Ben Chace, Sin Alas, 2015, 16 mm, black-and-white and color, sound, 90 minutes. Isabela (Yulisleivís Rodrígues).
EARLY IN THE ALLURING, bittersweet Sin Alas (Without Wings, 2015), there is a shot as mysterious as a passage in Jorge Luis Borges or José Lezama Lima, the writers that inspired filmmaker Ben Chace’s memory piece about love and loss in a city where past and present soon will be obliterated by the tidal wave of capital that is its future. High above the cluttered cityscape of Havana, the camera captures a pigeon soaring and circling to land inches from the lens. A reasonable explanation: The bird is a homing pigeon and its coop is probably on the roof where Chace and his ace cinematographer Sean Patrick Williams have stationed themselves. If, however, you suspect that bird and camera are secret sharers of a vision beyond the human, then this is a film for you.
Chace’s first feature, Wah Do Dem (2010), which he codirected with Sam Fleischner, also explored a Caribbean island culture (in that film, it was Jamaica) by combining documentary and fiction with energizing local music. His follow-up, Sin Alas, was shot entirely in Cuba before bans on travel and commerce had been lifted to the extent they are today. The film began as a documentary about Cuban literary magical realism and then mutated into a subjective fiction about an elderly former journalist, Luis Vargas (Carlos Padrón), whose long-repressed memories of his passionate affair with a married dancer come flooding back when he learns of her death. But Chace’s original objective—to capture the Cuba of crumbling Spanish-style nineteenth-century architecture, 1950s American cars, and triumphant revolutionary posters, together with vibrant street life of Havana—informs every scene.
Like Havana and rural Cuba as well, Luis’s mind is mapped with memory. Past mixes with present as he walks about the city, finding the mansion where his lover lived with her husband, a military honcho in Castro’s government; the theater where he saw her dance; the park where they secretly met. Sin Alas is exceptional for its temporal fluidity, and for the ingenuity with which Chace brings the past—Cuba both before and after the revolution—convincingly to life on what must have been a miniscule budget. Luis’s passionate encounters with his lover and the melodrama of the triangle in which they were caught, are like scenes from Latin movies of the 1940s. In memory, the actuality of the romance is inseparable from its romantic archetype and even more deeply repressed childhood memories. Late in the film, Luis visits the town where he grew up, Hershey, named for the American chocolate factory where his father was a manager. His purpose is to find the deed that gives him legal rights to his rambling Havana house so that he can leave it to a young couple who for complicated reasons have no place of their own. But he also discovers the origin of his obsessive love for the dancer in his memories of the maid who worked for his parents and was his forbidden object of desire.
Padron, a venerable Cuban stage actor, gives an affecting performance, as does Lieter Ledesma, who portrays Luis as an earnest young journalist, more in love with love than revolution, but perhaps most anxious to save his own skin. Sin Alas is not a political film; rather it shows how people’s lives are defined by personal relationships on which political systems have little effect. As for Cuba, it’s a different matter. We will be grateful for Chace’s evocative souvenir once Walmart, Amazon, and Chase come to town.
Sin Alas plays through Wednesday, May 11 at the Metrograph in New York.
FOR THOSE INTERESTED in the windfall of innovatory midcentury documentary filmmaking, recent weeks have been awfully hectic. The Criterion Collection has just released a four-movie Blu-ray collection of The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates, last month New Yorkers had access to a Film Forum retrospective of the work of Albert and David Maysles, and now Anthology Film Archives is hosting a thirteen-day, seventeen-program, thirty-something-film series dedicated to “Québec Direct Cinema.”
To US audiences, the films produced under the auspices of Québec Direct Cinema may be less well known than the contemporary works produced by Drew, the Maysles, and Pennebaker out of New York, or the output of filmmaker-anthropologist Jean Rouch in Paris and Africa. If you’ve taken a university documentary class, you might at least be familiar with Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor’s Lonely Boy (1961), a twenty-six-minute backstage doc which accompanies Ottawa-born singer-songwriter Paul Anka on dates from Atlantic City to Bronx amusement park Freedomland USA. (Koenig was a German émigré and Kroitor a native of Saskatchewan, though both were instrumental in inspiring and encouraging Quebecois talent through their CBC program Candid Eye.) Re-viewed, Lonely Boy seems at least several centuries removed from the media-savviness of, say, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011), and acts as a time capsule not only of some of the gnarliest Greater Philadelphia–area accents you’ll ever hear, but of the queer, transitional moment in pop music between Elvis’s Army stint and Beatlemania, when it seemed for a moment that the cultural id might’ve been packed back into the box forevermore, and the airwaves might have been handed back over to nice, well-kempt young crooners like Anka.
