Ernie Gehr, Signal—Germany on the Air, 1982–85, 16 mm, color, sound, 37 minutes.
ERNIE GEHR’S CINEMA GROUNDS ITSELF IN DISJUNCTURE. Best known for his 1970 film Serene Velocity, a convulsive portrait of a hallway lit by citrine fluorescents, Gehr mounts an exploration of the camera as an apparatus, its effects arising through a conjunction of framing and focal length. Seamlessness and suture are here terms of abuse. If cinema has traditionally aspired to a certain invisibility—an eclipse of the machine in a vague shroud of artificial darkness—Gehr’s four-decade-long project has been to make the camera and its conventions emphatically, even aggressively, visible.
Showing Tuesday, October 7 at Light Industry are two of Gehr’s late films: Signal—Germany on the Air, 1982–85, and Side/Walk/Shuttle, 1991, both shot on 16 mm. Each centers on a specific site: the first, West Berlin in its halting final decade; the second, the exposed glass elevator of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where Gehr settled after sweating out the 1970s and ’80s in New York. For those who know Gehr only for his staccato hallway, the pairing is revelatory, and unlikely to be screened again on film for some time.
Funded by a DAAD grant, Gehr’s Signal broaches autobiography by way of cityscape. The son of German Jewish émigrés, Gehr might have called Berlin home, had fascism not tragically intervened. The film takes its title from the Wehrmacht propaganda magazine of the same name, its opening shot backgrounded by a cropped view of the glossy’s cover. The explicitness of this reference comes as somewhat of a feint, as Gehr’s approach to history is otherwise oblique. Signal unfolds in a site of little dramatic consequence: an anonymous intersection, somewhere, we glean from interspersed street signs, on the Rheinstraße. Creamsicle trash cans, touting the slogan “Berlin…ICH MACHE MIT” (“Berlin…COUNT ME IN”), locate us in Germany’s capital. Yet Gehr withholds further orientation, the intersection’s nondescriptness repelling attempts to impute significance. Traffic signs pictographically proclaim “No Entry” or “Stop, Give Way,” less directing movement than obstructing it. Affectless and absent remark, this space seems not sited but suspended: an industrialized anywhere.
A clip from Ernie Gehr's Serene Velocity, 1970.
Signal’s advance is rigidly stylized, its adoption of structuralist techniques—fixed, frontal framing and the perpendicular, deep-focus long shot—marking it as properly avant-garde. Selected by Gehr’s Bolex, space spreads into an allover plane: One apprehends the images without knowing where, exactly, to look. Cuts are frequent and obtrusive, lending the film a stutterer’s cadence. Accumulating yet failing to cohere, their progression hews to a paratactic logic that loosens sequence from causality. Views recur in quick succession with slight differences, whether assayed from a novel vantage or figured elsewhere in time. Gehr couples this montage with segments clipped from a cheap German radio and street sounds that could, plausibly, emanate from inside the film, yet never quite align with what we see. Heels clack, buses stall, and conversations transpire over scenes emptied of all but asphalt and low-rises. The audio’s space-agey static and linguistic eclecticism—German tousled with English, Italian, and French—compounds our sense of dislocation. Human presence (in Gehr’s filmic universe, always incidental) yields to a concern with place.
Take Signal’s opening sequence: Gehr trains on an unpeopled curb; four cuts later, the curb returns, attended by a grizzled man in pastel blue. Several cuts intervene before a yellow phone booth appears, which goes on to feature six times in a minute-long stretch, its final cameo all but obscured by a black post. Other objects of Gehr’s recursive gaze include a red-awninged store, a windowless, white-tiled building, and a shuttered shop beetled by the word REAL in black sans serif. Such iterations produce a dual effect of familiarity and strangeness, furnishing views that are the same, though not quite. Coherent space, that fallacy of continuity editing, crumbles into a slew of dissonant perspectives.
Gehr’s banal is marked by a pressure for signification, his everyday all the more evocative for its seeming neutrality. Three minutes in, the camera cuts to a long shot of a tumbledown compound which, a peeling sign proclaims, was once a torture chamber of the Gestapo. Read against this concrete horror, a lone loudspeaker, a lamppost-flanked street, and two signless posts askew in the sand suggest something sinister. Gehr’s attention reverts intermittently to the compound, now rendered on a bias, now seen straight on. Static shots flank rapid pans which abstract landscape into blur. Sound, at first continuous with the preceding street view, periodically fades. The past becomes both bracketed and mobile, its matter-of-fact monumentality (the sign’s impassive “this happened here”) leaching into the present.
