attack on the use of the tracking shot in Gillo Pontecorvo’s Kapo. For better or more likely worse, Son of Saul is a film that will spawn a thousand think pieces.
The most conspicuous trend was the shift toward larger-scale English-language productions by some of world cinema’s most prominent auteurs. This often meant all-out spectacle, even bloat, as with the Italians Mateo Garrone (Tale of Tales) and Paolo Sorrentino (Youth). In Louder than Bombs, the young Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Reprise) brings his signature empathetic intelligence to the somewhat Sundance-y material of a bourgeois family paralyzed by grief. A more ambitious and altogether successful bid for mainstream attention, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster finds the Greek director honing his specialty—the reductio-ad-absurdum social satire—to a fine, gleaming point. Set in a rulebound world where singles are turned into the animal of their choice if they fail to mate within forty-five days, it won the third-place Jury Prize. Globalization has been a recurring theme for the great Jia Zhangke, and his latest film, Mountains May Depart, although shut out at the awards, already looks like a pivotal work. It unfolds in three parts: a love triangle in coal-mining Fenyang province in 1999, redolent of vintage Jia; a catch-up with the protagonists in booming present-day China; and a flash-forward to Australia, a decade in the future, where some of the principals have landed. Jia has often focused on those cast aside by convulsive change; this film, which expands the horizons of both time and space, and follows characters who have been swept up in the modernizing tide, is perhaps his most emotionally direct yet, held together by an enormously moving performance by his wife and regular star, Zhao Tao.
For a sizable sector of the cinephile contingent, the most anticipated work at Cannes was a film made in 1982 but unseen since: Visit, or Memories and Confessions, by the venerable Manoel de Oliveira, who died at age 106 in April. Oliveira stipulated that this film, due to its personal nature, be shown only after his death, and the Cannes screening followed a premiere at the Cinemateca Portuguesa in Lisbon two weeks earlier. Oliveira’s improbable filmography is full of memento mori; Visit assumes the rare form of an auto-elegy. A prowling camera finds Oliveira in the Porto house where he has lived for four decades and that he is preparing to leave. He addresses the audience directly, setting the film’s droll, convivial tone: He recounts his family history, shares some home movies, reenacts a run-in with the military dictatorship; holds forth on cinema, on men and women, on agriculture and architecture. Oliveira’s late career took the form of a long goodbye, but this actual farewell in no less touching in its simplicity and lucidity. Oliveira made this film at age seventy-three, presumably expecting that he was near the end of his life. He would live another thirty-six years and make another twenty-five or so films, some of them among his greatest, in an extended twilight that was also an artistic prime unlike any other.
The Sixty-Eighth Festival de Cannes ran May 13–24.
Roy Andersson, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 100 minutes.
IMPECCABLY CRAFTED AND VISUALLY ARRESTING, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence, the final chapter of Roy Andersson’s “The Living Trilogy,” is the wittiest, most engaging black comedy I’ve seen in ages. Mastering the art of setting antic action within a meticulously ordered mise-en-scène is not new (Jacques Tati comes to mind), but Andersson’s tone is hardly one-note: At once dour and hilarious, deadpan and dead-serious, it might be that of Ingmar Bergman in prankster mode. Though an introductory title informs us that Andersson’s trilogy is about “being a human being,” every one of this movie’s thirty-nine vignettes, exactingly framed in single-take long shots, seems poised to suggest a detached, even bemused, nonhuman perspective. Having worked in 35 mm, Andersson’s switch to the digital format has, in many ways, enhanced his aesthetic. The resulting increase of sharpness and depth (mistaken for “improvements” when 35-mm films are “restored” digitally) is here used brilliantly, inducing an overall evenness of tone and spatial configuration in Andersson’s wide-angle shots that not only adds to the movie’s painterly allusions—with its muted palette of grays and pastels—but achieves an otherworldly aura suited to its perspective. More than a concession to an inevitable trend, then, the visual hallmarks of digital incarnation, as Andersson exploits them, serve to cleanse his images of a facile naturalism while counterpointing a sensibility that is anything but pallid.