A sense of pregnant anticipation for something to happen pervades the early Québec Direct Cinema productions—not just retrospectively, from the vantage of the present, but as an element of their conscious history-in-the-making construction. The films first appeared in the period immediately preceding the so-called Quiet Revolution that began with the premiership of Jean Lesage, years during which the state would take over the business of welfare from the Catholic church, which had previously run the province as something skirting on a theocracy, and when there was a sudden upswing in Quebecois nationalism, as a portion of the Francophone population—relatively impoverished in relation to their Anglophone neighbors—began to consider their situation in light of other contemporary struggles for self-determination by colonized peoples around the world, an act of political awakening dramatized in Gilles Groulx’s docufiction Le Chat dans le sac (The Cat Out of the Bag, 1964).
Groulx, along with Koenig, Kroitor, Michel Brault, and other key Direct Cinema figures, honed his talents using the facilities of the state-sponsored National Film Board (NFB), which, significantly, relocated from Ottawa to Montreal in 1956. (They are also underwriting the series, curated by NFB conservator Carol Faucher.) The earliest works in AFA’s program are Colin Low’s Corral (1954), a silent, observational vignette of an Alberta cowboy at work herding wild mustangs deftly shot by Koenig, in which one can practically smell the sweat and buckskins, and Kroitor’s Paul Tomkowicz: Street-Railway Switchman (1954), a portrait of a sixty-four-year-old Polish émigré in his last year on the job clearing frost and muck from the tracks of a Winnipeg streetcar line.
Throughout the series, one finds a concern with the quotidian realities of Canadian workers, bending down between the rows with tobacco harvesters in southern Ontario (The Back-Breaking Leaf, 1959) or explaining the lots of Quebecois lumberjacks (Bûcherons de la Manouane, 1962), copper ore miners (Normétal, 1959), and paper-mill workers (Jour après jour, 1962). Boiled down to subject matter, these titles may sound like caricatures of dour, responsible state-sponsored art, but the films themselves are something very different. New lightweight equipment and sensitive film stocks that could photograph in low-light (and low-life) conditions enabled high-contrast nocturnal photography and deft stick-and-move handheld camerawork—even a fairly routine piece like Koenig, Terence Macartney-Filgate, and Stanley Jackson’s Montreal-shot The Days Before Christmas (1958), made for Candid Eye, features little bravura sequences like cameraman Brault following the unholstered revolver of an armored car guard making the final pickup rounds before the bank holiday. At a moment when much of popular narrative cinema was suffering from CinemaScope lugubriousness and the still-firm grip of Hollywood decorum, the best of the new documentaries offered visual rock ’n’ roll—shown to good advantage, one hopes, in AFA’s laudably 16- and 35-mm print–heavy program.
Many of the landmark Direct Cinema films dealt not with work but with leisure—the former sometimes appearing as curiously serene, the latter sometimes as quite violent. Brault and Groulx’s Les Raquetteurs (1958), depicting a formal meetup of snowshoers in Sherbrooke, Quebec, near the border with New York State, is a key work, dispensing with instructive narration and concentrating on ambiance rather than incident, giving as much screen time to spectators as to competitors. A direct line can be drawn from Les Raquetteurs to La Lutte (Wrestling, 1961), codirected by Brault, Marcel Carrière, Claude Fournier, and Claude Jutra, which revels in the performances of professional wrestlers at the Forum de Montréal, seen pretzeling together hairy ham-hock limbs to the strains of Bach, while the crowds vent their seething, latent energies in cheering on hometown favorites. The filmmakers were assisted in finding their approach by Roland Barthes, whom Brault met when the philosopher was visiting in Montreal, and whose thoughts on the mass ritual of the sporting event can also be detected behind Groulx’s Golden Gloves (1961) and Un Jeu si simple (1965), which respectively focus on amateur boxing and professional hockey, particularly the Montreal Canadiens, whose defenseman Lou Fontinato we see sustaining a broken neck. (Coincidentally, the direct cinema program appears only a couple of weeks after AFA’s series “Barthes at the Movies: A Retrospective.”)
Barthes dissuaded Brault and his collaborators from making La Lutte an exposé of wrestling’s fakery, instead steering them into producing something suppler and more ambiguous, while Rouch’s technique of “collaborative ethnofiction” profoundly influenced many of the Direct Cinema filmmakers in their disavowal of traditional documentary’s fly-on-the-wall sleight for an approach that admitted to the presence of the man behind the curtain. Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac is among several works here in which Direct Cinema pioneers can be found employing documentary tactics within the framework of narrative filmmaking—one can also see Brault’s Entre la mer et l’eau douce (1967), starring chansonnier Claude Gauthier and Geneviève Bujold, and A tout prendre (1963), the autobiographical second feature by Claude Jutra, a towering figure in Quebecois cinema who, like Brault, learned at Rouch’s feet, and who, unhappily, has recently been in the news in French Canada due to posthumous allegations of pedophilia. A tout prendre and Le Chat dans le sac may be considered the Quebecois landfall of the French New Wave spirit, comparisons which the films openly court. Jutra is perhaps closest in tone and approach to his friend Truffaut, while Groulx’s jump cut–rippled drama is in dialogue with Godard—the film, brimming with the restless, saturnine spirit of uncorrupted and insufferably pure youth, features Barbara Ulrich and Claude Godbout as two twenty-year-old lovers, a would-be actress who fancies that she resembles Anna Karina in Vivre sa vie (1962) and a Frantz Fanon–reading Quebec separatist who gets a classic kiss-off from a middle-aged newspaper editor: “Do you know the world you’re going to change?”
