THE ACADEMIC Tom Gunning coined the phrase “the cinema of attractions” to refer to a strain of filmmaking that popped up in the first decade of the invention’s life, which would later serve as an inspiration for the avant-garde. These are films belonging to what is sometimes called “the Méliès tradition,” named for the magician-turned-filmmaker Georges Méliès, an “exhibitionist cinema” of “trick films,” in which narrative is of secondary importance to the realization of fabulous and impossible illusions. In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), Méliès, played by Ben Kingsley, is a forgotten man, running a toy shop in the Gare Montparnasse in 1930s Paris—as, indeed, he actually did. The film, as well as being the Goodfellas director’s first foray into the children’s movie, was his first shot in 3-D—a technique whose renascence was but one symbol of a latter-day return to the cinema of attractions.
The still-image stereopticon viewer was a craze in the latter half of the nineteenth century, while the idea of stereoscopic cinema goes back as far as Méliès’s day, and a variety of techniques involving dual-strip projection and anaglyph glasses (the kind with the red-and-green or red-and-blue lenses) were tinkered with before the original 3-D boom of 1952, which followed on the release of Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil. (Oboler’s 1966 “comeback” film The Bubble, shot on single-strip “SpaceVision 3D,” enjoyed a weeklong run at the Museum of Modern Art in January and has since been issued on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber.)
Bwana Devil and the films that immediately followed it were part of a larger strategy on the part of movies to push back against upstart television, then eating into what had been a captive audience for moving images. This occurred along with the appearance of CinemaScope, Todd-AO, and various bits of outlandish hoopla with which 3-D was often grouped—the Ping-Pong-paddle ballyhoo man in House of Wax (1953) was an unwitting symbol for the fad itself. BAMcinématek’s new program “3D in the 21st Century” looks at another moment in cinema’s century-long history of perpetual crisis—the immediate past-present, in which competition has come from both Internet and cable drama, the latter raiding the market for character-based middlebrow narrative. BAM’s selection of films, appropriately, offers an overview of two strands of cinema more or less unreliant on storytelling: multiplex spectacle and avant-garde cinema. (In the case of multimedia artist Trisha Baga’s twenty-four-minute Other Gravity, released contemporaneously with Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 Gravity and playing on the same program at BAM, the short work seems to drolly address the megaproduction.)
While a variation of the single-strip “SpaceVision” technology predominated in the decades following The Bubble, lean years for stereoscopic cinema, there was a renewed interest in 3-D at the turn of the millennium, approximately coinciding with the digital changeover. James Cameron shot his 2003 Ghosts of the Abyss with a new “stereo” process that used two digital cameras, and he released it to IMAX theaters where, the following year, Robert Zemeckis’s motion-capture animated The Polar Express would have its own 3-D run. Neither Ghosts nor Polar Express is on BAMcinématek’s bill of fare, but Cameron and Zemeckis’s boutique 3-D forays were really only dress rehearsals. In 2007, Zemeckis’s second motion-capture film, Beowulf, opened in over one thousand theaters—the largest day-and-date 3-D release ever. In the years since Polar Express, Beverly Hills–based RealD, founded in 2003, had beat out Dolby Laboratories to practically corner the US market installing new polarized digital projection systems. (No more colored lenses required!) Theaters were anticipating a 3-D groundswell. What they were looking forward to was Avatar.
An immersive journey to Pandora, a bioluminescent faerieland out of Coleridge’s most fragrant imaginings, Cameron’s megaproduction combined “Colors of the Wind” eco-sentimentality, New Agey let’s-go-native holism, endless shamanic yodeling, and synthetic storytelling—a hemp tote carrying a hunk of Styrofoam. The darkly glittering, scream-lashed Beowulf is by any measure the greater artwork, but Avatar was the more successful piece of multiplex triangulation—unadjusted for inflation, the top-grossing film of all-time—and the land rush began.
