DIRECTED BY ROBERT ALTMAN during the New Hollywood paragon’s most fertile decade, 3 Women (1977) stars two of the greatest, most emblematic actresses of 1970s American cinema: Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek. This shape-shifting movie, which explores self-delusion, intense attachment, and identity-merging, originated in a dream Altman had and proceeds with a particular oneiric logic. The film is rich in brilliant oddities and juxtapositions, never more so than when Duvall and Spacek are encompassed in the same frame.
3 Women looks back to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966) and anticipates David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001); all three movies revolve around a central female dyad, the dynamics of which are protean and radically altered by a destabilizing love. In Altman’s film, childlike Pinky (Spacek), a new arrival to Southern California, becomes utterly transfixed by Millie (Duvall), the garrulous woman who’s assigned to train her on the basics of hydrotherapy at the Desert Springs Rehabilitation and Geriatrics Center. These coworkers soon become roommates at the Purple Sage Apartments, Pinky dazzled by Millie’s professed sophisticated taste, largely shaped by McCall’s magazine. Willfully ignoring the fact that most people find her to be a nattering, desperate fool, Millie frequently upbraids her simple-minded, pigtailed devotee, whose dedication seems to grow only stronger with each rebuke. “You’re the most perfect person I ever met,” Pinky gushes to Millie, who, in between cigarette puffs, smiles wide and says, “Gee, thanks,” genuinely flattered that someone has echoed her own long-held self-assessment.
After a near-deadly incident that occurs well into the film’s second half, the power balance between Pinky and Millie is inverted, the latter now the doting caretaker of the former, who expresses her gratitude through passive-aggressive outbursts and petty tyrannies—behavior clearly modeled on that of her one-time idol. The epilogue reveals an even more profound transformation of identities, with Pinky, Millie, and the third woman of the title, Willie (Janice Rule), a peripheral though ultimately crucial character who paints mystical, Boschian murals, settling into either a perverse family unit or a separatist desert herland commune—or both.
Or neither. “I just had the most wonderful dream,” Willie says in the movie’s closing minutes, suggesting that maybe everything that has transpired in 3 Women is limited to her midafternoon doze. However open to interpretation 3 Women may be, the film deepens in meaning when considering the facts of its production and its principals. The movie is the sixth of seven Duvall made with Altman, who cast her in her screen debut, 1970’s Brewster McCloud. (Their final project together, the 1980 musical flop Popeye, was released the same year as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Duvall’s best-known vehicle.) The film marks Spacek’s only collaboration with the director (who died in 2006) and, most likely, her sole film with Duvall, who hasn’t appeared onscreen since 2002. Though the actresses possess unconventional beauty, they are physically dissimilar—yet Duvall/Millie and Spacek/Pinky make perfect doppelgängers. Both performers were born in 1949 in Texas, Duvall in Houston and Spacek in Quitman, cities that also serve as the respective hometowns of Millie and Pinky. Their Lone Star State drawls intact, the actresses are reminders of a very specific somewhere, the one immutable truth in a film abounding with fantasies.
Jennifer Kent, The Babadook, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes.
A SPOOKY, POWERFUL exploration of murderous maternal rage, writer-director Jennifer Kent’s domestic-horror movie The Babadook satisfyingly pierces the obscene sanctification of “mommyhood”—a pathological mandate that seems to have become an irreversible cultural imperative.
For the The Babadook, the Australian Kent’s debut feature, the onetime actress has expanded the scenario she first explored in her 2005 short, Monster. The film opens with a nightmare—a man and woman are struggling in a car underwater—unfolding in slow motion, though whose REM sleep we’ve been given access to isn’t immediately clear. Is this the recurring bad dream of Amelia (Essie Davis), a harried single mother who works as a health aide at a home for the aged, or of her extremely overwrought six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman)? The man with the starring role in these night terrors, it turns out, is Amelia’s husband, Oskar (Ben Winspear), who died in an accident while driving his wife to the hospital to give birth—a gruesome bit of family lore that Samuel is eager to share with strangers.
