Dear John


João César Monteiro, Come and Go, 2003, still from a color film in 35 mm, 179 minutes.

THOUGH FAR LESS of a household name, João César Monteiro was for Portuguese cinema what Luis Buñuel was for Spanish, a gleefully caustic satirist and libertine whose targets may have been the usual suspects of sexual, religious, and political propriety, but whose means of attack against them were highly unusual. Whereas, for example, his compatriots of the Cinema Novo swore by realism and the techniques of direct cinema, Monteiro’s vision was alternately baroque and crude, rigorous and anarchic, the work of a man fascinated by the purity of depravity.

Also unusual is that the most renowned period of Monteiro’s career was his last, a period in which he hadn’t so much settled into a style as begun to express the bottomless absurdity of his id. Starting with Recollections of the Yellow House (1989), the director himself starred in a series of related features as signature protagonist “John of God,” a drily pessimistic and puckish man on the wrong side of fifty with a penchant for beautiful young women and bizarre, Bataillean erotic fetishes (meticulously collecting pubic hair, soothing the posterior of an underage lover by having her sit on a horn-shaped basket of eggs, etc.). But while Recollections achieves a sustained poignancy for unsentimentally pitting “John” and his insatiable libido against the indignities and absurdities of aging (his frail, skeletal frame forming a striking contrast to his self-deprecating burlesques), in subsequent films like God’s Comedy (1995) and God’s Wedding (1998) such dark humor is literally run into the ground: By the time of the 2003 swan song Come and Go, in which “John” is recast as “John Vuvu,” Monteiro was confronting the specter of his imminent death—he passed away that same year—with gallows humor less lecherously surreal than self-parodically “naughty,” his overly deliberate line-readings and extreme long takes rendering “John” a dirty old man amid enervating caricatures of high-art tableaux.

Less celebrated earlier films prove more rewarding. Monteiro’s debut, Trails (1978), summons comparisons to Sergei Paradjanov as both an avant-garde picaresque of theatrically staged folktales and a quasi-ethnographic study in the storytelling tradition of rural mountain communities. Silvestre (1982) similarly discovers the modernist sensibility of timeworn legends, with a knight-disguised pubescent girl navigating a violent and unreal medieval world of seducers, dragons, and warriors (indeed, his depiction of female desire is more complex in these films than in the “John of God” era). Always interested in the artificial and Bressonian (Silvestre employs beautifully strange projected backgrounds and effective anti-naturalistic acting), Monteiro went as far out as a director can go when, in 2000, he revisited the heritage of myth in Snow White, a hard-core challenge composed almost entirely of black leader and a chorus of sober, disembodied voices enacting the fairy tale as reimagined by Swiss writer Robert Walser. Is it cinema, and is it worth the effort? Monteiro obviously didn’t want his films to make anyone comfortable, but the surprising thing about Snow White is that, given the director’s obsession with the corporeal, its abrasive asceticism evokes an intensely earned, intensely experienced pleasure.

Michael Rowin

“Perverse Poet: João César Monteiro” runs April 28–May 19 at BAM Rose Cinemas in Brooklyn. For more details, click here.

Scott Crocker, Ghost Bird, 2009, color video, 85 minutes. Production stills.

BACK IN 2005, a couple of birdwatchers kayaking through the swamps of rural Brinkley, Arkansas, managed to capture on their digital video camera the fluttering white wings of a distant woodpecker. After reviewing the images, the amateur ornithologists claimed it was the first confirmed sighting in sixty years of the once-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker. American birders—and there are more than fifty million of them—were stunned.

News outlets quickly seized on the story, as did scholars at Science, who published a detailed analysis of the footage and concluded that, yes, the ivory-billed was still alive. Tourism in Brinkley skyrocketed, followed by everything from ivory-billed museums to woodpecker-themed hotels. The US government, after also verifying the footage, shifted millions of dollars from other bird conservation programs to fund a revival of the ivory-billed habitat. Bird experts headed south to spend a couple weeks out in the swamp. Here, some prominent birders quickly became skeptics: They found little evidence of woodpecker presence, and became convinced that the area was not remote enough to explain the six decades of silence. It was these skeptical scientists who returned to the original footage and, after seeing far more white on the bird’s wings than black, agreed that this was not an ivory-billed but a pileated woodpecker. Publicly questioning the conclusions of both Science and the federal government, these dissenters became the pariahs of the mainstream birding community.

