Aleksei German, Hard to Be a God, 2013, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 170 minutes.
FIRST LOOKING DOWN into the still water of a pond dusted with lightly falling snow—the photography is pure black-and-white, which is to say there’s nothing but black and white—the frame rears up to look out across a disorderly, frost-crusted landscape with a distinctly medieval aspect, dotted with a few ragged muzhiks. “This is not Earth, it’s another planet,” asserts a narrator, grumbling in Russian, though this claim is up against the evidence of our eyes.
This is the disorienting opening of Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, an epic at once claustrophobically immediate and otherworldly. The premise—thirty Russian scientists from an unidentified point in time have been sent to covertly observe life on a planet which is identical to Earth but lags centuries behind in development, never having experienced nor ever likely to experience a Renaissance or an Enlightenment—comes from a 1964 novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, two brothers whose science-fiction works were popular with Eastern Bloc readers, and whose Piknik na obochine (Roadside Picnic) was adapted by Andrei Tarkovsky into his 1979 Stalker. (The Strugatskys’ Hard to Be a God was reprinted last summer by Chicago Review Press.) In an opening narration tightly packed with vital exposition—pay attention, it won’t be repeated—we’re given a succinct rundown of the planet’s rival factions and nation-states (Oltregolfo, Irukan), and introduced to the film’s protagonist, Don Rumata, played by the brawny and swaggering Leonid Yarmolnik. Rumata is an earthling who poses as a nobleman “descended from Goran, a local pagan God,” and his brusque manner disguises an outraged sensitivity, for it is his fate to stand witness without intervention as another despot, Don Reba, carries out a purge of the local intelligentsia.
The first (and not last) execution in Hard to Be a God has a “wise guy” drowned in an outdoor latrine. Arbitrary acts of casual barbarism mount as we follow Rumata on his appointed rounds, while further dumps of exposition arrive as suddenly and torrentially as the cloudbursts which keep this planet’s inhabitants mired in mud, as they are mired in merry, brutish ignorance. A viewer is not less likely to be confused—clarifying matters of who and where and why for an audience is of secondary importance to German, who delights in shooting smothering banks of obfuscating fog, and whose principal occupation here is the construction of a total, inescapable environment in which to wallow. Where many a fantasy/sci-fi novel is preceded by pages of helpful maps which illustrate for the reader the borders of the imaginary terrain in which their scene is to be set, German flings his audience headfirst into the slops and expects them to make their own way.
Like many an agent to the colonies, Rumata has succumbed to the dissipation around him. He’s first introduced waking from a debauch, and through the course of a long day he grows steadily drunker on both toxic spirits and the sense of his own baffling invulnerability. As heavy and imposing as Rumata’s creaking carapace of armor, the film is welded together from wending Steadicam shots which closely explore his looming body and snuffle about his adopted home’s crevasses and cracks—as in an early shot where a hoodlum uses his pike to prod a bare ass hanging from a second-story outhouse—occasionally pulling back to reveal its expanses. One never has a sense here of a cordoned-off area where the camera cannot turn for fear of banishing the illusion, and the City of Arkanar gives an impression of interminable expanse while being perfect down to the last detail of tooled leather, weathered woodwork, and haphazard clutter.
When Rumata isn’t dominating the frame—and he quite often is—we experience the world through his point-of-view, complete with toadying subjects gawping, groveling, or presenting their broken idiot grins to the camera, fourth wall breaks which recall the Fellini of Satyricon. (The perspective will occasionally divert to the objective from a subjective POV in a single shot.) The film’s credits list two cinematographers (Vladimir Ilin and Yuriy Klimenko) and four camera operators, though it manages a remarkable visual consistency, space distinctly delineated into multiple planes by light and shadow as in a film by Von Sternberg, if Von Sternberg had ever decided to make a film about the scrofulous inhabitants of a sodden, squelching pigsty planet.
