IT CAN SOMETIMES FEEL like Toronto is Michael Snow’s city, and the rest of us are merely living in it. No other contemporary Canadian artist has made such a thumbprint on the civic landscape, whether through the many iterations of his “Walking Women,” the fiberglass Canada geese suspended within the Eaton Centre, or the gargoyle-like fans spilling off the walls of the Rogers Centre. He reached his peak of ubiquity with “The Michael Snow Project,” a multigallery exhibition in 1994. By that time, he’d even been forgiven for spending his most prolific years (1963–72) living with his late wife Joyce Wieland in New York. Like so many other peripatetic Canucks before him, he’s been thoroughly reclaimed and repatriated.
And like so many artists who find themselves enshrined in their own time, the ever-industrious eighty-one-year-old has remained better known to the hometown crowd for popular public pieces than for the unrulier work that he continues to make. The fact that most of the seven projected works in “Recent Snow”—his first exhibition at the Power Plant since “The Michael Snow Project”—have never before been publicly screened in Toronto may come as a surprise. Then again, Snow’s film and video works—always a cornerstone of a practice that also includes painting, sculpture, and music—long ago earned a reputation for being more admirable than accessible. Surely only the hardiest moviegoers would endure the 45-minute-long zoom in his landmark Wavelength (1966) or the 266-minute runtime of Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1970–74).
Yet the new and old Snow works now filling spaces in the city readily dispel that idea. One of the projections at the Power Plant, The Corner of Braque and Picasso Streets (2009), consists of a real-time shot of an intersection outside the gallery projected onto, and fractured by, a staggered series of rectangles, creating a sort of cubist movie screen. In Piano Sculpture (2009), Snow creates a piano quartet with himself playing all four parts in shots projected onto each of the walls. And in the equally jazzy though speechless That/Cela/Dat (1999), he fills three screens with texts in English, French, and Flemish that may be roughly identical in meaning but whose contents nevertheless refuse to stay in sync. Like the other works at the Power Plant, it’s remarkable for its ingenuity and playfulness, and Snow is once again delighted to confound received notions about word and image, meaning and reception.
Michael Snow, La Région centrale, 1971. Clip from a color film in 16 mm, 180 minutes.
In the coming weeks, other venues are presenting rare screenings of earlier works. TIFF Cinematheque offers the most monumental of the lot when La Région centrale (1971) plays January 28. Filmed over five days on a mountain peak in northern Quebec with a specially designed 16-mm camera that turns in almost every direction, the resulting three-hour work is less a serene study in landscape than an audacious exercise in disorientation. As he would do throughout his career, Snow reinvests the old business of watching moving images on a screen with an even older sense of awe and wonder.
Michael Snow speaks at the Brigantine Room at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto on January 27 at 7 PM. La Région centrale screens at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall on January 28 at 7 PM. “Recent Snow: Projected Works by Michael Snow” continues through March 7 at the Power Plant in Toronto.
ANDRÉ TÉCHINÉ’S EIGHTEENTH FEATURE, a disclaimer notes at the end, is “a work of fiction inspired by true events”: the RER D (a Paris commuter line) affair of July 2004, in which a non-Jewish young woman falsely claimed to be the victim of an anti-Semitic attack by six men, whom she identified as Arabs and blacks. As in Téchiné’s previous film, The Witnesses (2007), about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the fiction surrounding the facts in The Girl on the Train too often branches off into a series of distracting plot threads. Writing with frequent Chabrol collaborator Odile Barski and Jean-Marie Besset, Téchiné overstuffs his putative observations on contemporary French society and politics with dizzying melodrama: Couples form, split, and reunite; old loves are revisited; rites of passage are undertaken.
The girl of the title, the unemployed, twenty-ish Jeanne (Émilie Dequenne, best known for her role as the eponymous teenage protagonist in the Dardenne brothers’ 1999 film, Rosetta), is constantly in motion: if not on the RER train that goes right by the house in the Paris suburbs that she shares with her widowed mother, Louise (Téchiné regular Catherine Deneuve, flourishing in another great maternal role), then on Rollerblades. Gliding through a park, Jeanne meets thuggish wrestler Franck (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who becomes her boyfriend and sets up house with her, tending to a warehouse of stolen goods and smack. Louise urges Jeanne to apply for a secretarial position with Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc), a lawyer and Jewish activist, once in love with Louise, who specializes in hate crimes—and acts as intermediary between his son, Alex (Mathieu Demy), squabbling with his Orthodox ex-wife, Judith (Ronit Elkabetz), about whether or not their son, Nathan (Jérémy Quaegebeur), should have a bar mitzvah.