The world was changing and fast, a fact of which the 1960s Direct Cinema filmmakers were acutely aware and which they sought to capture before the change was irrevocable. Even a work like À Saint-Henri le Cinq Septembre (September Five at Saint-Henri, 1962), comprising scenes taken around the rough, blue-collar precincts of Saint-Henri in Montreal in the course of a single day by a team of Direct Cinema luminaries including Brault and Jutra, today invites a measure of nostalgia for a bygone working-class culture. Any such temptation is severely complicated by a viewing of the staggering The Things I Cannot Change (1966), in which twenty-two-year-old Tanya Ballantine gained full access to the home of Kenneth Bailey, a sporadically employed short-order cook, his wife Gertrude, and their nine young children (a tenth arrives in the course of the film, the other main event of which is Kenneth having his lights punched out). Ballantine’s film of the Baileys, isolated Anglos in Montreal’s La Petite-Bourgogne neighborhood, ignited a controversy over the filmmaker’s alleged exploitation of her subjects, but what shines through today is the depiction of a home defined by an abundance of love and a paucity of resources—circumstances in which film art can sometimes thrive best.
“Québec Direct Cinema” runs through May 17 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
IF EVER A FILMMAKER’S life and work are a cri de coeur for psychological scrutiny, it is Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s. Both the title and chapter headings of Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands indicate that Danish director Christian Braad Thomsen takes this plea seriously. At the heart of his revelatory documentary, which he also narrates, is an interview he conducted with Fassbinder in 1978 during the Cannes Film Festival where Fassbinder’s Despair was featured—an interview which Thomsen says he “dared not watch” for thirty years. Visibly depleted, Fassbinder sits, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, rambling from abstract generalities to startling confessions, as earnestness vies with performance. One struggles to reconcile the needy child of “possibly indifferent” parents with the willful boy who resisted authority, as one does to separate the man desperate to be understood from the skeptic convinced that no one understands anyone, that all feelings are manipulated and all relationships are power struggles.
Whatever once made him wary of this interview, Thomsen eventually realized that beyond the fog was a goldmine—as if he had rediscovered a long-lost psychoanalytic session with a patient whose apparent maundering contained more truths than he suspected. It’s no surprise then that everything in Thomsen’s documentary expands on these impressions—from film clips, to an earlier interview with Fassbinder and recent ones with actors who worked with him. While Thomsen does not cover the entire career, he has constructed a moving, nuanced, and unsettling portrait of his friend.
After completing a few short films, Fassbinder hit the screen running in 1969 with Love Is Colder than Death, a stylized effort to “reinvent the cinema,” Thomsen opines, which, though it won Best Film, was roundly booed at the Berlin Film Festival. Over the next thirteen years—in addition to staging and sometimes acting in plays—Fassbinder directed nearly sixty theatrical and television movies, a rate of production unparalleled in film history, and terminated only by his death at age thirty-seven in 1982. Speculations as to whether he died from cocaine and barbiturates, sheer exhaustion, or an overdose of sleeping pills seemed almost beside the point in light of his suicidal compulsion to keep working—the “only thing,” he once said, that made him feel “that [he] existed.” Was it an effort to distract himself from the emotional fallout of his childhood? Or to compensate for his tortured affairs? Or to punish himself for the wretched fates to which he drove ex-lovers? All true and all grist for the mill.
As reams of articles, interviews, and personal accounts attest, Fassbinder used and misused nearly everyone with whom he worked professionally, most of them victims of the same postwar generational malaise, seducing them into playing out a perverse “family romance” via the “anti-theater” group he formed. He acted out his own sadomasochistic tendencies by deliberately provoking theirs—both on and off screen—only to reject them in the end, fully spent, as so many discarded props of his films and his ego. He was, in short, a tyrant, a narcissist, and a genius—and he’d be the first to acknowledge all three. How else to describe an artist whose grandiose ambition was “to be for cinema what Shakespeare was for theater, Marx for politics, and Freud for psychology—someone after whom nothing is as it used to be.”
