Lewis Klahr, The Occidental Hotel, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 26 minutes.


“PROJECTIONS” IS THE NEW LABEL for the sidebar of the New York Film Festival devoted to film and digital works formerly shown under the rubric Views from the Avant-Garde. With fewer programs, none of which overlap, it is possible, were one inclined, to see everything. (The series runs Friday October 3 to Sunday October 5.) Many names are familiar from Views, and two rarely shown films by Belgian poet/artist/filmmaker Marcel BroodthaersBerlin or a Dream with Cream (1974) and Mr. Teste et La Lune (1970–74) will be projected in 35 mm. The selections vary in duration, format, and style, and at least three of the longer pieces—Harun Farocki’s Sauerbruch Hutton Architects (2013), Phillip Warnel’s Ming of Harlem: Twenty One Storeys in the Air (2014), and Eric Baudelaire’s Letters to Max (2014)—could easily have been part of the festival’s documentary sidebar. Though few titles—in the festival’s main slate or elsewhere—are apt to rouse as much jubilation and hostility as Jean-Luc Godard’s exhilarating 3-D exercise Goodbye to Language, there is certainly inventive fare to be found amid the Projections programs.

It is always gratifying to see how artists working with minimal resources and familiar techniques manage to create works of lively originality. Consider the very different approaches several filmmakers have taken to create intensely personal mindscapes. In Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Sea of Vapors (2014), soft black-and-white images—both archival and original—flicker at more or less a constant rate before slowly dissolving into other images, the overall effect enhanced by the varying discernibility of shots, as well as by slight camera movements within them. Beginning with an image of the back of a woman’s head as the camera moves in, the film ends with a shot of what we assume is the same woman, raising to her lips, and then draining the contents of, a cup whose luminous round base conceals her face. Despite the teeming flow of images juxtaposed and superimposed in between—eye to mountainscape, face to fingernails, flowers to lips, rocks to sea, forest to child—we are struck less by associative or metaphorical links than by the sense that, with her simple gesture, the woman engages the phenomenal world, drinking in nothing less than the universe conjured throughout.

Janie Geiser’s The Hummingbird Wars (2014) is a dense collage comprising nineteenth-century photographs of stage actors, theater makeup, Japanese masks, flowers in various states of decay, an autobiographical text, and a World War I first-aid book. Unveiled via a dynamic deployment of cutout black mattes, whose flitting about the frame perhaps mimes that of the titular hummingbird, the images are both free-associative and recurrent, complicated through each new, interlocking cluster, as well as by an equally evocative audio track. Like the artist making her way through the paradoxical interrelations of history, art, and consciousness, the hummingbird gently traverses the clash of images that flesh out Geiser’s mesmerizing tapestry.

If Geiser’s film suggests an indirect portrait of the artist, Victoria Fu’s Lorem ipsum 1 (2013) constructs a digital portrait both more literal and skewed, cleverly composed of multiple, simultaneous, even contradictory angles. How this reflects its title—a phrase derived from an ancient text of Cicero’s and now used to identify a “filler text” in graphic design—is unclear to me. As we watch a woman walking into and through her house and gazing out of her window (Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon [1943] may come to mind), an uneasy tension invests the flow of fragmentary images as they flirt with and recoil from a fully integrated, intact portrait: We never quite see the woman’s entire face in a sustained composition—as if, like her work, the artist refuses reduction to a single perspective.

Sylvia Schedelbauer, Sea of Vapors, 2014, HD video, black-and-white, sound, 15 minutes.


To say that Jodie Mack’s two new works are homespun is literally to describe what she does. In both Razzle Dazzle (2014) and Blanket Statement #2: It’s All or Nothing (2013), this ever-resourceful artist shoots fabrics with such tactile sensitivity and edits with such rhythmic aplomb that her images shimmer before us. Bejeweled items flicker luminously between black leader, as if directed by some invisible cosmic law, while layers of wooly “color bars” are rewoven, through Mack’s editing savvy, into cozy but restless intimations of domestic comfort.