The majority of the multiplex material here comes from 3-D’s post-Avatar boom years, a heyday that scarcely lasted longer than the idea of Sam Worthington as a viable top-shelf leading man. In part a commemoration of a cash-in frenzy, BAM’s series showcases some of the most flagrantly commercial art of recent memory, including tween lunch money grabs Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011) and Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012), the highlight of which is the image of consolation tweets popping up over the Los Angeles skyline in response to news of Perry’s split from her husband, the awful Russell Brand. Hugo and Steven Spielberg’s Adventures of Tintin (both late 2011) are here as the validity-conferring name-brand auteur experiments, while Alexandre Aja’s Piranha 3D (2010), which drops a severed male member right in the viewer’s lap, is certainly the greatest stereoscopic blockbuster exploitation film—though both My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009) and Drive Angry (2011) have their partisans, and it seems a grave oversight to have neither The Final Destination (2009) nor Final Destination 5 (2011) on the docket. (It is worth noting that Jean-Luc Godard, always the most promiscuous of borrowers, screened Piranha before setting out to shoot his own 3-D film, 2014’s Goodbye to Language.) There are also visits from the finest infinitely repeatable franchises of the young millennium, including Jackass 3D (2010), Step Up 3D (2010), and Resident Evil: Retribution (2012), a work of posthuman humanism that features one of the most awe-striking overtures in recent memory. (Resident Evil series architect Paul W. S. Anderson is, aside from Ken Jacobs, the only filmmaker with more than one work here, also represented by his 2011 The Three Musketeers.)
Only two years after Avatar, the technology that had been prescribed as a panacea for dipping profits was being diagnosed as the cause of poor box-office health. In September 2011, a piece on Slate asked “Who Killed 3-D?”, offering such explanations as price gouging by theater chains and studios’ flooding of cinemas with movies retroactively “upgraded” to stereoscopic visuals to cash in on the trend. (This continues today, although mostly overseas, where the industry can depend on a moviegoing public that hasn’t yet wised up to its chicanery.) A BBC News item appearing shortly afterward wondered, “Can Martin Scorsese’s Hugo save 3D?”
It didn’t—not at the box office, at least—though Gravity came close to doing the job, proving that audiences would still pay top dollar for a 3-D experience that had been customized to really utilize the technology, here placing bodies in relief against the void of deep space. Elsewhere, filmmakers seemed to be running out of novel uses for 3-D, with 300: Rise of an Empire (2014) director Noam Murro reduced to continually pelting his audience with floating particulates. At the same time, experimental filmmakers were using 3-D to further pursue the “cinema of attractions” that they’d never abandoned—this work is to be seen in BAM’s selection of short film aperitifs. Johann Lurf’s Twelve Tales Told (2014), preceding Hugo, intercuts and extends a dozen different pre-film studio logos while creating a glitch, twitchy kind of music from their interrupted fanfare. Kerry Laitala’s Chromatic Frenzy (2009) is a lapidary shower of kaleidoscope, Spirograph, and compound eye imagery, while Timothy Geraghty’s Coming Up Threes (2013) overlays images from the Times Square subway platform, the news tickers from the street above, and the vitrine of a consumer electronics store, creating a veritable mudslide of information. (Both Laitala and Geraghty’s pieces were made to be watched with ChromaDepth glasses, which, as the name implies, assign different fixed levels of depth to different colors, and work best with a doctored image.)
While most of the experimental shorts here are programmed with a feature, Jacobs commands his own program—only appropriate, as his work with the stereoscopic image stretches back to the late 1960s, and in the last decade he has been devoted to it entirely. I was able to view a projection of Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor (2006), an aptly assaultive piece that marries a din of industrial noise to a twitchy stereograph view of a Victorian-era factory floor where bobbins of thread are manufactured by haunted-looking Dickensian waifs. (Idea for a sequel: a visit to see where RealD glasses are made?) For Jacobs, the only “novelty” in cinema is the flat image: “2-D is a remarkable invention, crazier than most anything that can happen in 3-D. Imagine the world flattened to a single insubstantial plane, a mere surface reflection! I must look into it. But can’t.”
“3D in the 21st Century” runs May 1–17 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.
Bertrand Bonello, On War, 2008, 35 mm, color, sound, 130 minutes.
THE CENTRAL FIGURE in the mesmerizing films of Bertrand Bonello is the voluptuary, who may be a seeker or supplier (whether professional or otherwise) of pleasure, and whose respective quest or obligation to satisfy sensual appetites can lead to enlightenment, madness, brutality, decline, or even death. Of the sybarites who have populated the writer-director-composer’s seven feature-length works to date, perhaps none is as towering as the title character in Saint Laurent, a thrilling biopic on the legendary couturier whose release on May 8 occasions the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s welcome Bonello retrospective.