Thomsen was initially struck by the “poetic” texts of such films as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972) and Effi Briest (1974), which contradicted his childhood impression—formed by the Nazi occupation of Denmark—that German was the language of soldiers, judges, and executioners. With clips from those films and others, he illustrates how Fassbinder wove his biography and experiences into the fabric of each work, constructing an accumulated image of West German life from the 1950s to the ’70s remarkably in tune with social and political reality. This was no small part of his genius. In Gods of the Plague and The American Soldier (both 1970), considered amateur efforts to ape Hollywood’s gangster genre, the gangster and the cop are two sides of an “ailing society,” both doing a “dirty job.” Though a relentless social critic, Fassbinder was never aligned with extreme left-wing groups like Baader-Meinhof, which he believed resorted to the same fascist tactics as those they opposed. For him the relationship of society and the individual was more complex, something he explored perhaps most ambitiously in his television series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), based on Alfred Döblin’s novel, in which the protagonist Franz Biberkopf, former convict and pimp, was, in Fassbinder’s view, the kind of man drawn to Nazi ideology.
As one who believed that everyone had a second, contradictory self that demanded acknowledgment, Fassbinder used the pseudonym “Franz Walsch” in the credits of early films, fusing the first name of the charming, quasi-fascist protagonist of Alexanderplatz with the last name of Raoul Walsh, one of his favorite Hollywood directors. The notion that one’s divided personality is a product of social convention is as true of his reworking of Döblin as it is of his other literary adaptations, Effi Briest, The Stationmaster’s Wife (1977), Despair (1978), and Querelle (1982), all of which resonate autobiographically.
No title more explicitly proclaims the anguish underlying Fassbinder’s work than the Oedipally tinged I Only Want You to Love Me (1978). And there is no more literal indication of how he used his movies to act out conflicts rooted in childhood than casting his mother, Lilo Pempeit, either as a stern, unforgiving parent or a passive “blind follower.” Speaking of Fassbinder’s Oedipal issues in the 1978 interview, Thomsen wittily but wisely suggests that this use of his mother was the same as killing her. In the nonfiction Germany in Autumn (1978), Fassbinder castigates her mercilessly as typical of her generation’s responsibility for the rise of Hitler. In a 1982 recording included here, Pempeit says she was clueless as to what was happening during the war, and after it, was “incapable of raising a child.” While her son’s indictment stands, his own tendency toward bullying is on display in the next scene as he abuses the actor Armin Meier, his real lover at the time, who later committed suicide.
Given his image of his mother and an absent father, Fassbinder sought “mothers and fathers” in the prewar generation to whom he looked for guidance and inspiration: Freud, whose Moses and Monotheism he wanted to film; Döblin, Brecht, Marieluise Fleißer, and Oskar Maria von Graf, writers whose works he adapted; and American director Douglas Sirk, who inspired him to make films with wider appeal without forfeiting his critical perspective. In fusing melodrama with Brechtian alienation, a move compatible with the notion of the divided self, he found the formula that generated the stylistic shift that began with The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) and which sealed his reputation as a world-class director when Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) won the International Critics Prize at Cannes.
It is a perfect reflection of Fassbinder’s unholy mix of genius and monster that one of the most illuminating aspects of Thomsen’s film—his interviews with the actors Harry Baer, Irm Hermann, and Andrea Schöber—is also the most painful. Hermann and Baer were with him from the start. Schöber plays the daughter of the depressed worker in Merchant who drinks himself to death—and whose mother, coincidentally, considers him worthless—and went on to play the crippled, unloved child in Chinese Roulette (1976). If she was the house child star, Hermann was the resident hausfrau, a cold, passive creature in Merchant of Four Seasons, whose barely disguised masochism is in full bloom as Marlene, the mute slave of Petra von Kant. To hear both women speak in the present of the Svengali-like blend of attention and cruelty that bound them to Fassbinder is to sense the inextricable bond between masochist and sadist that may underlie most prolonged artistic relationships, but which in the case of Fassbinder and his entourage blurred the line between fiction and reality.
Fassbinder: To Love Without Demands plays Friday, April 29 through Thursday, May 5 at Metrograph in New York.
THE FACE IS ICONIC: a Capote puckishness flaunting a Warhol cool, eyes alert with faux innocence, starkly framed by round, oversized, black-rimmed glasses, which, like the ones worn by silent clown Harold Lloyd, could easily pass for fake; everything topped by shocks of brilliant blonde—apparently dyed. This is David Hockney—painter, draughtsman, photographer, stage designer—in his brazen, flamboyant posture as naughty boy—one of Pop art’s quintessential stars.
Occasionally, time can be kind, so while that era’s glitz and hipness has faded, Hockney’s art looms larger and clearer than ever. At least that is the impression left by Randall Wright’s engaging documentary Hockney. With the artist as guide—in the present and in earlier interviews—we are taken on what could qualify as a whirlwind tour, but for the calm, sober-minded approach of filmmaker, artist, and the many interviewees with firsthand knowledge of the man and his work.