Standouts among the shorter films also include new works by Thorsten Fleisch, Mike Gibisser, and Paul Clipson. Fleisch’s Picture Particles (2014) begins as a rapid flow of film stock unreels on a smaller rectangle within the full frame. The burns, color flares, scratches, and sprocket holes associated with film flash by, preserved, as it were, by Fleisch’s digital time machine, enfolding its revered predecessor. As the work expands to full frame, the random colors and shapes fuse into kaleidoscopic patterns that seem to mourn the fading of the old even as it is reshaped by the new.

Gibisser’s Blue Loop, July (2014) is a miniature “fireworks” movie unlike any I can recall. We watch a piece of night sky, shot at what seems a fixed perspective and detached from any discernible communal context, as images of soaring, exploding pyrotechnics sinuate upward into the darkness at a preternatural pace, creating scattershot configurations, quite distinct from the usual, patriotically tinged fan-bursts of expanding stars.

With Light Year (2013), Paul Clipson proves once again to have a keen eye and a wonderful gift for lyricism. He begins with impressive shots around what looks to be a shipyard: iron fences, wooden docks, cargo ships, and the sea. Vertical, dividing columns in many images give way to horizontal pans rightward over ships, tugboats, cranes, pulleys, cables, and electrical towers, many of these superimposed, creating a seemingly seamless panorama, which then shifts into more abstract patterns of color and light. A nautical paean to Apollo, perhaps, Clipson’s movie celebrates the source, power, and reach of light as it passes over sea and material surfaces, wheedles between the narrowest crevices of a wooden structure, and penetrates the begrimed windows of a warehouse.

Inevitably, the creative possibilities of digital technology have also preoccupied such legendary filmmakers as Ernie Gehr and Ken Jacobs. Last year’s Views presented five exciting digital pieces by the former, and this year Projections includes a brief but thrilling new work by the latter. Canopy (2014) opens on a tunnel-like shot of a sidewalk with a lone figure in the foreground. Overhanging the space is an actual canopy extending the length of this “tunnel,” at the far end of which a police car and a taxi are parked on the cross street. While these tend to ground the work’s perspective, so to speak, they are visually upstaged by the shifting contours and curving fabric of the canopy, animated into a play of interchanging and overlapping undulations that convert the entire space into an exploration of surface, depth, and everything in between—the territory, in other words, where Jacobs feels most at home.

Victoria Fu, Lorem ipsum I, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 13 minutes.


The predominance of place is explored in several works of distinct personality—from Luke Fowler’s Depositions (2014), a witty mosaic of present-day life in Scotland, and Fern Silva’s Wayward Fronds (2014), a palpably humid evocation of the Florida Everglades, to Lewis Klahr’s The Occidental Hotel (2014), a “city symphony” of sorts, and Baudelaire’s Letters to Max, an affecting if somewhat sketchy exchange between the filmmaker and the former foreign minister of the republic of Abkhazia concerning the latter’s efforts to win recognition as a separate state.

As its title denotes, the hotel in Klahr’s movie could exist in a number of European cities. Signs in English, Danish, and German identify sites in London, Copenhagen, and Berlin. Populated by Klahr’s familiar cutouts of businessmen and seductive women, the fluid interchangeability of locations and people are less indicative of narrative import (in the manner of Klahr’s 2011 feature The Pettifogger) than they comprise a catalogue of the elements of melodrama and film noir—the Hollywood genres that bear endearingly on Klahr’s aesthetic. Hotel rooms, with Klahr’s characteristic stress on beds and bathrooms, ominous alleys and doorways, dirty tile floors, cars, traffic lights, and cigarette machines are the props and backdrops of virtual encounters and events, most of which never seem to occur. As dice—one of Klahr’s favorite motifs—repeatedly roll across these images, we’re tempted to think they suggest bad bets on clinching significant links among them, despite the recurring insertions of concerned glances or erotically charged postures. However prompted by a persistent dramatic soundtrack, any effort to correlate the greater number of repeated images to greater narrative meaning seems futile—as Klahr himself seems to wittily acknowledge when he suddenly inserts the loaded word, “then…” about two-thirds in. More likely, Klahr’s slipping his cutout men and women in and out of his frames mimic the transient behavior of people passing through big cities, frequenting hotels and restaurants, and walking the streets—subjects and objects of thousands of individual stories, imaginary and real, that remain untold. What is extraordinary is the vigor with which Klahr still invests this form.