This tonal consistency is all the more remarkable when one considers that Hard to Be a God, German’s sixth and final film, was shot intermittently between 2000 and 2006, and was in postproduction for a still longer period. Its director did not survive to see the process through, dying in February of 2013—the same year that Hard to Be a God finally premiered at the Rome Film Festival, the sound mix having been completed by his son, director Aleksei A. German, and Svetlana Karmalita, his wife and coauthor of the film’s screenplay.
German completed his first feature in 1967, which should give you some idea of his prolificacy, or lack thereof. In conjunction with Anthology Film Archives’ weeklong run of Hard to Be a God, the theater will be screening three of his landmark earlier works. The wait between German films was not solely a result of his perfectionism, evident in the incredibly detailed sequence shots which make up his latest. Trial on the Road (1971), set during the German invasion of the USSR in World War II, shows a penchant for elaborately engineered, scrolling takes of troop transports and caravans of fleeing peasantry, but what held up its release fifteen years was its failure to conform to the ennobling version of Russian participation in the war, for the film’s antihero (a stone-faced Vladimir Zamansky) is a Soviet defector who has fought for both sides. Trial on the Road was based on a story by the novelist Yuri German, Aleksei’s father, whose work also provided the basis for Aleksei’s 1984 My Friend Ivan Lapshin—in the face of official amnesia, German deals in the transmission of history as a sort of family heirloom, something to be conveyed in textures, postures, and attitudes rather than in facts and figures. Ivan Lapshin is a memory piece which winds together the stories of the residents of a communal apartment and their circle—a police inspector, an itinerant actress, a journalist—in a typical provincial town in 1935. Watching it and 1998’s Khrustalyov, My Car!, you can trace the development of German’s muscular, thrashing style, as well as see the fondness for practical jokes, horseplay, and general prankishness which will turn antic in the grotesquerie of Hard to Be a God, rife with snot rockets, micturition, and pantomime humping.
Hard to Be a God is German’s only film not to be set in post-1917, pre-Khrushchev Russia, though its miasmic, moronic bog-planet may be taken as a flexible metaphor for the unfinished revolutionary Russia of 1964, when the Strugatsky brothers’ novel was published; the Putin kleptocracy, which German saw the beginning of; or a twenty-first-century slum planet devolved into peasant superstition and cackling cruelty. The urge for civilization struggles to survive in the sucking muck, though German shows little hope for the future. One “wise guy” approaches Don Rumata brandishing the broken wing of a crude Da Vinci–esque flying machine. “We’re learning to fly,” he says. “Mostly downwards.”
Agnès Troublé, My Name Is Hmmm..., 2013, color, sound, 121 minutes.
DELICATE, TOUGH, and heartbreakingly sad, My Name Is Hmmm… (2013) is the first feature by Agnès Troublé, better known as the fashion designer agnès b. You’ve probably seen—maybe even worn—her “j’aime le cinéma” T-shirt. You might not be aware, however, that through her production company Love Streams (named for John Cassavetes final film), she has helped finance movies by Harmony Korine, Claire Denis, and Jonas Mekas. Their influence is apparent in My Name Is Hmmm…, but the way Troublé tells a story and the story she tells are utterly personal. Her elliptical editing of both images and music can be startling, illuminating, or awkward, but it is always purposeful in expressing how the consciousness and memory of her heroine, an eleven-year-old girl, is shaped.
The oldest of three siblings, Céline (Lou-Lélia Demerliac) lives in a small French town hit hard by the recession. Her mother (Sylvie Testud) works long hours as a waitress; her unemployed father (Jacques Bonnaffé) has begun to sexually abuse Céline on a daily basis. On impulse, during a school outing to the beach, she runs away and takes refuge in a parked truck. The driver, a burly Scot named Pete (Douglas Gordon), is unaware of the girl hidden behind the front seat until he’s gone some distance, and by then it’s too late to turn back. He speaks hardly a word of French, but he senses that Céline, who refers to herself as “Hmmm,” has suffered a calamity, perhaps because he has as well. It takes only a glimpse of a photo of Pete with a woman and a child and the gentle fatherly encouragement he shows Céline to understand that Pete used to have a family, and then suddenly it was gone.