Hockney is as comfortable recalling his working-class roots in Bradford, England—where, as the fourth of five children, he remembers ducking under the stairs during the London Blitz—as he is speaking of his quick rise to fame during the groovy London of the 1960s, of recounting a customs agent’s confiscation of his male nudie magazines, or conceding his fascination with the male hustler’s life as described in John Rechy’s once notorious novel City of Night. Rechy’s Los Angeles—comprising anonymous sex, “all night movies and Beverly Hills mansions”—became Hockney’s dream city, “three times better than I ever imagined,” where, except for trips back and forth to England and the continent, he has lived and worked most of his life, nestled in the Hollywood Hills.
Part of radio’s last generation Hockney was so addicted to the “pictures” from America that he felt he had been raised in Hollywood. That, in addition to his “claustrophobic” English home, further explains why he was drawn to a city one must negotiate by car, which abounds in dazzling sunlight and open spaces and reeks with celebrity both counterfeit and real. Journalist Tim Lewis recently remarked that while driving to the artist’s home and looking out at the landscapes the “absurd oranges, greens, blues, and reds” of Hockney’s paintings are actually “disconcertingly realistic”—a remark that attests to the artist’s gift for capturing the essence of a subject beyond its naturalistic surface.
Wright is less interested in leaning on the judgments of art critics and historians than he is in the memories and appraisals of friends, colleagues, and lovers—and Hockney himself. Rarely seen photos and footage document his close friendship with curator Henry Geldzahler, whose persona here could not be more different from the aloof pose he strikes in one of Warhol’s film portraits. The rapport between them apparently went deep, beyond their mutual love of literature and the arts. Geldzahler consoled Hockney in times of grief—such as when the latter broke with Peter Schlesinger, his first lover—but both lost many friends during the AIDS crisis.
Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of Wright’s deceptively simple approach is how much we learn from Hockney himself, thanks to his generosity in sharing what motivates him, and his amazing ability to discuss aesthetic choices in simple terms. He was so deeply impressed by Wallace Stevens, for example, that he made a series of etchings in 1976 inspired by the poet’s “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” which he is quick to tell us was itself inspired by the famous painting by Picasso. Even his gnomic utterances, which Wright could not resist inserting throughout like chapter headings, lack pretension. As we listen to the aging artist, we realize that he is as alert to and as excited as ever about cultural forces and technical advances and what they mean for his art. It’s no surprise that the man so deeply affected by the movies in his youth has, for the past few years, been painting hundreds of portraits and landscapes on his iPad.
The overall impression this documentary creates is that Hockney seemed both inside and outside the very culture and era he helped to define, keenly aware of how one’s private self can easily dissolve into the unreality of public celebrity. The very fact that he became famous immediately and that whatever he did was accepted carried the danger of not being taken seriously. How could he avoid projecting these tensions between his inner and outer self into his work?
For example, many of his famous portraits—Beverly Hills Housewife, 1967, and Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, 1968—began with a black-and-white photograph. Hockney would compose the painting pretty much as he had the photo, but then would paint without regard for the lighting and tones of the original setting, juxtaposing blocks of brilliant color as discrete, clearly bordered entities that stand alone rather than bleed into the backdrop—as if the people he painted were both inside and outside the environment. Foreground and background lose their status and take their places alongside all other separate areas of color. Even a shadow—of a chair, say—takes on a separate existence distinct from its source. While some might characterize such a style as artificial or surreal, it gives the figures in the paintings a psychological dimension not immediately apparent and which results from the artist’s personal experience of the divide between inside and outside.
Even Hockney’s thoughts about composition, borders, and vanishing points seem rooted in his childhood memories. While speaking enthusiastically of his love of Hollywood movies, he remembers having a sense that the image went on endlessly, that sitting so close to the screen, borders seemed either nonexistent or “miles away,” beyond the confines or outlines of the theater. This describes a typical experience of young children whose undeveloped ability to distinguish real space from fantasy facilitates psychological immersion. The same phenomenon can induce the exact opposite in adults, provoking fears of psychic disintegration, of an inability to hold oneself together.
Such phenomena may be discerned in Hockney’s play with illusionism—he found it “fun”—and in his serious efforts to deal with vanishing points, as well as his pronounced use of borders and edges. With regard to A Bigger Splash, 1967, for example—in which a white spray bursts up in the center of the painting from an unseen dive into a pool—he notes how deliberately the diving board projecting over the pool from the lower frame is cut off at the edge of the canvas. While the implied out of frame space seems at one with that of the viewer, the latter’s tendency to be drawn into optical immersion with the painting is arrested by the strong use of borders and perspective.
One of the documentary’s last talking heads, fellow artist David Oxtoby, remarks that despite having lived in the glamorous world of fame, celebrity, and the fast life, Hockney remains the same person who grew up in a working-class family in Yorkshire. It’s hard not to think about this while watching the movie’s final moments As the credits are superimposed, Wright’s camera follows the seventy-eight-year-old Hockney strolling comfortably and quietly through the lush grounds of his sunny California home, every once in a while looking back for no apparent reason. And then, at the last second, we hear an off-screen dive into a perfectly blue pool.
