TO THOSE UNFAMILIAR with the name Jack Cole, he is probably best introduced through some names that should be known by even the casual student of Hollywood razzle-dazzle. Cole was a performer and choreographer, today considered the father of American jazz dance, and a direct line can be drawn from him to Bob Fosse, who would marry Cole’s onetime assistant and collaborator, Gwen Verdon. In Hollywood, Cole established himself as a go-to for star-making routines for actresses, even or especially those who were untested as dancers. He was the architect of Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” number in Gilda (1946) and Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the film that initiated a six-movie collaboration with Monroe, whose iconic proportions and wiggling walk Cole helped her to harness the power of. Writing on Cole in Vanity Fair in 1984, Jerome Robbins put the point quite plainly: “Jack Cole’s contributions were so far-reaching that without him present day theatrical dancing would not be the same… All commercial video dance reflects Cole’s work.”
Cole is now the subject of a two-week retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Eighteen films featuring Cole numbers will be screened, and various guests, including choreographer Wayne Cilento, drag artist John “Lypsinka” Epperson, and dance critic (and Cole expert) Debra Levine, will hold forth on the artist’s legacy. That this recognition comes from MoMA is appropriate, for Cole’s style, with its machine-tooled edges, combustible energy, bursts of skittering motion, jagged geometry, jackknife flash, precision stamp, and wiseacre attitude, embodied the very spirit of hard-and-fast modernity. In certain numbers, Cole even seems to blow a kiss-off to the Old World: “Diamonds” turns to big beat and shimmy-shake after a staid waltz overture, while in “What Does an English Girl Think of a Yank?” from Tonight and Every Night (1945), a placid park in Albion is invaded by a blast of brass and jazzbo US sailors, including Cole himself.
Cole was born John Ewing Richter in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1911. His divorced parents abandoned him to boarding school, and along his determined climb to the top of the showbiz heap during the Depression years he abandoned the family name, rechristening himself with a curt, hard new moniker. In Fosse, Sam Wasson’s superb recent biography, the author describes Cole, and Verdon’s first sight of him dancing at Slapsie Maxie’s. Per Wasson, Cole was “a terrible genius, witty, bitchy, crazy, a mean man who worked out of deep pockets of brilliance and anger—and it showed in his dancers… He gleamed like a piece of golden technology, and when he moved, he cut the air like a rain of knives. Erotic and exotic, Cole’s style drew from all aspects of world movement. When he danced, he spared no part of himself, slicing the air with the grace and precision of a ballet dancer, a beast in a gentleman’s body.”
Initially trained in ballet, Cole’s signature style developed through his study of folk dance from around the world—South America, Spain, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia—all of which he integrated with American vernacular jazz moves. He took notes on the dance floors of Harlem, studied Indian bharata nātyam dance with Ravi Shankar’s older brother, and a contemporary vogue for all things exotic vaulted him to the top of the heap of nightclub headliners with his so-called “Hindu Swing.” After conquering New York’s Rainbow Room and Chicago’s Gay Paree, Cole was invited to Los Angeles in 1941 by 20th Century Fox, who hired him to choreograph a Seminole ritual for a Technicolor Betty Grable vehicle called Moon over Miami, and he continued to work in the movie colony, often contentiously, until shortly before Monroe’s death in 1962. (In a signal of things to come, the Seminole number for Moon over Miami landed on the cutting-room floor.)
Richard Sale, Meet Me After the Show, 1951, 35 mm, color, sound, 87 minutes. Delilah Lee (Betty Grable).
MoMA’s retro includes films by distinguished auteurs like Hawks, Vincente Minnelli, and George Cukor, as well as work by largely unremembered journeymen, but when the band strikes up and the music hits, Cole’s imprint is unmistakable, not only in dance style but in every aesthetic element, from camerawork to stark, minimal, often monochrome sets marked with details of particularly Californian midcentury-modern design. When Cole takes the wheel, he enlivens even the most basic programmer, as surely as Lau Kar-leung elevated assembly line Shaw Bros. films. MoMA’s program includes several of Cole’s variations on ethnic dance, like the Hindu jazz numbers in nonentity Walter Lang’s On the Riviera (1951) or “Not Since Niveneh” in Minelli’s Kismet, with sparkplug Reiko Sato setting the tempo of the cobra-head sway. Tonight and Every Night’s “You Excite Me” is a savage flamenco that returns Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino and trained in classical Spanish dance, to her Latin roots, stomping the stage with deadly authority. Time and again one finds Cole delivering images of radiant, imperial femininity, from Monroe’s declaration of principles in “Diamonds” to Hayworth’s simply and elegantly shot “Amare Mio” seduction in Gilda to Mitzi Gaynor headbanging her cockatoo plumage and massacring her backup dancers in “I Don’t Care” in The I Don’t Care Girl (1953). The archetypal Cole soloist performance may be Grable’s “Better Off Betting On a Horse” in Meet Me After the Show (1951), which finds the actress fairly aglow with contempt, pounding the top of the piano like a podium as she decries the “masculine gender” while a shadowplay war of the sexes plays out over her shoulder.