As they drive north through Bordeaux, the traumatized girl and the bereft man forge a bond. The cab of the truck is a safe, even magical space, its guardian spirit a glow-in-the-dark decal of a horse, mane flowing in full gallop, affixed to the windshield. Occasionally they get out to have a picnic, or to wander along the beach. Pete goes shopping to buy Céline a toothbrush and some underwear, they spend a night around a campfire with a wild assortment of travelers, among them the Italian philosopher Antonio Negri who’s walking the highways alone. Troublé mixes professional actors with personal friends and ordinary people she finds on location. A scene in a café with Jean-Pierre Kalfon as the argumentative proprietor is an improvisational gem, and it is also where the tone changes. Pete has been aware for a few days that the police are looking for Céline. He also knows—because Céline has shown him with a single graphic gesture—what her father did to her. Pete has a rescue fantasy but no practical plan to save Céline. The ephemeral freedom of the road movie vanishes and is replaced by the anxiety of the wrong-man narrative. Pete is the father that Céline should have had, but the authorities will not see it that way. The road they’ve taken can only end in tragedy.
It took Troublé three years to find a young actress with the resilience, emotional transparency, and intelligence necessary to play Céline. Demerliac is splendid in her solitary moments and in her give-and-take with Gordon, who is wonderfully unhurried and very real. Troublé proves a subtle director of actors. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the application of a Cassavetes-like improvised, emotional realism to characters who are all behaviorally repressed, as Cassavetes’s characters never were.
A hands-on filmmaker, Troublé collaborated with Jean-Pol Fargeau on the script, with Jean-Philippe Bouyer on the cinematography, and with Jeff Nicorosi on the editing. She also was involved in the production design, which is virtually ethnographic in its detail. Fargeau frequently collaborates with Claire Denis on the scripts for her films, and it is Denis who is the strongest influence on My Name Is Hmmm…. Like Denis, Troublé has a strong, even tactile sense of place and of things: how a rough stone wall, or sunlight glinting through a dusty windshield, or a comb found in a communal shower and touched by a man and a girl who wish they were father and daughter can leave an impression beyond words.
My Name is Hmmm… is now at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3.
Céline Sciamma, Bande de Filles (Girlhood), 2014, HD video, color, sound, 112 minutes.
THOUGH IT MAY NOT BE THE BEST TRANSLATION, Girlhood, the US title affixed to Céline Sciamma’s Bande de filles—which would more accurately be rendered as “Girl Group” or “Girl Crew”—nonetheless aptly sums up this perceptive writer-director’s abiding interest. Water Lilies, Sciamma’s 2007 debut, centers on the erupting desire among a trio of fifteen-year-old female adolescents during a languorous summer; Tomboy (2010), her even more accomplished second feature, highlights a pubescent untethered to the rule-bound world of gender codes. Girlhood continues to probe the developmental stage when bodies and identities are still in flux, yet in a milieu much different from those of its predecessors: the impoverished banlieues that ring Paris and are home to many of its French-African denizens.
Sciamma has a particular gift for spectacular opening scenes. As in Water Lilies, which begins with the crazy pageantry of a synchronized-swimming completion, Girlhood also kicks off with a surprising display of athletics: the slo-mo tosses and tackles between two teams in an all-female, multiracial American-football league. Among those returning home from the game to a grim tower block is Marieme (Karidja Touré), a sixteen-year-old who assumes responsibility for her two beloved younger sisters while their mother works the night shift as an office cleaner; the teenager must also frequently absorb the wrath of her tyrannical slightly older brother, Djibril (Cyril Mendy). School provides no haven from these hardships: Having already repeated a grade twice, Marieme is told by a teacher—heard but never seen—that vocational training is her only option. Rather than accept this indignity, she falls in with a triad of tough girls, abandoning her braids for straightened hair, her hoodie for a leather jacket—and learning the pleasures of raising hell at malls in Les Halles, smack-talking, and impromptu dance-offs on the Métro.