Pleasure principles—and principals—are anatomized within the context of France’s political stasis in The Pornographer (2001). Jacques Laurent, the eponymous smut auteur, is played by Nouvelle Vague paradigm Jean-Pierre Léaud, as desiccated here as he was in Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (1996), in which he starred as another moviemaker, if not the XXX kind. Jacques, whose past hits include Perverse Niçoise, Schoolgirl Hotel, and I’m Hard, I Come, I Sing, appears incapable of committing to anything or anyone—not to his latest hard-core production, The Animal; or his wife, Jeanne (Dominique Blanc), who financially supported him during several dormant years; or his university-age son, Joseph (Jérémie Renier), with whom he has established a fragile rapprochement that soon disintegrates. Now fifty, the adult-entertainment maestro mentions more than once that he made his first blue movies in May ’68, never more defensively than to a journalist whom he finally agrees to meet for an interview: “Making pornographic films was a political act.…I could have filmed naked women in front of a factory, but it wouldn’t have been very exciting.” His words are hollow, pitiful, full of quasi-revolutionary bravado that not even Jacques himself seems to believe anymore.
Another filmmaker nearing professional and personal crisis—this one quite tellingly named Bertrand (Mathieu Amalric)—serves as the protagonist of On War (2008). With the vaguest of notions about his next project (“It’s about someone who thinks a lot about death”) Bertrand, who yearns to emerge from his low-grade anhedonia “to be dazed be life,” takes up a two-week residence in a cult. More specifically, this manse in the French countryside is “a military order, but not a belligerent one,” per one acolyte, overseen by Asia Argento, who tells her newest charge: “Today, pleasure is something you have to win, like war.” In this Gallic Esalen/Burning Man/boot camp, Bertrand comes close to the sublime—particularly during a far-out rave sequence, in which each devotee forms not a writhing mass of bodies but resolutely remains a solitary gyrator—only to teeter too close to losing his mind. Though not all of On War seizes the viewer with the same force as that bizarre dance piece—a riff on Apocalypse Now is especially wearying—the film proves Bonello’s gifts at both satirizing and sympathizing with a character adrift, who may or may not be a version of himself.
Yet the director extends his greatest compassion to the employees—prisoners, really—of the Apollonide, the opulent Belle Epoque Parisian bordello of House of Pleasures (2011). Featuring some of France’s greatest millennial actresses (Adèle Haenel, Céline Sallette) among its doxy ensemble, the film sates the senses with its luxe decor and impeccably arranged, languid bodies. Although the mise-en-scène may be sumptuous, Bonello has no interest in glorifying the profession. To the applicant who says she wants to work in the flesh trade “to be independent,” the madam of the maison scoffs, “Freedom’s outside—not here.” The ladies of the Apollonide remain trapped within its walls; Bonello’s filmmaker characters Jacques and Bertrand can and do go anywhere, not advancing but retreating.
EXIT IS FIRST OF ALL an arresting and unbearable portrayal of loneliness, which is fast becoming one of the early twenty-first century’s chief motifs. The debut narrative feature of renowned Taiwanese cinematographer Chienn Hsiang, the film could be classified as a collaboration with its main actress and vehicle, Chen Shiang-Chyi, a veritable auteur’s actress, best known for her work with directors Tsai Ming-Liang and Edward Yang.
Ling, the character Chen portrays, is an abandoned person. Her husband has gone to Shanghai, leaving her behind in a stifling nameless second-tier Taiwanese city. She calls his mobile phone several times a day; he never picks up. Her twentysomething daughter spends most of her time with her boyfriend, barely communicating with Ling, and when she does she makes no effort to hide her bored contempt. Soon she is laid off from the garment factory where she has spent most of her life bent over a sewing machine. After she experiences hot flashes and misses her period she visits her doctor, who informs her she is menopausal—at the age of forty-five.
Ling is a prisoner of her own body: The exit the title refers to is that wished-for threshold her desperation prevents her from uncovering. Chienn deploys the wide-shot throughout; Ling is seen in frames within frames within frames: doorways, dilapidated walls, windows, rooms beyond rooms. There is a precision, even perfection to these shots that makes Chen’s performance all the more devastating. Much as Delphine Seyrig did with Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975), Chen has authored not just a believable character but also a definitive archetype of a heterosexual middle-aged woman at a particular place and time: a person that no one wants to talk to, whose “use-value” has long expired. Exit may be one of the most powerful feminist critiques to come out of East Asian cinema in a long while.