Among the painters Andersson discusses in interviews, he cites Breugel the Elder, particularly his Hunters in the Snow, 1565, in which the visual perspective appears to be that of the four birds perched on the branches of a tree in the foreground above the landscape. While hardly aerial, the carefully sustained angles and distances of Andersson’s camera assume a similarly objective, contemplative stance, which the titular pigeon seems meant to embody. In the pre-credit scene, a museum visitor gazes at a stuffed pigeon placed on a branch in a glass case; midway through, a shy schoolgirl describes her poem about a pigeon “reflecting” on its lack of money. Pigeons also coo now and then on the sound track. But only in the final vignette do these allusions become palpable when several people waiting for a bus suddenly react to the cooing offscreen, looking up in unison just before the movie cuts to black.
Though some vignettes have the same characters and locations, Andersson is less interested in weaving them into a narrative structure than he is in crystalizing the existential thrust of each one. Traveling salesmen Sam and Jonathan (Nils Westblom and Holger Andersson, respectively), for example, appear in ten scenes, peddling useless novelties (a vampire mask, a laughing machine), seeking payment from delinquent shop owners, or sitting forlornly in their rooms at a flop house. When last seen in the penultimate vignette, Jonathan, haunted by bad dreams and fears of meeting his parents in heaven, wanders into the hallway in the middle of the night, ruminating on human nature. If the interactions between these two seem a lugubrious riff on the routines of Laurel and Hardy, by the end they’re not too far from Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon.
Thematic connections also occur. Following the credits, there are “three encounters with death.” To describe these in detail would ruin the experience for the viewer. But it’s worth noting that the increasing distance of the camera from the first to the third evinces the wisdom demonstrated by the great clowns of the silent era: Close-ups were for pathos and tragedy while long shots were for comedy. Chaplin knew and made the most of the difference. The subtle range of feelings induced by each of Andersson’s “encounters” is a poetic reminder of the oft-overlooked symbiotic relationship in films—and digital works—between technical choices and emotional affects.
And yet Andersson’s darkest vignette gives the lie even to this truism. Set in colonial Africa, chained male and female slaves and their children are marched into an immense, bronze-colored drum, strangely adorned with horn-shaped musical instruments protruding from its surface. As the drum revolves, the fire lit under it burns its occupants alive, and their screams are turned into obscenely soothing music emitted through the horns. Here, the extreme long shot serves to underline the callousness of the evils perpetrated by colonial European nations in the name of king and country—a fact underlined by the subsequent vignette, in which aged, privileged Europeans look on at the horror indifferently.
A similar shift in tone occurs earlier in two ambitious set pieces, in which a contemporary restaurant is the setting of dual visits by Sweden’s beloved eighteenth-century King Charles XII and his army. In the first they are en route to a clash with the Russian army; in the second they retreat in defeat. While the humor lies in the movie’s unexpected turn toward the anachronistic—nicely embodied by Charles riding his horse into the restaurant—both scenes convey an equally unexpected poignancy in their sympathetic depiction of this king as a lonely, vulnerable young man. These moments, like the drum scene later, caution us not to reduce Andersson’s work to a one-dimensional view of the human condition. The implicit but unspoken questions that hang over every small-scale incident and character also loom over the image of the king on this incongruous historical stage: Where am I? What am I doing? And why?
But Andersson neither sermonizes, like Melville’s thunderously imperturbable Father Mapple, nor does he wring his hands in despair, like Bergman’s agnostic pastor in Winter Light (1963). History also confirms that unexamined lives make do with slight, but essential consolations. More earnest than the cliché “I’m happy to hear you’re doing fine”repeated into a phone by a number of characters to unknown recipientsis the refrain “What would life be without a shot?” sung by a chorus of regular patrons of a tavern, run by a fabulous barmaid-chanteuse, aptly named Limping Lotta (Charlotta Larsson). We go from the present to a scene in the same place in 1943, where, to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Lotta sings of life’s ills while young men—possibly off to war?—line up for a shot and a kiss.
A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence opens Wednesday, June 3, at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York. A preview of the film screens Tuesday, June 2, at 7 PM to members of New York’s Museum of Arts and Design as part of the series “It’s Hard to Be Human: The Cinema of Roy Andersson” (through June 27).
H. Lee Waters, Movies of Local People (Chapel Hill), 1939, black-and-white, 29 minutes.
THE PROGRAM of Movies of Local People that will play at the Museum of Modern Art in early June is one of several newsreels produced by the traveling filmmaker and entrepreneur H. Lee Waters. Waters photographed communities in the southeast United States (mostly North Carolina) and then sold them back a chance to see themselves on the silver screen, posing and goofing for the camera or otherwise just going about their business, in a limited engagement at a local venue. This particular edition happens to have been made among the black community of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, for screening at the Hollywood Theater, a Blacks Only business in the segregated Triangle cities, which first screened on October 6 and 7, 1939, that fabled movie year of Gone with the Wind.