Led by the swaggering alpha Lady (Assa Sylla), this foursome—whose members are all played by charismatic first-time performers—pools their (mostly pilfered) resources together for a one-night hotel stay, an occasion for pizza partying, bong hits, bubble baths, and, most rapturously, a lip-synched/sing-along performance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Bathed in blue light, intoxicated by their own freedom, however temporary, the young women are, just as RiRi sings, “a vision of ecstasy.” (Sciamma, working with her regular cinematographer, Crystel Fournier, shot Girlhood in CinemaScope, its ample width ensuring that this quartet never feels crowded out or confined.) “You have to do what you want. Say it,” Lady, soaking in the tub, demands of Marieme, whom she has renamed Vic (“as in victory”). Although boosted by this hedonist mantra—the slogan of adolescence, really, and one touchingly put to practice during the shy teenager’s clandestine romance with her neighbor Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté)—Vic will repeatedly be reminded of her severely limited options.
Yet if her opportunities are circumscribed, Vic’s chances for physical reinvention seem unlimited, especially in the film’s last quarter: Working for a drug kingpin in a nearby cité, she assumes a butch persona with bound breasts, then dons a high-femme ruby minidress and blond wig when making deliveries. Both times that I’ve seen Girlhood, this has struck me as one reincarnation too many, at odds with Sciamma’s otherwise at once loose and assured approach. These doubts dissolve, however, with the perfect, simple choreography of the final shot—when exiting the frame becomes the most radical instance of “doing what you want.”
Girlhood opens in New York on January 30 and will be released in other US cities throughout the year.
THE EXCITABLE PUNCTUATION MARK of its title instantly signaling the delirium to follow, I Am Suzanne! (1933), populated by an enormous cast of marionettes, will give pupaphobes night terrors. This bizarre pre-Code musical melodrama, directed and co-scripted by Rowland V. Lee—the other screenwriter, Edwin Justus Mayer, would collaborate nine years later with Ernst Lubitsch on the screwball paragon To Be or Not to Be—exists in the same uncanny valley where Hans Bellmer romped.
The film is set in the “Paris” of Fox Film Corporation soundstages. On the same street in the French capital, two entertainment venues attract vastly different numbers of audience members: The Théâtre des Marionettes is currently playing to crowds of seven, while the Revue de Paris, headlined by dancer Mlle. Suzanne (Lilian Harvey), sells out nightly, largely owing to the elaborate spectacle of what’s referred to as “the Saint Moritz number.” This showstopper features Suzanne gliding backward down a tightrope from the nosebleed seats onto the stage, ornately designed to resemble an Alpine ski resort. The figurante, whose skimpy attire suggests she should be in Saint-Tropez, builds and sings a love song to a snowman, the frosty creature coming to life after Suzanne is tossed about, flipped, and otherwise dramatically manipulated by two sets of wool-capped male hoofers.
“What’s a dancer? A human machine,” the impresario Baron Herring (Leslie Banks), Suzanne’s filching manager, scoffs. Suzanne’s endlessly pliable body in the outré Swiss set piece certainly supports his cynical belief, a corollary to which constitutes the Weltanschauung of Tony Malatini (Gene Raymond), a fifth-generation puppeteer who hopes to re-create the Saint Moritz number—including the sculpting of a wee, wooden Suzanne—for the marionette theater. Sidelined from dancing after taking a nasty tumble into the orchestra pit during her act one night, Suzanne joins Tony’s troupe, quite literally pulling her own strings as her miniature, hand-carved avatar prances about on a tiny stage. “I can dance again—through her!” she cries to Tony, her partner not just in wire-wielding but love. Yet Suzanne grows to despise her shrunken surrogate when it becomes clear that it is her romantic rival, Tony’s cathectic energy directed more toward creatures made of wood than flesh.