The macabre circumstances surrounding Samuel’s entry into the world may explain why the tyke is so highly strung, ever vigilant against monsters; one day, the constantly shrieking child works himself up into such a state that he collapses from a febrile convulsion. (Wee Wiseman, terrifyingly committed to the part, appears to have locked himself in a windowless room for several months and/or sprinkled trace amounts of arsenic on his Vegemite toast to give himself the peaked pallor of the frequently agitated.) His latest fixation is on the sinister children’s-book character that gives Kent’s film its title, an obsession that soon blossoms into a folie à deux—before assuming a tangible, physical, frightening form.
While the bumping and thumping that grows increasingly louder in this claustrophobic, dimly lit sanctum is clearly a manifestation of outsize, still unarticulated grief for a dead husband/father, the violent noises in the house are also an amplification of grief’s unseemly corollary: fury. Amelia, in a sleep-crime stupor—her tenuous grip on reality weakened further by her half-conscious viewing of late-night TV programming that seems to consist of nothing but Mario Bava movies, Georges Méliès shorts (a notable inspiration for the fantastical elements in The Babadook), and old episodes of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo—immediately snaps into lucidity whenever she expresses her wrath toward the bizarre first grader she’s burdened with rearing alone.
The force of that rage, both verbal and physical, can be jarring; ultimately, it will be tamed and managed. That’s not to say, though, that The Babadook contradicts its own logic or abandons its daring ideas. Parenthood—or more specifically, motherhood—the film boldly suggests, may be its own form of psychosis, a loss of contact with reality brought on by years of self-abnegation.
The Babadook opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 28.
Wim Wenders, Paris, Texas, 1984, 35 mm, color, sound, 147 minutes. Jane Henderson (Nastassja Kinski).
AROUND THE TIME that Francis Ford Coppola cast Nastassja Kinski as a circus performer in his swoony, romantic reverie One from the Heart (1982), he proclaimed her “the most beautiful woman in films today.” Many noted the actress’s uncanny resemblance to the young Ingrid Bergman; Paul Schrader, who directed the German-born Kinski in Cat People (1982), was certain that she would replicate the Swedish Bergman’s immense crossover success in the US. She did, sort of, but for an epoch-defining image, not for a movie as canonical as, say, Casablanca: Richard Avedon’s notorious 1981 photograph of Kinski, lying on the floor in a Zen-like trance, with a Burmese python, its forked tongue tickling her ear, coiled around her naked body. The shot distills the qualities that define Kinski’s best performances from 1979 to 1984, the apex of her career: deep wells of serenity and stillness behind a feral sexuality.
Kinski was born in 1961 in Berlin, the only child of Brigitte Ruth Tocki and Klaus Kinski, the volcanic actor best known for his collaborations with Werner Herzog. Of her father, Kinski said in a 1999 profile in The Guardian: “He was a very exaggerated person, very dramatic, and he hurt my mum a lot. I was glad when he was gone and it was just the two of us.” Assuming financial responsibility for both her mother and herself, Kinski made her screen debut in The Wrong Move (1975) by Wim Wenders, her first of three movies with the New German Cinema notable. The following year, at the age of fifteen, she met Roman Polanski at a party in Germany; he cast her in the title role of Tess (1979), his deeply sympathetic adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891), a project that the director had originally hoped to make with his wife, Sharon Tate, who had introduced him to the novel shortly before her gruesome murder in 1969.
Tess would become Kinski’s breakthrough film, her performance as the proud, innocent peasant girl destroyed by Victorian double standards intensely moving despite at least one significant incongruity. Although she completed, at Polanski’s insistence, several months of dialect study in London before filming began, Kinski never quite sounds credible as a Wessex milkmaid; her untamable Mitteleuropean vowels, in fact, dominate all of her English-speaking roles. Yet for extended periods during the three-hour-long Tess, the heroine remains silent, Kinski conveying through her endlessly expressive eyes her character’s ever-diminishing, though never wholly extinguished, fortitude during increasingly abject events.
Kinski plays another innocent in the highly ludicrous Cat People: a virgin named Irena newly arrived to New Orleans, unaware that she is part of an “incestuous race” that originated with an ancestral mother who engaged in sexual congress with a black panther. As she transforms to her feline shadow self, Irena’s appetites—for human flesh, for sex—become unslakable, a metamorphosis made even more potent by Kinski’s sinuous ferocity. Introduced wearing a bear suit, the actress would have another animal alter ego in Tony Richardson’s adaptation of John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire (1984)—in which incest is also a dominant theme: Kinski’s Susie enjoys separate romps with the hot-for-each-other siblings played by Jodie Foster and Rob Lowe.
