JONAS MEKAS IS A FILM DIARIST. He is also an archivist and a historian. His films are a tool for the preservation of knowledge about how artists worked and lived in the second half of the twentieth century and on into the present. They are about aesthetics and economics, about the ties of friendship and family, about the pleasures of eating and drinking and talking into the night. All of this is recorded with cameras so unassuming that people have always taken them for granted. I sometimes wonder why no one ever says, “Jonas, put away the camera. I don’t want my words to be recorded for posterity, especially when I’m half-drunk and not entirely coherent.” But no one ever does.
Scenes from the Life of Raimund Abraham (2013) is a radical instance of cinéma vérité. Formally, it is not a great Mekas movie. It doesn’t have the beauty, eloquence, and coherence of Walden (1966) or Out-Takes from the Life of a Happy Man (2012), although it pulls together a penultimate and a final scene to make you weep and laugh and weep again over the irony that this puny digital artifact most likely will outlive everyone depicted in it, and has already outlived the architect who is its subject, Raimund Abraham. And in doing so, it will have realized its purpose: to carry lens-based sketches of the past into the future.
If you know nothing about Abraham—a Viennese avant-garde architect best known as a theoretician, who also realized one of New York’s most extraordinary buildings, the Austrian Cultural Forum (25 feet wide by 280 feet tall, built on a sliver of land at 11 East Fifty-Second Street and resembling, according to Abraham, “a guillotine”)—you can turn to Google. What you will not find there is the intimate life of the man—how he behaved with his friends, how he cooked them dinners (meat, meat, and more meat, for instance, an entire lamb skinned, basted, and set to pan-roast), what he talked about, how he explained his practice to others and to himself, the tour he gave a few friends of the interior of his great building (at least forty-five minutes of this epic six-hour movie portrait), and his unmistakable joy in having accomplished it. “Maybe the most important moment of my life,” he says at the opening.
Abraham and Mekas were close friends. Perhaps Mekas has film and video footage of Abraham that he hasn’t included in this portrait or in his previous movies. But since the hand of Mekas the archivist rather than Mekas the artist is at work here, I doubt that much was discarded. As a result, many of the images—shot on consumer video and, later, on digital cameras—leave a lot to be desired. And the same goes for the sound. Abraham’s last lecture in the Great Hall of Cooper Union is barely audible. For the most part, however, none of that matters. What is impressive, thrilling even, in Scenes from the Life of Raimund Abraham is the close proximity to a brilliant architect and his circumstances, which it is not unduly romantic to describe as the participants themselves would: as the last community of visionary artists.
And although many will not agree, I find the absence of ego in Mekas’s work here thoroughly satisfying. In part it’s an issue of technology. When Mekas shot with a 16-mm camera, film was so expensive that he developed a technique of shooting in short bursts so he could make a single roll last a week. The density of the images and the speed of the editing yielded kinetically exciting, often exquisitely distilled images. Mekas includes three or four sequences of Abraham shot on film during the 1970s, not just so we see the youthful and rather dashing man, but also so we mark the difference between filmmaking as art and filmmaking as the archiving of images. Home movies shot off-the-cuff on video are seldom pleasing pictorially, but they have the advantage of the long take—of continuity in time. And when the camera belongs to an observer as acute as Mekas, one who knows his subject as intimately as he does, the viewer has the experience of being truly there—of being inside a life, not for a few seconds but for long enough to drink a glass of wine or to sit in the Great Hall, watching a series of powerful, often enigmatic, drawings that are Abraham’s illustrations for a lecture that one must strain across time and space to hear.
Jonas Mekas’s Scenes from the Life of Raimund Abraham has its New York theatrical premiere on Saturday, December 19, and Sunday, December 20, at 4 PM each day at Anthology Film Archives. Mekas will appear in person at the Saturday screening.
Nathan Silver, Stinking Heaven, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 70 minutes. Ann (Hannah Gross).
A TALE OF REHABBED JUNKIES shot on junky, rehabbed video equipment, Nathan Silver’s Stinking Heaven is a singularly bleak smash-up psychodrama. Silver’s fifth completed feature since 2009 comes in at a slender seventy minutes; he works at a brisk clip, and like the much larger filmography of South Korea’s Hong Sang-soo, Silver’s work thus far can be experienced as a series of evolving drafts, reworkings that give the feeling of working toward something rather than acting as a testament. In addition to Stinking Heaven, this year Silver premiered a four-minute squib of a short, Riot, a reediting of camcorder movies of the young filmmaker and his claque of white neighborhood friends recreating the Los Angeles riots in a backyard in suburban Massachusetts, oblivious to mandates of political correctness. The home-movie aesthetic is important to Stinking Heaven, shot on an Ikegami HL-79E, a 1980s vintage broadcast camera. More than providing a nostalgic patina, the obsolescent technology and the 4:3 broadcast television framing remind us how our perception of photographic realism is attached to a teleological sliding scale.