In his film on the subject, Ghost Bird, director Scott Crocker proves shrewd in his slow reveal of the hysteria that descends on Brinkley in the months after the ivory-billed discovery. Beginning in the magical silence of the swamp, he unveils a network of crass commercialization. For the Brinkley Chamber of Commerce, there’s a hefty price tag attached to this rare bird. Crocker also lines the film with statistics about other endangered birds, implying that conservation funds are being siphoned away from species in need. But if Ghost Bird begins as a portrait of a quirky wildlife debate, it ultimately concludes that truth itself is under attack in Brinkley. After the Science article is published, Cornell University and the feds announce their verdict on the amateur video, and all scholarly debate grinds to a screeching halt. And when a handful of renowned academics attempt to present contrary evidence, they are not only ignored but shunned.

Far more haunting than the images of profiteering are the larger implications that truth itself has become subjective. To illustrate his point, Crocker abruptly pauses the narrative to turn to well-worn archival footage of former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld as he plays a calculated rhetorical game of “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” with the press, deflecting blame for military complications during the Iraq war. Apart from an endangered bird and an equally endangered town, Ghost Bird considers the ways in which collegial debate, intellectual rigor, and a collective desire for objective truth are in danger of extinction.

S. James Snyder

Ghost Bird opens April 28 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.

Connect Four


Left: Sharon Lockhart, Podwórka, 2009. Installation view at Gladstone Gallery, New York. Right: Ryan Trecartin, P.opular (section ish), 2009, still from a color HD video, 40 minutes.

IT HARDLY SEEMS like a fair contest. Of the four artists whose recent works in film and video comprise the spring group exhibition—really four concurrent solo exhibitions—at Toronto’s Power Plant, three are represented by pieces of a generally measured and meditative nature.

The fourth, on the other hand, offers content that is brash, energetic, vulgar, and unabashedly tricked-out. The works, which resemble a mash-up of Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle, MTV’s Jersey Shore, and a meth-induced psychotic breakdown, are inevitably divisive among Power Plant patrons who may not be prepared for such an onslaught. Any guesses as to which artist dominates?

Ryan Trecartin takes up a lot of space, both in terms of how much square-footage the Power Plant devotes to “Any Ever”—the first Canadian solo exhibition by the prolific Texan-born, Philadelphia-based video artist—and in terms of the brain-scrambling effects of the works themselves. For that reason, visitors might consider saving his work for last. They wouldn’t want to run out of the patience required for Joachim Koester’s “Hypnagogia”—a trio of silent black-and-white 16-mm film loops that point to the Danish artist’s interest in physical manifestations of altered states of mind—or Peter Campus’s “Reflections and Inflections,” which consists of one vintage interactive piece and one serene new landscape-based work by the American video-art pioneer. Likewise, it’d be a shame not to give full attention to Sharon Lockhart’s Podwórka, 2009, another of her single-take studies of people and their places; this time, she directs our gaze toward groups of Polish children who enliven a series of grim urban locales in Lódz.

But after some polite (and rewarding) contemplation, a foray into Trecartin’s multiverse can feel like assault and battery. Occupying a series of stylized environments that are thematically appropriate to the videos themselves (think: a dorm like the kind used by hopefuls on America’s Next Top Model), spectators can spend minutes or hours viewing loops of Trecartin’s four-part “Re’Search Wait’S” series or three-part “Trill-ogy Comp.”

Each episode runs anywhere from twenty-seven minutes to nearly an hour. They are all dense with overlapping storylines and characters, many of them played by Trecartin amid a cast of friends, fellow artists, and teenagers who clearly relish the chance to utter lines like “Yes, I was raped by my dad’s career—totally my fault!” These sagas are too complex to synopsize but the commercialization and “brand integration” of every aspect of daily experience is one abiding theme in his dense, gleefully dystopic scenarios. What with the grotesque makeup and décor, the constant barrage of hyper-accelerated edits and zooms, and the shrill Chipmunks-style voices and house beats that comprise the sound design, the contents of “Any Ever” would just be exhausting if they weren’t so hilarious and ingenious.

If the powers that be at MTV had any sense, they’d put Trecartin in charge of programming right now. This has to be better than the next season of The Hills.

Jason Anderson

“Artists Explore Screen Space: Works by Ryan Trecartin, Peter Campus, Sharon Lockhart, and Joachim Koester” is on view until May 24 at the Power Plant in Toronto.