Showing very little in the way of blatant emotion, Chen’s Ling is on edge throughout the film, which takes place over several weeks. Her discomfort and angst are never absent, often manifesting in a clammy appearance. Indeed, the fragility we see on screen is real: Chen fell ill on the second day of filming and remained so throughout the shoot, likening her fevered state to the midlife despair Ling walks in every day. At one heartbreaking, understated moment, Ling hesitates in the middle of a busy street, unable to decide whether to finish crossing, before finally giving up and turning back around. There is no easy way out when you are entrapped by the world’s icy indifference to your plight; you have done all the right things and this is your nonreward.
Though no one cares much for her, Ling continues to carry out familial duties. (Were this a Lars von Trier film, this persistence would be depicted as pathetic; Chienn shows it as natural.) Once she is laid off, she visits her ailing mother-in-law in the hospital every day—the only person in her extended family to do so—and even here she receives little in the way of human contact, as the old woman is usually unconscious. Across from her mother-in-law’s bed, Ling is bothered by the cries and gasps of a middle-aged man with bandaged eyes. Like her, he has no family to speak of; he never receives a visitor.
The man has suffered some traumatic accident. We don’t know what. He is unable to talk; he can only cry and groan. The hospital’s nursing staff is borderline neglectful, and Ling begins to tend to the man. In fact it takes very little to quiet him: a cool rag on his neck, the feeling of her hand against his cheek. Ling discovers that she and the man are deprived of the same thing: touch. Why is it that the absolute easiest thing we might give is the very thing we are most loath to share?
The invalid’s journey to recovery parallels Ling’s arduous attempt to feel like a human being again. Hands lock in understanding, no stipulations are required. There are no obvious resolutions, no spoiler alert necessary. Neither of them will ever reattain what they once were. How they might go on, how they might crawl out of the existences they are trapped in, remains an open question. Truth is always shapeless, and the door is over there—if you manage to get it open.
Exit opens in cinemas throughout the UK on April 24.
Derek Jarman, Will You Dance with Me?, 1984, video, color, sound, 78 minutes. Philip Williamson.
THOUGH ONLY SIX YEARS separate Ron Peck’s Nighthawks (1978) and Derek Jarman’s Will You Dance with Me? (1984), two essential documents of gay London, they are chronicles of entirely different eras. Peck’s feature film debuted a year before Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministry began and three before the first known case of AIDS in the UK was reported; Jarman’s footage, which remained unseen until last year, was shot well into those dual catastrophes. While Peck’s film is more or less fiction, it mixes in vérité elements, recording, sometimes ambivalently, the codes and customs of gay nightlife that would be ebulliently celebrated in Jarman’s dance-floor reportage.
According to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, Peck and Paul Hallam, his cowriter and coproducer on Nighthawks, spent five years planning and raising funds for their film, which centers on the diurnal and nocturnal activities of Jim (Ken Robertson), an out—quietly yet sometimes defiantly so—geography teacher. This compact, exceedingly polite and patient Notting Hill resident spends his days instructing adolescents on the causes of overpopulation in India and showing around the new substitute teacher, Judy (Rachel Nicholas James), who seems to turn to her colleague for the emotional succor that her own husband cannot provide. After sunset, Jim hits the bars, where he cruises, dances, and keeps up his end of desultory conversations that often conclude in a strange—or his own—bed.
We are fully immersed in Jim’s nighttime rituals; the camera often assumes his point of view, his desirous looks either reciprocated or ignored. The thrill and the tedium of his evenings out are equally highlighted; the ecstasy of sleeping with someone new is followed by the dispiriting morning-after small talk, with Jim asking the bulk of the questions while kindly driving his tricks—most of whom are nonprofessional actors, as are the bars’ denizen—to the nearest Tube station. “Don’t you get anxious about whether or not you’re going to see these people again?” Judy asks Jim over drinks at a pub. In boldly addressing that question, Nighthawks gives us one of cinema’s first complex, fully realized gay protagonists.