In Paris, Texas (1984), Kinski’s second pairing with Wenders, we wait nearly two hours for her pivotal scenes, her character’s absence the source of the deep melancholy in this tale of a couple rent asunder. As Jane, a worker at a strip club, Kinski reencounters, through a one-way mirror, her much-older husband (Harry Dean Stanton) after no contact for four years. She patiently listens to him narrate the history of their love’s unraveling, of his being undone by his ardor for her before she fully realizes who’s doing the talking. Kinski’s subtle reactions in this segment suggest those of a woman well acquainted with the destabilizing effects of her extraordinary allure.
Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 99 minutes. The Girl (Sheila Vand).
AS SEDUCTIVE AND FOREBODING AS ITS TITLE—a simple, declarative sentence that encompasses many mysteries—Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature reanimates and restores the sexiness of the vampire movie, held for too long as the undead hostage of the purity-ring-preaching Twilight franchise. Performed entirely in Farsi, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is set in Bad City, a fictional Iranian ghost town (played by Taft, California, situated in the San Joaquin Valley) where oil rigs pump continuously and corpses are dumped in ditches. Plot is subordinate to mood and atmosphere (as in Claire Denis’s 2001 gore-and-pheromone-filled Trouble Every Day, which Amirpour’s movie, equally audacious, occasionally calls to mind), aspects enhanced by the film’s high-def black-and-white imagery. Yet punctuating the film’s pleasingly languid rhythm are jolts of fear and desire.
The girl of the title (Sheila Vand), never identified by name, slinks through Bad City long after sunset cloaked in a chador. She coolly observes the evil that men do before baring her fangs and exsanguinating them, the fate that befalls her first victim, a heavily neck-tattooed pimp and drug lord (Dominic Rains). Those not guilty of any crime—besides possessing the XY chromosome—are still not above suspicion; in a demonic growl, our undead heroine warns a wide-eyed seven-year-old tyke wearing a tatty sport coat, “Till the end of your life, I’ll watch you.” This vigilante upholds a gender-inverted Sharia law.
When not on patrol, the vampiress blisses out in her basement apartment, disco ball spinning and Iranian alt-rock blaring. Dancing with herself, the Girl sports a Breton striped shirt and a bob with fringe; with her mod attire, she could have been an extra in Masculin Féminin. Amirpour’s film abounds with such retro touches, but unlike Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, another stylish vampire movie released earlier this year, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is not embalmed in nostalgia. Though Arash (Arash Marandi), the bequiffed young man who eventually woos the Girl, is an obvious analogue for broody screen idols from the 1950s (the character is identified in the press notes as “the Persian James Dean”), his role isn’t limited to serving merely as an iconic throwback. Burdened with taking care of a junkie father (Marshall Manesh), Arash, in his own way, ultimately rebels against the patriarchy.
During their initial meeting, Arash, still in his Count Dracula outfit from that evening’s costume party and tweaked out on Ecstasy, which he sells, surprises the Girl with a simple gesture—a hug. Their attraction will culminate in some bloodshed, though not of the expected kind: He pierces her ears during an especially charged scene. Arash will soon learn what his new crush means when she admits, “I’ve done bad things.” The line has been uttered in a million movies before by all kinds of women of the night, but in a film of such specific pulpy-political pleasures as this one, it lands with particular force.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 21.
Gina Prince-Bythewood, Beyond the Lights, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 116 minutes. Noni and Kaz (Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker).
NO, GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD’S Beyond the Lights is not as great as her debut feature Love & Basketball (2000), which is at the top of my list of exhilarating, contemporary American coming-of-age romances. I know that Time magazine believes our problems would be solved if we banned the word feminism, or something like that—I couldn’t wrap my brain around the dust-up—but part of what made Love & Basketball so extraordinary was Prince-Bythewood’s creation of a heroine who believes that when a woman and a man are fiercely ambitious and want to excel in the same arena, the competition should make their love stronger and more fun. And if, instead, it causes problems, they should try really hard to work them out. Even Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) didn’t hang so tough.