Hockney opens Friday, April 22 in New York and Los Angeles.
Lazar Stojanovic, Plastic Jesus, 1971, color, sound, 73 minutes.
IN 1971, before it had a first run in its native land, Plastic Jesus was confiscated by the Yugoslavian government of Josip Broz Tito, and its young director, Lazar Stojanovic, was thrown in the clink by a military court for “anti-state activities and propaganda.” His stay lasted several months or a few years, depending on the account, but at any rate it was plenty of time to think over what he’d done. Well, Tito died before the dawn of MTV, Yugoslavia began its anguished atomization not long after the fall of Communism, and now Stojanovic is presenting the New York premiere of his Belgrade Academy of Dramatic Arts thesis film at the Museum of Modern Art, which goes to show that if you can’t beat ’em, the least you can do is outlive ’em.
The sacrilegious title of Stojanovic’s debut feature comes from the American novelty song written by Ed Rush and George Cromarty—one of the folk ditties of all nations which the film’s soundtrack is papered with—but it’s the graven image of the secular God, Tito, that’s implicitly receiving the razzing in Stojanovic’s scattershot satire, which whip-pans between a mock-heroic past and a louche, loutish present, between found-footage documentary and a lightly fictionalized portrayal of the New Morality as it was functioning in contemporary Belgrade.
Things like this weren’t supposed to happen in Yugoslavia, where the ruling single party avoided alignment with either Moscow or Washington, progressively mixed aspects of free-market capitalism and socialism, and poured state money into avant-garde art. This was the country where communism swung, where the young people wore dungarees and laughed at socialist realism, the home of young Marina Abramović and the New Art Practice and the animations of the Zagreb Film Company and the Black Wave films of Dušan Makavejev, whose 1958 short Monuments Should Not Be Trusted recently lent its title to a recently wrapped survey of Yugoslav art at Nottingham Contemporary.
What did Plastic Jesus do to crack the veneer? At the center of the straight narrative is a picaro played by the Croatian performance artist and experimental filmmaker Tomislav “Tom” Gotovac, a hulking figure with a humongous beard and receding hairline who is first seen, wearing a peace button pinned to his denim jacket, reading the credits in a singsong voice. Tom, a native of Zagreb living in Belgrade, thirty-three years old like Christ at the time of his death, is a film director, though what we see of his work is mostly arty underground cheesecake stuff, and the narrative is driven more by his troubled relations with women than by his tortured aesthetic ambitions.
As the movie begins Tom is keeping company with an American girl—she’s the one who warbles the title tune, and most of their interactions seem to consist of batting around their respective national songbooks, though they also pay a visit to Saint George’s Church, where she’s eager to see the crypt containing the Karađorđević Kings. When his little Yank takes a powder, Tom takes up with his blonde landlady, whose husband is abroad, only to have her bounce him out onto the street when things go south. (The problems begin when he runs rushes of a softcore shoot while her young daughter is hanging around his room.) Tom hits rock bottom from here, slipped a mickey and stripped by some shady associates, after which he runs nude along Sremska Street in the city center and is picked up by the police, who forcefully shave his scalp and beard as punishment for his failure to resemble his ID. Despite the fact that he now looks like a Holbein, Tom manages to get in with his ex’s husband’s sister. She tries to set him up with a television producer for work, he repays her by playing grabass with her brother’s wife on a trip to the provinces, and she shoots him dead in a pond at the end of a rather gorgeous mock-pastoral long-take—as his corpse bobs on the water’s surface, the panicked siblings are trying to decide how to dispose of the body.
In addition to these narrative vignettes—mostly single-shot scenes in shadowless rooms filmed from a stationary camera, sometimes condensed with jump-cuts—there are interjections in which Gotovac direct-addresses the viewer, offering such bon mots as, “The only connection between politics and sex is under the bedsheets” or abruptly standing up to let his limp cock dangle into the frame. Throughout the film there is a glee in provocation for the provocation’s sake, which is fairly typical of art-school kids anywhere—when Tom announces his pleasure in filming homosexuals, Stojanovic cuts to his star smooching another man—though the difference here is, of course, there happened to be real-world repercussions for playing the game of épater les commissars.
