Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher, October Country, 2009, still from a color film, 80 minutes.


FREED FROM THE CONSTRAINTS of chronology—and emboldened by an enviable degree of access—October Country positions a real family squarely under the microscope and then ratchets up the magnification. Codirector Donal Mosher is the family member who long ago fled his rural suburban hometown in upstate New York, returning often to the ghosts of his past through his photography projects and nonfiction writing. Joining forces with filmmaker Michael Palmieri—best known for visuals in music videos for groups like the New Pornographers and the Strokes—Mosher heads home to reexamine his origins, on video. Recording the Mosher family over the span of a year, beginning and ending on Halloween night, October Country uses ghosts, curses, and hauntings as metaphors for a family trapped in a state of limbo, weighed down by the mistakes of the past.

Focusing less on the quotidian than on the emotional epiphanies of a year spent treading water, the directors capture the persistent anxiety of Mosher’s father, a cynical war veteran coping with post-traumatic stress disorder. In Mosher’s mother, we see a woman led astray by her misguided optimism, caught in a naive cycle of hope and disappointment. There is the estranged Wiccan aunt who spends her nights wandering cemeteries, looking for fulfillment in touching the supernatural, and a sister who jumps between abusive relationships, depressingly aware she is repeating her mistakes and putting her young children in danger.

Mosher has the access and the insight, but it is Palmieri’s visual flair that elevates October Country to an impressionistic, hypnotic spectacle. When Mosher’s sister says, “I’m still a kid, too; you can’t play Mommy if you’re not grown up yet,” it floats on the evening breeze; the filmmakers construct elaborate montages to suggest that the issues plaguing this family are poisoning the wider community. Talking-head interviews are sharply, didactically, juxtaposed with images of the family out and about: Mosher’s sister, who gripes about bad men, is subsequently shown on the job at a biker bar where she must flirt with the clientele. Mosher’s mom, who fears for her abused daughter, giggles at the sight of chipper teenage boys trick-or-treating as battered women. The directors see in this family a unit that’s been broken by its economic and social conditions, and Palmieri has helped his colleague make universal the specific miseries of one broken home.

October Country plays February 12–18 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.

S. James Snyder

Oral History

02.03.10

Left: Andy Warhol, Blow Job, 1964, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 35 minutes. Right: Andy Warhol, Kiss, 1963, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 58 minutes.


“[WARHOL] PUT DESIRE forward more explicitly at the beginning of his film and fine-art career than he would virtually ever again have the guts to do,” Wayne Koestenbaum writes in the slim but invaluable biography Andy Warhol, with a particular interest in two early odes to oral pleasures: the classic Kiss (1963), which grants viewers the opportunity to observe the smooching prowess of several different couples, and Blow Job (1964), featuring a thirty-five-minute close-up of a man’s face as he is fellated below the frame.

Kiss, shot as a series of short films from September through December 1963, was, as Steven Watson notes in Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, the first of Warhol’s movies to be publicly shown; each three-minute segment played at the beginning of screenings organized by Jonas Mekas at the Gramercy Arts Theater. Girls kiss boys and boys kiss boys (sapphic bussing is absent), some osculators displaying aggressive tongues, while others simply lock lips. Among the more ardent kissers are Naomi Levine and Jane Holzer, two of Warhol’s earliest Superstars, though the technique of each participant, no matter how bashful, never fails to captivate as erotic ethnography.

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Andy Warhol, Blow Job, 1964. Excerpt.

We cannot evaluate the techniques deployed in Blow Job, only their effect on the handsome recipient, named by several sources as DeVeren Bookwalter, a Shakespearean—and occasional porn—actor. (In his memoir of the sixties, POPism, Warhol remembers, “We wound up using a good-looking kid who happened to be hanging around the Factory that day, and years later I spotted him in a Clint Eastwood movie.”) Consisting of nine three-minute rolls with white leader in between, Blow Job, like Kiss, runs at silent-film speed, or sixteen frames per second. Time is extended: Our hero fidgets, his pleasure seemingly deferred (Watson identifies the fellator as Willard Maas, the experimental filmmaker and poet; in POPism, Warhol says five different boys performed the act). And then, climax: Bookwalter’s face contorts into grimaces of agony and ecstasy, and it is at this moment that the movie becomes, in Koestenbaum’s words, “a film of almost unbearable intimacy.” Moments later, he appears to zip up and rebuckle before lighting a cigarette. He is the precursor of many butch Warhol studs to follow: Paul America, Joe Spencer, Joe Dallesandro. But none would ever display such naked vulnerability.

