Nicolas Roeg, Insignificance, 1985, still from a color film in 35 mm, 108 minutes.
PAST IS PRESENT in the cinema of Nicolas Roeg. To simply call those extratemporal sequences that punctuate his work “flashbacks” is to downplay the role that images of what came before play in his films. Such “digressive” framing devices are, in many ways, the emotional and visual keystones of Roeg’s work.
In his heyday, from the 1970s until the mid-’80s, Roeg was known as an envelope pusher. He employed nonlinear editing as part of an ambitious attempt to bridge space and time, cutting frames together with an eye toward enriching the interplay of associations in the viewer’s mind. Thus a gesture at the center of one scene is overtly replicated in the next one, or one character seemingly responds to another, even if the two actions or people are decades or time zones apart. One rarely engages fully with the sloppy top layers of a Roeg film (the characters, the story). The real action takes place on a slightly creepy subliminal level.
In The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), the humanoid, hyperevolved creature played by David Bowie says he’s interested in the “transference of energy.” Bowie’s Newton has come from a faraway place to build something that no one around him really understands. The parallels between Newton and Roeg, an Englishman making his first film in the US at the time, are obvious, especially when you consider that the film’s unhappy distributors went so far as to hand out leaflets at cinemas outlining the plot.
In a way, you can’t blame them. The Man Who Fell to Earth is a simple story, willfully scrambled into something much more complicated. In a nutshell: Newton migrates to our world to build a spaceship that will allow him to return to his home planet, which has run out of water, so that he can presumably bring his wife and children back to Earth. But he’s undone by alcohol, television, and the machinations of a suspicious government agency.
It’s not clear what Newton’s powers are, but he does at one point seem to peer through time. As he’s being chauffeured through the American West, a roadside meadow suddenly becomes populated with nineteenth-century settlers. They’re just as surprised to see Newton, speeding by in his limousine, as he is to see them. Where are we? In the present, looking into the past? Or in the past, experiencing a vision of the future, albeit one less terrifying than the bloody prefigurations of Roeg’s 1973 thriller Don’t Look Now? Forward, backward: The individual and collective unconscious stretches miles and miles in both directions.
Newton’s brief encounter with pioneers correlates to a scene in Roeg’s Insignificance (1985) in which an elevator operator of Cherokee descent hears his ancestors chanting as he contemplates the Manhattan skyline. The bellman is not a major character, but his minority, in multiple senses of the word, adds a layer of meaning to the film’s title, and his moment at the top of the city helps Insignificance (recently rereleased by Criterion on Blu-Ray and DVD) breathe.
The basic setup is the same as in the original play by Terry Johnson: Individuals resembling Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and (least likable of all) Senator Joe McCarthy rotate in and out of the same hotel room. It’s an exploration of celebrity based on the principle, as Roeg put it around the time of its making, that “nobody knows a damn thing about anyone.” (It’s worth noting that the film was released in a time when America was being led by a former movie star.)
Insignificance reanimates four icons of a ’50s cold-war American pop culture racked by nuclear fears, and then examines them as individuals: most vividly, “The Actress” (Theresa Russell), who inspires and feeds on the public’s desire, and “The Professor” (Michael Emil), plagued by guilt for his role in creating the atomic bomb. The film ends on Roeg’s graphic vision, which unfolds in slow motion, of America’s sweetheart being blown to bits the way the people of Hiroshima were. (More associations: Her charred corpse recalls that of Gene Hackman’s seemingly impervious treasure hunter in Eureka .) Regardless of her symbolic power, Marilyn the person can be extinguished in a heartbeat. The Wild West, Hiroshima, the ’50s, the apocalypse—they’re not as far apart as you might think.
Left: Andrew Haigh, Weekend, 2011, still from a color film in HD, 96 minutes. Russell and Glen (Tom Cullen and Chris New). Right: Asif Kapadia, Senna, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes.