Cole, an openly gay man, also inserted some rather racy paeans to beefcake into his work, including Jane Russell’s “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” number in Gentlemen and Meet Me After the Show’s “No Talent Joe,” in which Grable freely fondles barrel-chested hunks in ancient Roman togs. An iron-willed hardass who spurned sissy stereotypes, Cole plays a significant role in Minelli’s Designing Woman (1957) as Randy Owen, an effeminate choreographer who saves the day when he uses his repertoire of moves to wipe up the floor with a gaggle of mob toughs. Cole was a bit of a tyrant, often clashing with the studio’s front offices, and his set pieces sometimes became collateral damage, with some of what might have been his greatest creations—the “New York number” from Down to Earth (1947) and the “Four French Dances” scene from Gentlemen—only existing today as production stills. What has survived, however, is more than enough confirmation of a potent, original talent whose influence is too ubiquitous to be reduced to a single signature piece.
“All that Jack (Cole)” runs January 20–February 4 at the Museum of Modern Art.
Ken Jacobs, Orchard Street, 1955/2015, 35 mm, color, 27 minutes.
THE IDENTITY of the Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look festival, spread across three weekends in January, is tied to its very firstness—after the holiday debauch and hangover, it’s New York’s premiere festival showcase of the new year. Come its fifth iteration, the fest’s identity has also gelled in some other important ways, as it emphasizes the experimental and noncommercial documentary. In many cases, sorry to say, this will also be the last look that a NYC theatrical audience gets at these movies.
In its short life, First Look has snagged a few significant New York premieres—Mati Diop’s Mille soleils in 2014 and Jessica Hausner’s Amour fou last year. (It is worth noting that the fest has also been consistently supportive of female filmmakers, with Mónica Savirón’s “A Matter of Visibility: International Avant-Garde and Artists’ Cinema” program continuing the tradition this time around.) And though the fest’s lineup doesn’t privilege premiere status, this year’s notable rollouts include a trio of shorts by Ken Jacobs, among them a restored version of 1955’s Orchard Street, as well as Alexander Sokurov’s Francofonia, in which the director of the Hermitage-shot Russian Ark (2002) turns his camera on the Louvre.
Sokurov’s film establishes a precedent for this edition’s emphasis on cinematic treatments of the plastic arts. Pia Borg and Edward Lawrenson’s Abandoned Goods, for example, sifts through a catalogue of work created by mental patients at the Netherne Hospital in Surrey, UK, between 1946 and 1981, during which time art therapist Edward Adamson presided over a program teaching handicrafts and studio art to inmates. Combining archival film and audio recordings with images of work that encompasses furtive sketches on toilet paper and the flyleaves of library books as well as sophisticated pieces by institutionalized trained artists like painter William Kurelek and sculptor Rolanda Polonska, Borg and Lawrenson shed light on the shadowy confines from which these pieces bloomed, while a postscript touches on their eventual gallery commodification. Andy Guérif’s tableau vivant Maesta finds another point of entry into a static artwork, using twenty-first-century digital motion-picture technology to explore the logic of fourteenth-century linear storytelling, reproducing the reverse side of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maesta altarpiece, which shows the Paschal mystery of Christ in fourteen panels and twenty-six individual “frames.” The film begins with a cold open on a live-action crucifixion, and as the crowds around Golgotha clear, the wide-screen frame pulls back to eventually encompass the whole template of Duccio’s tempera-and-gold painting, almost entirely uninhabited. A live cast next enter and begin their chronological progress from vignette to vignette, enacting the scenes of Duccio’s work up to the point where they are captured in freeze-frame, then move on. The action starts with Christ’s entry into Jerusalem in the lower left corner and ends with the appearance of Christ on the road to Emmaus in the upper right—which includes one of several sight gags touching on the eccentricities of the Sienese primitives’ almost Byzantine sense of perspective. (Maesta plays as part of a sidebar of films programmed by FIDMarseille director Jean-Pierre Rehm, along with one of my most anticipated works of the fest, unavailable to screen at the time of this writing, Le Juif de Lascaux, a personal essay film by the inimitable, outrageous, splenetic former Libération critic Louis Skorecki, who will appear in person.)
Dominic Gagnon, Of the North, 2015, video, color, sound, 74 minutes.
Maesta establishes its conceit early, leaving the audience to watch the familiar story work its way across its gridwork stage over sixty-two minutes. Jonathan Perel’s doc Toponymy lays down a schematic tactic of its own: In four “chapter” sections, Perel surveys four grid-plan prefab villages in Argentina’s mountainous, northwestern Tucuman province, from their inception in forty-year-old official documents to their present-day state, seen in a series of static compositions of exactly equal quarter-minute duration. While some appear more gone-to-seed than others, in each village we find the same decorative flourishes, the same military monuments, the same cinder-block-and-corrugated-metal architecture, the same stray dogs and wild horses, the same soccer fields and basketball courts, and the same final image: a dead-end street leading toward the mountains beyond. These mountains were once the homes of the village’s inhabitants but, per the official documents, they were forcibly removed to centralized locations after a series of uprisings in the early 1970s, so as to be more easily controlled. Toponymy, then, is a study in the forceful imposition of unified national identity—a piece of World Cup graffiti reads WE ARE ALL ARGENTINA—as well as the stubborn endurance of ineradicable individuality among subjugated peoples in the subtle variety which has through the years asserted itself onto these uniform environments.