Later, in Signal’s most direct sequence, Gehr layers shots of stilled train cars with a found excerpt from a German-to-English language-learning program. A woman and man exchange phrases of rebuke—“It’s all your fault,” “You got us into this mess,” “Yes, I admit that,” “You can’t accuse me of that”—as the camera frames an overgrown stretch of rail. Absence is made palpable, history figured as at once irretrievable and open-ended. (Tellingly, though by no pretense of causality, West Germany’s historians’ controversy, or Historikerstreit, erupted just one year after Signal’s release.) Yet, for all of the rail’s muted melancholy, Signal’s enduring image is that of an analog clock poised atop a graphic of a free-floating eye: a readymade nod, together with the “Real” signage, to Buñuel. Whether advertent or not, there’s an element of the surreal to the clock’s entropic temporality: 3:45 PM becomes, in the next shot, 3:50 PM; three cuts later, it’s 2:55 PM. Time, like space, is troubled, advanced and rewound without motive, or halted by lacuna for which Gehr cannot account.
Side/Walk/Shuttle traffics in dislocation of a different sort. Its conceit is simple and, in a sense, brilliantly obvious: twenty-five takes, each just shy of two minutes, shot at various angles out of the Fairmont Hotel’s glass elevator. More than San Francisco’s vectored topography, the film’s subject is the camera’s frame, whose orientation Gehr playfully permutes, turning it upside-down or canting it toward either side. As in Signal, Gehr is fascinated by the number of ways in which a site can present itself to his lens, its monocular view proving anything but an analog for everyday vision. Seeing, Gehr’s films reveal, is the sum of so many fragments, the camera less a nimble tool than an awkward prosthesis, everywhere announcing its presence.
Signal—Germany on the Air and Side/Walk/Shuttle play at Light Industry in Brooklyn on Tuesday, October 8, at 7:30 PM.
“IT’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, but it’s not a biopic,” Catherine Breillat, a writer-director who has frequently mined the first person, clarified over a spotty Skype connection during the press conference for Abuse of Weakness, her fifth feature to play at the New York Film Festival. A recounting of Breillat’s involvement with notorious con man Christophe Rocancourt following her stroke in 2004, Abuse of Weakness stars Isabelle Huppert (in her first collaboration with the director) as Maud, a filmmaker so willful that not even a brain hemorrhage will deter her from continuing her next project. Watching late-night TV, she comes across Vilko (French rapper Kool Shen), a high-profile swindler boasting of his exploits on a chat show. Transfixed, she is determined to cast him as the male lead in a tale of murderous amour fou. (The plot that Maud describes to Vilko is that of Bad Love, Breillat’s since-abandoned film that was to star Naomi Campbell opposite Rocancourt; the only reference to the supermodel is this arch line by Maud’s assistant: “Your leading lady won’t be easy, either.”)
What follows is a series of psychic seductions, the cocky, lupine flimflammer turned on by Maud’s indomitability (“You’ve got balls like a guy”), the physically debilitated, haughty auteur secretly delighting in the dutiful, if bullying, attention shown by her new star, who calls her incessantly. This folie à deux manifests itself in Vilko asking Maud for money for loans or ludicrous business schemes; she uncaps her pen after every single demand, writing, over the course of several months, sixteen checks to the criminal totaling 650,000 euros.
“It’s fascinating to observe yourself,” Breillat said at the press conference, echoing the out-of-body experience Maud describes to her family members, aghast at her horrible lack of judgment, in Abuse’s penetrating final scene. “It was me, but it wasn’t me,” she says of the divided self that allowed enormous funds to be drained. “I knew I had to stop, but I didn’t care. I must have done it, since I did it.” Simultaneously an unsparing recapitulation of her bad choices—her bad love—and a disavowal of them, Abuse of Weakness is not a tale of victimization but of Breillat score-settling with herself.
