Left: Joseph W. Sarno, Confessions of a Young American Housewife, 1974, color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Production still. Anna, Eddie, Carole, and Pete (Chris Jordan, David Hausman, Rebecca Brooke, and Eric Edwards). Right: Joseph W. Sarno, Moonlighting Wives, 1966, color film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Production still. Mrs. Joan Rand and Al Jordan (Tammy Latour and John Aristedes).


“THE HAPPY ENDING is a Hollywood fallacy that I’m not interested in; I like to leave my characters with something to think about, with things they need to resolve.” Strange words coming from a director of what would come to be known as sexploitation films, but, though as prolific as any grind-house purveyor, Joseph W. Sarno was after something more than (just) cheap thrills. He made his first feature, Nude in Charcoal, in 1961, some years after serving in World War II and later chancing into putting together industrial flicks. Throughout the 1960s he directed a number of sometimes exquisitely shot, anxiety-tweaking, exuberantly scored films. Sarno could make a movie like The Bed and How to Make It! (1966), about an exiled young woman run amok in her aunt’s motel, feel ineffably dirty without getting explicit (unless you count the seductively syncopated stripped-down drum-thump that served as a sound track).

Now receiving a weekend tribute at Anthology, the late Brooklyn-born director (who died in April at the must-be-doing-something-right age of eighty-nine) did not resist displays of flesh, and indeed, he survived eras of change when the meaning of exposure in skin flicks got more literal-minded (on through the ’80s video boom). But Moonlighting Wives (1966), for all the semidreamlike stiltedness of the dialogue and pinup color scheme, dwells on an entrepreneurial woman’s problems of fulfillment in business and love—even if the business, in what seems like an American epidemic at the time, was pimping out acquaintances. (“I sell a service. A . . . stenographic service.”) Sarno would attribute his female focus (psychological and sexual) to his mother, a Jewish labor organizer who believed in “powerful women” (and married an Italian onetime bootlegger).

Sarno sometimes shot dialogue scenes that rivaled Welles in depth of field and compactness of composition, in what he called “fore-aft shots”: Whether in a bedroom or kitchen, the two actors are positioned to face the camera as they leer or spar or speak their insinuating minds. Though the “fore-afts” are often cited to demonstrate Sarno’s filmmaking bona fides, the technique wasn’t just a gesture to avoid reaction-shot monotony—there’s a genuine erotic charge to witnessing provocation and reaction at the same time, along with the voyeuristic dramatic irony to the fiction of neither facing the other. It’s one of several examples of Sarno’s forging ahead rather than just working around—even if it did take him until 1974 (Confessions of a Young American Housewife) to name a sex-mad mother character Mrs. Robinson.

Nicolas Rapold

The Joseph Sarno retrospective runs October 29–31 at Anthology Film Archives. For more details, click here.

Kaneto Shind˘, Kuroneko, 1968, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 99 minutes. Left: Shige (Kiwako Taichi). Right: Gintoki and Yone (Kichiemon Nakamura and Nobuko Otowa).


JAPANESE CINEMA possesses a rich history of films about insanity, barbarism, and ghosts: Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (1926), Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu (1953), among the most prominent. A surprising entry to add to the list is Kaneto Shind˘’s Kuroneko (Black Cat), an expressionistic fable of civil war–torn twelfth-century Japan and its decadent samurai class. By 1968, the year of the film’s release, Shind˘ had built his reputation on sober, realistic studies of social issues (Children of Hiroshima [1952]), primitive survival (The Naked Island [1962]), and human degradation (The Hole [1964]). But though Kuroneko is a stylistic anomaly within Shind˘’s career, it is of a piece with his other work. The film is as much a dead-serious depiction of the corruption of power and the nihilistic seduction of death as it is of the spirit world, despite or perhaps because of its stylized treatment.