The documentary Letters to Max also exudes an air of existential disquiet, playing the virtual presence of the filmmaker behind the camera against his absence—his letters from Paris are inscribed on the screen. Compatible not only with Max’s restless cosmopolitanism and the question of Abkhazia’s identity, Baudelaire’s film, like Klahr’s, seems equally preoccupied with what it means to be in a place.

Tony Pipolo

“Projections,” a sidebar of the fifty-second New York Film Festival, runs Friday, October 3 to Sunday, October 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Bertrand Bonello, Saint Laurent, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 150 minutes. Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel).


“I’VE CREATED A MONSTER and I have to live with it,” Yves Saint Laurent (Gaspard Ulliel) says, sometime in between collections in 1972, in reference to himself in Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent, a slinky, heady biopic of the exalted fashion designer. Speaking at a press conference immediately following the screening at Walter Reade Theater, Bonello, who also co-wrote the script, explained that his main line of inquiry was “what it cost Saint Laurent to be Saint Laurent every day.” Or, more specifically, for several days between 1967 and 1977, a decade marked by YSL’s greatest excesses, whether in the atelier, on the runway, at the discothèque, or at the orgy.

As in Bonello’s previous film, House of Pleasures (2011), which traces the final months of an upscale Parisian brothel at the dawn of the twentieth century, Saint Laurent isn’t moored to a strict chronological presentation. A few scenes are repeated and shown from different angles; roughly two-thirds into the movie, a senescent Saint Laurent (played by Helmut Berger, louche superstar of ’70s Continental cinema) appears unannounced, a haggard figure returned to intermittently. And like its Belle Epoque–set predecessor, in which clouds of opium waft through the bordello, Saint Laurent has a profoundly intoxicating effect, never more so than when YSL and Jacques de Bascher (Louis Garrel) cruise each other across a crowded nightclub. (Bascher, a debauchee of noble birth, was aptly described by Bonello during the Q&A as “a black star, [with] no past and no future, only the present.”) Notably, Bonello’s project is the second film this year—after Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent, which I wrote about for this column in June—to take on the grand couturier’s life. Both movies dramatize several of the same incidents, but only Bonello’s does so intelligently: Saint Laurent forgoes the by-the-numbers soap operatics that burden so much of Lespert’s docudrama in favor of distilling—often wordlessly—mood, milieu, desire, and dissipation.

Mia Hansen-Løve tries to capture those same qualities in Eden, about the “French touch” music scene ascendant in the 1990s, which she wrote in collaboration with her brother, Sven, a successful DJ in Paris during many of the years depicted (the film spans 1992–2013). I couldn’t help but be stirred by several the songs: The deep house that Eden’s protagonist, Paul (Félix de Givry), plays in various nightspots throughout the French capital, like “Follow Me” by Aly-US, was in heavy rotation at the gay clubs in D.C. that I used to frequent during the first Clinton administration. But despite the pleasure of my own nostalgia being stoked—plus my delight at hearing Paradise Garage godhead Larry Levan being name-checked more than once—little in the film, save for its crushing final fifteen minutes, has much heft. Givry is a recessive screen presence, and those who orbit him, particularly the women in his life, are even more diaphanous.

The precise attachments, romantic or otherwise, among the constellation of characters in Matías Piñeiro’s elating The Princess of France may be deliberately confusing, but the performers themselves, all part of the filmmaker’s regular troupe, are exceptionally vivid. (They also rank among the most distinctive sounding; the actresses especially possess deep, alluring timbres.) The third of the director’s ludic riffs on Shakespeare, following Rosalinda (2011) and Viola (2012), The Princess of France loosely revolves around the reunion of Victor (Julián Larquier Tellarini), who’s recently returned to Buenos Aires from Mexico, with the cast he directed in Love’s Labour’s Lost a year ago; he now has the funding to do the comedy as a radio play. Mounting this production becomes secondary, though, to the voluble players’ own tangentially related dramas, unfolding in the theaters—a street, a museum, a bed—of their choosing.