Jarman, who appears as an extra in Nighthawks, was excitedly experimenting with his new Olympus VHS camcorder during the September 1984 evening that he shot the action at Benjy’s, a gay club in East London’s Mile End district that, this night at least, drew a coed, racially diverse crowd; this on-location assignment was part of the research the queer-cinema firebrand was doing for his friend Peck, who was then planning a neo-noir that would be released in 1987 as Empire State. Every single detail captured in Will You Dance with Me? abounds with ethnographic riches: the New Romantic cutie journaling while nestled in a corner booth, the woman with the T-shirt emblazoned with stenciled letters that read ÉCOLE DE DANSE, the DJ’s cheerful exhortations (“Let’s get it right, let’s get it right!”), the songs he spins (“Let the Music Play,” “Planet Rock,” “Relax,” which is heard at least twice).
As aleatory as this seventy-eight-minute-long record may at first appear, with Jarman flitting from bar to banquette to dance floor and back again, it soon becomes clear that he’s deeply in tune with, well, the rhythm of the night. While Benjy’s patrons get sweaty gyrating to another Frankie Goes to Hollywood set, Jarman—and his camera—grows ever more besotted with a slightly sullen, sporty stud, gracefully orbiting around this Doc Martens–shod twunk. That fit, buzz-cut clubgoer, Philip Williamson, would perform in front of Jarman’s camera once again—not to Hi-NRG hits but to Judi Dench’s voice-over recitation of Shakespeare’s sonnets in The Angelic Conversation (1985).
MGM’S BEST MUSICALS personified Show Business as bipolar cottage industry—miracles of scrambled, collaged, precision-tooled, toe-shoe equilibrium. Star-struck, self-aware, and ruthlessly efficient, these engines of chaste desire merged revels and reveries into the ever-present bottom line. Poised betwixt gee-whiz uncomplication and sophisticated manners, their escapades showcased hyperbolic performers, idealized characters, and dazzling shades of homogeneity. Yet the same storylines also incorporated a cheeky penchant for relaxed displacement and rib-poking irony into otherwise corny affirmations. These insanely orderly, happy-peppy-sappy vehicles were given an adventurous kick by dropping strategic hints of chaos and gloom into their midst.
Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) could have been a resilient, pick-yourself-up-by-the-corset-straps cousin to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)—a tale of sublimated anxieties, fin de siècle dread, and familial upheaval averted in the nick of time. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) amounted to a chipper yet sardonic back-story to Sunset Boulevard (1950) (think of Jean Hagen’s silent star as the Before-image and Gloria Swanson’s mad recluse as the After). It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) had a salutary postwar/pre–Mad Men cynicism: The emotional messiness, tonal dead zones, and clashing sensibilities all contributed to its dyspeptic, strangely wistful energy.
And then there was Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953). Coming on the heels of backstage/backlot constructions like All About Eve (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (as well as the aforementioned blockbuster Singin’ in the Rain), its inside-Broadway satire was very much the flavor of the moment: Knowingness Parfait. There are enough layers in it to fuel a thousand postgrad theses; the wonder is that the Wooster Group hasn’t yet done a multimedia revamping. The Band Wagon was the Being John Malkovich–cum-Birdman of MGM musicals. It can be described as the intersection of stifling high aspirations (“Shut up in our little sweatbox of the arts”) with beautifully disreputable commercial instincts (“That’s entertainment!”).
The film cast Fred Astaire as a has-been musical comedy star: In other words, essentially as himself again, only without the old dapper-playboy-hoofer façade. The movie opens on an auction of his personal memorabilia, where his fabled top hat and walking stick won’t even fetch fifty cents. Oh, the ignominy! He’s become as much of a magnificently obsolescent contraption as the seedy automatons he encounters in a Forty-Second Street arcade. (The regal theaters he once performed in have become carny-style tourist traps: Times Square is represented as a claustrophobic studio set that has the trappings of a stage musical and the alienation effect of The Lady from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors routine.) Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant play excitable versions of the movie’s authors, Betty Comden and Adolph Green—she as a wide-eyed bundle of irrational exuberance, he as a hypochondriacally inclined neurotic given to such classic Levantian laments as, “I can stand anything but pain.”