Another perspective on political turmoil, this one captured in the present tense, is found in Anna Roussilon’s I Am the People, which filters two turbulent years in Egyptian life through the everyday experience of a single family in a rural village far from Cairo. The film benefits greatly from Roussilon’s easy, humorous, sometimes contentious rapport with her subjects, who chide the director for what they perceive as her political naïveté and for her unmarried status. Roussilon is a crucial offscreen character in I Am the People, while Krzysztof Kaczmarek occasionally appears on camera in his Pawel and Wawel, which follows the filmmaker as he tours Iceland presenting a program of classic Polish films to anemic or nonexistent audiences at cultural centers. In his seemingly aimless road-trip movie, Kaczmarek casually raises questions about the meaning of Polish identity in diaspora, the natural world as a competitor for the moving image, and, in a gradual breakdown of spatial logic that concludes in a phenomenal, gravity-defying coup-de-cinema loop-the-loop trick shot, a reaffirmation of the power of the cinematic apparatus.
At least one among the documentary slate at First Look will, in a unique sense, be a world premiere: Québécois filmmaker Dominic Gagnon’s Of the North. In fact, Gagnon’s decoupage, made of user-submitted online video of Inuit subjects hailing from Canada’s Nunavut territory, has already been on the festival trail in North America. I saw it over the fall at the Camden International Film Festival, where it knocked me flat, and it may be said that the film has never failed to elicit strong reactions since. Most notably, when screening at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM), it was publicly attacked by Tanya Tagaq, an Inuit throat singer whose music Gagnon used in the film, who referred to Of the North as “painful and racist,” adding that to make a film about the Inuit was “not [Gagnon’s] place.” Tagaq is currently touring, performing her original score to Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, the same work which the title of Gagnon’s film addresses and in a sense redresses, ceding the point-of-view to his subjects while retaining the privilege of assemblage—and it is for his failure to include the right kind of images that Gagnon has been criticized. In the ensuing flap, Gagnon offered to remove anything by parties who objected to its inclusion, though he announced his intention not to replace the excised material. The version at MoMI, then, will be screened with sound track dead air and gouges of black, a mutilated casualty of the ongoing debate over the role of authorial identity in representation. (It will screen with Gagnon’s 2011 Pieces and Love All to Hell, another assemblage culled from footage of female right-wing conspiracy theorists. Comparing responses to the two films should prove instructive.)
Margaret Honda, Spectrum Reverse Spectrum, 2014, 70 mm, color, 21 minutes.
Of the North, a work of lo-fi pixelated junkiness, often nausea-inducing camerawork and subject matter, and gobbing punkish provocation, exists somewhere at the juncture between the fest’s documentary and avant-garde sections. Elsewhere among the experimental work, which includes a program of shorts by Björn Kämmerer that will all be projected in 35 mm, there emerges a subset of films—yes, films—that in one way or another make the materiality of analog celluloid their subject. I didn’t know the conceptual hook of Margaret Honda’s Color Correction when I sat down for the press screening, but its 101-minute procession of monochromatic color-field frames of various durations and tones, ranging from pale pinks and grays to bright aquamarine, had a hypnotic allure. What I was watching, it transpires, was just what the title implies: the color corrections for what is only identified as “a conventional feature film,” a string of color-correction gels made into timing tapes that correspond to every shot in the feature, designed to remove the greenish cast of fluorescent light. If Color Correction is a mesmerizing conceptual gambit, then Honda’s Spectrum Reverse Spectrum, which will be projected on the intended 70 mm in the program with Abandoned Goods, is nothing less than a marvel. Running the length of a single reel of wide-gauge stock, the film follows exactly the eponymous trajectory, chameleonically transitioning across the visible light spectrum, from violet to red and back again, beginning and ending in black. The simple effect, achieved using a contact film printer, is something like a prismatic sunset in a distant galaxy and, along with Maesta, is among the work that can only really be seen on MoMI’s massive screen.
First Look runs January 8–24 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.
IT’S PART OF THE STOCK COMEDY on actors that certain soaring parts in the Shakespeare folio fire the ambitions of young performers seeking immortality: Think Richard Griffiths’s old ham Uncle Monty in Withnail and I (1987), bemoaning that he “will never play the Dane.” Orson Welles knew that Shakespeare wrote for all the ages of man, and by the middle of the 1960s he was past the age of being fitted for black tights and strutting the boards with Yorick’s skull in hand. In a 1969 interview with filmmaker and Hollywood historian Peter Bogdanovich, Welles would define his limits as an actor as follows: “I’m less than I was. Less versatile.… A thin man can play a fat man, and a young man can play an old man, but it doesn’t work the other way around. As the years limit my range, I like to think that I’ve gained a little bit in focus, in concentration.”
Just a few years earlier, the narrowing of Welles’s range and the expansion of his waistline had coincided to create his last real signature performance playing a character other than “Orson Welles”: his portrayal of Sir John Falstaff, the bloated, boisterous companion of Prince Hal, in his film Chimes at Midnight (1965), a mashup of the Bard’s “Henriad” histories which will be enjoying a weeklong run at Film Forum in a new DCP restoration.