Much of the film’s eeriness comes from its unconventional sound design. After the opening credits, the first establishing shot shows from above a group of marauding samurai edging out of a forest, creeping up toward an isolated rural hut. All the accompanying noises—the glug-glugging of gulped water as the hungry warriors quench their thirst at a nearby stream, the abrasive rhythmic chirp of unseen crickets—create an ominous chorus. After a set of grotesque close-ups of leering samurai confronting a helpless young woman, Shige (Kiwako Taichi), and her mother-in-law Yone (Nobuko Otowa), the plot is set in motion: a gang rape, a torched hut, and the possible transference of souls to a black cat. The cat accompanies the nighttime appearance in the middle of the forest of the succubi as they lure samurai to their doom.

Like so many ghost stories across so many cultures, Kuroneko acts as a cautionary tale about human interaction on the astral plane. Sent to end the carnage these spirits wreak on the living, brave warrior Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura) discovers they are the loved ones he had left behind upon going to war. He is unable to resist Shige but soon loses her after a weeklong erotic reunion—the bargain made with the “god of evil” prevents Shige from staying on earth once she has made contact with her beloved. The film can be broken up into two halves: the first a collection of Shige and Yone’s encounters with uncouth and amoral samurai—a revenge of the peasant class on the warrior class—the second a Shakespeare tragedy of impossible unification of the human and undead and the familial bonds that are torn asunder in the attempt to reverse the natural order. Throughout, Shind˘ employs a dizzying array of flamboyant techniques: moving sets, jump cuts, slo-mo trancelike dances and acrobatics, sharp chiaroscuro lighting, sheets of fog, theatrical spotlights. These flourishes may be influenced by Noh theater, but their execution is very much modern. One is reminded of German Expressionism, while the film’s explicit Freudianism and violent class-consciousness evoke the political and critical currents of its turbulent era.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Kuroneko plays October 22–28 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.

EugŔne Green, The Portuguese Nun, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 127 minutes. Julie de Hauranne, Vasco, and Carloto Cotta (Leonor Baldaque, Francisco Mozos, and D. SebastiŃo).


RARELY HAS A MOVIE opened with the serene, picturesque tranquility that flows through the first minutes of The Portuguese Nun’s (2009): a slow and sumptuous 180-degree scan of the Lisbon skyline, shot from the hills above, accompanied by only the sounds of wind and water. It’s a gorgeous but strangely detached beginning to director EugŔne Green’s cinematic daydream—an ideal encapsulation of his peculiar filmmaking method—designed to jolt the viewer out of the role of passive observer through characters who move awkwardly about the city, who speak without affect or inflection, and who occasionally gaze directly at the camera when offering philosophical asides about the human condition. Combining these unlikely elements, Green creates movies that are ridiculous yet somehow revelatory. Where some will see slow-moving tedium, others will be alerted to the potency of the film’s words and themes, and the nearly palpable mise-en-scŔne; much like Kubrick, Green is less interested in characters than in the ideas and ideals they embody.

His thesis concerns the ways in which travelers can be spiritually awakened, even transformed, by fleeting chance encounters and undiscovered countries. (The same theme could apply to Green himself, who abandoned his regular French locales to mold this love poem to the ethereal hub of Portugal.) The protagonist Julie (Leonor Baldaque) is a French actress who travels to Lisbon for the first time as the star of a film shoot. She plays a nun. But as she imbibes the wonders, her interest in the movie wanes. Julie’s nightly conversations with her director (Green) quickly veer from acting critiques to philosophical digressions. As she strolls through town, befriending an array of locals—from a lonely, suicidal aristocrat (Diogo Dˇria) and an orphaned boy, to a dashing young flirter—she delves into a place of introspection, her “conversations” more closely resembling meditations on life and love. When she stumbles upon a real nun (Ana Moreira) at a nearby church who spends every evening lost in prayer, Julie’s quest to “find her part” becomes something much more profound.

Green’s style can be off-putting to mainstream audiences, as he rigidly divides the story into chapters, often diverting from the central plot, if only to gaze at the city below or to bask in a mournful fado performance at a nearby cafÚ. The concept of momentum doesn’t quite apply here. Baldaque, Green, and Dˇria deliver their lines so statically that emotional sincerity is all but abandoned, as the director instead concentrates our attention on the meaning of his script and the staging of the conversation. But by ignoring these surface pleasures, Green emphasizes instead the deeper questions of Julie’s midnight musings, and the freedom afforded by a new city and fresh perspective. She is a beacon of empathy, always curious and easily moved, and while there is considerable silence in The Portuguese Nun, it’s a deafening silence, filled with both hesitation and hope.