For her puppet hate-crimes, Suzanne will face a poupée populist uprising during a dream sequence in which a tribunal of bloodthirsty dolls chants, “Hang her! Hang her! Kill, kill, kill!” Her waking life proves even stranger, however. Soon to follow is a production number in which a (human) performer playing Satan operates a trapdoor to hell after learning the crimes, disclosed in verse, of various deviant marionettes. (A highlight: the butch, besuited puppet—strongly resembling Dorothy Arzner, the dyke director of Christopher Strong, which stars Katharine Hepburn as a robust and reckless aviatrix, and was released the same year as I Am Suzanne!—who confesses, “I’m a woman, alas. / But I fool nature’s plan. / I like to dress up as a man.”)
As for the impassioned declaration that serves as the title of Lee’s strange, though always absorbing, movie, it is spoken three times—in the first two instances by the Baron and Tony, clearly as a riff on Flaubert’s quote regarding his most famous literary creation. By the time Suzanne herself utters it, shortly before doing harm to her puppet-self, I found myself wondering, Who was Suzanne? Lilian Harvey, once a huge star in Germany, made no more films after 1940, though she is name-checked admiringly by the cinema-owner heroine in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds from 2009 (and appears on that movie’s sound track). In 1968, the actress died at age sixty-two in Antibes in the French Riviera, where, per her obituary in the New York Times, she was engaged in a profession far more rarefied than dancing or puppeteering: “operating a souvenir shop and raising edible snails.”
I Am Suzanne! is now at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through February 1.
Bleeding Palm, Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse, 2012, animation, color, sound, 11 minutes.
AMONG GROUPS OF BACKYARD, amateur filmmakers, it is common practice to create your own “studio,” an entity in name alone that serves as a password, an ego-bolstering sense of identity, a communally bonding inside joke. When I was making movies with friends in Cincinnati we used the name Technetium Enterprises. I have a friend who started his own BS company, Creatively Bankrupt, when he was at university. And around a decade ago, some kids in Miami, many of them graduates or current students at the New World School of the Arts, a magnet high school downtown, formed Borscht Corp.
I was thinking about this while walking along Biscayne Boulevard toward the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Miami, whose external LED lights had been programmed to flash the Borscht Corp. logo (a kind of Ouroboros circle, but with two heads, a snake and an alligator), along with scrolling texts (“EVERYTHING YOU DO WILL BE FORGOTTEN”) reminiscent of the THE WORLD IS YOURS blimp text in that most seminal of Miami movies, Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983). If not the world, than Borscht today have a decent claim on owning Miami—it turns out that if you keep working at your inside-joke fake studio thing for ten years, you can fool everyone else into believing it’s real as well.
The LED display and installations in the Intercontinental lobby were among the many site-specific elements of the event that is the raison d’être of Borscht Corp., the Borscht Film Festival. Now in its ninth semiannual appearance—2013 was a year off—this year’s festival was five days of screenings and associated events, with a program of shorts commissioned and produced by what their website describes as an “open source collaborative” as the centerpiece. Among the attractions: a screening of Scarface, interspersed with janky homemade, crowdsourced clips submitted by friends and fans, at the incongruously lavish Mansion Nightclub on Miami Beach; musical performances, replete with 3-D light shows, at the planetarium of the soon-to-be-shuttered Miami Museum of Science; a twentieth anniversary outdoor screening of the Miami-set Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994).