Chimes collates material from the plays in which Falstaff appears as a character with dialogue—Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV Part 2, and The Merry Wives of Windsor—as well as from Richard II and Henry V, and discovers in them a narrative throughline: The abandonment of Falstaff by bosom companion Hal. As the film begins, King Henry IV (John Gielgud) has newly wrested the crown from Richard, but Henry’s son, Hal (Keith Baxter), is disinterested in being groomed for the throne, preferring to while his youth away in prankery and dissipation with Falstaff at the Boar’s Head Tavern, a huge, timbered theater where the rafters ring with laughter, as opposed to the King’s cathedral-cold echo chamber. A rebellion against the king builds under the Earl of Worcester (Fernando Rey, obligingly dubbed) and young Hotspur (Norman Rodway), who Henry admires as a substitute son just as Hal looks up to Falstaff, if askance. Hal’s sowing of wild oats is, as he knows all along it must be, interrupted by the call of duty, and he vanquishes Hotspur on the field at the Battle of Shrewsbury—a stirring montage that descends into a mud-caked melee, and the most overpowering scene of its kind to appear between the respective primes of Akira Kurosawa and Sam Peckinpah. Hal emerges from the battle changed, and the tone of the film changes with him, its former lightness replaced by a creeping elegiac note, as Hal bids goodbye to his feckless youth. Naive Falstaff is the last to know that his Hal has become a regal Henry, and the knowledge destroys him.
Retrospectively it seems as though Welles had been laying the groundwork for his Falstaff and Chimes at Midnight for his entire creative life. The director’s engagement with Shakespeare began early, and via Shakespeare Welles would continue to work through some of his principal preoccupations—the exercise and abuse of power, the relationship between private and public personae—for all of his years. At the Todd Seminary for Boys in Woodstock, Illinois, where Welles was a gifted pupil, he first attempted to stage an omnibus production of Shakespeare’s histories, The Winter of Our Discontent, and with the school’s headmaster, Roger Hill, would coauthor a book offering guidelines for the teaching the Bard called Everybody’s Shakespeare. (“Shakespeare said everything,” begins the seventeen-year-old Welles’s introduction to the book. “Brain to belly; every mood and minute of a man’s season.”) Welles’s dizzying rise to early celebrity was accomplished in no small part through daring stagings of Shakespeare: His so-called Voodoo Macbeth of 1936 for the Federal Theatre Project, set in the Caribbean and using an all-black cast, or his 1937 Caesar, the inaugural Mercury Theatre production, which drew a direct analogy between the end of the Roman Republic and the contemporary rise of European fascism. (In 1939 he tried to make his portmanteau play following the Falstaff throughline, Five Kings, but the production disintegrated in rehearsals.) During his first self-imposed exile from Hollywood, Welles would direct and star in films of Macbeth (1948) and Othello (1952), and we are still discovering Welles’s Shakespeare—a reconstruction of his fragmentary The Merchant of Venice (1969) premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Festival.
Welles, who thought nothing of performing Shylock’s speech for The Dean Martin Show, was an all-American showman, and he knew how to make his entrances and his exits: Think of the introduction of Harry Lime after an exquisite build-up in Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949), or Marlene Dietrich’s eulogy to doomed Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil (1958). And though there is little biographical evidence to suggest that when Welles began Chimes at Midnight he believed, per Dietrich, that his future was already “all used up,” the finished film functions as a beautiful swan song, ending with the absurd and pathetic figure of Sir John’s massive, rude coffin. (It was the last fiction feature that Welles would complete before his death in 1985, followed by the hour-long The Immortal Story  and the prankish documentary F for Fake .)
While DCP rep programming should usually be a matter of last resort, the appearance of a reasonably watchable Chimes at Midnight in any format is cause for celebration. For years the film has been encountered in only the most degraded conditions—for me it was in university, on a bootleg VHS with a noisy sound track that swallowed up the iambic pentameter—but it has here been rescued from rot by Janus Films, embellishing on the work of the Filmoteca Española. (It is expected to be released on home video by the Criterion Collection before the end of 2016.) Even the early release prints of the film that initially appeared stateside were marred by muddy audio and an out-of-sync first reel, elements which are central to Pauline Kael’s sympathetic if skeptical contemporary review of the film in the New Republic.
Now Chimes at Midnight can be watched in something near to the form that it was intended to be seen in, and it appears as one of the very pinnacles of Welles’s art, matching a forceful, visual dynamism to a melting, mellifluous reading of Shakespeare’s text. Welles, filming in Spain, was as ever flying by the seat of his pants—he parted producer Emiliano Piedra with his money by promising a movie of Treasure Island which never emerged—but enjoyed a relatively uninterrupted shoot, a rarity in his vagabond years when he was often driven to suturing together bits of film shot years and continents apart. Welles was nearing fifty when he played Falstaff, wearing a cotton-ball beard and augmenting his already considerable bulk to attain planetoid rotundity. Contrary to Welles’s statement to Bogdanovich, his Falstaff is more convincingly young than Charles Foster Kane ever was old, combining Welles’s boyish, twinkling insouciance with the heft of accumulated years. Like Welles, who obligingly appeared on the talk-show circuit to sing for his supper in later years, Falstaff will lampoon his own obesity and age to win over a crowd, but he only truly grows heavy and old when Hal turns away from him. It is Hotspur, slain on the field of battle, who speaks the line “O Harry, thou hast robbed me of my youth,” but the words might just as well belong to Falstaff, for his fate is sealed when he ceases to believe in friendship.