Love & Basketball brought us Monica (Sanaa Lathan), a young black woman, raised in an African-American middle-class family circa mid-1980s to end of the ’90s, who wants to be the first female to play in the NBA. Beyond the Lights, on the other hand, gives us Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the biracial daughter of a single white woman living in English council flats, who, shaped by her mother’s ambition, becomes an R&B hip-hop artist with all the sex-object trappings the role requires. As an eleven-year-old with Magic Johnson’s number on her sneakers, Monica has us in her court from the start. It takes a while to warm up to Noni. Prince-Bythewood, who both wrote and directed Beyond the Lights, allows us to glimpse in the opening sequence the Monica-like potential in the preadolescent Noni (India Jean-Jacques), when she sings in a talent competition, pouring heart, soul, and an enchantingly pure-pitched voice into Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” But when Noni places second, her mom (Minnie Driver) realizes that jazz will not lift them out of poverty.
Cut to Noni at twenty, an R&B Billboard award-winner in spandex and gold chains that play peek-a-boo with her cleavage. She has wealth and fame, but she’s not happy. Indeed she is so alienated from her hip-hop diva persona that one lonely night she attempts to jump from her hotel room balcony. She is pulled to safety at the last possible second by Kaz (Nate Parker), an LAPD cop assigned to her security detail. Noni and Kaz lock eyes as she dangles from the precipice; “I see you,” he murmurs. This is not exactly meeting cute, but the on-screen chemistry between the actors is palpable—and rare. Indeed, the subtle but wonderfully alive give-and-take between Noni and Kaz is the best thing in Beyond the Lights. Not to mention that to have an honest, caring LAPD cop in a movie looking for love from a hip-hop audience twists all expectations. This is a music film, and fans of Rihanna and Beyonce won’t be disappointed by the songs that The-Dream has written and arranged for Noni, or the moves Laurieann Gibson has choreographed for her onstage and off. And Mbatha-Raw who does a lot (maybe all) of her character’s on-camera singing could have an R&B career if she wanted it, which I doubt that she does. I must confess that if I didn’t fall in love with Beyond the Lights the way I did with Love & Basketball, it’s because I don’t like the sound.
There are many obstacles to overcome before Noni and Kaz’s romance can bloom. Kaz’s father (Danny Glover) wants his son to have a political career. (“She’s not first-lady material,” he growls.) Noni’s mother (expect to see Driver in the next revival of Gypsy), her handlers, and the money behind them view Kaz as a distraction that’s bad for her image. But eventually, Noni and Kaz flee LA for a Mexican seaside village where Noni dons sweats and buttoned-up cottons, and Kaz strips off his shirt to reveal the most perfectly lithe and cut torso since Brad Pitt’s in Fight Club (1999). Parker’s bod won’t get in the way of his career, but he’s a solid actor as well. And maybe it took a female director and a female DP (Tami Reiker) to give us as much male as female eye candy. In a tiny club, Noni sings a grown-up version of Blackbird, and there’s not a dry eye in the house (on-screen, and probably offscreen too). Prince-Bythewood believes in couples who give each other a hand up, but more than that, in women who find and save themselves.
Beyond the Lights is now playing in select theaters.
Wang Bing, Father and Sons, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 81 minutes.
I ALWAYS LOOK FORWARD to the month of October because it brings the multitudinous possibilities of Doclisboa, one of the finest film festivals of its sort in Europe. The programming ethos of Doclisboa is as unrelenting in its commitments to politics as it is to poetry. It asserts the documentary medium as an art form with ambiguous categorical boundaries, favors formalist rigor over fluff, and offers the film festival as a site of knowledge production rather than a mere showcase or trade fair.