THE BAMCINEMAFEST gets off to a smashing start with the New York premiere of Weekend, Andrew Haigh’s smart, sexy, gay two-hander. (Opening night is Thursday, June 16, at 7:30 PM, and ticket holders are invited to the afterparty with cast and crew. You’ll be able to say that you saw—across a crowded room—the movie’s brilliant stars, Chris New and Tom Cullen, before they became famous.) Cullen plays the semicloseted Russell (out to his close friends but not to his neighbors or coworkers at the gym where he’s a lifeguard). One night in the loo of a crowded Nottingham gay bar, he connects with Glen (New, who’s as sleepy-eyed and acid-tongued as the young Tim Roth), and, much to his surprise, they wind up in bed together. Over the course of three days, they quickly discover their mutual capacity for an intimacy that’s emotional as well as sexual, their relationship intensified by the fact that Glen, an artist who audiotapes postcoital conversations to use in his work, is already scheduled to leave for grad school in Portland (where else?). Just when it seemed that it would be unbearable to sit through another movie about identity-as-sex and vice versa, one comes along that’s more precise and more moving than almost all the others. Weekend is something like a Rohmer talkathon punctuated by R-rated sex and set in working-class England. I was as amazed by it as the characters—and the actors who play them—were by each other.
Like Weekend, some of the best movies in the BAMcinemaFest—Asif Kapadia’s Senna and Azazel Jacobs’s Terri—are scheduled to open later this summer. The latter is a beautifully observed, radiantly photographed, occasionally hilarious depiction of a misfit teenage boy coming of age with the help of a clumsy but hopeful guidance counselor (John C. Reilly, subtle at last). Senna is a documentary portrait of the Brazilian race-car driver Ayrton Senna, a three-time Formula One world champion who became a martyr for the sport that consumed him when, at the age of thirty-four, he was killed behind the wheel of a car about which he had grave misgivings. An international celebrity from the time he burst onto the racing scene in 1984 until his death ten years later, Senna was surrounded by cameras wherever he went and, despite their presence, he was remarkably open in conversation and in manner. Kapadia weaves the movie from existing video footage of this handsome, seductive, intelligent, utterly focused young man. From time to time, we also see the course of a race nearly through his eyes. (In Formula One cars, video cameras are anchored next to the drivers’ heads.) One doesn’t need to know or care about racing to be thoroughly moved and shaken by Senna, or to realize that the miracle of the movies has allowed us to see a genius at work.
Among other must-sees: Chris Munch’s Letters from the Big Man, a fairy tale for adults about a young woman who encounters a bigfoot in the deep forests of southwestern Oregon and forms a mutually protective relationship with him (I believed every minute of it), and Charlie Ahearn’s Jamel Shabazz Street Photographer, a documentary follow-up to Ahearn’s epoch-defining Wild Style. The film begins in the 1980s, just after Shabazz graduated from Brooklyn’s Tilden High. Shabazz photographed his peers on the streets where they hung out and where many of them died. He went on to hold a day job as a corrections officer, which seemed to change not a jot the freedom that his subjects—many of them living outside the law—felt before his camera. They shine; they give meaning to “cool” as tragedy and comedy. “Back in the Days: REMIX,” an exhibition of Shabazz’s photographs, runs June 16–26 in BAM’s Natman Room. He will be signing copies of his book of the same title on the last afternoon of the show.
BAMcinemaFest includes twenty-six feature-length movies and three programs of shorts. Among the American Independent movies that I cannot recommend, I did spot something like a trend. Michael Tully’s Septien, Sophia Takal’s Green, and Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel are all, in one way or another, ambitious—that is, they strain to be out of the ordinary. They are also all built around characters that one would find unbearable to be around for five minutes, let alone the duration of a feature film. (If, that is, one could believe in their existence at all.) Of the three, Septien shows the most talent. Tully and his excellent DP, Jeremy Saulnier, know how to tell a story with the camera. And that’s nothing to be taken lightly.
BAMcinemaFest runs June 16–26 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Uruphong Raksasad, Agrarian Utopia, 2009, still from a color film in HDV, 122 minutes.
THE HISTORY of labor-conscious cinema abounds with landmarks in cinematographic beauty, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and Days of Heaven (1978) among the most notable. This is far from coincidental. Any film dealing with agricultural work will likely capture the relationship between man and landscape, a relationship that is often shot through with cruel irony: How can splendiferous settings be home to poverty and exploitation?