Like Welles’s film of Don Quixote, another project never completed in his lifetime, Chimes at Midnight reflects the director’s proclivity for out-of-step dreamers who prefer their lovely, useless fancies to cold, pragmatic practicalities. Welles’s Falstaff played on the public perception of the genius of Citizen Kane (1941) as a prodigy who had squandered his gifts and advantages. Living with the character may also have been a way for Welles to get closer to the ghost of his father, Richard Head Welles, who had made a fortune by inventing a bicycle lamp, then drank it all up and died young. Rather than establishing proprietorship, these deeply felt personal touches open up the material, make it into Everybody’s Shakespeare. Welles’s Sir John Falstaff is a splendid fraud, the outrageous liar at the VFW hall whose history becomes more heroic with every downed boilermaker, or the lecherous lifelong hanger-on who has somehow sustained himself in a state of nonstop carnival; Baxter’s Hal every rich boy who passes a season in bohemia before answering the prerogatives of class duty. It gives us Shakespeare as a spree, complete with its Saturday night and Sunday morning comedown.
Ken Kobland, 2 Jumps in a Row, 2015, black-and-white and color, sound, 31 minutes.
THE SETTING FOR Ken Kobland’s installation 2 Jumps in a Row, 2015, is the bare stage of the Performing Garage, home for over four decades to the Wooster Group. For frequent theatergoers, empty stages are categorically evocative—charged with free-floating memories and anticipations. Thus the beautifully proportioned Garage space, with its spare lighting grid and cement block walls lined with theatrical trunks, is well suited to Kobland’s moving-image diptych, which depicts Moscow at two memorable moments in the recent past: the collapse of Communism in 1990 and the chaos of neocapitalism eighteen years later.
At the edge of the flat stage, a casual grouping of mismatched chairs faces a wide screen built by the artist. The space is not only more expressive than the usual white-box frame for installations but also more accommodating for the viewer. The piece is thirty-one minutes long and plays as a loop, repeating ten times every day. You don’t have to come in at the beginning of the cycle, but since 2 Jumps in a Row makes meaning through internal repetitions, you need to stay at least until the point where you entered. Being able to pull up a chair, the way actors and dancers do during rehearsals, is not merely a comfortable alternative to leaning against a wall or sitting on long, ostentatiously minimalist benches (the usual options in galleries that show time-based work); it suggests that what we are watching on the screen are two instances of street theater.
Shot in black-and-white, the film on the left side of the screen largely comprises close-ups of people crowded into a Moscow square, their faces expressing anxiety and terrible loss. Sometimes they mill about in front of a wall plastered with pages from newspapers, which were still a primary form of communication in a society that had long been late to technological change. Occasionally Kobland’s camera follows crowds into subways or peers at faces through bus windows. Titles in unobtrusive white letters are sparingly used to translate worried conversations between strangers. (“Salaries raised modestly, prices raised greatly.”) Even less often, red Supremacist-styled lettering covers an image with quotations. One of them is a description of Khrushchev, in his attempt to lead the Soviet Union out of Stalinism, as a man “taking two jumps in a row into an abyss.”
In 1990, the abyss created by Perestroika must have seemed even more terrifying, but as we see from the images on the right side of the screen, no sooner had communism fallen than capitalism rushed in to paper over the loss with advertising, designed to whip up a frenzy of desire for consumer goods. Shot in appropriately garish color, the video on the right shows the city in 2008, totally transformed from the drab, barely functioning metropolis of 1990 which we see simultaneously on the left. The juxtaposition of then and now, although in no way systematic, is astonishing and deeply depressing. Neon signs, billboards, and huge video advertisements line the sidewalks and are strung overhead across streets jammed with expensive foreign cars. But if you look past the signage, you see that the buildings and the subways have barely changed, that indeed much of the infrastructure seems on the verge of crumbling. What is newly restored is Russian Orthodox Christianity, its churches resplendent red and gold showcases of wealth, filled with faithful who perform their rituals as if religion had not been on hiatus for nearly a century.
Rather than wandering with his camera through the crowds as he did in 1990, Kobland shot many of the 2008 exteriors through the windows of a car. The unseen driver kept his radio tuned to classic rock and yelled out song titles as each new cut began: “Stayin’ Alive,” “Money for Nothing,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Wasted Years.” His broken monologue floats over the two time zones on the screen, uniting the fall of one totalitarian nightmare and the rise of another.
David O. Russell, Joy, 2015, 35 mm, color, sound, 124 minutes. Joy and Tony (Jennifer Lawrence and Édgar Ramírez).