The setting of Stinking Heaven is identified as “Passaic, New Jersey 1990” by a single on-screen title; after that, viewers are left to fend for themselves. The movie opens as Betty (Eleonore Hendricks) shares a druggy idyll with her girlfriend, Ann (Hannah Gross), passing a jerry-rigged water bottle crack pipe, then stripping down to plash in an outdoor swimming hole. After the first of many vaulting elisions, we catch up with Betty as she is married to grizzled, middle-aged Kevin (Henri Douvry) in a living-room ceremony officiated by Jim (Keith Poulson). Gradually the dimensions of Betty’s new life come into focus: The house is a communal living space for recovering addicts—per their charter, they “Choose to be together, choose to be sober”—presided over by Jim. They pay the bills with money earned by selling a homemade kombucha drink at local flea markets and, more importantly, with checks from a relation of Jim’s who owns a scrapyard.
Silver’s Soft in the Head (2013) takes place in a homeless shelter whose exclusively male population is stirred up by the appearance of a young female in their midst; his Uncertain Terms (2014), is set in a shelter for pregnant teenagers. In Stinking Heaven, the filmmaker again deals with the interaction of fragile group ecosystems and volatile outside elements. These are some of the same concerns which come about in directing an ensemble performance piece, and this connection is lent a self-reflective touch by the fact that the commune members are themselves, after a fashion, filmmakers—what we see of their group therapy consists of members helping one another to reenact their rock-bottom moments while someone stands to the side and videotapes the action for posterity. These exercises are sprung on the viewer unannounced; when, for example, Kevin barges into the living room in his underwear, shrieking about having been beaten up and pissed on outside of a bar, it’s only after the initial shock has worn off that we detect the presence of a camera.
Silver had his cast cohabit for the duration of the heavily improvised shoot so that the circumstances of the production might more closely mirror those of the story being told, and he is simultaneously engaging with a realist tradition that seeks to pin down quicksilver emotional truth using the tools of fiction filmmaking while questioning whether such an endeavor is even possible. (And what, if any, validity there is to the cult of “overcoming.”) Stinking Heaven is a movie at odds with itself, as its characters find themselves at odds with one another. In Silver’s abrasive films, the communal enterprise is a sort of autodestructive art, in which mismatched, out-of-sync gears grind one another down, finally bringing the entire mechanism to a halt.
Nathan Silver, Stinking Heaven, 2015, digital video, color, sound, 70 minutes. Courtney (Tallie Medel).
If we can point to any single catalyst that sets the breakdown in motion in Stinking Heaven, it’s Ann’s reappearance in Betty’s life. (Joining the group, Ann seems more motivated by spite toward her ex than a desire to get straight. This drives out Betty, never to return to the film, and triggers Kevin to relapse.) But in fact the seeds of the group’s destruction are planted even earlier. While married to Lucy (Deragh Campbell) and ostensibly the group’s authority, Jim takes every opportunity to slip into the communal van for interludes of afternoon delight with Courtney (Tallie Medel), Kevin’s daughter, who looks on with big, Kohl-rimmed eyes from an adjacent bunk bed while her father and Betty share their first night of connubial bliss.
It’s a scene-stealing part for Medel, whom I first clocked playing a teenager carnally obsessed with her older brother in Dan Sallitt’s 2012 The Unspeakable Act—and it is worth noting that the subject of incest seems to have a peculiar pull for filmmakers originating in the small, claustrophobically tight-knit New York independent film scene. (See also Alex Ross Perry’s 2011 The Color Wheel.) Silver’s cast mixes indie veterans like Campbell, Gross, Medel, and filmmaker Jason Giampietro, very funny as the group’s crooked-grinning instigator, with little-known gigging middle-aged actors like Douvry, Eileen Kearney, and biker-bearded Larry Novak, making for a motley combination of histrionic performance styles. Adding to the suffocating air in the house is Silver and DP Adam Ginsberg’s penchant for smothering, shallow-focus close-ups, which also have the benefit of omitting background details and allowing the filmmakers to, with a minimal budget, make a more or less convincing period piece set on the brink of the Lollapalooza era. (The setting is not so prominent a part of the story as in Whitney Horn and Lev Kalman’s tenure-track time capsule L for Leisure , though Paul Grimstad’s synth score does evoke period-specific Angelo Badalamenti dolour.)