Thai director Uruphong Raksasad’s quasi documentary Agrarian Utopia stretches this irony to the breaking point. For here is an undeniably stunning work of visual art, a premiere example of the equal footing hi-def digital video now holds with celluloid filmmaking. Acting as his own cinematographer, Uruphong finds intimate wonder in lush, verdant hills; in twilights afire with dark orange skies; in children frolicking amid drenched fields, their playful dives splattering mud in almost painterly strokes across the camera lens.
But the primary effect of these images is not simply to inspire rapture. It is to heighten the vulnerability and demonstrate the perseverance of a class of people held in servitude to the environment they must work to ever-slimmer prospects of upward mobility or even daily sustenance. The narrative of Agrarian Utopia concerns the day-to-day survival of rice paddy peasants played by nonprofessional actors living lives much like those they portray on-screen. Two families band together to work an owner’s land—rented by Uruphong himself for the purposes of the shoot—using antiquated agricultural methods: A harnessed yet cantankerous buffalo provides the most advanced technological tool.
The film opens with workers complaining about drowning in unpaid loans, and things only get harder from there. The families must forage for insects and honey during especially hard times; a father tells his family not to spend money on his funeral shrine so that they can save it for the children’s studies; the land owner pays out less than expected at the end of the year’s harvest in order to pay the money he owes on a car.
Toward the beginning and end of Agrarian Utopia, Uruphong uses clips of impassioned and heated populist protests against the Thai government on the streets of Bangkok. But the main characters—especially paterfamilias Duen—only watch these political battles from the sidelines. (“It’s like a movie,” he earlier says about scenes of the “good” opposition pitted against the “bad” officials.) Even religion seems futile, what with a Buddhist temple atop a nearby hill mocking the workers’ grinding labor with promises of immaterial respite.
What’s left to hope for? Agrarian Utopia implies that Duen will be forced to move to the city to seek low-paying work he doesn’t desire—a fate shared by multitudes in a globalized agricultural system almost entirely given over to industrialization. Uruphong also uncovers small moments of domestic strength and happiness: an outdoor wedding ceremony, children honking horns created out of thatched grass. Whether these constitute visions of harmony that can drive Duen’s determination to do better for his family or mere moments of joy snatched from a lifetime of adversity remains the film’s wrenching open question.
Agrarian Utopia runs June 10–16 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Éric Rohmer, Le Rayon vert (Summer), 1986, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 98 minutes.
DELPHINE, the fretful and fussy antiheroine of Éric Rohmer’s Le Rayon vert (The Green Ray, 1986; originally released in North America as Summer), may be at a loss for those all-important July-August vacation plans, but she doesn’t lack for friends and strangers telling her where to go or how to live. Still brittle two years after a broken engagement, which is echoed by a friend’s last-minute change in travel itinerary at the film’s opening, the pale Parisian will find herself, for example, airily defending vegetarianism to a table full of people she barely knows, or watching a Swedish girl she meets on a topless beach trade interminable flirtations with a doofus pickup.
Delphine’s melancholia and loneliness attract the attention of others, but amid these interventions by concerned extroverts, her breakdowns and sudden flights accrue into a portrayal of a not-so-poetic doldrums, even depression. Rohmer makes her mood recognizable from inside and outside through her tetchy clinging to sadness and the frustration of friends trying to help. The bracing, craggy seasides she explores alone, the sandy stretches of anonymous crowds, and the alfresco chats provide little escape. “For Éric Rohmer, leisure is the supreme spiritual test faced by modern men and women,” wrote Phillip Lopate, mostly not kidding.
Shooting on 16 mm, Rohmer catches partly improvised conversations, allowing overlapping dialogue and casual gestures (as when one of Delphine’s friends turns her attention to a magazine on a side table). Played by Marie Rivičre, Delphine speaks in a fluttering self-revising rush, vacillating between assertion and confession; whenever she gives up and her tears flow, which happens more than once, it feels unexpected and real, a break in the etiquette of smooth surfaces. And yet her romanticism is just as palpable: When she finally takes steps to dig herself out of a hole, she seems to believe in her success only upon seeing the titular rayon vert, glimpsed for a mere moment at day’s end.
Le Rayon vert (Summer) will screen at BAMcinématek in New York from June 9–15.
Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator, 1940, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 125 minutes.
“LEAVE ME, I WANT TO BE ALONE.” Thus growls a sullen Hitler to one of his attendants in an original trailer for Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940). Slithering down from an unlikely perch high up on a curtain, Der Führer proceeds to stalk an outsize globe, eyeing it greedily and portentously, in lone contemplation of his imminent world dominion. The globe turns out to be a balloon, affording Chaplin some highly amusing pantomime. He bounces and spins it in a comical allegory of arrogant control, until the object pops in his face. The prelude to Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin underscores the mood and the message—and attests to Chaplin’s affinity, shared with Hitler himself, for Wagner’s operas.
Chaplin’s first sound film, The Great Dictator also constituted his most successful commercial venture. He not only wrote, produced, and directed the movie, but also starred in double roles: as both an anonymous Jewish barber and the eponymous tyrant—Adenoid Hynkel—for whom the former is mistaken. The film is perhaps best recalled for the barber’s final speech—an elegy both personal and existential, a mournful dirge and a cautionary homily (“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed . . . ”). Yet if any other scene stands out as strikingly, it is Hynkel’s nonsensical harangue before his minions. Real German words and names—“sauerkraut” and “schnitzel” among them—punctuate a stream of gibberish to no grammatical end. By further inflating Hitler’s over-the-top oratory, Chaplin aimed to deflate his still-exotic menace. A Mussolini-like character, the voluble “Benzino Napaloni”—along with the satirized pageantry of Fascist propaganda—rounds out the film’s send-up of totalitarianism.
Such menace would soon form anything but the stuff of slapstick. Chaplin is said to have later regretted the film’s release, in light of the atrocities to which it only alludes. Still, the rather hackneyed association of freakish eccentricity and megalomaniacal despotism finds, in Chaplin’s work, an incisive parody—one that originated, in part, from the actor’s own physical similarity to the great dictator. The US was still officially at peace with Germany at the time of the film’s debut. Humorous or not, it represented a political intervention, for which Chaplin was criticized by German sympathizers at home. To be sure, the film ventures a broad-strokes diagnosis of the world’s ills, unabashedly humanist in its bright-eyed defiance. Yet given the continued proliferation of dictators on the world stage, and the courage of those still daring to topple them, Chaplin’s film may teach us something yet.
The Great Dictator is now available on DVD and Blu-ray through the Criterion Collection.
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life, 2011, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 138 minutes.
STANLEY KUBRICK made 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) during the minimalist era. Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011) belongs to the period of the mash-up. I’m not sure that anything else needs to be said, and having seen the film only once, I hesitate to go further, but I promised to weigh in on what was the most argued-over movie at Cannes, so here goes.
There are at least two extraordinary sequences in The Tree of Life. One occurs at the opening, just after the introductory inscription from the Book of Job (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”) and the brief image of what I took to be the film’s “great whatsit,” a glowing red object in the middle of the screen. (Is it the heart of the Big Bang, the energy from which all life evolves, or the sign of the Big Guy in the sky who is so mean to Job, or, not to be facetious, the fragment of glass from which Stan Brakhage produced The Text of Light  in its entirety?) And then we depart the Creation of the heavens and the earth to land in the yard of an American suburban house, and the camera is weaving forward through dazzlingly green grass and up and up again and again through the leafy branches of swaying trees, like a light-seeking device, looking for the sun. No one can move the camera like Malick—or, more precisely, no one directs the way Malick directs his great cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, or Lubezki’s operator, Jörg Widmer, to move the camera. Handheld or mounted on a Steadicam, the camera never, as far as I can remember, stops moving throughout what we could call the human (as opposed to the cosmic) sections of the film. Its movement is the corollary of the movement of the human eye and of consciousness, the evocation of the ephemeral nature of all life. It is camera movement as philosophy, morality, biology, and more. If Malick had trusted camera movement to carry the meaning of The Tree of Life . . . but better not to go there yet.
Rather, let’s return to this first glorious sequence where eventually we see a woman who is opening a letter or perhaps a telegram that she has just received. She is standing in the middle of a glassed-in porch and as she begins to read, there is the most startling of all the jump-cuts-on-movement, which is Malick’s standard way of connecting shots. The camera is suddenly high above the woman, and the extreme change of angle lets us experience, kinetically, how the bottom has dropped out of her world, even before she collapses on the floor in tears. The woman is Mrs. O’Brien, aka Mother (Jessica Chastain), the wife of Mr. O’Brien, aka Father (Brad Pitt), and she has just learned that her middle son has died. (How he dies or how old he is when he dies is never specified.)
One of the ways to read The Tree of Life is as a memory piece in which Jack (Sean Penn), the oldest of the three O’Brien sons, tries, decades after the fact, to reconcile himself to the death of his brother, and to put this terrible loss in the perspective of cosmic time and space stretching from the big bang to the extinction of the universe. Thus the film segues between Jack’s childhood in Smithville, Texas, in the 1950s to a depiction of billions of years of evolution that unfortunately resembles too many Discovery Channel science programs, occasionally punctuated by the kind of Old Testament illustrations that made Sunday school an aesthetic nightmare. (At those moments you have to ask if Malick is trying to make a case for intelligent design.) This despite the fact that the special effects were supervised by the legendary Douglas Trumbull and contemporary hotshot Dan Glass, and were partly concocted from old-fashioned materials (paints, smokes, liquids, lighting, high-speed cinematography) and sometimes shot on film, rather than being generated as computer graphics (although there’s much of that too).
The adult Jack (a depressed, Armani-suited architect who lives and works in towering metal and granite buildings that obscure all but the narrowest rays of light) does not appear very often in the film. He is like one of those nearly invisible protagonists in avant-garde “trance” films, the filtering consciousness that “stands in” for that of the filmmaker. If, as the production notes suggest, this is Malick’s “most personal” film, then Jack is the Malick figure. And in that case, I’m glad that at the end of the movie his depression and burden of guilt lift as he “gathers at the river” with all the people he’s known in his life, all of them seemingly metamorphosing from youth to old age and back again—as if he’d dropped some really fine acid.
As you may have surmised by now, The Tree of Life is extremely ambitious but erratic in its realization. Its most poignant, engrossing passages center on the young Jack (Hunter McCracken, tough-hearted and emotionally transparent) as he traverses the liminal zone between childhood and adolescence. And it’s here that the second of the film’s transcendent moments occurs. Jack adores his gentle, nurturing mother who tries to follow in the way of Grace, and he is in a rage at his father, whose way is that of Nature. (This is Malick’s dichotomy, spoken in voice-over early in the film. Fortunately, Pitt, who is superb in his first middle-aged role, and to a lesser extent Chastain, who—not by coincidence alone, I believe—resembles the young Jane Brakhage of Window Water Baby Moving , are sufficiently multifaceted in their characterizations to overcome the designations.) Leaning in close to hand his mother a glass of water that he’s just filled from the garden hose, Jack comes nearly within kissing distance of her bare knees. In a confusion of desire and guilt he storms off, breaks into a neighbor’s house, rifles through the dresser drawers, and steals a silky white slip that he then throws into the river where it spreads out and catches the sun as it floats downstream. The action has a psychological specificity, too often absent in the rest of the film, and it’s also a brilliant metaphor for the way Jack will probably displace his Oedipal confusion onto “next-door neighbors” whom he can violate in fantasy or actuality for the rest of his life. No wonder he’s depressed. His brother’s death doesn’t account for all of his misery.
It’s a pity there aren’t more such moments, or that Malick didn’t trust the expressiveness of his images. Instead he loads the sound track with voice-over, couched between prayerful and preachy, and an overabundance of music—most of it with funereal or religious overtones—that makes the film seem like kitsch, beginning to end. I know that Malick was, in fact, born in 1943, but to depict what is, in the context of this film, the essential family as resembling a Norman Rockwell cover and to locate the moment of childhood innocence in the ’50s and the fall from grace (the death of the middle brother) in the ’60s . . . well, that’s going to give comfort to a lot of very reactionary folk living in 2011. No one could value the profoundly religious films of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer more than I do, but as I fled the theater at the end of The Tree of Life, I blurted out a very old joke: “Thank God I’m an atheist.”
The Tree of Life opens in New York on Friday, May 27.