DAVID O. RUSSELL’S JOY, a biopic of home-shopping television personality and Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), focuses on its subject’s early years of struggle, though toward the end we get a glimpse of Joy as the self-made tycoon of later days, installed in her office behind the imposing desk from which she runs her empire, which doubles as a buffer from the world.
It’s a potent image, recalling the conclusion of Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind (1956), in which Dorothy Malone, scion of Texas oil royalty, is left alone in her deceased father’s office, shouldering a new burden of responsibility. Joy, like Todd Haynes’s justly praised Carol, is in direct dialogue with the legacy of the Hollywood melodrama in which Sirk worked, and broaches some of the same questions that Sirk’s films continue to. To wit: Was Sirk, as he would later claim to sympathetic interviewers, smuggling critiques of American capitalism into his seemingly straightforward tearjerkers, or were the films precisely what they appeared to be? (Those inclined to see for themselves can do so in a knockout retrospective that begins today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)
Based on a script by Bridesmaids screenwriter Annie Mumulol, Joy may be taken on the surface as a celebratory portrait of actualization through the mastery of the business world’s mechanisms—unlike the broken, condemned Malone, Joy ends with an image of poise, power, and self-reliance. (“Inspired by True Stories of Daring Women, and One in Particular,” reads the film’s epigram.) Through the course of the film we see how Joy, out of necessity, develops these attributes. The movie’s narrator, Joy’s supportive, saintly grandmother, Mimi (Diane Ladd), introduces our protagonist as a preternaturally gifted preadolescent with a passion for tinkering. We then reconnect with Joy as an adult, sometime in what appears to be the mid-1980s on what is apparently meant to be Long Island. Few of this little girl’s big dreams have come to fruition: Having foresworn a college scholarship for family obligations, she now works at an airline ticket counter, and shares a house that’s hardly a home with her two kids and her divorced mother (Virginia Madsen), a shut-in TV junkie. Dad (Robert De Niro) barely bothers to disguise his preference for Joy’s half-sister, Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm), who works with him at the family auto-body shop, though after things go south with his current girlfriend, that doesn’t keep him from moving back to share the basement with Joy’s live-in ex-husband, Tony (Édgar Ramírez).
Though most of her immediate family never shows any indication that they’re capable of looking past their own self-interest, Joy does have a few helping hands, like Tony, her childhood best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco), and benevolent Mimi. If there is any doubt that Mimi is a guardian angel, the fact that she continues to narrate Joy’s story after she passes away should put this to rest. Such supernatural occurrences are not unheard of, and the attempted tone of the film might be described as kitchen-sink magic realism. The birth of the Miracle Mop is presented as something truly miraculous, the idea for it coming to Joy in a burst of divine inspiration, and Russell treats this moment of inception as solemnly as if he were shooting Virginia Woolf conceiving of To the Lighthouse. Seemingly the answer to her prayers of escaping her dead-end life, the development and sale of the Miracle Mop only creates more problems, as Joy has to contend with unscrupulous and predatory businessmen. To take care of one, she heads all the way to Dallas for a face-to-face showdown and, emerging victorious into the Texas heat, basks in the artificial snowfall of a toy store’s vitrine—a Christmas miracle on Commerce Street.
Openly concerned with the interplay between mass culture and everyday existence, Joy begins by dropping us into a piece of black-and-white drawing-room drama, only to reveal that we are in fact watching the soap opera that has supplanted lived experience for Joy’s mother. The soap also happens to reflect the domestic turmoil of Joy’s own life in an exaggerated, histrionic register, even haunting her nightmares, but our heroine’s progress through the film may be described as a journey from passive consumer to active producer of mediated imagery, from receiver to transmitter. This happens by way of the at-first hesitant sponsorship of Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), an executive at a newly launched, innovative cable company headquartered in Amish country: QVC. (It stands for “Quality, Value, Convenience.”)
The QVC studios are a wonderland where rotating sets transform kitchen to patio at the push of a button, Joan Rivers lives again (in the person of doppelgänger daughter Melissa), and a sales counter announces new fortunes made in a scant few minutes of airtime. The scenes here, in which Joy discovers her vocation as a pitchwoman, have a liberating brio found nowhere else in the film, though as soon as she leaves the studio her family sets upon her anew, increasingly resembling a predatory pack working together to bring down their prey. The most endearing thing about Russell is that he is—to a degree depressingly uncommon among directors of his stature—actually concerned with the lived lives of Americans hovering between genteel poverty and the middle class, a vast portion of the country that rarely sees itself represented at the multiplex. Problem is, aside from details of production design that might have been inspired by any episode of Roseanne—the laundry hamper on the ironing board in the kitchen and the coffee cup full of ballpoint pens on the table—he rarely depicts the milieu convincingly.
This isn’t to say that Russell or any filmmaker need necessarily constrain themselves to whatever passes for realism, but without a base-level foundation he tends to fall into a pattern of spastic effusion, a violent lurch accompanying each of the short-attention-span shifts in register. (Hal Hartley’s approach to creating a mystical-realist bridge-and-tunnel country is a worthwhile comparison.) Joy’s eventual escape and ascendance, covered in a Mimi-narrated postscript, has an aspect of blue-collar Cinderella wish fulfillment about it, as well as an undertone of melancholy. However, rather than find a way for opposing ideas to coexist and overlap in the same scene—think of the first meeting between the lovers on the floor of Frankenberg’s department store in Carol, which occurs at the busy intersection of class lines and desire both sexual and acquisitive—Russell’s movie staggers from one theme to the next, shrilly insisting all along the way that the viewer feel something.