Claire Denis’s Bastards might be thought of as a scabrous examination of the abuse of both weakness and power. Inspired by William Faulkner’s 1931 novel, Sanctuary, and the Sadean sex parties attended by Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other French operators, Denis’s latest—her first to be shot on digital video by her frequent cinematographer Agnès Godard—centers on a tenuous revenge plot. Sea captain Marco (Vincent Lindon) reluctantly returns to Paris to assist his disgraced sister, Sandra (Julie Bataille): Her husband has just committed suicide, and her daughter, Justine—a nod to de Sade’s heroine?—played by Lola Créton, is recovering in a clinic for participation in carnal acts so extreme that an operation may be required “to repair her vagina.” Marco is convinced that Edouard LaPorte (Michel Subor), a DSK-like figure, is linked with both tragedies, though he soon discovers his sibling’s complicity in acts of unspeakable depravity. (Corn cobs and sex barns are involved.) If Bastards too often goes structurally awry with its actors’ fits of histrionics, it nonetheless leaves a scalding imprint for its unorthodox castigations. As the always pithy Denis herself explained after Bastards screened for the press, “I don’t want a film to give [women] only pity. I prefer to be fierce.”
Lois Patiño, Costa da Morte (Coast of Death), 2013, HD video, color, sound, 83 minutes.
WITH THIRTY-FOUR PROGRAMS comprising over two hundred films and videos, the seventeenth edition of Views from the Avant-Garde at the fifty-first New York Film Festival is more ambitious than ever. There are reprises and newly restored films by such masters as Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Chris Marker, Raúl Ruiz, and Robert Nelson, as well as classic narratives—John Stahl’s Only Yesterday (1933) and Max Ophuls’s Sans Lendemain (1939–40). The latter are included not only because of their special significance for curator Mark McElhatten but also, he avows, as a gesture toward smashing artificial boundaries among kinds of cinema. This sentiment has characterized former Views programs, and it speaks to the frequent overlap between the main slate of the New York Film Festival and “official” avant-garde selections. In this year’s main slate, for example, Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs could easily be a Views selection, as could last year’s Leviathan. This is too complex an issue to be taken up here, but it certainly drifts in and out of mind as one watches the many selections in both camps.
More than one work in this year’s Views programs either toys with narrative material or provides the kind of atmosphere, context, and tension one finds in a narrative film. A distinction made decades ago between cinema resembling prose narrative and cinema closer to poetry because of its stress on imagery, rhythm, and editing not dictated by narrative logic still applies. The latter is exemplified in the richly textured and elegantly condensed Listening to the Space in My Room by Robert Beavers, as well as in two films by Nathaniel Dorsky, Spring and Song. These are among the must-sees this year. More proselike are such feature-length “personal” documentaries as Marielle Nitoslawska’s Breaking the Frame, an affecting portrait of legendary feminist artist and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann, and Talena Sanders’s Liahona, an arresting, deceptively low-key indictment of Mormonism composed almost entirely of found footage.
Marielle Nitoslawska, Breaking the Frame, 2012, color, sound, 100 minutes.
While several Views programs are repeated and others made doubly accessible via the amphitheater projections at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, even the most diligent enthusiast could not transcend overlapping scheduling and see everything. Many films were unavailable for previewing, including new work by Ernie Gehr, which undoubtedly merits attention. But if the definitive signs of the genuine filmmaker are a keen eye and an unerring sense of editing, one must single out such jewels as Rebecca Meyers’s exquisitely crafted murmurations, in which once again the seemingly ordinary—shots of skies, trees, birds, and animals—is transformed into extraordinary instances of the palpable but invisible rhythms of the natural world; Barry Gerson’s Late Summer, in which a severely limited visual field becomes a minilaboratory for experimental play with the optical and perceptual parameters of the medium; Fred Worden’s All or Nothing; and Robert Todd’s Threshold, which begins tamely enough before immersing the viewer in visual and sonic convergences.
Two major discoveries of this year’s Views are the Spanish Lois Patiño and the Portuguese Sandro Aguilar. Both tend to fuse poetic and narrative impulses. The former filmmaker is represented by the feature-length Costa da morte (Coast of Death) as well as by short landscape studies—Landscape-Rocks and Mountain in Shadows—that take the breath away. Shot from a seemingly impossible godlike perspective, the latter’s ski slopes, mountainous terrain, and waterfalls evoke an immensity even more pronounced by the tiny black human dots that move antlike across them. While human presence and dialogue are more integral to the feature, both are subjected to the overpowering natural environment. The scene is Galicia, an area of Spain whose rocky coastline has wrecked many a vessel through the centuries, leaving its inhabitants with numerous tales to pass on. Shots of the sea in its more turbulent moods recall such landmark works in the genre as Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934) and Jean Epstein’s Le Tempestaire (1947)—although Patiño exhibits a lighter touch, as when the idle chatter of the locals is at odds with their miniscule presence within the vastness of the land and seascapes.