“I never met such a submissive girl,” Franck says of Jeanne, whose motives for her unconscionable act Téchiné maddeningly insists remain unknowable; indeed, the character is a nearly mute blank amid the voluble hysterics around her. By the time Jeanne finally confesses to Bleistein, the larger questions of anti-Semitism, racism, and media frenzies have been buried underneath a pileup of mini–soap operas. Though shot by cinematographer Julien Hirsch with exceptional visual immediacy and fluidity, The Girl on the Train derails, unable to carry its heavy load.
The Girl on the Train opens Friday, February 19 in Los Angeles.
MOST MOVIES ABOUT HISTORY—whether personal or social—depict the past as an orderly string of highs and lows, every piece of the puzzle neatly adding up to a whole. But not A Room and a Half, Andrey Khrzhanovsky’s surrealistic half-fictional “autobiography,” which follows in the footsteps of Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (2007) and Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City (2008) to suggest that the defining episodes of our experience are less etched in stone than drawn in sand. Realism, one could easily imagine Khrzhanovskiy saying, has no place in tales of memory.
Juggling fiction and nonfiction, Khrzhanovsky, an acclaimed animator, employs archival footage, stills, animation, and scripted dramatic material to tell the life story—and evoke the deep heartache—of Joseph Brodsky, the Russian-Jewish-American poet who was expelled from the USSR in 1972; he subsequently received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987 and became America’s poet laureate in 1991. Brodsky’s banishment fueled much of his written work, and no doubt fans of the poet will be surprised to find A Room opening with an adult Brodsky (played by Grigoriy Dityatkovskiy) boarding a boat on an imagined sail home to mother Russia. Along the way, the writer recalls his younger days on the streets of Saint Petersburg, a freeform mélange of memories that highlights his formative experiences while also underscoring the ways that fact, fantasy, and nostalgia intertwine.
A young boy fantasizes about a cartoon cat that occasionally takes control of the story in a series of animated vignettes. An older boy, unaware of the anti-Semitism that surrounds him, mourns the loss of the family piano, even as Khrzhanovsky depicts that piano taking flight with all the other instruments that have been discarded by Jews in the city. An adult Brodsky returns to his childhood home and sits down to dinner with his parents—a haunting, fictional event that never actually took place.
Alternating between declarative historical footage that recreates the Russian Jewish struggle of the 1950s and ’60s and ambiguous flights of fancy, Khrzhanovsky subtly obscures the edges between reality and fantasy. What remains is a thoroughly subjective history, molded out of memories that are imprecise, prone to delusions of grandeur. This isn’t Saint Petersburg, but Brodsky’s Saint Petersburg, and this may not be the life Brodsky led, but perhaps it’s the life he felt he led.
A Room and a Half opens January 20 at Film Forum. For more details, click here.
THE NEW YORK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL is literally all over the map, although films from Europe and the Middle East dominate the selection. There are movies that excavate history and two historic excavations: the 1935 Yiddish Cinema classic Bar Mitzvah, directed by Henry Lynn, and the 1951 East German Holocaust drama The Ax of Wandsbek, based on the novel by Arnold Zweig. Two films from the Middle East, Scandar Copti and Yaron Shani’s Ajami and Haim Tabakman’s Eyes Wide Open, were critical favorites at Cannes. Both are scheduled for theatrical runs in New York, and both are early contenders for my 2010 best films of the year list. (Sorry, list making became obsessive last month and I can’t shake the habit. And it’s such great shorthand for saying you should not miss these films.)
Codirected and coauthored by a Palestinian (Copti) and an Israeli (Shani), Ajami is largely set in the titular beachfront Yaffa neighborhood, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians live together in an atmosphere of gnawing anxiety and explosive anger. Encompassing a novelistic array of characters and relationships, the film is divided into overlapping chapters. After the somewhat baffling in medias res opening, each segment doubles back to fill in the gaps in what we’ve already seen. The narrative structure is designed to make the audience hyperattentive to detail; it also slows down the rush toward the climactic violent confrontation, thus adding a sense of tragic inevitability to the outcome. The snarelike plot reflects the economic and political situation—the more the characters struggle, the more tightly they’re bound. The adult characters are burned out, corrupted, or operating on the brink of madness. Empty machismo passes for power. At the heart of the film are three fragile Arab teenagers, desperate to save their families even at the cost of their own lives. Cast largely with nonprofessionals and shot with handheld camera sensitive to both action and inner life, the film has a sense of reality and of being made from the inside that very few movies dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict have achieved.