Melissa Anderson

Kiss and Blow Job, accompanied by live sound tracks from Carl Craig and nsi., screen at the Walter Reade Theater in New York on February 5. For more details, click here. Blow Job is also on view in “Denim,” a show curated by David Rimanelli at 80 WSE Galleries in New York. For more details on the exhibition, click here.

Jim Finn, The Juche Idea, 2008, still from a color film, 62 minutes.


THE FILMMAKER JIM FINN is best known for the subtle wit of his quasi-documentaries, which appropriate traditional documentary filmmaking techniques to explore socialist/communist ideologies and to parody totalitarian regimes. On Monday, February 1, Finn’s most recent feature, The Juche Idea (2008), will screen as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s Modern Mondays series spotlighting contemporary film artists. The Juche Idea, written by Kim Jong-il, is North Korea’s official doctrine on philosophy, theology, and art; it expounds on self-reliance, a trait to which any North Korean filmmaker must aspire if they want to be considered a good artist and an effective arm of the state. (For Kim, these two qualities are indissociable.) The Juche Idea turns its namesake dogma on its absolutist head, mixing scenes that revolve loosely around a South Korean woman’s artist residency outside Pyongyang and that collectively explore Finn’s signature territory of wooden documentary fantasy.

Finn will also present two recent shorts, Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell (2009) and la loteria (2004–05). The former uses images of children skating on a frozen (and thawing) river to allegorize the collapse of constitutional liberties traceable to the eponymous ex-VP. For la loteria, Finn, a militant romantic, created a medley of seventeen mini–music videos mixing home movies (often featuring the filmmaker) with television footage of subversive political figures (Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Donald Rumsfeld, etc.) and imperialist spectacles (Major League Baseball, episodes of The OC), which he then matches with songs that alternate between sweet, near-mythical desire and unruly, pan-American folksiness.

As Finn says of Dick Cheney in a Cold, Dark Cell, “Impunity is not just the stuff of autocratic dictatorships in the third world.” Likewise, the filmmaker’s “utopian comedies,” as they have been called, reveal as much about the savage follies of democratic societies as they do the despotic governments they claim as subjects. Even if it is more obvious to a public enlightened by the Bush years that democracies and dictatorships share at least one foundational attribute—a vulnerability to systemic abuse of power—Finn’s work (made during that enervating era) plumbs ideology for absurdity, elevating concerned cynicism to a form of philosophical activism.

“Utopian Comedies: The Films of Jim Finn” runs May 27–June 2, 2010 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Kevin McGarry

Cram Session

01.28.10

Adrian Piper, Funk Lessons, 1983, still from a color video, 15 minutes 17 seconds.


SHORTLY AFTER GRADUATING from Harvard with a Ph.D. in philosophy, Adrian Piper began to teach. She lectured, scribbled on chalkboards, and gave precise instructions: Here’s how you do the shoulder shrug and head nod; this is how you isolate your hips while thrusting your pelvis. Piper called these performance-lectures Funk Lessons, 1982–84, and she used them to address xenophobia, an issue increasingly central to her art. Under the guise of a “get down and party together” affair, she began to teach white, primarily art-world audiences about the histories of African-American funk and soul music. Yet the lessons also underscore that “at least some perceived racial distinctions are learned, and learnable, behavior,” as critic Holland Cotter notes.

A nearly fifteen-minute video directed by Sam Samore in 1983 shows Piper giving her lessons to a large and noticeably diverse audience at the University of California, Berkeley. The work is intercut with soft-focus shots from Soul Train, sound bites of the cheerful artist interviewed postlecture, and clips of singers like James Brown and Aretha Franklin that support Piper’s improvisational points (“What Chuck Berry was for Elvis Presley . . . Bootsy [Collins] was for the Talking Heads”). Meanwhile, didactic phrases like FUNK IS MODULAR and FUNK IS IMPROVISATIONAL are overlaid in static, character-generator-driven text.