Equally revelatory is Sandro Aguilar, represented by six compelling works—under the umbrella title “Dive: Approach and Exit”—whose complex, tantalizing flirtation with narrative belies their brevity and astutely restrained visual texture. While these works are a small sample of an apparently large output, they bear the sure touch of a natural, a filmmaker whose contact with the work of others (often as a producer) has clearly rubbed off.
Stephanie Barber, Daredevils, 2013, color, sound, 85 minutes.
An interesting area of comparison between narrative features in the main slate and those in the Views selections has often been a propensity for the long take. The shots that wait out shifting water levels in the locks of a flood-prone area in Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews rival the durations of those in Tsai’s Stray Dogs, though the former has considerably less psychological tension. On the other hand, in Stephanie Barber’s Daredevils, a fifty-minute shot/counter-shot conversation about the making of art between a young writer and an older female artist is followed by a fifteen-minute take of the former on a treadmill. Her internal processing of the conversation is revealed by the gradual shift from a blank facial expression to signs of emotional distress, all without breaking her stride.
Both Josh Gibson’s Nile Perch and Peter Hutton’s Three Landscapes use the long take as a tool to observe ethnographic realities. Gibson’s relatively short documentary is about the harvesting of the titular fish from the Nile, which, we are told, is second only to salmon in European markets. His clear-eyed, utterly fact-driven shooting style could easily make one miss the ravishing nature of his black-and-white images. Though also prompted by the nature of what he observes, Peter Hutton employs the long take in conjunction with long shots until we sense that he wants to suggest something beyond raw data. At first, Three Landscapes may resemble a James Benning movie, but “three” here refers not to the number of shots but to distinct locations. The “first” landscape is composed of more than one site and shot, all more or less with industrial structures of steel and cable towering against blue and gray skies that lend them an almost primeval stature. The second collates several farming scenes of plowing and harvesting in lush settings; and the third, filmed in Ethiopia, comprises shots of men in arid, desolate landscapes hewing stones into rectangular slabs suitable for building, which they then load onto camels to take back to their communities. In all three parts, people, while far from negligible, are dwarfed by their environments—whether natural or man-made—through the use of long shots. The final views of men and camels as they morph into quivering shapes distorted by heat waves before dissolving into an indeterminate horizon line evinces this most strikingly. Hutton’s work, like Patiño’s, might be said to fuse ethnography with philosophical ruminations via the singular aesthetics of cinema.
Since the poetic tradition of American cinema is indebted to the work of Stan Brakhage, it is fitting that three of his early films, preserved by the Academy Film Archive, will be screened in the penultimate program of this year’s Views: Anticipation of the Night (1958), Window Water Baby Moving (1959), and The Dead (1960). As strong and vital as they were decades ago, they remain an inspiration for present and future film and video makers seeking a form that fuses psychological necessity with artistic vision.
Martin Scorsese, Gangs of New York, 2002, Super 35, color, sound, 167 minutes.
WE BEGIN IN AN UNDERGROUND WARREN WITH EARTHEN WALLS. The camera, approximating the POV of a little boy whose father is about to lead a small army into battle, cranes to peer at various roughnecks preparing for the fray, sinister in guttering candlelight. The accents are Irish. The setting might be frontier America; it might be after the Apocalypse. As the party emerges aboveground, a crane shot reveals a vast, multistoried timbered structure, part beer hall, part tenement, whose overcrowded population sends up a riotous clangor. Arriving at the building’s main door, an ogreish member of the party kicks it open and, as the camera leads the charge through, tenebrous claustrophobia is left behind for a still, snowy vista that fills the full span of the wide-screen frame. This is Paradise Square, the Five Points, Lower Manhattan, 1846.