It succeeds, but the result can’t have been the desired one: Russell’s films so often give one the feeling of being buttonholed at a party by a breathless, insistent boor. His latest is less peppy than pummeling, and in working desperately to keep the energy level up, Russell offers further proof that he uses pop-music cues worse than any other working director. His admirers usually cite his work with actors as his strength, but while star Lawrence is merely miscast—the part calls for someone with a few more city miles on them—practically everyone else is fumbling with untenable, one-note roles. The film’s turbulence might be meant to reflect the messiness of Life Itself, but the result is as phony as the stains meticulously daubed onto Lawrence’s dowdy single-mom blouses. It’s a dizzy, dervish-like movie that can be read as a celebration of capitalism, an economic cautionary tale, both at once, or total political confusion à la Russell’s Three Kings (1999)—but there’s little allure to look closer at a movie that offers little in return for leaving you so wrung out.
David O. Russell’s Joy opens in theaters on December 25.
Douglas Sirk, All That Heaven Allows, 1955, 35 mm, color, sound, 89 minutes.
FOR THOSE STILL IMMUNE to the glories of Douglas Sirk’s cinema, the twenty-five-film retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (most in 35 mm) is a rare opportunity to see what they’ve been missing. Included are four films from the 1930s that he made in Germany as Detlef Sierck, but also such rarities as Mystery Submarine (1950), The First Legion (1951, one of his loveliest, most underrated films), and Take Me to Town and Meet Me at the Fair (both 1953). Among cinephiles and film historians, Sirk’s reputation has soared since the 1960s, when the Dictionnaire du Cinéma declared him the “most neglected director in the whole of American cinema.” The same voices in the ’50s that mocked his unabashed embrace of melodrama (like complaining that opera plots are unrealistic) applauded the bludgeoning style and rhetoric of such diatribes as High Noon (1952), The Defiant Ones (1958), Blackboard Jungle (1955), and Marty (1955).
Sirk’s visual music eluded his critics even as it transcended Hollywood conventions, deepening the melodrama’s cultural and psychological dimensions by hyperbolizing its very mechanics. At their best, his films move beyond naturalism toward what Godard lovingly called “delirium”—where raw, even pathological emotions find their stylistic match. No longer at the “far side of paradise” where the late Andrew Sarris placed him in The American Cinema (1968), Sirk is unquestionably one of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers. His late masterpieces—Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957), and Imitation of Life (1959) are not only triumphs of composition and light, but powerful refutations of American idealism, a shade or two less dark but no less perversely bewitching than Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958).
Sirk not only survived his critics; he also emerged unscathed from efforts by academics in the ’80s to view his work through the dubious filters of fashionable theories—deconstruction, Lacanian psychoanalysis, and radical feminism—thereby “justifying” his excesses as a form of Brechtian estrangement. As contemporaries, Sirk was certainly cognizant of Brecht’s theories. But to suggest that the unflinching pathos of his movies is compatible with Brechtian detachment is folly. If there is a “distance” in Sirk’s style, it’s one he shares with fellow émigrés Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger, Max Ophüls, Fritz Lang, and Robert Siodmak, who, having fled the horrors of Nazism, observed the naïveté of American society with bemused concern.
Sirk came to Hollywood with a formidable pedigree, after honing his skills in structure and scenic design in classical theater throughout the ’20s. Having adapted, staged, or directed Sophocles, Molière, Shakespeare, Schiller, Goethe, Strindberg, Shaw, Pirandello, Wilde, and Ibsen, among others, he brought, without the least condescension, a gravitas and cathartic weight to the melodrama. Even his “happy” endings are suffused with unfulfilled longing. In There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), middle-class domesticity triumphs over midlife escapism; All That Heaven Allows (1955) confirms that star-crossed lovers can only find peace in the giddily fantastic Waldenesque world etched in the final image.
Douglas Sirk, La Habanera, 1937, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 98 minutes.
Sirk had explored the dangerous lure of a natural paradise in La Habanera (1937), his last German film: Astree, the Swedish heroine, jumps ship in a sensually depicted Puerto Rico and falls into the arms of the dashing Don Pedro, only to endure a hellish marriage for the next ten years and wage battle for custody of their son. Contention between husband and wife is reflected in the shadowy bars that fragment the mise-en-scène. When Astree leaves after her husband dies of the fever that descends on this paradise, her gaze backward lingers until the camera pans out to sea, reversing the move it made in the opening shot. The camera’s omniscient role, not unlike its fatalistic point of view in German cinema in the ’20s, along with the film’s lighting, narrative structure, and the schism between yearning and reality, would become the hallmarks of Sirk’s style in Hollywood, where it would be enhanced by his brilliant use of color.