Located entirely in a closed, ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem, Eyes Wide Open is similarly revelatory. A story of forbidden love filled with yearning and passionate, albeit discreetly shot, gay sex, it involves a married father of four small children who runs a butcher shop inherited from his father. One day a wandering Jew—that is to say, a beautiful young man with a gossip-worthy past and no family ties of his own—takes refuge from the rain in the butcher’s tiny, glass-front store. The butcher, who is not unaware of his own homosexual desires, takes him on as an assistant, rationalizing this dangerous decision as a way of proving himself. “The closer to the sin, the closer to God,” he explains. One never doubts his sincerity, nor that desire will win, regardless how tragic the consequences. Soon the “purity police” come banging on his door. In his feature-directing debut, Tabakman is fearless in his pacing (the film is slow but never too slow), and his attention to tactile detail (hands slinging a side of beef, hands fingering a prayer shawl, fingers brushing against each other as if by accident) rivals that of Claire Denis.
Haim Tabakman, Eyes Wide Open, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 91 minutes.
Among other compelling movies in the series, two involve the real-life stories of women of exceptional courage and conviction. Based on the memoirs of Russian poet Evgenia Ginzburg, who was stripped of her Communist Party membership and spent ten years in a Siberian gulag on trumped-up terrorism charges, Marleen Gorris’s Within the Whirlwind is an intelligent film—one that makes you think twice about how anyone who had a choice in the matter could have supported the CP once the Stalinist purges began. It also confirms the impossibility of depicting one of the twentieth century’s greatest horrors in a realistic yet audience-friendly manner. Gorris’s mise-en-scène is absurdly tasteful. Still, the film is worth seeing for the radiant resolve in Emily Watson’s performance.
A more eccentric and privileged independent woman, Pannonica Rothschild, a child of the British wing of the Rothschild family, flew planes for the Free French before coming to New York, where she fell in love with bebop. She recognized the genius of Charlie Parker and was an even more devoted and crucial supporter of Thelonious Monk, who lived out the final reclusive period of his life in the New Jersey house where she also cared for hundreds of stray cats. (Monk was not fond of the cats.) In The Jazz Baroness (2009), documentarian Hannah Rothschild fashions a portrait of her great-aunt “Nica,” whom she met only in the last years of her life. Rothschild had an inside track to her own well-insulated family (the Rothschilds believed that one should be mentioned in the papers only at one’s birth and death), and the details of their extraordinary wealth and how it did not save the Hungarian branch of the family from the Holocaust are jaw-dropping when recounted by Nica’s older sister Miriam, already in her nineties when she allowed her niece Hannah to videotape her. There are terrific bits of performance footage and lively interviews with members of Monk’s family and various jazz luminaries. A movie fashioned from scraps goes a long way toward fleshing out the complex and unquestionably platonic relationship between Monk and Nica. She was a woman of taste and spirit, and I adore her as much for her devotion to her felines as for that to one of the geniuses of American modernism.
The New York Jewish Film Festival runs January 13–28 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York. For more details click here. Ajami plays February 3–13 at Film Forum in New York, and Eyes Wide Open begins its run at Cinema Village on February 5.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter, 7915 Km, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.
IN PRIPYAT (1999), Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s documentary about postmeltdown Chernobyl, a policeman refers to his beat as a “dead zone.” A handful of elderly residents remain, but most, like a cheerful plant manager and the technician who sneaks the filmmakers into the ruins of her old apartment, now commute to Chernobyl from the outside. In this still-functioning wasteland, radiation clings invisibly to everything, from mushrooms to clothing to abandoned helicopters—the last a poignant image of the state’s helplessness in the face of a disaster it helped create.
It’s a sad survey, but withered landscapes like this one are where Geyrhalter (who filmed Pripyat in black and white) thrives. The Austrian director burrows into parts of the world normally walled off from more privileged eyes, marginal territories we don’t (want to) know much about.