The duo have written a comeback musical called The Band Wagon for Astaire’s Tony Hunter, and they want Broadway’s biggest hotshot to direct. Rather old for a wunderkind, the British star Jack Buchanan nonetheless gives a grandly hammy recital as Jeffrey Cordova, an endearingly pretentious actor-director-impresario who wants to turn their fun, 1930s-style musical romp about a children’s author who churns out Spillane-type pulp fiction on the side into a heavy-breathing retelling of the Faust legend, replete with hellfire and flash-pot Brimstone. (You can see where this might be right in the Wooster Group’s wheelhouse.) Based on the then-celebrated Jose Ferrer (a discount-store Orson Welles probably best remembered now for his Cyrano), while incorporating a lot of Minnelli’s personal mannerisms (not to mention his furnishings), Cordova is a timeless archetype of artistic overreach and self-congratulatory hubris: “There’s nothing in the world as soothing as a smash hit.”
The human anchor of the film is, oddly, Cyd Charisse, in her first starring role at thirty-one: Imposing and impossibly lithe, she’s pop-Cubism in motion (“She came at me in sections” declares Astaire in the “Girl Hunt” production number) yet remarkably down-to-earth. Pauline Kael thought her acting wooden, but playing the ballerina protégé of a Balanchine/Jerome Robbins–type choreographer, her unpolished delivery seems right for a wary, diffident outsider who masks her vulnerabilities by presenting an aura of inscrutability. Charisse was the most abstract figure in musicals, but her movements mesh with Astaire’s conversational patter and dancing in a way that blurs artifice and naturalism. For them, maybe, artifice was second nature, as routine as a smoker gesticulating or a tennis player serving.
Technicolor’s palette never looked wilder or more robust than it does on this Blu-ray transfer, where Minnelli’s extras move through cagey spaces like drill teams dressed up as regular folks on display, herds of Hawaiian shirts, gabardine suits, khaki soldiers, poodle skirts, and yellow turtlenecks moving in casual background formations that would be the envy of General Rommel or Vince Lombardi. The package is skimpy on extras and while it has a perfunctory making-of short and an old PBS documentary on Minnelli, it doesn’t even include the “Two Faced Woman” outtake from the previous edition. And nothing new has been dug up, though sizable chunks were excised prior to the film’s premier to get the running time down under two hours (hence the last third of the movie is basically a string of foreshortened numbers culminating in the epic dance set-piece of “Girl Hunt”).
What it retains though is the commentary track with Liza Minnelli and her friend Michael Feinstein, which turns the movie into a jubilant family scrapbook. That is, if you grew up on movie sets, and Liza seems to have been present for much of The Band Wagon shoot and demonstrates considerable powers of recall for someone who was six at the time: “My dad thought up a lot of that [technical] stuff. My dad invented the crab dolly…. He said I want a camera to be able to move like a person who’s trying to see what’s happening.” (Okay, he didn’t actually invent it, but give the kid a break—and I wouldn’t be surprised if Minnelli refined or tinkered with its design.) I’ve never heard a more infectious commentary track—when she blurts, “I love a director directing a director,” she could be a character in the movie itself, and it’s touching to realize on how many levels this movie affected her.
The first time I heard this supplied a different sort of epiphany. My mother was on her deathbed and I was taking care of her at home; it was just the two of us, in hospice-mode. She had slipped into a coma a few days earlier and nothing more could be done but wait for the end. So to break the silence and maybe ease her passage, or my sorrow, I read to her a bit (Dave Hickey’s “The Little Church of Perry Mason” being apposite somehow) and then put on the DVD of The Band Wagon a friend had given us.
Watching it again, I remembered that at some point mom had worn her hair in the same style Charisse has in the film. Since the movie was in the player anyway, I decided to listen to Liza M.’s commentary. I was quickly hooked by each delighted memory or private joke the film triggered for her, as though her childhood itself had been directed by Vincente after the manner of Meet Me in St. Louis, fact and artistic fancy melding the way Astaire and Charisse did in “Dancing in the Dark.” That dance looked different now: I saw it through her eyes and then realized that Charisse incarnated the way my mother looked to me when I was six (and partly how she always appeared to my father in his vivid imagination). As the number eloquently winds down and the dancers return to their normal selves, the enraptured daughter waxes almost evangelical: “The way this number ends is pure Minnelli. Because music, which is in everybody’s life, and movement, which is in everybody’s life, just goes back—to life.”