The inexpiable sin of Hollywood, then and now, is that of omission—the willful ignoring of the quotidian African American life that we see in Waters’s footage. Instead, black representation in the Golden Age, so-called, was for the most part limited to a few pigeonholed types: Toms and Mammies, the occasional prizefighter, nightclub singer, and cutesy ragamuffin. Now as then there is a desire for cinema that addresses an everyday African American experience, a truth indicated by the fact that consumers are willing, literally, to throw money at such cinema when they can. Milestone Films’ at-long-last release of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1978) was among the defining repertory hits of recent memory; when Kino Lorber created a Kickstarter to finance a proposed five-disc, twelve-feature box set dedicated to Pioneers of African-American Cinema, it blew the lid off of its goal right out of the starting gate; filmmaker Julie Dash, by way of Indiegogo, has made considerable progress toward funding Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, about the director of 1991’s landmark Daughters of the Dust.
Daughters of the Dust, Burnett’s magnificent To Sleep with Anger (1990), as well as at least two of the films included in Kino’s box set—Oscar Micheaux’s The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) and Spencer Williams’s The Blood of Jesus (1941)—are all part of “A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration” at MoMA. The twelve-day series has been programmed as a companion to “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North,” which displays the sixty panels of the painter’s migration series through early September. The exhibition is tied loosely to the centennial of the Great Migration, perhaps the most significant demographic shift in American history outside the settling of the West, in which an estimated six million African Americans—including Williams, best known for his starring role on the Amos ’n’ Andy television show, and Dash and Burnett’s parents—left their native South in hopes of new opportunities elsewhere in the United States.
Reasons for that flight appear throughout “A Road Three Hundred Years Long,” as does the iconic image of the Southern sharecropper, tilling a plot of used-up land behind a broken-down mule. (In one case it’s even the same image—Williams repurposes a piece of Roman Freulich’s Broken Earth  as a preamble to The Blood of Jesus.) In The Symbol of the Unconquered, subtitled “A Story of the Ku Klux Klan,” the men under the white hoods are an unscrupulous multiracial horde trying to scare an upstanding homesteader off of his oil-rich land. The film’s plot machinations matter rather less than the fact that Micheaux dared to photograph a torch-bearing Klan rider against a backdrop of blackest night, thus using the machinery of imagemaking to visualize his audience’s oppressors and so take power over them. Human wickedness is accompanied by environmental catastrophe. Pare Lorentz’s The River (1938)—produced by the Resettlement Administration and Farm Security Administration and narrated in that repetitive, forceful cadence common to veteran 1930s lefties (see Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil )—tells of the shortsighted cupidity, the deforestation and strip-mining, that led to the devastating Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.
Kevin Jerome Everson, Company Line, 2009, color, sound, 72 minutes.
The River plays in one of several anthology programs at MoMA, consisting of documentary fragments, home movies, educational films, and archival odds and ends. Its particular program, called “Tributaries: Zora Neale Hurston and Other Chroniclers of the Deep South,” includes Hurston’s unedited footage of her research trip through the Gulf region, accompanied by earthy folk songs (“The women in Tampa they gotta wipe their ass” is a standout lyric). Elsewhere, the sound of gospel music is more or less ubiquitous: The jubilation of “Rev. R.L. Robertson and The Heavenly Choir” competes with bump-and-grind barrelhouse rhythms in the crucible of The Blood of Jesus; “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” concludes Rex Ingraham’s lecture about tuberculosis in the Edgar Ulmer–directed hygiene film Let My People Live (1938); and the choir booms forth after a pulpit pep talk that’s something like a résumé for African Americans, sending them to fight for Uncle Sam in Frank Capra’s The Negro Soldier (1944), which manages to mention the Civil War without noting what it was all about, anyways. (Capra, like Williams, makes free use of recycled imagery, including images from the 1924 Revolutionary War epic directed by none other than . . . D. W. Griffith.)