The movie doesn’t end so much as burn out. Centrifugal force spins the members of the commune off on their different courses, the narrative shakes itself to pieces, and Jim takes up an offer of a job at the junkyard. Stinking Heaven isn’t a great leap forward for its director, but Silver’s practice isn’t the sort that invites that kind of tutelage-to-mastery conversation. It’ll be right back to the drawing board—or the scrap heap—and another jagged rattletrap collection of spare parts.
Lewis Klahr, Sixty Six, 2002–15, HD video, color, sound.
BASED IN LOS ANGELES, where he teaches film in the theater department at CalArts, Lewis Klahr is one of America’s most prolific avant-garde filmmakers. Drawn to narrative as well as short, lyrical “odes” of purely visual and audio associations, his style might be described as a form of mobile tableaux rather than animation—a term he rejects. Devising a highly original mise-en-scène, Klahr’s images, taken from popular culture sources—e.g., magazines, comic books, catalogues, photos—are cut out and placed against backdrops, then manipulated in various ways, at times inserted and withdrawn, as if they were entering or leaving a “stage”—or, in filmic terms, moving on or off screen—a kind of children’s theater with adult content. He photographs these complex designs frame by frame, conjuring such film conventions as fades, dissolves, superimpositions, long shots, or close-ups through palpable hand manipulations. Sound tracks are critical—whether individual songs, long symphonic pieces, abridged radio or television programs from his teenage years, or a collage of ambient sounds to evoke the atmosphere of a particular place.
His newest work, Sixty Six, comprising twelve short “chapters” produced between 2002 and 2015, is an ambitious attempt to view—and review—the iconography and themes of his cinematic fables through the lens of mythic archetypes. Sometimes the links are direct, as in “Mercury” and “Mars Garden,” in which comic-book superheroes are intercut with or superimposed on government types animating the physical combat implied in the original without erasing the latter’s graphic appeal. By filming the comics double-sided (both sides of a page simultaneously), Klahr creates a vivid palimpsest in which most of the bubbled dialogue is inverted and characters are willfully conflated. This conflation, arguably one of the series’ principal themes, invokes as well as frustrates parallels between ancient myths and the artifacts and personae of contemporary life. A simple example is “Ambrosia,” in which the food and wine of the gods is represented by a montage of black-and-white photos of banquet tables strewn with the remains of some festive event. Or “Saturn’s Diary,” which underlines the daily routines of a well-groomed corporate type with repeated images of a monthly calendar—where the number sixty-six makes one of its many appearances. In the spirit of Klahr’s absorption with popular culture, his allusions are to the most familiar aspect of each god, using their Roman names—like our planets—rather than their Greek originals.
As he does frequently, Klahr grounds his material, whatever its source, in personal biography, often through choice of music. The poignant lyrics sung over the images in “Mercury” suggest as much: A man, “listening to all the dissensions,” bemoans a failed relationship and tries to “heal” it with his song. It’s hard not to take this as a modest acknowledgment of Klahr’s earnest, perhaps “foolish” hope that his work can exert some impact on the world’s—or his own—dissensions. The contrast between the song’s tender delivery and the hyperactive mortal combat of his superheroes may reflect this contention. Titled after the alleged messenger of the gods, this first “chapter” of Sixty Six suggests that its “message,” however masked or muted, reverberates throughout the series—if only in the form of the lifelong disillusionments that accumulate as we lose confidence in the mortal “gods” of our youth, and long for whatever moral and psychological compass they were once thought to provide.
In some instances, with a mere nod to the myth, Klahr generates mininarratives of heartbreaking melancholy. “Lip Print (Venus),” originally titled “Turn It Back,” is, in Klahr’s description, “a feature-length melodrama compressed into three minutes.” As elsewhere, the protagonist, a “quintessential ’60s blonde,” is a composite of several comic-book figures. More potent, in my judgment, is “Helen of T,” in which a “party girl” goes from blonde beauty to wrinkled middle age in a cruelly compact seven minutes—a fate echoed by a lone saxophone wailing through the night. In this audiovisual torch song, no Adonis-like Paris abducts Helen, nor, it would seem, has she ever had a Menelaus to come home to: Images of a pair of chairs and a double bed merely stress the absence of another.