In actual fact, it’s Cinecittà, the largest film studio in Italy. The film is Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs of New York. The Five Points—as well as Gangs’ other fantastic dens of iniquity—originated in the mind of production designer Dante Ferretti, then to be visualized in one of his conceptually striking production sketches, and finally built to scale by a small army of carpenters, masons, bricklayers, ironworkers, and so forth. Through February 9, 2014, several sheaths of those charcoal-on-paper sketches, as well as other ephemera from Ferretti’s career, will be on view in the lobby galleries of the Museum of Modern Art.
Ferretti has collaborated with Scorsese eight times to date, beginning with The Age of Innocence (1993) and continuing through Hugo (2011). MoMA’s simultaneously launched twenty-two-film Ferretti retrospective includes all of their movies together except Bringing Out the Dead (1999), while among the artifacts on display are the enormous clock face from Hugo’s Gare Montparnasse, as well as the blueprints for the station.
Approaching the escalators to the Roy and Niuta Titus theaters, you encounter a picture of Ferretti standing in one of those warehouse-like soundstages—at Cinecittà, Pinewood, Shepperton—that have housed his greatest creations. The vastness of the empty space is commensurate in size with Ferretti’s vision, which will fill it. He looks very much the Renaissance artist in his studio, or like Giotto in the scaffolding-covered chapel which Ferretti designed for Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron (1971). Being the all-important director, Pasolini got to play Giotto himself, though Ferretti’s displayed sketches, many of them instantly recognizable, reveal his crucial input into the overall look of the films that he has worked on through their unmistakable proximity to the final product.
Dante Ferretti was born in Italy’s Marche region, near the Adriatic coast. This isn’t far from the native country of Federico Fellini, who would employ Ferretti to design his last five movies. When one thinks of the grand theatrical artifice of Fellini’s 1983 And the Ship Sails On, one thinks of Ferretti’s rolling plastic ocean, its mechanics revealed in the final shot; of the cruise ship with its cavernous boiler room, made into a concert hall by the prima donnas and primo uomos of the Italian opera. (Ferretti has, incidentally, moonlit at designing operas since 1977, including Howard Shore’s The Fly, based on David Cronenberg’s film.) Like Fellini, Ferretti was an ambitious, movie-mad young man who came to Rome from the provinces. After studying at the Accademia delle Belle Arti, he began working as a set designer while still a teenager. For nine years Ferretti would be assistant and apprentice to Luigi Scaccianoce, a frequent collaborator of Pasolini’s, until finally taking his mentor’s place on Pasolini’s 1969 Medea.
Pasolini was partial to shooting outdoors, but when using constructed sets he had Ferretti build with his primitivo, presentational style in mind, based on centered, head-on compositions shot from a fixed point. Where Pasolini wanted static canvases for his figures to move against, Scorsese favors obstacle courses for his fleet camera to duck and weave through. All this and more is visible in the centerpiece of MoMA’s show, the so-called labyrinth. The labyrinth is composed of sixteen screens, hung at right angles to one another in the center of the gallery space outside the Roy and Niuta Titus Theater 1. On both sides of each screen, scenes from Ferretti-designed films are digitally projected—thirty-six clips in total. Once inside the labyrinth, one’s sightline can simultaneously take in Robert de Niro’s Ace Rothstein arriving at the Tangiers Hotel & Casino on the Strip in Scorsese’s Casino (1995), Brad Pitt’s Louis torching his enemies’ coven in Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), and a deliberately-stagey false-front cityscape, reminiscent of Baroque theater, in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). The inspiration, said associate curator Ron Magliozzi in a roundtable conference with Ferretti after the press preview, came from the fact that the “labyrinth is a recurring theme in [Ferretti’s] work: corridors, adjoining rooms, caves, maze-themed geography.”
Dante Ferretti, Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles – Le catacombe, 1993. Charcoal on board.
As one wanders the labyrinth, the cumulative sum and scope of what Ferretti has raised from the ground in the course of his career appear stunning. Equally stunning is the fact that practically none of it exists, outside of cinematic record, today. The Five Points set is still standing at Cinecittà, and Ferretti has other permanent structures in the works. He is collaborating with architect Renzo Piano on the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, while the most surprising sketch on view is a design for a roller coaster for a cinema-themed amusement park, Cinecittà World, slated to open next year. While Five Points is the exception to the rule of impermanence, by today’s production standards, it is remarkable that all of these places ever did exist in any form other than that of digital data. One of the last Old Masters, Ferretti still supervises the physical construction of vast sets from scratch, after the classical Intolerance model. A builder of worlds, Ferretti builds worlds that are bound to be destroyed—or at the very least neglected. For example: The chandeliers from Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), pendulant and suggestive of penetration, now hanging in MoMA’s entry lobby, were only discovered in a dusty storage room after an epic search.