“A Road Three Hundred Years Long” contains eight feature-length works—the earliest Micheaux’s, the latest Kevin Jerome Everson’s Company Line (2009)—while its centerpiece is a new half-hour film by the video essayist Thom Andersen, whose recent Deleuze-inspired The Thoughts That Once We Had still awaits an East Coast premiere. Andersen, here working on commission for MoMA, has produced Juke: Passages from the Films of Spencer Williams, which plays on a bill with Movies of Local People. Juke finds Andersen again working to redirect the viewer’s “voluntary attention,” as described in his groundbreaking Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), asking viewers to “appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.” Here he has made the parlors, pool halls, Texas honky-tonks, model suburbs, and city streets that form the backdrop to Williams’s narratives the central players.
In reducing Williams’s films to their composite elements of “sociological interest,” the strict materialist Andersen strips them of the spiritual element that presumably drove Williams himself to make them—but he also keeps with the goals of “A Road Three Hundred Years Long”: finding the real story written in the margins of the official document.
“A Road Three Hundred Years Long: Cinema and the Great Migration” runs June 1–12 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Mary Pickford Technicolor test for The Black Pirate, 1926, 35 mm, color, 5 minutes. Print courtesy of George Eastman House; image courtesy of Deutsche Kinemathek.
LET’S TAKE FOR GRANTED the received wisdom which says that the “average moviegoer” can’t tell the difference between a 35-mm print and a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) projection. The conclusion we should draw from this isn’t that there is no difference between these formats, but that the arbiters of film culture, including critics, curators, and absolutely everyone else, have failed entirely to educate a wider public as to what this difference is, and how to talk about it. Cinema is usually a narrative art, but it is always a visual art. Nevertheless, the discussion of the former aspect has traditionally eclipsed the latter, save for within specialized circles, and when visuals are mentioned at all, it’s usually so that they can be dispensed with in a hat-tip namecheck of the cinematographer and a few shopworn, well-tested adjectives (“crisp,” “brilliant,” and other usual suspects).
A brief history of DCP changeover: In March 2002 the Digital Cinema Initiative (DCI) was created through a joint venture by the six major movie studios, with the stated purpose of setting the standards for digital projection systems in anticipation of an eventual no-hitch conversion. Their connivance bore fruit in the year 2009, coinciding with the release of Avatar. Theaters that wanted to play James Cameron’s awful new movie in 3-D would need digital projection to do so. Those who could afford to—that is to say, those with corporate backing behind them—made the change en masse, while many independent, neighborhood, and seasonal theaters without the benefit of outside support were left behind, and those that didn’t close outright were gradually starved of product in the years that followed.
Today, DCP has supplanted 35 mm in virtually all first-run venues, and though some holdouts—most prominent among them celebrity auteurs Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino—are keeping analog celluloid alive as a distribution option, it seems very unlikely that the digital genie will be going back into the bottle. At the same time the repertory film circuit, the institutions with a vested interest in film history, and the archives that service them have carried on an ongoing debate about the merits of DCP versus original format (that is, in any feature film made before the mid-to-late aughts, usually celluloid). In early 2012, Film Forum offered a program called “This Is DCP,” inviting its audience to compare digital restorations of canonical items like The Searchers (1956) and Dr. Strangelove (1964) with 35-mm prints of the same films, with the implicit intention of helping customers stop worrying and love digital. (Press releases without fail refer to 4K DCP restorations as “stunning” or some variation thereof, which falls under the category of “Methinks thou dost protest too much.”) Some New York rep houses, including Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of the Moving Image, and the Museum of Modern Art have remained, for the most part, staunch in their dedication to presenting films on original format, though in this venues are often at the mercy of the lending policies of archives, some of which will only loan out titles in DCP.
Film Forum’s “This Is DCP” was a reference to This Is Cinerama (1952), a showcase for the (ultimately flash-in-the-pan) widescreen process. Anthology Film Archives’ “This Is Celluloid” is, then, a response to the Film Forum program—as well as a challenge, part of a groundswell of efforts to increase the lay viewer’s understanding of what, precisely, they’re looking at when they go to a movie.