The blonde protagonist in “Erigone’s Daughter” fares no better. Hair pinned back à la Tippi Hedren or Kim Novak, she is assembled from several “Foto Roman characters” of the 1970s, clearly embodying a generation desperate to escape maternal and paternal figures, conjured here through an audio track collage of “Route 66,” a TV show of the era. The movie seems to fuse—or confuse—the behavior of the Greek myth’s Erigone—who had no daughter and who hung herself out of grief upon her father Icarius’s death—with the perhaps suicidal desperation of the young woman in the video.
That Klahr’s one-dimensional cutouts from comics or magazines yield such strong affect can only be because they resonate powerfully within him. Sometimes the feelings that drive a work seem purely nostalgic, as when he conjures a memory of a specific place in “August 1966 (Jupiter Sends a Message)” via the sounds of crickets and thunder over landscapes on Long Island where he lived as a child.
At other times, the material and the affect prove difficult to appreciate in one or two viewings. “Ichor” (in Classical Mythology, “the ethereal fluid supposed to flow in the veins of the gods”), for example, set in ’60s Los Angeles, involves an orange-suited man seen in various states—laid out, falling through space, or lying on a deck chair in a bathing suit—who may be a victim of crime or of a disease he may have brought on himself. Unidentified men and women, a wife possibly, detectives, and medical figures move throughout, along with social and privately coded symbols, dollar signs, and small shiny squares that resemble everything from gambling chips to Scrabble pieces or lethal pills. Concern voiced by doctors and nurses alternate with oracular voice-overs that warn against vague threats and advise close attention to the planets. It’s a woozy mix, which, given Klahr’s penchant for blending the arcane with the cultural and the iconic with the inchoate, seems bent on resisting a cohesive analysis, however detailed its examination of every object, character, color, and frame.
“Lethe,” the last “movement” of this cinematic tone poem, is named after a river in Hades, the water of which (see the Oxford Companion of Classical Literature) “was drunk by souls about to be reincarnated, so that they forgot their previous existences.” The narrative concerns yet another blonde in distress, and the movie’s duration is synced to that of the first movement of Mahler’s (once incomplete) tenth symphony, which, as described in notes for a BBC recording of 1993, invokes “death-haunted nostalgia” ending in “serenity.” As it has elsewhere (Visconti’s Death in Venice comes to mind), Mahler’s music overwhelms everything, so that the anxious mood of “Lethe,” with its own images of illness, near death, and loss of memory seem dwarfed. Watching it muted several times, I was better able to appreciate its pathos as well as its subtle wit. The theme of memory loss finds a visual analogue in one of the very last images—and one of the loveliest in all of Klahr’s work: Several of what seem to be artificial leaves slowly descend upon, then gently erase all trace of the protagonist, fusing, figuratively speaking, death with the possibility—or not—of rebirth.
The quotation that opens the entire series—“Let the dreams you have forgotten equal the value of what you do not know” (from Andre Breton’s and Paul Eluard’s “The Original Judgment”)—speaks to Klahr’s seemingly obsessive but nevertheless ambivalent exploration of the childhood origins of his feelings and desires. No search into the depths of the past is ever unqualified. There are as many confounding obstructions as poignant revelations in Klahr’s work to suggest that his desire to “know” is often undermined by the natural fear that any final knowing may not only disappoint, but may compromise the value of artworks driven by stirring embodiments of the search.
If there is an idealized lost “object” that once defined the insular world of the child and whose power he or she hopes to reignite, a clue to its identity and significance in Klahr’s case can be sensed in “Orphacles,” a “god” of his invention, whose name links two of Greek mythology’s preeminent figures: Orpheus, the archetypal figure of poetry and song, and Heracles, the archetypal image of physical strength, manly courage, and virtue. In fusing them, Klahr concocts not so much an incomparable god as the ideal man, whose physical superiority does not preclude a rich inner life. Are the dying, fluttering, giant mosquitoes that beset the characters in “Orphacles” metaphors for the stinging irritations that thwart such a wish? Or could this be the impossible dream of the sensitive, sickly child in Klahr’s The Pharaoh’s Belt, fighting for his life, young lord of a rich imaginary world that would yield a lifetime devotion to film art? If the gods and superheroes of Klahr’s mythography haunt the embattled dramatis personae of his movies or embody wishes never fulfilled, they are also enduring images that continue to beckon.
Antonio Pietrangeli, I Knew Her Well, 1965. 35 mm, black and white, sound, 99 minutes.
ANY OVERVIEW of the career of Antonio Pietrangeli has to ask what might have been, for the Italian director died prematurely, very much in his prime, and before he could cement his legacy. The last feature that he lived to see to completion, I Knew Her Well (1965), was his most popular and remains among his best-regarded, a bittersweet comedy-drama starring Stefania Sandrelli as a teenaged provincial proletariat freshly arrived in Rome, oblivious as showbiz vampires feed off of her youth and beauty, tossing her a few nugatory, ultimately unsustaining rewards in return.