For his most recent film, 7915 Km (2008), Geyrhalter didn’t just go to the Sahara and western Africa whenever; he went during the Dakar Rally, an overland race that’s hugely popular among gearheads and joyriding Europeans. To many Africans, it resembles an alien visitation. One girl explains she named her goat Rally because it was born the day the foreign drivers came through her village. But the race, inevitably, also stirs resentment and tears up roads; the dust, once kicked up, seems to linger, the residue of a drive-by moment that encapsulates, for Geyrhalter and many of his subjects, the glamour, elusiveness, and cruel disregard of the near but distant West.
Pointedly, the only images of the rally proper in 7915 Km come from revved-up publicity materials and European TV programs. Geyrhalter and his crew purposefully fall behind the pack, training their sights on other subjects. In Senegal, a local carpenter speaks of the demand for “boats of death” hired by would-be immigrants. In Mali, young African men who haven’t already left for Europe wait around at Western Union all day for allowances from relatives abroad; night after night, they watch the same European porn film at what has to be one of the world’s saddest movie theaters.
The film’s final segment, shot in an airplane that Italian immigration authorities use to patrol their borders, ends with a grainy image of African refugees being intercepted at sea. It’s an effective juxtaposition: the Africans’ slow, easily captured boats and the European’s speedy jeeps, trucks, planes, and rally cars.
Nikolaus Geyrhalter, Our Daily Bread, 2005, still from a color digital video, 92 minutes.
Geyrhalter is no less astute when approaching the land of plenty these refugees are so desperate to access. In his best-known film, Our Daily Bread (2005), the director offers an unflinching, unsettling view of Europe’s food-production industry. Whereas American films like Fast Food Nation (2006) and Food, Inc. (2008) take to the pulpit, Geyrhalter’s nearly wordless documentary depicts slaughterhouse horrors with the cold precision (an Austrian specialty?) of a Haneke thriller.
The emotional response Geyrhalter cultivates is more profound and subtle than outrage. If anything, his technique highlights the system’s genius and efficiency. The compositions emphasize machinery, as Geyrhalter’s Steadicam charts seemingly endless corridors of crops and chicken boxes. He and his longtime editor, Wolfgang Widerhofer, hold shots just long enough to achieve a mesmerizing sense of day-in, day-out repetition.
The rhythms of this ultra-rationalized industry contrast starkly with the natural processes it supplants. Bulls are interrupted midmount to capture their semen, squeaking chicks are shot out of tubes like tennis balls, olive trees are throttled by machines until they spill their fruit, and pigs and fish are corralled along conveyor belts to their death, then stripped and disassembled by automaton-like workers.
All this for human sustenance. But the spotless food-production facilities so clinically depicted in Our Daily Bread have mastered the vagaries of the life cycle in a way that suggests that the cycle itself will someday be obviated. These, too, are dead zones.
FIFTEEN-YEAR-OLD MIA is the clenched, invisible daughter of a self-obsessed mother grasping at her mislaid youth. Warehoused in an Essex council estate, Mia (Katie Jarvis) escapes the banal violence of her daily life through hip-hop dance, which she performs secretly in an abandoned flat. Connor (Michael Fassbender), her mother’s new boyfriend—easy in his skin and disarmingly kind—is the first person who really sees her. The long, slow fuse of their attraction burns to inexorable catastrophe, as such attractions will.
Even if Fish Tank (2009), writer-director Andrea Arnold’s second feature, traverses somewhat hackneyed narrative territory, it is a bracingly unsentimental and utterly controlled film. Her remarkably restrained hand leads, happily, to remarkable ferocity. Anchored by humane, intelligent performances from Jarvis and Fassbender, Fish Tank maps the often ambiguous hunger that draws damaged people together. Jarvis is particularly mesmerizing; as Mia, her brittle, carefully cultivated carapace of nonchalance is threatened at every turn by her vulnerability and her devastating anger.
Robbie Ryan’s meticulous camera work—intimate but also clinical—underscores the nebulousness of the boundary between the wild and the contained: between rage and need, desire and love. The Essex borderlands, where industrial plants and housing estates meet the mudflats of the Thames estuary, seem to contain the entire mystery of postmodern life, in which an overpass of the A-16 shelters a talismanic white horse and a gypsy camp of Irish Travellers.
Arnold has been hailed as the heir apparent to Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. And Fish Tank, with its echoing canyons of tower blocks and concrete wastelands, is firmly embedded in the tradition of social realism. But the film is ultimately—and refreshingly—less interested in revealing or commenting on ills of the British class system than it is in modeling the contours of one young woman’s awakening.
Fish Tank opens Friday, January 15, at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and IFC Center in New York.