Never before has there been such a glut of programming designed to highlight and increase awareness of format. AFA’s three-week program is the first leg of what will eventually be a tripartite series, with subsequent sections highlighting 16-mm and 8-mm prints. In early May, the George Eastman House in Rochester presented its first Nitrate Picture Show festival, a showcase for the particular qualities of nitrocellulose—“nitrate” to its friends—the highly combustible, silver-rich stock which was the industry standard until 1951, while BAMcinématek, beginning around the same time, surveyed the best and worst of “3D in the 21st Century.” A week after the 35-mm section of “This is Celluloid” begins, MoMA will commence its tribute to “Glorious Technicolor,” celebrating the centenary of the color process. This follows a similar program at Eastman House, from whom many of the prints are on loan, while, beginning in mid-June, Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lighthouse has its own “Dreaming in Technicolor” program. (Happily, all of these print-based series have resuscitated the near-dead practice of the press screening.)
The bill of fare of MoMA’s “Glorious Technicolor” spans from the silent era to the end of the 1950s and covers every conceivable genre. I was privileged to see a VistaVision print of Martin and Lewis comedy Artists and Models (1955), the first of Jerry Lewis’s eight collaborations with former Looney Tunes director Frank Tashlin, and a vivid bohemian burlesque incorporating aspects of Abstract Expressionism (spilled paint buckets), Pop art (billboard graphics and Jerry’s Bat Girl comic books), and Op art (a gag involving distorted faces seen through a water cooler) into the fracas—the last before it had even been named. Like “Glorious Technicolor,” Anthology’s “This Is Celluloid” doesn’t have a unifying artistic, thematic, or cultural throughline. It has been organized according to one principle and one principle only: the beauty of the materials shown. AFA screened what its program bills as an “IMMACULATE PRINT!” of Dreadnaught (1981), a deliriously entertaining Hong Kong kung fu movie directed by Yuen Woo-ping, later to become the most acclaimed fight choreographer in all of cinema, with credits including the Matrix and Kill Bill movies and Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster (2013). Dreadnaught—a festive, brazenly artificial riot of reds, yellows, and oranges with a mugging, Lewisesque lead performance by Yuen Biao—blows away several of Yuen’s later, more high-profile projects for sheer exhilarating ingenuity. It can be seen at AFA alongside an opposite-end-of-the-spectrum item like Joseph Losey’s 1951 Hollywood remake of Fritz Lang’s M, which applies high-contrast black-and-white photography to the grubby streets of downtown Los Angeles. (Far from softening the original material, Losey goes even deeper into documentary-style lower-depths verisimilitude, while Lang is represented at AFA by his sublime 1955 Moonfleet, set in a studio-confabulated coastal Georgian England.)
Some of these prints are passing through AFA’s projectors for not the first time. I saw what is presumably the same print of Raoul Walsh’s knockabout Technicolor adventure The World in His Arms (1952) in 2009 at its “One-Eyed Auteurs” series, and was happy to encounter it looking every bit as dashing six years later—evidence that the attrition of “the usual wear-and-tear” is greatly exaggerated, and usually attributable to careless projection. (Less a concern, one hopes, as 35-mm exhibition becomes an increasingly specialized undertaking.) The World in His Arms is part of a big showing for historical yarns, including Moonfleet; Roger Corman’s color-coded The Masque of the Red Death (1964); Delmer Daves’s CinemaScope Western The Last Wagon (1956); John Boorman’s mist-draped jewel box Excalibur (1981); and Taza, Son of Cochise (1954), Douglas Sirk’s second collaboration with Rock Hudson, in which the man who would go on to direct Imitation of Life (1959) evinces the same interest in American racial pathology that marks that later film, and shows himself as a crackerjack director of outdoor action to boot. The most recent work in the series is Vincent Gallo’s 1998 Buffalo ’66, distinctively shot on color reversal stock; along with Mark Romanek/Harris Savides’s 1997 video for Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” it deserves much of the credit and blame for popularizing the flashbulb-lit, Polaroid-porn look that would become ubiquitous through the twenty-first century thus far. Anthology’s program has been assembled through a combination of institutional memory and archival crowdsourcing. In cases of prints that have not recently screened at AFA, archives have been asked to put their best holdings forward. (Due praise for “This Is Celluloid” should be shared with all the lenders, including The Library of Congress [M], Academy Film Archive [Taza], and the American Genre Film Archive [Dreadnaught].)
The DCP changeover, in both first-run and repertory exhibition, came so swiftly—and with the backing of such a powerful consortium of interests—that its unconditional victory seemed assured before the conversation had even begun in earnest. Belatedly—perhaps too late—the issue of DCP versus original format is now having its moment in the court of public opinion. “This Is Celluloid” and “Glorious Technicolor” make explicit what is implicit in any repertory series that prioritizes original format exhibition: There’s more to what you’re watching than just a title. If nothing else, it’s another chance to see what you might soon be missing.