Melissa Anderson

The 52nd New York Film Festival runs through October 12.

Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent screens September 30 and October 2; Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden screens October 5 and 7; Matías Piñeiro’s The Princess of France screens October 5 and 6.

David Fincher, Gone Girl, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 149 minutes.


TO AN OUTSIDER, the rites and customs of heterosexual courtship and marriage, at least as depicted and dissected in several different genres of popular culture from the past decade or so—talk shows, advice books, most romantic comedies, several Judd Apatow productions, particularly This Is 40 (2012)—can appear unremittingly, if unintentionally, pathological. Straight mating, it would seem, is the ultimate (and original) folie à deux, a florid psychosis whose presenting symptoms are acute vituperation, subterfuge, rancor, and regression. Among the most self-loathing of heterosexuals is the central couple in Gillian Flynn’s immensely popular—more than 8.5 million copies have been sold—2012 novel, Gone Girl. David Fincher’s adaptation, which Flynn herself scripted for the screen, doesn’t stray from the source material’s theme that “marriage is hard work,” a platitude played out to its grimmest extreme. Yet significantly, the film reduces the original’s number of unstable, unreliable protagonists from two to one.

Flynn’s book—compulsively readable, a sugar rush of intricate plotting, facile metaphors, and glib cultural observations—proffers the notion that long-term relationships are, to varying degrees, games of deception and dissembling. Fincher’s film initially replicates the novel’s time-toggling, he-said, she-said structure: It opens on July 5, the day that marks both the fifth wedding anniversary of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) and the latter’s disappearance from their Missouri home. The couple had moved to Nick’s midwestern home state after losing their media jobs in New York: Nick wrote about “what to wear, what to think” for a men’s magazine; independently wealthy Amy composed quizzes for women’s glossies. (Flynn was a TV critic at Entertainment Weekly for eight years.) By the time of their relo to Missouri, which was also precipitated by the cancer diagnosis of Nick’s mother, the couple has long settled into misery. The gradual curdling of their once-perfect love is chronicled by Amy’s diary entries, flashbacks that commence with various pink-hued novelty pens furiously moving across a page.

That journaling points to Nick’s increasingly erratic, cruel behavior—if not his spouse’s infantile attachments—though Amy’s logbook turns out to be the biggest of the red herrings that spawn throughout Gone Girl. Yet whereas the novel, after the misleading clues have been cleared away, finds two people guilty of perpetuating evasions and half-truths, the film gradually demonstrates that only one of the Dunnes is being done to—and emotionally dunned—by a sociopath. One look at the movie’s poster will tell you who the nobler of this wretched dyad is. (Coincidences pile up when one compares Gone Girl with Affleck’s directorial debut, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone. Beyond sharing a similar title and some subject matter, both films have nearly identical one sheets: The central male character—Affleck’s younger brother, Casey, in the earlier film; Affleck himself in Fincher’s—is seen from behind, his face caught in profile and looking downward, a lone figure posed beneath stratus clouds in a dusky sky.)

Fincher’s adaptation bears all of the filmmaker’s trademark precision, his impeccable ability to conjure dread in the most seemingly benign locales of the Show Me State heightened by the terror-drone composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who’ve collaborated with the director since The Social Network (2010). His film is a perfect, soulless machine in service to a likewise impressively crafted, hollow novel. It’s worth noting that Fincher’s previous project, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), was another adaptation of a blockbuster mystery—one that, for all its bloat and tangled webs of conspiracies, put forth a memorable female avenger in Rooney Mara’s bi, wiry, pallid hacker Lisbeth Salander (the American actress equaling, if not surpassing, Noomi Rapace’s performance in the original Swedish page-to-screen transfers). Fincher’s latest movie, in contrast, leaves us with a “girl” also out for revenge, imprinted not with body ink but with something just as indelible: the faulty brain wiring of a classic narcissist.