Politics and sex are the two items that Plastic Jesus seems most to have on its mind. Shuffled into Tom’s story is a sort of history of Yugoslavia during World War II, as told through the cinematic detritus left behind by all involved parties—a combination of documentary footage with original material similar to that which was almost simultaneously undertaken by Dušan Makavejev in his far-better-known examination of politics in the boudoir, WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). Most of the films from which Stojanovic is lifting material are straightforward propaganda, in which we hear calls for courageous sacrifice from Tito’s Communist Partisans, the nationalist Chetniks, Ustaše fascists, German conquerors, Soviet saviors, and so forth, often in full-throated marching songs using lyrics that seem to have been bought from the same wholesale anthem dealer. (That these factions seem indistinguishable when so viewed is very much the point.) In some cases, the archival and original footage interface playfully, as when Nazi motorcade victory laps through flattened landscapes are intercut with a joy ride through the outskirts of Belgrade, which look as though they are in the midst of being excavated or razed. There are also several pieces of found footage that pertain to the German worship of physique and Freikörperkultur (Free Body Culture), opening into wider reflections on the relationship of the state and the sovereign body which end with a fatal assertion of ownership.
A censor might have taken issue with any number of items in here, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was a seemingly innocuous scene depicting the wedding of two of Stojanovic’s friends, Ljubiša Ristić and Višnja Poštić, who happened to be related to Generals in the Yugoslav People’s Army. The inclusion of pseudo-surreptitious footage of high revolutionary officials milling about at a bourgeois ceremony under the benevolent gaze of a bas relief Tito was one piss-take too many, and Stojanovic was caught up in what would be a quiet crackdown. Gotovac, who would reproduce his streak down Sremska Street ten years later for a performance in Zagreb, had his art school matriculation delayed for years. Aleksandar Petrović, the professor who had been instrumental in completing Plastic Jesus, found his latest film, an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, suddenly withdrawn from distribution, around the time that a “Letter” issued by Tito in September 1972 recommended a rollback on liberalism in the wake of the Croatian Spring.
I haven’t seen Stojanovic’s later film work, which apparently includes a 2008 documentary incorporating footage of the war crimes of a Serbian paramilitary group during the Bosnian War. It’s certainly true that nothing would achieve the notoriety of Plastic Jesus—the communist nations, like the capitalist ones, produced their share of filmmakers too insubordinate to thrive within the system. But freed of its original, oppositional “use-value,” Plastic Jesus is more than a time-capsule, a counterpropaganda equivalent to the newsreels from which Stojanovic freely clips. Brimming with youthful bellicosity, it’s a live-wire with some crackle in it yet.
Roberto Minervini, The Other Side, 2015, color, sound, 92 minutes.
THROUGH THE YEARS so many films have been said in reviews and calendar copy to “blur the boundaries” between documentary and fiction filmmaking that we might reasonably expect that the work is done by now, and that those lines—never a legally well-defined border to begin with—are well and truly blurred, there’s no putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, and that a handful of tropes of representation that were once given to constitute documentary realism were a fluke in the history of the medium rather than its essence.
If there’s still some purpose for boundaries, it must be to determine what films go in what festivals. To wit, the Art of the Real, which began its existence as a regular documentary showcase at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, is now in its third year as an annual festival, and forever redefining the limitations of its mandate. It was ushered into being by the absence of a dedicated showcase for formally ambitious films employing elements of documentary practice in New York City, and a hole in FSLC’s already festival-packed calendar.
At the center of the program this year is a celluloid-heavy retrospective, “All My Life: The Films of Bruce Baillie,” an extensive exhibition of the work of the eighty-four-year-old filmmaker who is perhaps not usually considered as a documentarian, and whose importance also extends to his role as the founder of both Canyon Cinema and the San Francisco Cinematheque. While the program takes some care to emphasize the nonfiction aspects of Baillie’s filmography, including several of his docs made under the rubric of The News and intended to be played at Canyon Cinema venues, it is a little more difficult to comprehend how Daïchi Saïto’s Engram of Returning, included in one of two shorts programs, qualifies. Not that I’m complaining, mind you—it’s an opportunity to see the film projected in anamorphic 35 mm, which I have been told is quite the experience, and even viewed with laptop hardware the combination of glimpsed landscapes splashing out of darkness and Jason Sharp’s worrying saxophone score makes quite an impression.
Sergio Oksman, O Futebol, 2015, color, sound, 70 minutes.
Art of the Real is a summary of recent work rather than a showcase for premieres, and there are a few no-brainer recommendations in this batch. The Thoughts That Once We Had, the most recent essay film by one of the form’s acknowledged curmudgeon-masters, Thom Anderson, has its New York premiere here. Born from decades of Anderson’s teaching cinema through the writings of Deleuze and vice versa, the film—his most sprawling work since Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)—sets out to illustrate key concepts from Deleuze’s Cinéma 1. L’Image-Mouvement (The Movement Image, 1983) and Cinéma 2. L’Image-temps (The Time-Image, 1985) via film clips and text excerpts, while also holding court on such varied yet interrelated topics as the perfidy of Chubby Checker, the genius of character actor Timothy Carey, and Anderson’s adulation of Debra Paget. Anderson is prone to reinventing himself from project to project, and his latest is no exception, surprising in that it finds a filmmaker best known for his skepticism toward Hollywood product here openly in thrall to the power of the screen’s seduction.