S. James Snyder

The Portuguese Nun runs October 22–28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.

Student Film

10.19.10

Sasha Waters Freyer, Chekhov for Children, 2010, stills from a black-and-white and color film, 74 minutes.


IN THE LATE 1970s, fifth- and sixth-graders at P.S. 75 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side participated in a full-length production of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, which played for one night in 1979 “on Broadway”—albeit pretty far from the theater district—at Symphony Space at Ninety-fifth Street. With a cast and crew made up entirely of ten- to twelve-year-olds, the play was directed by writer Phillip Lopate, who was a member of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative at P.S. 75 and whose moving and quietly provocative essay “Chekhov for Children” inspired documentary filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer to make a movie based on her experience of the production—for which, at age ten, she served as assistant director. Besides operating as a memory piece and an update on the lives of Lopate and the actors, the documentary challenges current standardized, exam-oriented public school education. It also deserves to be in the collection of any serious performing arts library. Freyer uses brief clips from video recordings of British productions of Vanya, including Stuart Burge’s, featuring Laurence Olivier as Astrov and Michael Redgrave as Vanya, and by comparison the actors in P.S. 75’s production, despite a tendency to saw the air with their hands and to sometimes singsong their words, are no less truthful and urgent in their depictions of the characters than the great actors.

Lopate reflects on the impulse behind the production, which he undertook despite being cautioned that preteens might be disturbed by an immersion in the middle-aged regret that defines Chekhov’s characters and the tendency of some of them to throw themselves into hopeless love affairs as a distraction from their pain. As we watch the video recording of the young actors onstage, we see that they have found, against all expectations, parallels in their own experience for the characters’ dilemmas. As part of P.S. 75’s unorthodox arts education, students used Super 8 and early video rigs to make on-the-street documentaries and short fictions, and to record some of the rehearsals for Uncle Vanya. The Symphony Space performance was videotaped by a member of the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and although the technology employed was crude, the excerpts that Freyer has selected for Chekhov for Children are rich with life—the life of the play, of the cast, and of New York as it was during the arts adventure of the ’70s.

Amy Taubin

Chekhov for Children screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater on October 21. For more details, click here.

Michael Mann, Thief, 1981, still from a color film in 35 mm, 122 minutes. Frank (James Caan).


MICHAEL MANN’S crime-film oeuvre, guided by codes of masculinity and professionalism, begins with James Caan confidently heaving an electric drill against the front of a safe, which the whirring bit enters in mesmerizing close-up. In the shots leading up to the break-in, Thief (1981) lays down the notes for Mann’s many cool nocturnes to come—the warm, precise globes of glowing titanium-white street lamps and red taillights, streets and other surfaces turned gleamily reflective (here shot by Donald Thorin), evenly cruising motion and harbor-gazing stillness, both seductive and self-contained. And before the pastel-clad boom-time Miami of Crockett and Tubbs, there came Caan’s Frank, “Joe the boss of my body,” straight-shooting Chicago safecracker with a used-car lot as a front.

Unlike other selections in Film Forum’s “Heist” series, the failed escape in Thief comes not after a botched job or double cross but when Frank compromises his own independence. Accustomed to running the show and going home with the proceeds, he enters the employ of a crime boss, Leo (Robert Prosky). He hardheadedly believes he really can buck an entire system of mob-family ties and corrupt cops (who beat him in a room painted the same institutional green as those he laments to an adoption official from his “state-raised” days). But Frank is not a fatalistic solitary wanderer held over from the 1970s—when, in fact, the character was still in jail, like the beloved mentor he visits there, played by Willie Nelson. His desired out is to start a family (with Tuesday Weld), but exposing this feeling, then reverting to prison-taught nihilism, is what does him in.