Live Work


Left: Bobby Sheehan, Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Right: C. Scott Willis, The Woodmans, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 82 minutes.

AT THIS YEAR’S TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL, three documentaries about artists display varying degrees of denial and acceptance about a fact of life and art: ego. It’s a perennial bugaboo for the documentarian: How to render (or at least admit) the conflict natural to strong voices and petty disputes alike? The standard solution is celebration, and Chuck Workman’s Visionaries fits the bill with its group hug of the avant-garde film scene, mostly the New American Cinema. Presided over by Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas, the film is a warm and welcoming introduction to Brakhage, Deren, Snow, Anger, Kubelka, and Cornell, among others. Film critics (including Artforum’s own Amy Taubin) and spotlit filmmakers (a restrained Anger, a delightful Kubelka, Su Friedrich for a slightly more recent voice, and rather a lot of Robert Downey Sr.) testify to principles and influences. Pitched to a casual viewer, the profusion of clips admirably puts the goods in front of us, and also brings Visionaries the closest to any sort of comment on the boundaries of the avant-garde by citing the likes of Night and Fog, Blue, even Julien Donkey-Boy.

Barring Ken Jacobs cracking about Mekas’s taste, this wandering history is comically inert for so spirited a scene (consider the protective backbiting over, say, the 2006 Tribeca doc Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis). In the end, if the fulsomely scored montages bring to mind Oscar reels (with discussions hewing to friendly tropes such as lyrical beauty and role-playing), perhaps this makes sense given Workman’s résumé––he’s known for editing several “In Memoriam” sequences for the Academy Awards.

A critic sounds churlish in these cases, but a takedown seems downright irrelevant to Bobby Sheehan’s Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy, a tribute to the New York cabaret singer (or the “E.T. of drag”) Joey Arias. Feted with often interchangeably hyperbolic superlatives by 1980s downtown veterans and resplendent in clips of performances and appearances in television and movies, he’s a heartwarming force of nature who “wears his body like a robe,” such that his versatile singing can seem underrated. The film’s title comes from a feverishly imagined joint project between Arias and acclaimed puppeteer Basil Twist, whose artistry abruptly takes center stage for a while after the first twenty-five minutes. Both share lively creativity and an embrace of channeling and shape shifting across artistic boundaries, but the fertile tensions of collaboration are lost in the film’s wash of mutual appreciation.

What remains under the surface in Visionaries and Arias is what becomes an increasingly dolorous undertone to C. Scott Willis’s The Woodmans. A summary of the movie might already take sides: Is it about the tragic spiral of photographer Francesca Woodman viewed through the eyes of her parents and friends? Or is it about married working artists Betty and George coming to terms with their talented daughter’s death? Willis doles out Francesca’s boxed room, nude tableaux, and melancholic journal entries, while giving a sense of her self-consuming precocious genius and unashamedly illustrating her life through art (some might say reductively, and less vigorously than Elisabeth Subrin’s more experimental 2000 film The Fancy).

Several moments of the interviews—Betty’s impatience with glimmers of her spritely youth, and mellifluous George’s pleasing but perhaps devastating WASP poise—shade in a darker narrative limned with resentment and self-absorption. Their refrain of “work ethic” and focus on art paint an emotional landscape of potentially conditional love. (George cryptically muses on Francesca’s death as he himself ages: “I may not be getting a great deal of attention, but I’m alive . . .”) While Willis (a former Nightline producer) flirts with voyeurism in following Francesca to the brink of her final journal entry (albeit illuminating the decision-making involved), he gets at the struggle of wills that can emerge from the artistic pursuit, via the familiar doc template of dysfunctional family. Although withholding judgment, it’s a refreshing acknowledgment of conflicted feelings and ego-jostling.

Nicolas Rapold

Left: Jean Renoir, French Cancan, 1954, still from a color film in 35 mm, 102 minutes. Right: Jean Renoir, The Golden Coach, 1952, still from a color film in 35 mm, 103 minutes.

“WHERE GOLD COMMANDS, laughter vanishes,” says the viceroy to the lusty actress, shortly before he lavishes her with his territory’s most coveted and expensive possession. Full of such delicious ironies, Jean Renoir’s The Golden Coach (1952) attests that art and money make for absurd and raucous bedfellows.