Unlike, say, Jean Eustache, Pasolini, or Fassbinder, whose oeuvres seem to anticipate and even be completed by their self-prophesied ends, Pietrangeli’s exit from the mortal coil was unplanned, tragic, and slightly absurd. In the summer of 1968, during a break in shooting on his Come, quando, perché (How, When, and with Whom), he went for a swim in the sea near Gaeta, and drowned after waves dashed him against a rocky outcropping. He was then forty-nine years old. As the notes for a 2013 retrospective at the Austrian Film Museum note, this was “a death scene that could have appeared in one of his films,” for Pietrangeli had established himself as the master of a particularly melancholic strain of the Commedia all’italiana genre, which provided a comic perspective on relations among the classes, between town and country, and (especially important for Pietrangeli) between men and women in the “Il Boom” years of Italy’s dizzying modernization.
The resuscitation of Pietrangeli’s reputation now continues with a retrospective—ten features and his contribution to the 1966 omnibus film Le Fate—at the Museum of Modern Art, who some years back did a similar service for the great Dino Risi. Viewed together, Pietrangeli’s films show a remarkable consistency of vision and thematic preoccupations. In his directorial debut, 1953’s Il Sole negli occhi (Empty Eyes), we find the same basic plot outline that would appear in I Knew Her Well a dozen years later: A young woman from a rural background—in this case Irene Galter—arrives in the big city to seek new opportunities, only to find that her gender and class background leave her vulnerable to exploitation from all sides.
Born in Rome, Pietrangeli had abandoned his early study of medicine and turned instead to cinema, where he would go on to deliver acute diagnoses of his country’s psychopathologies. Starting out as a critic, he contributed to the journals Bianco & Nero and Cinema, the latter an incubator for filmmakers-to-be including Carlo Lizzani, Gianni Puccini, Giuseppe de Santis, and Luchino Visconti. Along with Pietrangeli, who contributed to the scripts of Visconti’s La Terra Trema (1948) and Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 (1952), these Cinema journalists would contribute in ways large and small to the cycle of postwar Italian films grouped together under the media-friendly name of Neorealism. (Like the French New Wavers to come, these ex-journos knew the power of branding.)
Empty Eyes, in which Galter plays a naive domestic bounced from home to home while being strung along and finally seduced and abandoned by a feckless, charming plumber (Gabriele Ferzetti, a regular collaborator of Pietrangeli’s who died only this Wednesday), belongs to the Indian summer of Neorealism, though Pietrangeli’s future output would respond to new developments in Italian cinema and society, all while retaining the same wistful irony. Lo Scapolo (The Bachelor, 1955), starring Alberto Sorti, is an early Commedia all’italiana effort, while Souvenir d’Italie (It Happened in Rome, 1957), accompanying three young women on an Italian tour, is a light, colorful, commercial travelogue that incidentally offers a satirical view of a tourist industry catering to a lust for authenticity—no less a personage than Vittorio de Sica has a small role as a nobleman who’s taken to renting rooms in his Venetian villa.
Like contemporaries Risi and Pietro Germi, Pietrangeli’s films dealt with the tragicomic mess wrought by Italian machismo, in all of its fragile pride, galloping hypocrisy, and socially sanctioned power. Rather uniquely, however, Pietrangeli preferred to filter his stories through the perspective of female characters—Galter’s betrayed innocent, the trio of liberated vacationers in It Happened in Rome, or disillusioned Francesca (Jacqueline Sassard), who narrates the events of Nata di marzo (March’s Child, 1958), recounting the story of her broken marriage to a thirtysomething architect (Ferzetti), from her decision to drop out of university to their gradual bust-up, as honeymoon and domestic harmony turns to bitter recrimination. (The script, whose contributors include Pietrangeli and director-to-be Ettore Scola, is a painfully incisive portrait of a relationship in nosedive free fall, full of stinging jibes: “You’re so banal sometimes it leaves me speechless.”)
Antonio Pietrangeli, La Visita, 1964. 35 mm, black and white, sound, 100 minutes.