Having written a bracing, tight script from a burglar’s memoir, Mann shoots in rough neighborhoods he remembers from his childhood, when his uncle used to take him on architectural tours. Fatherhood is in trouble in Thief: Frank seeking a dad in Nelson’s master thief, getting brutal godfather Leo, wanting his own son at any cost. But, stating his facts to whoever-the-fuck with contractionless enunciation, Caan puts across a no-nonsense craftsman hero for the early ’80s (one who Leo mockingly suggests should join a labor union). The much-maligned Tangerine Dream synthesizer score is like sheets of factory-cut metal, brutally beautiful and hard, suited to the industrial imagery of the drills. The break-in tricks come from safecrackers, aka “technical advisors”; actual cops (like then detective Dennis Farina) play crooks, and vice versa; the guns are handpicked; and, above all, the urgency of making a go of life before time runs out feels real.

Nicolas Rapold

Thief plays on October 14 in “The Heist” series at Film Forum in New York, which runs October 1–21. For more details, click here.

Carey On

10.12.10

Left: Timothy Carey, The World's Greatest Sinner, 1962, still from a black-and-white and color film in 35 mm, 82 minutes. Right: Stanley Kubrick, The Killing, 1956, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 85 minutes.


SOMETHING LIKE THE CRISPIN GLOVER of his era, the eccentric, explosive character actor Timothy Carey lent his genuinely off-kilter presence to films as varied as the swampsploitation C-movie Poor White Trash (1957), Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957), and John Cassavetes’s Minnie and Moskowitz (1971) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976). Along the way, he sprayed beer in Brando’s face in The Wild One (1953) (Brando, as director of One-Eyed Jacks [1961], later paid Carey back by stabbing him with a pen), was attacked by Elia Kazan on the set of East of Eden (1955), parodied his own menacing, maniacal image in Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) and the Monkees’s Head (1968), and turned down offers to act in The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part 2 (1974).

The Brooklyn-born Carey was physically imposing—a strapping 6’4”—making him ideal for roles as brutish heavies, and he resembled a love child of Nicolas Cage and John Turturro. His penchant for improvisation—bizarre dancing, unscripted outbursts, mumbled nonsense—often got him into trouble with directors and other actors, but made lifelong fans of Jack Nicholson (who wrote Head and likely borrowed elements of Carey’s persona for his performance in The Shining [1980]); Cassavetes (who claimed Carey had the “brilliance of Eisenstein”); and Quentin Tarantino, who considered Carey for the role of crime boss Joe Cabot in Reservoir Dogs (1992).

For mondo video devotees, Carey sealed his immortality with the self-written/produced/directed oddity The World’s Greatest Sinner (1962), which can be characterized as Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd (1957) as directed by Ed Wood Jr. The film, which has some of the same proto–John Waters tackiness of The Honeymoon Killers (1970), tells the tale of a bored insurance salesman who becomes an early Elvis-style rockabilly sensation. Noting the frenzy he inspires in his audiences, he begins calling himself “God,” founds a religious cult, and runs for President. Carey and his singularly untalented “band” played their own detuned rock ‘n’ roll in the concert scenes, but the film was scored by a young, pre–Mothers of Invention Frank Zappa. Narrated by the devil and featuring the real God at the climax, Sinner was admired by Elvis himself (who asked Carey for a print) and remains one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll films.

Carey was equally enraptured by flatulence and DalÝ, and both influences are evident in the unfinished pilot of his proposed TV series Tweet’s Ladies of Pasadena, which he began shooting in 1968 and which, along with many of the aforementioned films, will get a rare screening at Anthology Film Archives’s Carey retrospective. Concerning an idiot man-child named Tweet Twig (Carey) who works for the “Don’t Drop a Stitch” knitting club (old ladies, some played by men in drag) and seeks to rescue every stray animal he can find, this truly surreal labor of love was partially funded by Cassavetes and was sporadically worked on through 1982. Unsurprisingly, it got nowhere with network executives, but probably resides in the bootleg VHS collections of Waters, David Lynch, and Harmony Korine.

The saying, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” generally applied to things, perfectly sums up Tim Carey. Joaquin Phoenix merely wishes he were this weird.

Andrew Hultkrans

“Agog: The World of Timothy Carey” runs October 15–25 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.