A film whose plot hinges on the kidnapping of Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, Ace Ventura is actually relevant to the Borscht Corp. mission, for much of their practice has to do with creating a mythology for the Miamian scene and its indigenous celebrities, a neon Tolkien kind of thing. Coral Morphologic, a group whose multimedia works reference the coral reefs of the city’s urban waterways, are frequent Borscht collaborators, while one of the most widely seen shorts made under their auspices is Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse, which was passed around on the Internet quite a bit last year. (Borscht works are designed as much for the laptop as the theater, as attuned to new media as to any traditional idea of cinema.) Attributed to “a Miami based mystic organization founded by Ronnie Rivera” called Bleeding Palm, Christopher Bosh has it that the Miami Heat power forward is in fact a deposed “twelve-dimensional God” from another galaxy, and it imagines the circumstances of the 2012 “Miami cannibal attack” as part of a skirmish in a battle for humanity’s survival.
A Christopher Bosh sequel was announced as missing in action on the eve of its premiere, or “on Miami time,” as the evening’s emcee had it, before he led the crowd in a chant of “MIAMI-DADE, BORN AND RAISED!” While the Fest would appear to be sponsored up and well funded—the shorts showcase was at the 2,200-seat Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and Borscht Corp. has been the recipient of a handsome grant from the Miami-based Knight Foundation—it retains an air of by-the-seat-of-the-pants amateurishness in its improvised form (fun) and not-infrequent A/V gaffes (less so). This amateurishness extends to Borscht’s dedication to the short-film form—not as a stepping-stone to making that first feature, but as a perfectly legitimate medium in and of itself.
Bleeding Palm, Adventures of Christopher Bosh in the Multiverse, 2012.
Scanning the credits on the Borscht films, one finds the same names popping up time and again—musician Otto Von Schirach, the standard-bearer of the classic 808-driven booty bass sound, who performed one night at local bar–screening venue Gramps, or Julian Yuri Rodriguez, whose short Lake Mahar, described as “a nightmare of caucasian emasculation on Flagler Street,” was a convulsively funny work of caricatured typage. (A cartooned aesthetic prevails at Borscht—short Biscayne World combines smuggled vignettes from Miami city buses with animated drawings by regular rider Ahol Sniffs Glue.)
Most ubiquitous of all were the names Jillian Mayer and Lucas Leyva, who collaborate as Mayer\Leyva—they cowrote Bosh, and one or the other has a hand in nearly everything at the fest. This year’s Mayer\Leyva debut was Cool as Ice 2, which offers the purest distillation of the Borscht Corp. ethos, combining regional boosterism (“MIAMI-DADE, BORN AND RAISED!”) and cosmic remove (“EVERYTHING YOU DO WILL BE FORGOTTEN”). Like their 2012 The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke, a sci-fi “biopic” of 2 Live Crew frontman Luther Campbell, Cool as Ice 2 plays fast and loose with the legend of a Miami hip-hop star, this time Robert van Winkle, aka Vanilla Ice. Where Uncle Luke was made with the participation of its subject, Cool as Ice 2 pirates Ice’s image, projecting his face onto that of a performer wearing a mask/screen. The film follows Ice through his youth, rise to fame, downfall, and beyond—a despondent Ice’s suicide jump is foiled when the sun expands into a red giant during his free-fall, leaving him as humanity’s lone survivor, drifting the cold cosmos in conversation with another exploded star. While Uncle Luke was billed as “Based on La Jetée by Chris Marker,” Cool as Ice 2 references texts by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Frank O’Hara, as well as Ice’s own manufactured backstory. (“The world I built around myself, same way you build your world around yourself.”) Mayer\Leyva approach their high-low culture mash-ups as though they’re the most natural thing in the world, so they’re never coy or cutesy, and Cool as Ice 2 proves them boundlessly resourceful artists, getting a maximum of coup de théâtre effect from a minimum of resources. It gets across more cinematic awe, feeling, unexpected humor, and take-home ideas than Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, in one-eighth the time and God knows what fraction of the budget.