His first American movie, Hitler’s Madman (1943), is an indictment of Nazi ideology. Depicting the destruction of Lidice, Czechoslovakia, as punishment for the assassination of its Commandant, the film is somewhat crude but reminds us what drove Sirk (whose wife was Jewish) and his fellow émigrés out of Germany. Collectively, they brought a weltanschauung that darkened the tenor of Hollywood cinema and virtually invented film noir, the quintessential genre of the ’40s. While Sirk’s Sleep My Love (1947) and Lured (1946) have a noir-like air, the genre was more successfully tackled by Wilder, Preminger, and Siodmak. And though Sirk had a talent for comedy, the musical, the western, war films, and period pieces, melodrama proved the most pliable form with which to expose and critique (with boundless compassion, as Rainer Werner Fassbinder noted with envy) the flabby underbelly of America’s cultural mores and social straitjackets. When, following stints at United Artists and Columbia, he went to Universal-International in 1950, these preoccupations intensified—for, as he told Jon Halliday (in Sirk on Sirk, 1972), he was granted freer reign over production details and final cut than anyone else on the lot—especially after his Magnificent Obsession (1954) became the biggest box-office hit in the studio’s history.
Sirk’s stylistic virtuosity did not make him any less a director of actors. Many gave their best performances under his baton. George Sanders was born for his role as the elegant crook François Vidocq in A Scandal in Paris (1945). Middle-class motherhood as domestic trap—a fixture of the melodrama—is explored with great range and subtlety through Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman, and Lana Turner. Rock Hudson, Universal’s biggest male star in the ’50s, made eight movies with Sirk, though Sirk saw immediately that he was incapable of the internal “split” that made characters interesting, and which finds its visual correlative in the mirrors and shadows that often divide his frames. Within this aesthetic, Hudson was the immovable object, the uncomplicated hero—perfect as Captain Lightfoot (1954), less so in Battle Hymn (1956)—against which Sirk would play off characters in deep conflict. An exception is the moment in All That Heaven Allows when Ron (Hudson) demands that Cary (Jane Wyman) choose between him and her selfish children. When she walks out, his genuine shock is registered by the only shot in the film that enshrouds him in shadows.
Douglas Sirk, Written on the Wind, 1956, 35 mm, color, sound, 99 minutes.
The split in Imitation of Life allows Sirk to explore racism in American society through the self-hatred of the Susan Kohner character, but its dynamic is most unnervingly demonstrated in Written on the Wind, the hothouse atmosphere of which is far more corrosive than its source novel (in which tobacco, not oil, is the source of the family’s wealth, and a less neurotic Ann Charlotte—Dorothy Malone’s character—actually wins the object of her desire!). Sirk’s treatment of the Hadleys is not just an overripe indictment of American capitalism and the dysfunctional spawn of the wealthy. Less appreciated, if not ignored, are his psychological astuteness and nonjudgmental treatment. Lang, Preminger, and Wilder also excoriated the falseness of the American dream, but without Sirk’s charity and sympathy for human failings. In this sense, the film may well be the pinnacle of his lifelong interest in illness and disease. Rooted in German culture of the ’20s, this tendency to see the problems of people and society in pathological terms no doubt owed much to Freud, whom Sirk read in German and whose popularity and influence was at its height during the decades of Sirk’s Hollywood career.
No surprise then that the film’s leads, Hudson and Lauren Bacall, are reduced to mere foils, against which the Hadley scions, played by Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone, act out their self-destructive pathologies. Sirk grounded the emotions generated by the material not only in the pain and suffering of unadmirable characters, but with keen awareness of the ego deficits that ruled them. In clinical terms, Malone and Stack do not so much act as act out their neuroses and insecurities. A pair of open wounds oozing noxious self-loathing, they literally sprawl through and poison every scene. Yet, consistent with the fragility of the insecure narcissist, they can turn on a dime when easily hurt, reduced to the pleading posture of the unloved child. We see it when Kyle, told he may be sterile, falls into instant despair, and when Mary Lee, riding high with a lame scheme to blackmail Mitch into marrying her, shrivels into girlish shame when he reminds her how far they’ve come from “the river,” the pastoral haven of their youth.
At once achingly beautiful and Hollywood at its most baroque, the film epitomizes all that is grand, idiosyncratic, and moving in Sirk, even as it flagrantly plays into the hands of those who dismiss it as kitsch. Viewers laugh at the shot of Malone clutching the metal oil rig—a phallic symbol if ever there was one. I now take it as Sirk’s jab at those who can’t see the heartbreak beyond it, whose focus on camp blinds them to both the object’s cold, hollow impotence and the woman who has lost everything—father, brother, the one man she couldn’t have, and any ability to free herself of self-disgust. With that cruel blow Sirk dares us to smile at the obligatory “happy ending.”
The idyllic “river” we see in a flashback of Mary Lee’s, and where Kyle asks to go just before he dies, had significance for Sirk as well. He told Halliday in 1972 that he aspired early on to make a series of films about middle-class America, with its losses and disillusionments. It’s hard not to see how personal this ambition was, a vision that reflected his own separation from his homeland and his inability, upon his return to Germany in the ’60s, to feel comfortable there ever again. Split between countries and languages, he no doubt at times also longed for the river.