Never light with her touch, it’s worth keeping in mind that ten years earlier Piper began more outlandish performances as her male alter ego the Mythic Being; not long before that she was covering her body in vinegar, eggs, milk, and cod liver and stinking up buses, among other public spaces, with her Catalysis works. By her mid-twenties Piper had conceived of her art as a much larger (and lifelong) project of consciousness raising, which she assiduously tracked in her self-critical essays. In Notes on Funk (1985), for instance, she writes that Funk Lessons offered a path to “self-transcendence and creative expression within a highly structured and controlled cultural idiom, in a way that attempt[s] to overcome cultural and racial barriers.” In the video, she describes it another way. When asked about stereotypes, particularly the one about why “whites can’t dance,” she replies (with a dash of skepticism): “It’s just a matter of practice.”

Lauren O’Neill-Butler

Funk Lessons and a selection from Piper’s Shiva Dances with the Art Institute of Chicago (2004) play at the Maysles Cinema on January 29 at 8 PM; a dance party will follow. Artist Monica Carrier organized the screening as part of her fellowship at AIR Gallery.

Pop Life

01.27.10

Benny and Josh Safdie, Daddy Longlegs, 2009, still from a color film in Super 16, 100 minutes. Lenny, Sage, and Frey (Ronald Bronstein, Sage Ranaldo, and Frey Ranaldo).


FEATURING SOME OF THE MOST UNHINGED parenting decisions ever made, brothers Josh and Benny Safdie’s semiautobiographical Daddy Longlegs is a moving, often hilarious, oddly buoyant tribute to a father who knows—and does—worst. Ronald Bronstein (director of 2007’s Frownland, a mordant look at social dysfunction) stars as Lenny, a wiry, wired, divorced NYC dad who has custody of his two sons, nine-year-old Sage and seven-year-old Frey (exceptionally spirited real-life siblings Sage and Frey Ranaldo), for two weeks. Lenny is often the perfect playmate for his kids, mainly because his sense of logic is about as developed as a fifth grader’s. Called into work unexpectedly and unable to find a sitter, Lenny, a projectionist, decides that giving his boys a third of a sedative is the perfect solution.

Much like Josh Safdie’s first feature, The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008), Daddy Longlegs (originally titled Go Get Some Rosemary) succeeds by assembling a superb cast of weirdos orbiting around a main character, who, though profoundly flawed, is still affectionately drawn. “Only in the world of jokes are mosquitoes that big,” Dad reassures his concerned tykes during bath time at his Murray Hill tenement, though Lenny often doesn’t know when to leave the world of jokes for the real world of paternal caretaking. With their loose, freewheeling shots of New York, Josh and Benny Safdie, filmmaking vets at the ages of twenty-five and twenty-three, respectively, have been compared to Cassavetes and Jarmusch. But just as significant a touchstone in the brothers’ first feature collaboration is Truffaut’s Small Change (1976), a deeply empathetic portrait of schoolkids figuring out both the arbitrary rules of adult authority and the complex rituals of childhood. Key scenes of Sage and Frey without Lenny—in class, during recess, drawing comics while Dad’s busy in the projection booth—reveal a tender but never sentimental admiration for half pints. Made by two directors who’ve barely entered adulthood, Daddy Longlegs is expansive enough to look back fondly at the resilience of children while forgiving the outrageously imperfect grown-up who tried to raise them.

Melissa Anderson

Daddy Longlegs screens at BAM on January 28 as part of Sundance Film Festival USA and will be released theatrically in the spring. For more details, click here.

Snow Days

01.26.10

Left: Michael Snow, Wavelength, 1967, still from a color film in 16 mm, 45 minutes. Right: Michael Snow, Flightstop, 1979. Installation view, Eaton Centre, Toronto. Photo: Tourism Toronto


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.

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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.

Jason Anderson

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.