Pietrangeli never reduced his female characters by enlarging them into idealized icons; his women could be vain, petty, calculating, and bullheaded, which is to say human. He presided nevertheless over several scenes of touching feminine solidarity, from the coda that concludes Empty Eyes, in which a group of housemaids gather in support of one of their own, to the extraordinary Adua and Her Friends. Released in 1960, Adua is set in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the 1958 Merlin Law, which effectively closed down Italy’s brothels. The title character (Simone Signoret) takes the lead of a cohort of newly out-of-work working girls, including Emmanuelle Riva, encouraging them to try a new business model—a restaurant in the Roman suburbs that offers boudoir service on the side—until the unexpected pride that comes with running a legitimate, successful small business has them reconsidering going back into the world’s oldest profession. Sex and economics are also inextricable in La Visita (The Visit, 1963), in which a Roman bookseller (François Périer) travels to a village in the Po Valley to meet a voluptuous thirty-six-year-old bachelorette (Sandra Milo) with whom he has been exchanging letters, though his interest seems mostly to be in her dowry and the teenage granddaughter of her housekeeper. Périer’s toothbrush-mustached “Adolfo,” who flashes the Roman salute when in his cups, is the very portrait of a would-be petty domestic tyrant, the dynamic of his barely-suppressed nastiness and Milo’s doe-eyed eagerness suggesting a Commedia all’italiana version of Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962), though the film’s resolution has a plaintiveness that is purely Pietrangeli.
Pietrangeli’s comedies are distinguished by their undercurrent of wry pity and their remarkable acuity in both psychology and setting. No less than Visconti, though for the most part working in very different milieus, Pietrangeli’s films show a great sensitivity to the way in which people, unconsciously obeisant to internalized behavioral codes, move in and between private and public spaces. Pietrangeli was an unobtrusive stylist who borrowed very selectively from modernist screen language, preferring shrewdly timed close-up accents and casual unbroken sequence shots that recall Preston Strurges. Rather than bravura showmanship, his best moments exemplify finely calibrated qualities of tone: the suburban dance hall on a Sunday afternoon in Empty Eyes, the domestic squabble put on pause for the priest’s Easter visit in March’s Child, or two nuns at a railway station breaking into a conspiratorial giggle while watching Milo primp and prepare herself in The Visit. MoMA’s program gives much cause to regret the brevity of his life, and much evidence that he was a gifted satirical chronicler of the time and place in which he did live: a new Italy, torn between the musty leather-bound Bible and the glossy catalog.
“Antonio Pietrangeli: A Retrospective” runs December 3–18 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
REDUCING A REMARKABLE LIFE AND MARRIAGE to stultifying solemnity, Tom Hooper’s The Danish Girl might be most charitably thought of as a public-service announcement gussied up in interwar-period costuming and interior design. Based on David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name, Hooper’s project is a docudrama about artist spouses Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) and Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), who, in the late 1920s, began presenting as Lili Elbe and in 1930 became one of the first recipients of gender-reassignment surgery. In all fairness, some of the film’s decorousness is rooted in the source material: In Ebershoff’s book, the countless mentions of the “pickled-ash wardrobe” in the Copenhagen flat shared by Einar/Lili and Gerda (known as Greta in the novel) elevate the piece of furniture to a major character. (The shabby-chic dwelling the couple inhabits recalls the London speech therapist’s office where George VI is cured of his stammer in The King’s Speech, Hooper’s innocuous biopic from 2010.)
Ebershoff’s book, though, admirably plumbs not just Lili’s complexities and contradictions but also the protean, at times painful, partnership she has with Gerda; Hooper’s movie, in contrast, is so terrified of making missteps in its portrayal of its transgender character that it becomes strenuously anodyne. (The depth of the filmmakers’ insecurity regarding their handling of Einar’s transition to Lili is evidenced in the thick press booklet I received at the press screening, a dossier that includes a wholly unnecessary page headed “When discussing The Danish Girl: Terms to Know.” The text is a preemptive exhortation to journalists covering the film, and one that is completely ahistorical and entirely nonsensical: “LGBTQ” is listed in this PR glossary; the acronym, of course, wouldn’t be deployed until decades after the years covered in the film.) Even worse, amendments to the novel—The Danish Girl’s script was written by Lucinda Coxon—do a grave disservice to the central dyad by making them more conventional than they were either in real life or in Ebershoff’s rendering.
That’s especially the case in the scenes devoted to proving the robustness of Einar and Gerda’s heterosexual mating. Their bed-centered fun occurs off-screen, though not Gerda’s morning-after wish: “I’m wondering if we made a baby last night,” a procreative desire that exists only in Hooper’s film. Other lines in the film sink with their retrofitted interpretations of gender studies, as when Gerda says to the industrialist whose portrait she’s painting, “For a man to submit to a woman’s gaze—it’s unsettling.” The mundane observation typifies most of Vikander’s dialogue, which varies little between uxorial omniscience before Einar’s transition (“I’m your wife—I know everything”) and expressions of extreme martyrdom after it.