São Paolo–born, Madrid-based Sergio Oksman isn’t an established name on Anderson’s level, but if there’s any justice his O Futebol will go some ways toward correcting that fact. The film is a deliberately distanced experiment in father-son bonding between the filmmaker and his long-estranged dad shot during the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, played out within a rigid framework which doesn’t buckle even with the appearance of unexpected tragedy. O Futebol has been kicking around the festival circuit for the better part of a year now; I saw it in August 2015, and I don’t think I’ve had a more viscerally emotional moviegoing experience since. Also of special note is the opening-night film, The Other Side, the fourth feature by Italian-American director Roberto Minervini, already acquired for domestic release by Film Movement, and his first collaborative ethnography exercise shot outside of his home state of Texas. Minervini here works with two different and not-so-different sets of citizens in West Monroe, Louisiana—ex-con methamphetamine addicts and a paramilitary militia drilling in preparation for the day that Obama and FEMA come down to try to disarm them—offering a window into their worlds that has been assiduously rubbed clean of the filmmakers’ telltale fingerprints.
Bracketing the series on the other end is closer A Magical Substance Flows into Me, Jumana Manna’s first feature, which uses as its stepping-off point the writings and recordings of the German-Jewish ethnomusicologist Robert Lachmann, a figure who has been likened to Alan Lomax for his work in documenting the indigenous musics of the varied ethnic groups that he found living in Palestine upon his arrival in 1935: Moroccan Jews, Bedouins, Kurds, Copts, Samaritans, and so forth. Manna uses Lachmann’s recordings as a way to infiltrate the homes of descendants of these groups, catching glimpses of quotidian activity as she invites her subjects to hear the voices of their ancestors through the speakers of a cracked iPhone, and incidentally assembling a panoramic portrait of contemporary Jerusalem and its environs as she shoots her own contemporary vignettes of musicians at play.
In the game of “spot the dominating lineup theme,” a few possibilities stand out: Self-sufficient solitude can be tracked through in Ben Rivers’s What Means Something, revival pick The Moon and the Sledgehammer (1971), or Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis’s Il Solengo, in which elderly local boar hunters advance their theories about what led a somewhat-legendary recently-deceased hermit, Mario de Marcella, to break from civilization and spend more than six decades of his life holed up in a cave on a game reserve in Pratolongo, not far from Rome. In telling the story of de Marcella, the subjects reveal a great deal about local and national history, the vagaries of collective village memory, the tenacity of (possibly misremembered) childhood fear, and, inadvertently, themselves.
José Luis Guerín, Academy of the Muses, 2015, color, sound, 92 minutes.
Along with A Magical Substance, two other films, taking their own highly individual approaches, look into the folkloric origins of lyrical traditions. Ju Anqi’s Poet on a Business Trip is a sordid road movie epic which itself took a roundabout route to the screen, shot in fall of 2002 and edited twelve and a half years later, just in time to win the Grand Prize at the Jeonju International Film Festival last year. Done on cruddy, consumer-quality black-and-white digital video, the film follows Xianbo Hou, a thirty-year-old poet from Shanghai, on a journey through the Gobi Desert and to the wild northwest and the rugged Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, schlepping on buses and hitching rides from drunk-driving long-haul truckers. Hou’s misadventures, deadpan exchanges involving cab drivers, working girls, and country shepherds, are punctuated with instances of the work produced on his “business trip,” sixteen poems, mostly suffused with melancholia, which more or less obliquely may be connected to what we have seen happening to him.
L’Accademia delle Muse (Academy of the Muses) likewise looks at the source of poetic inspiration, in this case literally returning to Arcadian pastures to roam with Sardinian shepherds. (Another theme in this year’s slate: lots of sheep.) The latest from the eclectic José Luis Guerín is a dialogue-dizzy dispositif which, like Guerín’s flâneur/voyeur piece In the City of Sylvia (2007), is concerned with desire as a driving force. Neapolitan philology professor Raffaele Pinto stars as Neapolitan philology professor Raffaele Pinto, teaching a seminar on the art of acting the muse to a largely female class at the University of Barcelona. At one and the same time Guerín and Pinto’s film is an earnest inquiry into the genesis of artistic production and a wickedly sharp comedy about male vanity cloaked in the mantle of pedantic orotundity, with Pinto fighting on multiple fronts to defend his ethical breaches and compulsive philandering. “I’m possessive,” he confesses at one point, “but on the methodological level,” while elsewhere he’s found tut-tutting that “What you call my double life is simply my research.” Even the progressive idea of an “active” muse that Pinto puts forth may strike some viewers as retrograde, but Academy of the Muses, among several works in the Art of the Real lineup, is a testament to the symbiotic synergy between filmmakers and their muse-subjects.
The 3rd Art of the Real runs April 8–21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.