The Golden Coach, the first film in what has come to be regarded as a trilogy that includes French Cancan (1954) and Elena and her Men (1956), is Renoir’s tribute to the theater, a play within a play within a film (within a film) that blurs the boundaries between life and stage. Set in eighteenth-century Peru, it stars Anna Magnani as Camilla, a hot-blooded commedia dell’arte player whose spirited performances earn her a motley trio of suitors—ridiculous caricatures of masculinity devised to question the needs of the artist and by extension the conditions of art itself. Renoir reprises this fruitful conceit in French Cancan, in which the transformation of the naive yet spellbinding Nini (Françoise Arnoul) from poor laundress to dance-hall idol delivers her a choice of archetypal lovers promising riches, fame, or fidelity. After plenty of antics and complications, both women choose the incorporeal fourth option—their craft.

The Golden Coach’s final, decidedly wistful claim, after Camilla donates the coach to the church, is that the artist has only one path to happiness and to her true self. Likewise, the climactic dance sequence in French Cancan—one of the most joyous and dazzling ever filmed—is an end that justifies all means. Girls tumble like gems in a kaleidoscope, swirling and twirling into a frenzy where everyone, including conflicted Nini, is all smiles. Here, Renoir’s newfound command of color (French Cancan was only his third color film) reaches its apotheosis, as the director manipulates the possibilities of Technicolor technology to bring movement to life—indeed to elevate it beyond life to spectacle.

Cameron Shaw

A retrospective of Jean Renoir’s films continues at BAM Rose Cinemas in New York until May 11. French Cancan plays on April 25. The Golden Coach plays on May 1. For more details, click here.

Vilgot Sjöman, I Am Curious (Yellow), 1967, black and white film in 35 mm, 121 minutes. Left: Advertisement for the film. Right: Production still.

“FREEDOM’S NOT EASY, SWEET LENA,” goes a lyric in a song from Sweden’s most infamous export, the 1967 film I Am Curious (Yellow). It’s an observation that director Vilgot Sjöman would also discover to be true. Sjöman’s fact-and-fiction-mixing fifth feature, about the political and sexual explorations of twenty-two-year-old Lena (Lena Nyman), was banned by the US Customs Service, objecting to an episode in which Lena kisses her lover’s flaccid penis, in January 1968 for being obscene; it was finally released in this country in March 1969 after a federal appeals court ruled that the film was protected by the First Amendment.

A committed provocateur—earlier films include My Sister, My Love (1966), about an incestuous romance between a twin brother and sister—Sjöman is interested more in the consequences and fault lines of 1960s social upheavals than in dirty-movie prurience. I Am Curious (Yellow) (a companion piece, I Am Curious [Blue], was released the following year; the colors refer to the Swedish flag) shows the influences of Godard’s cine-tracts and Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s cinema-verité landmark Chronicle of a Summer (1961), in which random Parisians are approached on the street and asked, “Are you happy?” In Yellow, Lena, who runs the Lena Institute from her bedroom in the grim Stockholm apartment she shares with her father, makes a series of on-the-street inquiries: “Does Sweden have a class system?” “Do women have equal opportunities?” Defensive Swedes returning from vacation in Majorca, Spain, are scolded by the tiny firebrand for contributing to the economy of Franco’s Fascist regime.

Within the nonfiction interrogation of matters of state, a psychodrama about sexuality unfolds, and with it, an oblique indictment of filmmaking. Sjöman, playing a fictionalized version of himself, is a middle-aged director who casts the buxom Lena as the lead in the film because they’re sleeping together, though he clearly thinks she’s his intellectual inferior: “It’s a damned shame she doesn’t understand politics,” he says offscreen. Sjöman and his “crew,” following Lena’s adventures, appear intermittently; later, in retaliation for Lena’s affair with Börje (Börje Ahlstedt), the director tosses her over for his latest casting-couch conquest.

Börje’s own raging insecurity (and hypocrisy) flares up in response to Lena’s offhand announcement that she’s slept with twenty-three men. More clinical than titillating, sex between the two is marked by their casual nakedness, the abundant views of genitals that so outraged US Customs officials culminating in the most unerotic treatment of private parts imaginable. Freedom—political, social, sexual, artistic—isn’t easy, but sometimes it’s profitable: According to Sjöman’s obituary in the New York Times (he died in 2006), I Am Curious (Yellow) remained the most financially successful foreign film in the United States for twenty-three years.

Melissa Anderson

I Am Curious (Yellow) screens April 16 and 30 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of the series “Northern Exposures: Social Change and Sexuality in Swedish Cinema, 1913–2010.” For more details, click here.