Redmayne, though his character undergoes the most extraordinary of changes, is paradoxically hemmed in even more. Lili, whose costuming here suggests Rrose Sélavy, isn’t a woman or a body but a quivering mouthpiece, put in service to declare her virtue and noble suffering time and time again. In sanctifying Lili, the film voids her vitality, quite literally in one of The Danish Girl’s closing scenes, an episode that Ebershoff wisely chose to leave open-ended. A closing intertitle declares of the film’s heroine, “Her bravery and pioneering spirit remain an inspiration for today’s transgender movement.” But in this arduously pious version of Lili Elbe’s life, she was born to die.
The Danish Girl opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 27.
A RETELLING OF THE EVENTS of the January, 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift in the Anglo-Zulu War, in which a ragtag force of some hundred able-bodied British Army regulars successfully defended a remote supply depot from a vastly superior force of Zulu warriors, the 1964 film Zulu means a great many things to a great many people. It provided the great Welsh screen star Stanley Baker with a signature role as Lieutenant John Chard, and definitively broke through his thirty-year-old cockney costar, Michael Caine. It inspired a young Afrika Bambaataa in the Bronx River Projects to create his Zulu Nation youth movement, though its images of Afro-European combat, appearing in the midst of the civil rights struggle, remain necessarily racially loaded, and for some it’s the definitive screen image of imperial martial valor, epitomized in the moment when the defenders of Rorke’s Drift, fallen back to their last redoubt, raise their voices together to sing “Men of Harlech.”
Zulu reflects both the spiritual sullying of combat and the mythic self-image of the United Kingdom in the full flower of Empire, and it should take nothing away from this to note that the same “Men of Harlech” scene occurs, in a very similar context, in Apache Drums, a 1951 Western directed by the Argentinean-born director Hugo Fregonese and produced by the American Val Lewton for Universal-International pictures, or that the director of Zulu—full name Cyril Raker Endfield—whose sobriquet might fit in on the roll call of Eton, was in fact the son of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Endfield is the subject of an eleven-film retrospective which opens today at Anthology Film Archives—among the many inducements to attend is an IB Technicolor print of Zulu, recommended above the DCP which circulated in the recent Rialto rerelease. His career began not in Pinewood but in Southern California, where he landed in September 1940, staying with his old friend, screenwriter Paul Jarrico, while he attempted to turn his credits in progressive theater and amateur magic into a studio job. Showing off his feats of prestidigitation for a bemused Orson Welles at Bert Wheeler’s Magic Shop on Hollywood Boulevard led to an apprenticeship for the Mercury Theater unit at RKO, and two years later Endfield had finally managed to launch himself as a director of short subjects. (His first, a propaganda effort called Inflation, was snuffed at the behest of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a foretaste of futures frustrations.)
The earliest of Endfield’s features to play AFA is The Argyle Secrets (1948), an independently produced quickie marked by an unusual level of political pessimism and a total absence of “sympathetic characters” which involves a race to find documents that prove prominent Americans struck contingency deals with the Axis powers in the event of an Allied loss, but he really made his name with two back-to-back films that might be classified as newspaper noirs. The Sound of Fury (1950) stars Frank Lovejoy as a down-on-his-luck regular Joe who, in order to put food on the table for his family, begins working as a driver for a slickster triggerman (Lloyd Bridges, whose preening “seduction” scene with Lovejoy is a highlight). Once Lovejoy’s character is caught and jailed, this fairly straightforward tale of a man undone by ambition takes on a wider social scope, as a newspaper columnist (Richard Carlson) condemns the accused in the court of public opinion, and is rewarded for his efforts by the appearance of a lynch mob. The didactic commentary of a European observer—“Violence is a disease caused by moral and social breakdown”—was a lamented carry-over from the source novel by Jo Pagano, which drew from an actual mob uprising that occurred in San Jose, but the film, some of it shot on location in Phoenix, has a wonderful feel for life lived tenuously on the rung just above poverty, and Endfield’s visceral handling of the movement of massed bodies in the concluding siege anticipates the director’s later work on Zulu.