Ferretti’s production sketches give invaluable insight into his process and, in a way, are worthy objets d’art in their own right. Divorced from their intended role and isolated in a gallery context, however, original artifacts like the clock and chandeliers have less “aura” than they have in an industrially produced and distributed film. At this advanced stage, Ferretti’s art needs the camera to complete it.
Neither those who hired Ferretti for one-offs, like Jordan, Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Julie Taymor, nor longtime colleagues like Pasolini, Scorsese, and Fellini were created by Ferretti. In each case, there is a distinct, preexisting authorial voice that Ferretti is seeking to give expression. A genial, humble man, Ferretti is emphatic in saying that he doesn’t work alone, crediting his success not only to his directors but to his collaborator of thirty years and wife, set decorator Francesca Lo Schiavo.
Ferretti is less an author than a conduit, a great enabler. Though his signature is unmistakable, his work is only fully activated through collaboration with the right filmmakers—that is, filmmakers who don’t confuse design with direction. In this sense, the “success” of any gallery show in capturing the genius of a film-world figure may be inverse to the success of that figure in making cinema per se. So where LACMA’s Kubrick show could only hope to capture a fraction of what constitutes its subject’s art, MoMA’s Tim Burton show had no trouble getting the full measure of Burton’s.
Ferretti has worked in fantasy films and period pieces, creating imagined worlds and reviving lost ones—though that distinction isn’t so easily drawn. Ferretti recalled being pressed for details of his dreams by Fellini, until he took to inventing them. “Fellini knew I was a liar,” he said, “but he liked the idea.” Likewise, Cocoanut Grove in the ’40s and ‘50s could never have been so riotous and glamorous as Ferretti makes it appear in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2005). Ferretti doesn’t seek to re-create. Instead he makes magnificent imitations of life, begun in the bold, dynamic strokes of his production drawings. These will set the stage for drama presenting neither dream, nor history, nor quotidian reality, but the lucid amplification of all three. This amplification is one definition of cinema.
“Dante Ferretti: Design and Construction for the Cinema” and “Dante Ferretti: Designing for the Big Screen” are on view at the Roy and Niuta Titus Theaters and Galleries at the Museum of Modern Art through February 9, 2014.
TWO ABSORBING DOCUMENTARIES screening in the “Motion Portraits” sidebar at the New York Film Festival offer vastly different expressions of penitence. In Nadav Schirman’s In the Darkroom, Magdalena Kopp, the former wife and accomplice of international terrorist Carlos the Jackal, rues her association with various far-left militant groups in the 1970s and ’80s—a past that has left her with “no more pride.” John Wojtowicz, the leader of the bizarre bank robbery in Brooklyn that inspired Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975), in contrast, volubly and proudly looks back on that 1972 heist in Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s The Dog.
Berg and Keraudren’s doc, which they began in 2002, is not the first project to allow Wojtowicz, who died in 2006, to sociopathically show off: He reenacts his crime, as scenes from Lumet’s film appear intermittently on another screen, in Pierre Huyghe’s two-channel video The Third Memory, 2000. Kopp has also recounted some of her past in front of the camera before, serving as one of the talking heads in Terror’s Advocate, Barbet Schroeder’s 2007 documentary on the slippery, charismatic French lawyer Jacques Vergès, who defended her after her arrest in Paris in 1982 for possession of explosives. (Vergès, who died last month, returned the favor, appearing in Schirman’s film.)
Like Wojtowicz, Kopp also has the distinction of being re-created by someone else, even if by a performer not as iconic as Al Pacino: Nora von Waldstätten played her in Olivier Assayas’s epic bio-pic Carlos (2010). If Wojtowicz, by his sheer motormouthed, sexed-up lunacy, is the more entertaining subject of the two, that’s not to suggest that Kopp’s funereal demeanor isn’t fascinating in its grim way. Her face framed by a black bob and bangs, the woman who once forged passports for the Revolutionary Cells consistently remarks on her own passivity: “That was the moment I could’ve turned away. But I didn’t,” she says of her decision to go underground in the late ’70s with Johannes Weinrich, her lover at the time, soon to be supplanted by Carlos, for whom Weinrich served as henchman. Of her years with Carlos, she professes, “I didn’t have the courage to leave.” Whether or not this remorse is genuine, Kopp, now in her mid-sixties and living in the Bavarian town she grew up in, is unequivocal about her punishment: “I sit around here and brood and brood and brood and brood.”