Melissa Anderson

Gone Girl, which opened the 52nd New York Film Festival on September 26, will be released nationwide on October 3.

Alice Rohrwacher, The Wonders, 2014, Super 16, color, sound, 111 minutes.


ONE WEEK INTO PRESS SCREENINGS for the New York Film Festival, which begins September 26, and already the offerings—or at least their makers—have begun to infiltrate my REM sleep. During my waking hours, however, several of the supple, stinging aphorisms in Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language have returned, sometimes unbidden, to my mind, particularly the opening pensée: “Those lacking imagination take refuge in reality.”

A variation—often its inverse—of that Wildean observation (I could have sworn Oscar himself said it in “The Decay of Lying”) proved to be a guiding principle for several films on view, in which facts, whether those of autobiography or historical events, are transmuted into fiction. Set in rustic central Italy, The Wonders revolves around a family that bears traces of writer-director Alice Rohrwacher’s own: The filmmaker, like her adolescent protagonist Gelsomina (Maria Alexandra Lungu), the oldest of four girls, is the daughter of a German father and an Italian mother (played, in a further bit of oblique backstory fidelity, by Rohrwacher’s elder sister Alba) who make their living as beekeepers. Similar to its predecessor, Corpo Celeste, an NYFF selection in 2011, The Wonders is an uncommonly graceful coming-of-age story, rooted as much in the fantastical as the material. Of its otherwordly pleasures, none is more delightful than the bizarre regional-promo spot—the filming of which Gelsomina and her sibs stumble onto after a day splashing in a lake—that spotlights Monica Bellucci in Cicciolina-like fake blonde tresses. The movie also honors the spirit of the beehive, relaying, in several detailed scenes, the hard work of harvesting honey—labor that Gelsomina takes so seriously that at one point she is referred to as “the head of the family,” an undue burden against which the teenager slowly begins to chafe.

Not much older than this Italian central character is Harley, played by electrifying newcomer Arielle Holmes, in Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, a tough, lean tale of homeless scag addicts. The film is based on Holmes’s as-yet unpublished book Mad Love in New York City, a chronicle of her teenage vagrancy and obsessive, self-destructive passion for a fellow junkie named Ilya (whose movie incarnation is played by the cadaverous Caleb Landry Jones). Dramatizing incidents from her own extremely recent past, Holmes brings a feral, corrosive energy to each scene, the enormity of her needs—for drugs, for Ilya’s love—made even more terrifyingly incongruous by the fact that they are expressed by such a slight, delicate young woman. The Safdie brothers’ movie has an obvious precedent in Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971), another tale of a heroin-hooked couple that was filmed, like much of Heaven Knows What, on the Upper West Side. Where Panic features a pre-stardom (i.e., pre-Godfather) Al Pacino in full Method-y, showboating glory, Heaven, thanks to Holmes’s piercing howls of self-abasement, remains tethered to scorched earth.

Broader in scope, ’71, by first-time director Yann Demange, mines the Troubles, the nationalist conflict between Protestant Loyalists and Catholic republicans that convulsed Northern Ireland (and many other countries) for three decades, to create a taut thriller. (By sheer coincidence, the film screened just three days after the death of Ian Paisley, the hardline Northern Irish Protestant minister and politician whose views further inflamed the sectarian strife.) Tracking a British soldier (Jack O’Connell) abandoned by his unit after a deadly riot in Belfast during the year of the title, ’71, though somewhat diminished by a trite ending, fluidly and potently stages its never-ending chaos, mayhem born of expedient, deadly alliances.

Melissa Anderson

The 52nd New York Film Festival runs September 26–October 12.

Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language screens September 27 and October 1; Yann Demange’s ’71 screens September 27 and 28; Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What screens October 2 and 5; Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders screens October 3 and 4.

Eldar Shengelaia, Blue Mountains, or Unbelievable Story, 1984, 35 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes.