“This Is Celluloid” runs Friday, May 29–Sunday, June 21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. “Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond” runs Friday, June 5–Wednesday, August 5 at the Museum of Modern Art.
NEARLY ALL THE PRESS COVERAGE of Mark Rydell’s The Rose, the 1979 Bette Midler juggernaut, started off by mentioning that the film, about a self-destructive, monstrously talented rocker, was inspired by the too-short life of Janis Joplin—a comparison that Midler was compelled to either acknowledge or disavow when doing the publicity rounds for her debut screen performance. (Prior to Rydell’s project, she’d had a few uncredited movie roles and played the Virgin Mary in a 1971 underground film.) Yet watching The Rose for the first time, thirty-six years after its release, I was perplexed—though quite pleasantly so—to discover that the star trajectory being dramatized wasn’t so much that of the singer known as Pearl (which The Rose, in its first incarnation, was titled) but of the woman who once went by the sobriquet Bathhouse Betty.
Midler, born in 1945 in Honolulu, moved to New York in 1965, landing parts both off-off-Broadway and on it. By 1970, she was headlining at the Continental Baths, the legendary gay sauna housed in the basement of Ansonia Hotel. Her pianist at the Continental, Barry Manilow, would later serve as one of the producers of her first album, 1972’s The Divine Miss M., which reached Billboard’s Top 10, as did its follow-up, Bette Midler (1973). By the time Rydell began shooting The Rose, in the spring of 1978, Midler had released two more albums, had won a Tony and an Emmy, and had become one of Johnny Carson’s most beloved guests. In a feature on the performer that ran in the New York Times shortly after The Rose’s November 7 premiere, Midler said she had turned down roles in, among others, Nashville and Rocky. She chose The Rose—which Rydell insisted he would do only with Midler—“because it was a big film, with music, sound and lights, not an everyday picture. I don’t know if I’ll ever get a part like that again. I hope I do.”
The Rose isn’t big but enormous—a battalion of peerless shooters, including Haskell Wexler and László Kovács, aided cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond with the film’s many vast concert scenes—and made Midler even bigger. As for overlap with the Texas-born Joplin, the movie’s title character, née Mary Rose Foster, also hails from a southern state, Florida, though Midler’s accent wildly roams above and below the Mason-Dixon line. Midler’s tragic heroine abuses the same substances as the real woman who dazzled at 1967’s Monterey Pop Festival and shares her same-sexing past: Rose awkwardly snogs with an ex–lady lover who shows up unannounced backstage before Huston (Frederic Forrest), the singer’s boyfriend, walks in on them and shouts, “Why? Why?” (Midler, not sure where to put her hands or lips on scene partner Sandra McCabe, appears to be wondering the same thing.)
However much these moments line up with Joplin’s own biography, they are essentially generic flameout backstory. But elevating The Rose beyond dead-icon clichés are the scenes that appear to be lifted directly from Midler’s résumé. Specifically, references to her first (and still enduring) core audience, gay men, appear throughout the film. On the night Rose meets Huston, she takes him to a club in the Meatpacking District, where a trio of drag queens—including one played by Sylvester—are headlining. After a fight, the bluesy belter chases her guy into the Luxor Baths, Midler gleefully racing past the pools and popping into the steam rooms of the onetime Theater District redoubt. Crucially, Midler’s actual fans populate the concert scenes: According to the Paula Meija essay that accompanies Criterion’s Blu-ray and DVD release of The Rose, the spectators for these performances, shot live at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles and Veterans Memorial Stadium in Long Beach, were Bathhouse Betty’s most ardent admirers. And it is during these segments that the film’s disregard for its time frame is most glaringly, and touchingly, obvious. Rydell’s movie is set in 1969, though Rose resembles an amalgam of ’70s pop icons: Her mass of strawberry-blond curls recalls Peter Frampton’s, her flowing chiffon raiment Stevie Nicks’s. But the men—and they are almost all men—chanting “Rose! Rose! Rose!” from the bleachers are decked out not like era-appropriate hippies but Castro clones. In The Rose, it’s not just a star—whether Joplin or Midler—who’s made immortal, but an audience.
The Rose is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion.