After Images

04.12.11

Luo Li, Rivers and My Father, 2010, still from a black-and-white video, 75 minutes.


WHEN A CONTEMPORARY MUSICAL ACT is brought in to create and perform a new score for a silent film classic, the result is typically tasteful and restrained. But as one might surmise from the band’s moniker, Fucked Up doesn’t exactly do restraint. Enlisted by the Images Festival—Toronto’s lively annual survey of experimental film, video, installation, and media art—to provide new music for a screening of Tod Browning’s film West of Zanzibar (1928) on the festival’s closing night, the local hardcore favorites handled the assignment with all the delicacy of a UFC cage match.

Fucked Up expanded on the most epic moments on their 2009 album The Chemistry of Common Life, deploying an arsenal of razor-sharp guitar riffage and thunderous drum solos to accentuate and intensify the lurid lunacy of Browning’s curio, a compelling if egregiously racist jungle melodrama by the director of Dracula and Freaks. While many films of its vintage might have been overpowered by such a visceral display of power, West of Zanzibar was sufficiently feisty to match the band blow for blow.

In their rejection of timid tactics, Fucked Up’s efforts were very much in line with the playfully subversive energies present throughout the festival. That energy was certainly there in the opening-night film. Rivers and My Father, Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Luo Li’s impressive sophomore feature, freely mixes fiction and documentary elements as Luo juxtaposes reenacted scenes from his father’s boyhood in rural China with footage of his family in the present day. But after an hour of hushed, ambiguous, and lyrical black-and-white vignettes, Luo’s work takes a surprising turn. Explaining via on-screen text that he sent the film we’ve just watched to his father, the director then presents Luo Sr.’s well-meaning comments on how it might be improved. The result is an ingenious sort of autocritique, one that immediately deflates any air of pretension while adding texture to the film’s key themes of family, landscape, and memory.

Two events by visiting Brooklynites in the festival’s Live Images program proved to be similarly unpredictable. The Fortunetellers, a performative lecture by Ellie Ga based on her experiences during a scientific expedition in the Arctic Ocean in the winter of 2007–2008, used a variety of means—photo transparencies presented via overhead projector, digital video collected during her very dark days on the Tara, cryptic slides of wristwatch ads, and live narration by Ga—to create a wry and touching portrait of a temporary community at the end of the world. Andrew Lampert, an archivist at the Anthology Film Archives and an artist in his own right, was also in Toronto to present three recent films that reflected his new interest in “contracted cinema,” a cheeky term that points to his shift away from the multiprojector works he had previously favored. In his introductory remarks, he also admitted that he risked the rancor of fringe-film purists by using video to preserve and present works originally shot on Super 8. But the results—including two hilarious films in which actress Caroline Golum channels the woeful spirit of one of Lampert’s Siberian ancestors—suggest that the director’s move to narrow his scope has also revitalized his work.

Jason Anderson

The twenty-fourth edition of Toronto’s Images Festival ran through April 9, 2011. The festival’s “Off-Screen” program continues through April at participating galleries and venues.

Left: Eric Mitchell, Underground U.S.A., 1980, film in 16mm, 85 minutes. Right: James Nares, Game, 1975, still from a black-and-white video, 3 minutes 5 seconds.


THE REVIVAL OF 1970S UNDERGROUND “three-chord” movies continues apace at the IFC Center and Anthology Film Archives in New York. With Céline Danhier’s randomly informative and completely uncritical documentary Blank City (2010) currently booked for an unlimited run at the IFC, the theater is also showcasing, as part of its ongoing “Short Attention Span” series, moving image work by the film’s most articulate interview subject, James Nares.

The exemplary Renaissance man of ’70s downtown New York, Nares made movies, played guitar (with James Chance in the Contortions and with Jim Jarmusch in the Del-Byzanteens), and staged performances for minuscule audiences in his loft where he also produced sculpture and paintings. Today, he is perhaps best known as a painter, although he has never stopped shooting still and moving photographic work. Ranging across thirty years, the five movies included in the “Short Attention Span” series are lyrical but heady one-liners. Ramp (1975), Hammered (1975), and Drip (2007) are mini documents of sculptural activity, involving the effects of gravity on weighty objects. Game (1976) is like a stoner’s dream—a fast and furious chess game played with very small indistinguishable rocks—while Weather Bed (1990) depicts what might have happened the night before as a slowly gathering tornado in the sheets. Nares’s longest movie, the mostly soporific, occasionally hilarious Rome 78 (1978) which features various Mudd Club denizens stalking around in togas, plays at IFC the weekend of April 8–9 in the midnight movie slot, as does Charlie Ahearn’s livelier Wild Style (1983), an invaluable document of early hip-hop, break-dancing, and graffiti artists.

Unlike Nares, Eric Mitchell, one of the stars of Rome 78, had feature filmmaking ambitions. Anthology Film Archives, which has programmed its own ’70s underground series, is showing two of Mitchell’s riff's on Warhol’s tabloid-inspired talkies, Kidnapped (1978) and Underground, U.S.A. (1980). Both movies are notable for frantic and relentless camera movement and feature downtown luminary Patti Astor, whose attempted Edie Sedgwick imitation is closer to Ingrid Superstar, who herself had created the first and least self-conscious Edie parody. If you only have time for one Mitchell movie, choose Kidnapped. It’s the shorter and purer of the two, and it’s preceded by the bluntly titled, seven-minute Mass Homicide (1977), which will give you a taste of what you’re in for.

Amy Taubin

“The Films of James Nares” runs at the IFC Center in New York through April 21 as part of the theater’s “Short Attention Span” series. Rome 78 and Wild Style play at the IFC Center on Saturday, April 9 at midnight. Films by Eric Mitchell will show at Anthology Film Archives in New York on Saturday April 9 and Sunday April 10. Céline Danhier’s Blank City opened at the IFC Center on Wednesday, April 6.

Body Double

04.08.11

João Pedro Rodrigues, To Die Like a Man, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Left: Tonia (Fernando Santos). Right: Tonia and Rosário (Fernando Santos and Alexander David).


JOÃO PEDRO RODRIGUES’S brilliant To Die Like a Man effortlessly shuttles between nose-to-the-ground melodrama and airy fantasy, embracing both the ethereal and the cruelly physical. The film’s central dichotomy is between body and soul, a dualism best evinced by the lightly worn but deterministic Catholicism of the film’s transgendered protagonist Tonia (Fernando Santos).

Working as a drag queen in a Lisbon discotheque—and living as a woman off the job—Tonia is hesitant to undergo the full sex-change operation demanded by her younger, junky boyfriend. Her reasons for resisting are a botched breast job and a dose of Catholic guilt about altering the body that God gave her. While dealing with her unstable beau, Rosário (Alexander David), and the potential loss of work to younger performers, Tonia begins to produce a milky, bloody discharge from her areola, a sign that her body is rejecting its silicone implants.

To Die Like a Man is highly attuned to the body in all its naked humbleness—never more so than in a scene when, shades of Mary Magdalene, Rosário washes Tonia’s unsightly feet, eventually moving up the torso to definitively expose Tonia’s “manhood.” But Rodrigues’s film is also given to delirious flights of fancy, emphasizing that human experience is by no means limited to the grueling vagaries of day-to-day life. In a series of largely non-narrative sequences that seem to exist outside of time, the film explores higher yearnings that also acknowledge the cruelties of the quotidian temporarily left behind.

In the most bizarre of these moments, Tonia and Rosário stumble upon a trio living away from society in the forest. Everyday time comes to a halt while the five of them go snipe hunting. Suddenly the moon turns red, a crimson haze is thrown across the screen, and the characters sit motionless, listening to an off-screen song about Jesus at Calvary whose audio source remains unspecified, but which provides Tonia with a hard-earned, if temporary, release from the conflicting demands of her corporality. A person may be bound to his or her body, the film suggests, but they need not be defined by it.

Andrew Schenker

To Die Like a Man opens Friday April 8 at the IFC Center in New York.

Left: Maripol, Patti Astor. Right: Marcia Resnick, Underground ‘B’ stars of the No Wave – Filmmakers Scott B. and Beth B., artist Diego Cortez, Lydia Lunch, Johnny O’Kane, Bill Rice and Adele Bertei of the Contortions. New York City, 1980. Both images from Céline Danhier, Blank City, 2010.


“YOU WOULDN’T EAT, you’d buy a guitar or a Super 8 camera.” Musician Pat Place’s recollection of the urgency that drove New York’s underground auteurs in the late 1970s and early ’80s encapsulates both the scenesters’ fiercely do-it-yourself ethic and their— perhaps inevitable—tendency to self-mythologize. Blank City, director Céline Danhier’s document of the rough-and-ready style of filmmaking that emerged in conjunction with punk rock and ultimately ballooned into big-budget indie cinema, gives Place and friends plenty of time to indulge this long-nurtured romanticism. But it also packs in so much detail that people and places central to the story soon begin to acquire an odd equivalency with rather more tangential ingredients. The final effect, while not actually misleading, can be slightly numbing. Still, if there’s a feeling of being rushed through too much interesting stuff, at least the interesting stuff is there.

“It was an explosive moment, a meeting of minds.” Blank City begins with Jim Jarmusch characterizing the birth of what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman termed “No Wave” cinema, a no-holds-barred filmic rejoinder to the grittiness of ’70s Manhattan that acknowledged but played fast and loose with the influence of the French New Wave. That Hoberman’s term was also applied to a fleeting but similarly influential subgenre in music is no accident; Danhier’s film describes two worlds in a state of continual overlap. Ivan Kral’s The Blank Generation, 1976—made, according to its director, on a budget of a hundred bucks—features performances by the Ramones, Television, and the rest of the CBGB’s gang. But it was bands of the more dissonant kind gathered on 1978’s No New York compilation that were the real sonic counterparts to the filmmakers featured in Blank City.

Chief envoy of this group from Danhier’s perspective is James Chance, of James Chance and the Contortions. The film’s only interviewee (with the exception of John Waters) to still look something of an oddball, Chance also gives a beautifully concise account of his first encounter with actor-director John Lurie: “[He] used to follow me around on the street. Then one day he came over and knocked at my door and gave me some speed and we went to his apartment and we made a movie.” Lurie himself is an entertaining source throughout the film, discussing the then au courant emphasis on de-skilling—“Technique was so hated [ . . . ] no one was doing what they knew how to do”—and remembering having to fake a break-in at his apartment to claim the insurance money that he used to fund 1979’s Men in Orbit.

And so the film goes on, ranging across a downtown topography that, while appearing strikingly desolate in numerous atmospheric clips and described ad nauseum as dangerous to life and limb, was seemingly packed with radical innovators. En route, guerrilla cinema is cited as a response to everything from political conservatism to the AIDS pandemic, the indomitability of the cockroach to the gentrification of the Lower East Side. The self-celebration is interrupted only late in the game by director James Nares, who slams Jean-Michel Basquiat for making it cool to have cash. From here, it’s the fast track to something like mainstream success for a select few, and a digging in of heels for others. Most notable among the latter is Nick Zedd, whose 1985 manifesto stakes out a more lurid and confrontational territory in the form of the Cinema of Transgression.

Zedd, who still cuts a youthful (one might even say adolescent) figure, is a riot. Still sulky after all these years, the uncompromising director maintains an admirable poker face as he outlines an ongoing quest to offend. “I was elated to get this kind of attention and this kind of outrage,” he says of the appalled critical reaction to 1979 anti-masterpiece They Eat Scum, his face steadfastly expressionless. Waters describes Zedd’s production Fingered (1986) as “the ultimate date movie for psychos,” and former partner and collaborator Lydia Lunch remembers of the young Zedd, “Even when he did nothing, people hated him. It was amazing!” If Blank City has a star, it’s not the more critically lauded and commercially successful likes of Jarmusch or Steve Buscemi, but this pouting man in black, a stubborn iconoclast who doesn’t wanna grow up.

Michael Wilson

Blank City opens Wednesday, April 6, at the IFC Center in New York.

Left: Ericka Beckman, Out of Hand, 1981, still from a color film in Super 8, 30 minutes. Right: Ericka Beckman, Cinderella, 1986, still from a color film in 16 mm, 30 minutes.


LIKE A BOOMERANG hurled across three-plus decades and carrying today’s viewer back with it to that fervent, hard-edged but oddly innocent downtown moment when the free-for-all 1970s (free because no one had or was willing to admit to having money) gave way to the more practical and materialist ’80s, Ericka Beckman’s Super 8 “Piaget Trilogy” (1978–81) arrives on the Anthology Film Archives screen. Its restoration in 16 mm was made possible by Anthology’s experimental film preservation project, which has recently focused on work from this period. (Two weeks ago, restored movies by Manuel De Landa were screened; on April 15–16, it’s Bette Gordon’s turn.) I can’t remember seeing an actual boomerang in any of Beckman’s works, but so many of the trajectories of camera and object movement in her films evoke that kind of kinetic and aggressive back-and-forth that to include the thing itself would be redundant.

Beckman’s place in the pantheon of daredevil experimental moviemakers should have been secured in 1983, when You the Better, the thirty-five-minute, 16-mm film that followed the “Piaget Trilogy,” caused a riot at the New York Film Festival, where it preceded Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion. I recall that at the time, Godard, perhaps as a defensive maneuver, anointed Beckman as the most talented young American experimentalist. Two years earlier, Beckman’s Super 8 work was lauded by J. Hoberman in his catalogue for “Home Made Movies,” the 1981 marathon survey of 8-mm and Super 8 films he organized at Anthology. Hoberman described the films in what would only later be dubbed the “Piaget Trilogy”—they were partly inspired by the learning theories of the psychologist Jean Piaget—as follows: “Filled with images of disembodied limbs, toy-like models, and anthropomorphized furniture, scored to doo-wop mantras and abstract cheerleader chants, Beckman’s films suggest the amalgam of Max Fleischer’s oneiric Bimbo’s Initiation and Oskar Fischinger’s geometric Composition in Blue.” Of Out of Hand (1981), the last film in the trilogy, he memorably blurbed: “like an Allstate Insurance commercial as it might appear to an autistic child.”

Of all the artist-filmmakers who debuted in the ’70s, none have shown more consistency than Beckman. That is to say that each of her films is distinct from the others while also being part of a uniquely envisioned oeuvre. (You have to see her films to understand how derivative, clumsy, and vacuous Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle is.) What I wrote in 1979 in the Soho News about two of her early films—about their fragmentation, dreamlike displacements, and associative connections; about how clear, diagrammatic, often primary-colored iconography is placed within a shadowy, shifting, ambiguous space; about the incantatory power of her sound tracks with their repeated percussion riffs and nursery rhyme–like chants—applies to her more recent, technically formidable work as well. In the stunning 2006 Tension Building—an unfortunate omission from the Anthology program, though it can be found in its entirety on her website—she uses stop-motion, camera movement, and variations of focal length and exposure to transform the Harvard University coliseum into a giant thrashing machine. A mere three minutes, it seems to go on for hours, sucking you in like a black hole. It’s the only film that’s ever given me motion sickness.

Milking the Surrealist roots of Pop, Beckman creates brightly colored, psychologically threatening, sexually charged worlds in which her avatars are hurled to and fro, trapped inside a game plan whose rules they desperately try to discern. In what is probably still her most narrative-like film, Cinderella (1986), her heroine, decked out alternately in baggy overalls and a green bouffant prom dress topped with a blonde flip wig, is shunted between an industrial furnace that she’s forced to tend and the ballroom where she dances with the prince until she loses her chance to marry him because she doesn’t make it home by midnight. It’s not until she realizes that she can come home whenever she likes that she breaks out of the confines of the game. “And that night, I didn’t get home until two!” she exclaims, in one of the most thrilling moments of liberation in a Beckman movie. It wasn’t until looking at Cinderella again, twenty-five years after its debut, that I realized how deeply Beckman’s films were lodged in my brain in their entirety, as deeply as the childhood nursery rhymes and picture books that are undoubtedly their sources. They touch down where the wet dreams of girlhood arise.

Amy Taubin

Two programs devoted to the filmmaker Ericka Beckman will run April 1–2 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Left: Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds, 1955, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm. Kengo Tomioka and Yukiko Koda (Masayuki Mori and Hideko Takamine). Right: Mikio Naruse, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm. Keiko Yashiro (Hideko Takamine [left]).


OF ALL THE WOMEN to suffer on-screen in classic Japanese cinema, few matched actress Hideko Takamine for her startling mixture of resentment, resignation, and resolve. Takamine, who died last December at the age of eighty-six, had a career that lasted five decades: Discovered on a sightseeing trip to Shochiku studios at the age of five, she appeared in her first film (Haha) in 1929. She was a beloved child star in prewar Japan, often sharing a bill with Shirley Temple. Known affectionately as “Deko-chan,” she later played the spirited teenager in movies such as Composition Class (1938) and Horse (1941).

In the 1950s, Takamine made the transition to leading lady. Her comic talents are evident in Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home (1951), in which she plays a big-city stripper returning to her rural village. But her greatest films are the elegant black-and-white shomin-geki, or dramas of ordinary people, made for director Mikio Naruse, including Lightning (1952), Flowing (1956), and Yearning (1964). In Floating Clouds (1955), her Yukiko is a destitute woman in ruined postwar Tokyo, obsessed with a faithless lover played by Masayuki Mori. In Takamine’s modulated performance, romantic masochism isn’t noble or saintly.

She’s equally sublime in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), where she plays a thirty-something Ginza bar hostess trapped by circumstance and surveying her limited options: Marry for money? Secure a patron and open her own bar? Pursue the married banker (Mori again) whom she truly loves? This is pure women’s picture, transposed to a different key than Mildred Pierce (1945) or All That Heaven Allows (1955) by Takamine’s understated playing. She maintains a mask of placidity for her customers, but her eyes and posture convey an inner turbulence. Hideko Takamine never played the victim.

Tom Beer

Six films starring Hideko Takamine will screen as part of the series “Five Japanese Divas,” which runs April 1–21 at Film Forum in New York.