I’M OPPOSED ON GENERAL PRINCIPLE to the assumption of audience ignorance—“Ten Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” and so on—but in the case of “Discovering Georgian Cinema,” an exception can be made. The two-part program, arranged by Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive in collaboration with New York’s Museum of Modern Art and playing more or less simultaneously at both institutions, offers a look at work that is scarcely available beyond the Black Sea, and on 35-mm exhibition prints, to boot.

Sergei Parajanov, perhaps the most internationally renowned Georgian-born filmmaker on the basis of works like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) and The Color of Pomegranates (1968), doesn’t even show up in the program’s first part, subtitled “A Family Affair.” (A DCP restoration of Pomegranates, however, plays the Walter Reade Theater on October 2, as part of the Fifty-Second New York Film Festival.) That “Family Affair” is a reference to the close-knit nature of Georgian cinema—historically centered around the Gruzia Film Studios—a film culture whose interconnections are in many cases blood ties. (In the booklet published in conjunction with the series, a table labeled “Family Connections in Georgian Cinema” illustrates this fact.)

To take one prominent example: The series’ opening night screening is the 1928 silent Eliso by Nikoloz Shengelaia, whose sons, Eldar and Giorgi, would become accomplished directors in their own right. Noutsa Gogoberidze, matriarch of a line of filmmakers, also founded the family business in the silent period. Noutsa’s daughter, Lana Gogoberidze—represented here by her 1979 Several Interviews on Personal Matters and 1984 The Day Is Longer than the Night—grew up never having seen her mother’s films, which were banned after she was sentenced to twelve years in prison and exile as “family of an enemy of the people.” (Noutsa’s husband, Levan Gogoberidze, was a former first secretary of the Georgian communist party, killed as part of the Great Purge.) MoMA will play Noutsa’s recently rediscovered 1930 Buba, a short documentary made in collaboration with painter David Kakabadze about rugged life in the Racha highlands of the country’s north, a gorgeous film with a sacrosanct feeling for the power of the elements, thrumming with the energy of cloud formations coursing over the Caucasus, rushing mountain streams, and electric montage. (Buba shares a bill with Felicità, a 2009 short by Noutsa’s granddaughter, Salomé Alexi.)

Of the other Georgian silents, a word should be said for Kote Mikaberidze’s madcap debut feature My Grandmother (1929), which plays in the program’s second half, “Beyond the Blue Mountains.” Aleqsandre Takaishvili, a mixture of Harold Lloyd and Barton Fink, plays the overseer of an inefficient state office who must scramble to right his career after he’s “fired for bureaucratic excess.” The manager’s dismissal is visualized in the terms of an editorial cartoon—he is literally impaled by a gigantic ink pen thrown by a righteously indignant member of the youth communist league. Returning home in despair, he hangs himself from a chandelier, a fact which escapes the notice of his spoiled wife and daughter when they barrel through the door laden with new consumer goods and jitterbug wildly around the apartment. This should give some idea of the film’s anything-goes eccentricity—and Mikaberidze seems determined to leave no effect unused, toying with stop-motion animation, distorting lenses, looming angles, freeze-frames, and whatever else he can get his hands on.

Takaishvili can also be seen as a magistrate in Magdana’s Donkey, the 1955 feature debut of Tengiz Abuladze and Rezo Chkeidze, then fresh from the Institute of Cinematography in Moscow. The film, which took the Grand Prix at Cannes, is apparently regarded as the forerunner of the Georgian New Wave to come, but I must confess that beyond some stirring plein air photography, I found very little in this tale of a peasant family resuscitating a left-for-dead donkey beyond the most wearisome clichés of socialist realism—the shamelessly cute-as-a-button orphans, the piggish boss barking orders with a mouthful of bread bought from the sweat of others’ labor, the stoically suffering mother in beatific close-ups staring off toward the workers’ paradise to come.

Tengiz Abuladze, Repentance, 1984/87, 35 mm, color, sound, 153 minutes.