Outside of the shorts showcase, Borscht Fest screened work by affiliated artists working in longer formats. New York–based dancer-slash-choreographer-slash-everything Celia Rowlson-Hall presented her dialogue-free feature MA, in which she stars as a modern Virgin Mary wandering the Death Valley desert, first appearing under a faded towel-cowl which evokes a Nan Goldin Madonna. (The version screened was a work in progress—more the rule than the exception here—so I will limit myself to saying that it’s chockablock with uncanny images.) Also on hand was a forty-five-odd-minute whatsit called Hector.LA, from Miami-raised, Los Angeles–based Nick Corirossi. Corirossi is on staff at the Web comedy site Funny or Die, but he has a sideline in creating unclassifiable Internet objects like his Miami 1996 (2012), a video that appeared without further explanation on a website made to look like a Geocities-era memorial, and which played out as a found-footage snuff film simulacra of a house party thrown during the heyday of booty bass, which ends in a brawl and a death.
Hector.LA is another period piece of a sort, taking place in 1993, 2014, 2022, and in the thirty-second century—loosely chronologically, though striated throughout with flashbacks and visions of the future(s), edited as though by a half-dozen different people with entirely different intentions, or one nut job desperate to appeal to a half-dozen different audiences. It may loosely be described as a movie about the making of a movie, in which Corirossi plays “Nick Corirossi,” a balding lecher and fraud director whose messianic delusions turn out to be true. The film-within-a-film is something billed as Henry Jaglom’s The 5th Belief, though there’s no clinical distance between it and Hector.LA, both full of clunky acting and gratuitous nudity, less a parody of the spirit of cinematically illiterate, casually misogynistic vanity projects of the Neil Breen/The Room/Eric Schaeffer school than a full embodiment of it. I can’t say if Corirossi takes himself seriously as an artist—essential to the success of Miami 1996 and Hector.LA is the fact that they don’t break character—but I certainly do.
Hector.LA begins in hotel conference rooms and antiseptic chain restaurants, largely shot in surreptitious stalker-POV, and ends imagining a future in which The 5th Belief is the only remaining artifact to represent the cultural achievements of preapocalyptic humanity. It has been given the appearance of a text which has, through the centuries, become covered in palimpsests—crass gags undermining authorial intention and Arabic subtitles. Like Cool as Ice 2, it’s a work that imagines what will happen once we have disappeared, leaving only our plastic culture behind, a wry fatalism that exists beyond Poptimism, and which now belongs to Miami as much as Uncle Luke’s 808s.
The 9th Borscht Film Festival took place December 17–21, 2014 in Miami.
BEFORE I SAW THE IMITATION GAME all I knew about Alan Turing was that President Obama, making a speech in England in 2012, named him as one of the three greatest British scientists, the others being Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, and that the following year the Queen granted him a posthumous pardon for the crime of indecency. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Turing in the film, remarked that it should have been left to Turing whether or not he wanted to pardon the British government. But of course he’d been dead since 1954.
Knowing little or nothing about Turing is the prerequisite for enjoying The Imitation Game, which thanks to the marketing savvy and big-bucks commitment of The Weinstein Company and the presence of Cumberbatch, the New Man sex symbol, is now having a wildly successful run in art-house cinemas. Weinstein is pulling out all the stops in the advertising campaign for his potential Oscar winner; the cost for the print ads alone probably equals the budgets of most independent films heading to Sundance this week. The early ads were filled with film-critic quotes praising the movie’s art and entertainment values. This was followed by an extravagant double-page ad in the Sunday, January 4 New York Times with Cumberbatch in profile on the right-hand page and a series of quotes from various Internet honchos testifying to Turing’s visionary genius as the inventor of a universal machine that is the basis of all contemporary computing. Three days later, the advertising narrative changed course and the film became the story of a gay man persecuted by a homophobic society, now restored to his place in history by The Imitation Game.