My mother died that afternoon. It wasn’t like a movie or anything cinema had prepared me for. Except for an uncanny tranquility that came over me: A feeling that maybe everything that’s lost is simultaneously previewed/reincarnated in the movies. Or in our secret spiritual restorations of them.
THE SINGULARITY OF Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958)—the passe-partout to unlocking the mystery of cinema’s powers to derange—has never been more eloquently articulated than in Chris Marker’s paradigmatic cine-essay Sans Soleil (1983): “[O]nly one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory—insane memory,” says narrator Alexandra Stewart, whose hypnotic voice-over consists of passages of letters “sent” to her by Sandor Krasna, Marker’s fictional alter ego. This particular missive dilates on Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie, the protagonist of Hitchcock’s crowning masterpiece, who is consumed by the need to re-create the image of the soignée Madeleine (Kim Novak), the woman he loved and whose death he feels responsible for, through the coarse shopgirl Judy (Novak again). Krasna/Marker notes that he has seen Vertigo nineteen times; much like Scottie, he—and, by extension, all of those seized by cinephilia—finds himself in the grip of the compulsion to revisit, reimagine, relive.
Traces of Hitchcock’s film abound in multiple titles across several genres, most recently—and perversely—in Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, whose release later this summer occasions BAMcinématek’s brilliantly conceived series “The Vertigo Effect.” Set in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Phoenix, which screens as a sneak preview on April 30, follows the bizarre reunion of Nelly (Nina Hoss), a concentration-camp survivor who has undergone reconstructive facial surgery, with her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Nelly, who gives her name as Esther, is unrecognizable to her spouse, who presumes she is dead and who has seemingly repressed his most unconscionable acts against her. That debasement continues when he despotically remolds the woman he knows as Esther into his wife. Fully compliant in this brutal masquerade, Nelly may appear to be the film’s most self-deluded character—until the film’s astonishing final scene, an ingenious indictment of Johnny’s, and a nation’s, pathologies.
It’s surely no coincidence that Madeleine, the woman with whom Scottie is so deliriously besotted in Vertigo, shares a name with the pastry that serves as the aide-mémoire for the narrator in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time; in La Captive (2000), her sublime adaptation of the fifth volume of Proust’s magnum opus, Chantal Akerman makes the connection between that sprawling novel and Hitchcock’s movie even more explicit. Dispensing with the book’s belle-epoque time frame, Akerman’s film takes place in present-day Paris, where the mismatched lovers Ariane (Sylvie Testud) and Simon (Stanislas Merhar) live in his palatial apartment. Feverishly jealous, Simon is obsessed with the years he refers to as Ariane’s “other life,” when her romantic relationships were exclusively same-sex. Just as Scottie pursued Madeleine throughout San Francisco in Vertigo, Simon also becomes a possessed private detective, doggedly trailing his inscrutable beloved as she goes from spot to spot in the French capital. His relentless sleuthing eventually leads him to a dyke bar, where he interrogates two friends of Ariane’s. “I’m burning to know what goes on between two women that doesn’t between a man and a woman,” he implores—a query to which there is only one sensible answer: “It can’t be explained.”
As the BAM series’ lineup reveals, Vertigo serves as a crucial referent for several other great movies about sapphic desire. Jenni Olson’s Fog City essay film The Joy of Life (2005) devotes part of its psycho-geographical ruminations—“You fall in love with a girl. You fall in love with a lot of girls. You fall in love with a city”—to Scottie’s rescuing of Madeleine after she jumps into the San Francisco Bay. (Vertigo figures even more prominently in Olson’s latest nimble cine-meditation, The Royal Road, which closes the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Art of the Real” program on April 26.) Dressed in a gray suit that instantly recalls Edith Head’s costuming for Novak, actress hopeful Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) may or may not be the dreamed-of, ideal self of abject Diane Selwyn (also Watts), gutted by her breakup with Camilla (Laura Elena Harring). Which brings us back to insane memory: I will return to Lynch’s incomparable work, for easily my thirtieth viewing, when it screens on April 18. Will it unfold exactly as I remembered it, exactly as I want it to? Or will it once again remake me?
“The Vertigo Effect” plays at BAMcinématek April 16–30.