A romantic attachment also led to Wojtowicz’s act of terror: As viewers of Dog Day Afternoon will recall, he held up a Chase Manhattan branch, keeping seven bank employees hostage for fourteen hours, to pay for his lover’s sex-change operation. Or is that reason only part of the story, just another example of Wojtowicz’s prodigious mythomania? Among several archival treasures Berg and Keraudren unearth is a clip from a show on Manhattan’s public-access Channel J, featuring that aforementioned paramour—Liz Eden, née Ernest Aron, though Wojtowicz favors the expression “my male wife”—confronting her ex on air about why he really robbed the bank. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Wojtowicz compulsively makes claims like “I’m the gay Babe Ruth. I beat the fuckin’ system. I won.” If Kopp’s remaining years will be spent brooding, Wojtowicz spent every single day after his botched crime boasting.
In the Darkroom screens September 28 and 30; The Dog screens October 1 and 8. All screenings take place at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center; go to filmlinc.com/nyff2013 for details.
SWEET BUT NEVER AS STICKY as its onanistic title character’s wadded-up Kleenex, Don Jon proves as winning as its irrepressible writer-director-lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This buoyant comedy about Internet-porn addiction, which marks the feature helming debut of the thirty-two-year-old actor, more effectively analyzes the simultaneous appetite for and detachment from sex abetted by the Web than Steve McQueen’s grim, moralistic, high-toned Shame (2011).
“Real pussy is all good, but it’s not as good as porn,” Jon Martello avers in voice-over early in the film, each vowel roughed up by his thick Jersey cadence. This buff Lothario bartender has no problem luring the hottest females he meets at various nightclubs in the 201 area code to his fastidiously kept apartment (Jon loves to Swiffer). But after his various bedmates have drifted off to postcoital sleep, Jon can’t resist opening his laptop to beat off to pixelated XXX action—an urge he can’t abstain from at any other hour, either. Not even a seemingly blissful relationship with Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson, a perfect Garden State cupcake)—“the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Jon boasts to his friends and family—can cure his craving for pornhub.com.
For all of its broad humor—there are running gags about Jon’s Sunday rituals, which include tallying his sins of the flesh during confession and guido shouting matches with his father (Tony Danza) during family dinner—Gordon-Levitt’s film is one of the more astute about highlighting pop-cultural pathologies that do nothing but exacerbate already rigid, unhealthy gender roles. Jon’s porn habits may have ruined his ability to be truly sexually intimate with a woman, but Barbara’s own fixation with romantic dramedies—another type of movie promoting wildly unrealistic ideas about relationships—proves harmful as well. (She is especially enraptured by Someone Special, a film-within-a-film featuring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway that sharply sends up, down to its banal, Nicholas Sparks–esque title, the cloying genre.) “When a real man loves a woman, he’ll do anything for her,” Barbara says, indicating how deeply she’s been indoctrinated into Mars–Venus thinking—brainwashing that begins early, as a party for a little girl that the couple attends shows every single guest under ten in pink princess gowns.
Other spoofs embedded in Don Jon reveal, without ever becoming didactic, porn’s inexorable influence on other media. During Sunday supper, the Martellos watch a TV commercial with an oiled-up model doing obscene things with her lunch: “Charbroiled Cod Sandwich: More Than Just a Piece of Meat,” goes the tagline. (Considering the real-life TV spots for M&Ms, in which the anthropomorphized candies seem just seconds away from a Plato’s Retreat–like orgy, perhaps this fake ad doesn’t seem so far-fetched.) Jon eventually meets someone with whom he can realize what he had previously been able to achieve only from devouring dirty websites: the ability to “lose” himself. Don Jon’s story arc may be conventional, but it contains one of the most radical lines I’ve heard in a film this year: “I’m not thinking about marriage, and she isn’t either.”
Don Jon opens September 27.