If the film does nothing else but send you, as it did me, to Alan Hodges’s Alan Turing: The Enigma (1983, newly prefaced in the 2014 Princeton University Press edition) it more than justifies its existence. A great read, Hodges’s intellectual biography depicts Turing as a brilliant mathematician; a crucial pioneering figure in the theorization and engineering of digital computing; and the biggest brain in Bletchley Park’s Hut #8, the unit in Britain’s World War II intelligence hub that succeeded in breaking the German’s Enigma code, thus shortening the war by as much as two years and saving as many as twenty-million lives.
That Turing, despite these accomplishments, was as little known as Ada Lovelace (look her up yourself) until the release of The Imitation Game is partly because every one of the nine thousand persons who worked at Bletchley Park during the war had to take a nondisclosure oath under penalty of high treason. (The cover story was that Bletchley was a radio factory.) The other, more appalling reason is that in 1952 Turing was convicted of engaging in homosexual acts, for which he was sentenced to chemical castration (the option he preferred to two years in prison). As a result not only were his brain and body messed up by high dosages of estrogen, he also was barred from the government funding he needed to continue his life’s work on artificial intelligence. His death, just a few days before his forty-second birthday, from arsenic poisoning was most likely a suicide although possibly an accident or even an assassination.
Indifferently directed by Morten Tyldum with a thin, clichéd, sentimental script by Graham Moore, The Imitation Game is nevertheless something of a pleasure, purely because the actors rise above the material, bringing to their characters their own knowledge of the complex actual persons they play on screen. The narrative is largely set at Bletchley during the war and is structured as a conventional heroic race against time, with our hero overcoming not only the formidable adversary of the Nazi’s “Enigma” machine but also all the disbelievers at Bletchley who think his “Bombe” decoding machine will never work.
There are occasional flashbacks to the barely adolescent Turing (Alex Lawther) at boarding school where he falls in love with the other math whizz in his class, Christopher Morcom (Jack Bannon). The young actors are wonderful (Tyldum has to be given credit for directing them) and there is no doubt that Turing was shaped by the loss of Morcom, who died suddenly of tuberculosis. His passion for cryptography and his understanding that all language is coded may well have been shaped by that early forbidden love even before his involvement with linguistic philosophy and logical positivism at Cambridge. The coded messages he exchanged with Christopher were written in the language of the closet. But there is no evidence that Turing named his intelligent machine “Christopher,” as he does in the film. That’s the scriptwriter’s fantasy and it well may bring tears to your eyes (it did mine) until you realize how it sentimentalizes Turing, who, more complicatedly, like Warhol sometimes wished he was a machine and probably preferred the company of his universal machine to any of his many lovers, whether casual or serious. That there is no sign of any of these lovers in the film is its gravest failing
Except, of course, for the absurd 1952 to 1954 framing story, in which Turing tells his life story to a deus-ex-machina, a completely fictional police detective (Rory Kinnear), whose unfounded suspicion that Turing is a Soviet spy leads to his arrest for having a piece of rough trade in his apartment. In actuality, Turing did not deny the charge, believing that homosexuality was about to be legalized. Even in this he was ahead of his time. The story that he tells the detective is the story that unfolds in the film; thus, in its entirety, The Imitation Game is a first-person narrative. What is preposterous about this ploy is that had Turing told the detective what he did at Bletchley, he would have been guilty of a crime more serious than homosexuality. He would have committed high treason for violating the Official Secrets Act.
As much as I wanted to suspend my disbelief and take pleasure in the actors’ brilliance, The Imitation Game lacks credibility on every level. Still, Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke (the woman whose mathematical genius made her part of Turing’s inner circle and, for a moment, his fiancée), and, as a composite character representing the all-powerful MI6, Mark Strong (no one leans against door frames as compellingly as he does) are terrific. It’s Cumberbatch, however, who has the burden of making us care about Turing, thus keeping us riveted on this perfectly silly film to the end. He succeeds because he is a great actor and, at the moment, a star. I can only wish him better scripts in the future. Such as Hamlet, in which he opens at London’s Barbican in August. Don’t try to buy tickets. The ten-week run sold out online in an hour.