The Sound of Fury sets its scene in the Sun Belt anytown of Santa Sierra, where Lovejoy’s character has come from Boston to look for work, while Endfield’s The Underworld Story of the same year goes back to the precincts of Salem to offer live-at-the-witch-trials reportage. Dan Duryea, Patron Saint of Seedy Blondes, arrives in a backlot New England town bristling with cutout steeples and assumes a job at the local newspaper where, purely for reasons of profit, he takes up the defense of a black domestic (Mary Anderson, playing against racial type) accused of killing her employer. The actual culprits are a father-son team of local bluebloods who can trace their lineage back to Concord—“It’ll be the word of a nigger against ours,” says actor Gar Moore, in a moment of brute candor rarely seen in films of the day—but when they can’t cover their tracks through backroom dealmaking with prominent citizens, they ally with Howard Da Silva’s crime capo.
Just as he was starting to build up a head of steam, Endfield’s brilliant Hollywood career was cut short. Screenwriter Martin Berkeley named him as a communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee—and friends and collaborators Da Silva, Bridges, and Jarrico were also being fingered. Endfield’s engagement with radical politics had begun years before he came west. Born in 1914, Endfield was the son of a moderately well-off furrier, born in Łódź as Koniećpolski, but he showed little interest in taking over the store. (“Nothing like a small business,” sneers Da Silva in The Underworld Story, “Backbone of the country.”) His father’s fortunes took a setback in the Depression, but Cy’s scholastic abilities were enough to win him entry to Yale, though his status as a scholarship boy and a Jew developed his sense of class consciousness. (Also from The Underworld Story: “You know what’s under ivy? Little crawling things.”) We have a privileged insight into Endfield’s political thinking during this period—intuitive, compassionate, and skeptical—thanks to his ongoing correspondence with Jarrico, then called Israel Shapiro, detailed in a superb biography by Brian Neve, The Many Lives of Cy Endfield, which appeared last summer. After two and a half years at Yale, Endfield lit off for New York City and the politically engaged New Theatre League, his course in life set.
Until 1951, that is. Some blacklistees went to Paris. Others, like Sam Wanamaker, Edward Dmytryk, Carl Foreman, Joseph Losey, and Endfield, headed for London. Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t always greeted with open arms in their new homes, and in the first years of his exile Endfield had to operate under a plethora of pseudonyms: Charles de Lautour (his British “overseer” on set), Hugh Raker, and C. Raker Endfield. It was under the last that he had his first great success, on Hell Drivers (1957). Through the personage of a newcomer (Stanley Baker), this hard-bitten classic initiates viewers into the society of lorry drivers carrying short-haul ballast loads—a seemingly banal job, but encouraged by their supervisors and their own overweening pride, they daily risk life and limb to shave seconds off of their time.
Baker, a sensitive performer of tough coal mining stock, had previously worked with Endfield in Child in the House (1956), and their teaming was regarded as such a success as to spawn multiple “sequels,” each featuring Baker performing feats of derring-do aboard a new mode of transit. The excellent Sea Fury (1958), which owes no small debt to Jean Gremillon’s Remorques (1941), was shot partially on location in northeastern coastal Spain, and features Baker as an out-of-work first mate who finds a job with the captain of a salvage tug—a rumpled, splenetic, alcoholic Victor McLaglen, in a marvelous final film role. (The climax, which shows off the same partiality for cockeyed, canted angles seen in The Sound of Fury’s boozy nightclub scene, takes place aboard an abandoned American freighter, tilted on its port side, called “The City of Scranton.”) Follow-up Jet Storm (1959), which takes place entirely aboard a London-to–New York airliner captained by Baker, may not be the first in-flight thriller ever made, but it’s the first that I know of. Taking place in the growing panic following the discovery of an on-board explosive, the film is bolstered by the presence of a fine ensemble cast including Richard Attenborough and rocker Marty Wilde, who croons a theme song with lyrics by Endfield himself. Jet Storm isn’t Endfield’s best work, but it is the purest distillation of a favorite theme that is something like his political philosophy: the importance of maintaining circumspection and calm in a crisis, whether a matter of resisting the “thoughtless emotionalism” of the mob in The Sound of Fury or the stiff upper lip that carries the day in Zulu.
Endfield and Baker, along with screenwriter John Prebble, were the principal architects behind Zulu, but the filmmaker was unable to convert its success into a more stable career. His last completed feature as director was Universal Soldier (1971), and the next quarter century of his life was occupied with uncompleted projects, the design of an early handheld word processor (the “Microwriter”), and a reengagement with his old passion for sleight-of-hand card magic. (Magicians recur throughout his filmography, and the power of the entertainer over an audience and the nuances of crowd psychology were sources of continual fascination.) He had done a great deal in cinema, but late in life he rued the fact that he hadn’t done more—as should we, for there is much evidence here that Cy Endfield still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
“Sound and Fury: The Films of Cy Endfield” runs November 20–December 8 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.