This year, festival favorite Wang Bing won the best international feature award for his Father and Sons—a ballsy move by the jury, considering that virtually nothing happens throughout the course of the eighty-one-minute-long film. In Southwest China, a factory worker lives with his two adolescent sons in a hut with a dirt floor and a single bed. Shot with a static camera framing the dwelling’s entire interior, most of the film consists of the eldest son sprawled on the bed, his attention divided between his smartphone and the television set. Toward the conclusion, his younger brother joins him. Finally, the father comes home from work, and, after a few minutes, announces that it’s time for bed and turns the lights out. That’s all. “Nothing happening” is very much the point: The ponderous simplicity of the premise returns the viewer to the travails of thought, through which you might momentarily enter the frame, and renders abjection into beauty. Wang never preaches or overtly politicizes his subjects or their existential situation, yet his empathy is unwavering; it magically becomes our own. The family’s two anesthetizing screens, likely their most valuable possessions, are also their most valued.
Indicative of the filmmaking renaissance happening there, China was strongly represented throughout this year’s festival, with perhaps the most popular entry being Ai Weiwei’s Appeal ¥15,220,910.50, a straightforward account of the artist and activist’s well-documented detainment and legal battles with the Chinese authorities. China does have more than one important living artist, of course, and Pedro Cardeira’s eponymous biographical portrait of Mio Pang Fei—the Macau-based master whose “Neo-Orientalism,” as Mio terms it, stages a painterly encounter with the ancient calligraphic tradition and Western Abstract Expressionism—was truly engrossing.
The best Chinese film at the festival, however—and the best film about China in the twenty-first century that I’ve seen to date—was made by an American, J. P. Sniadecki, known for his work with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Following People’s Park (2012) and Yumen (2013), both documentaries on contemporary China that Sniadecki codirected, The Iron Ministry compiles three years of footage shot during rides on China’s extensive railway system. A cow stomach is sliced into edible bits; a man puffs on a bamboo cigar-holder between compartments; the filthy floor is lined with cigarette butts and sleeping human bodies; a precocious little boy sarcastically encourages the crowd to piss and shit in the aisles. The result is a microcosm of China today: a country undergoing an industrial revolution, where the population is constantly on the move and where free and open debate takes place in public spaces among people of all educational, ethnic, and religious backgrounds, in spite of the absence of an overarching systemic democracy.
J. P. Sniadecki, The Iron Ministry, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 83 minutes.
A markedly different portrait of a society moving jaggedly along the brink of chaos emerges from Belluscone: Una Storia Siciliana. It may sound odd to describe a documentary about Silvio Berlusconi’s relations with the Sicilian Mafia as hilarious, but Franco Maresco’s effort is a brilliantly stylized theater of the absurd, exposing the not-too-hidden network connecting the ousted Italian leader’s Forza Italia party, the crasser sides of show biz, and the mob in an all-too-human comedy of corruption. The film uses brisk pacing, cheesy theatrical sets, and the ironic narration of film critic Tatti Sanguineti to accentuate the story’s near-unbelievability—which, of course, makes it all the realer.
Another successful experiment in hybridization was Snakeskin, which had its world premiere at Doclisboa, following director Daniel Hui’s winning of the Revelation Prize for Eclipses at last year’s festival. Documentary is crossed with science fiction as the sole survivor of an apocalyptic cult in the year 2066 meditates, via voice-over, on interviews and footage filmed in 2014 in his native Singapore. In its unraveling narrative, this unusual, thoughtful evocation of time travel probes one of history’s most complex sites of colonialist intrigue.
Other highlights included two films shot clandestinely on tours to North Korea—Soon-Mi Yoo’s Songs from the North, which won the award for best first feature, and Marie Voignier’s Tourisme International—as well as Evaporating Borders, Iva Radivojevic’s exploration of emigration strife and the rise of extreme nationalism in her adopted homeland of Cyprus, which took the RTP Award for Best Investigation Film. And I won’t soon forget Duras et le Cinema, a portrait of the engimatic novelist turned filmmaker by one of her editors, Dominique Auvray. As the protagonists of Wang’s feature could tell you, the screen is a means of transporting one elsewhere: This is the wonder of the cinematic vehicle. It takes you places and it doesn’t expect anything in return. In its comprehension that these “elsewheres” form the overall picture that every being with a conscience should not only be cognizant of but also take responsibility for, Doclisboa ’14 cuttingly enunciated itself as a miniutopia—or the closest thing we may get to one in a world as troubled as ours.
The twelfth Doclisboa ran October 16–26, 2014.