Unpromising beginnings aside, Georgia would have its New Wave, producing several films that found renown in the larger world. Abuladze, who balanced Christian mysticism with a well-developed sense of the absurd, became a figure of unparalleled importance, represented here by his decades-spanning trilogy of The Plea (1967), The Wishing Tree (1977), and Repentance (1984/87)—the last depicting the despotic mayoral reign of a petty potentate who has Hitler’s mustache but in many other respects recalls that infamous son of Tiflis, Joe Stalin. Parajanov, a more cosmopolitan figure, wouldn’t take on a specifically Georgian subject until his 1984 The Legend of Suram Fortress, completed after a decade of persecution by the Soviet authorities, while Giorgi Shengelaia may have found the most quintessentially Georgian subject of all in his Pirosmani (1969). An austere, highly individual biopic that imagines the life of self-taught painter Niko Pirosmani (1862–1918), the film comprises a series of tableaux whose head-on perspective and figural grouping imitates compositions favored by the painter himself. It’s a work suffused with a pervasive melancholy—Avtandil Varazi’s stubbornly uncompromised Pirosmani gradually grays and stoops while everyone else around him seems to stay the same age. And no End of History nostrums here—there’s nothing to imply that a Pirosmani living twenty years later would’ve fared much better.

Eldar Shengelaia’s 1968 An Unusual Exhibition, about an aspirant sculptor who turns to carving tombstone monuments, is regarded as a sort of companion film to his younger brother’s work. I can’t comment on the connection, not having seen the film at present, though I found much to admire in Eldar’s 1984 Blue Mountains. Despite the film’s pastoral title, its action is confined almost entirely to the dusty corridors of an unsturdy publishing house in Tbilisi. A writer bearing manuscripts traverses these halls attempting to harangue the committee members with the authority to move his work’s publication forward into reading it. Seasons change, but their self-absorbed indifference scarcely does—here we are not far from the vision of bureaucratic lassitude seen in My Grandmother, where functionaries pass time by dropping globs of spit on cockroaches or buffeting a secretary with love letters folded into paper planes. In Blue Mountains, however, there is no comeuppance for the toadies or salvation by way of the young communists. While the executives carry on with their interminable meetings, the whole institution finally comes apart at the seams around them, as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic was about to do.

Films like Repentance and Blue Mountains anticipate the end of one era, though “Discovering Georgian Cinema” continues to track the national cinema’s tradition of dissidence past the establishment of an independent Georgian state in 1991. There is no telling if Mikheil Saakashvili—the ex-president who presided over the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and was revealed in a recent New York Times piece to be plotting his comeback from Williamsburg, Brooklyn—will make an appearance at MoMA, but director Eldar Shengelaia, who served on the Parliament of Georgia from 1990 to 2004, will be in New York to present screenings of Eliso, Pirosmani, and Blue Mountains. His comments on the State of the Nation are to be greatly anticipated.

Nick Pinkerton

“Discovering Georgian Cinema” runs September 23–December 21 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and September 26, 2014–April 19, 2015 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, California.

Taylor Made

09.22.14

Richard Brooks, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Brick Pollitt and Maggie Pollitt (Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor).


“ACRIMONY AND UMBRAGE, tears, door-slamming, broken dishes, jeers, cold silences, whispers, raised eyebrows, the determination to take no notice, the whole classic paraphernalia of insult and injury is Tennessee Williams’ hope-chest,” Mary McCarthy wrote in a spectacularly negative review of A Streetcar Named Desire for Partisan Review in 1948. Though I tend to share McCarthy’s antipathy to the playwright’s work, I don’t think the liabilities she lists are insurmountable. They are, in fact, elevated to fascinating, florid heights by Elizabeth Taylor in the three film adaptations of Williams plays she starred in: Richard Brooks’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), and Joseph Losey’s Boom (1968).

The first two movies both hinge on Taylor’s knowledge of a secret—homosexuality—so unspeakable that torrents of words around the subject inevitably spill forth. “It’s got to be told and you never let me tell it!” Maggie “the Cat” Pollitt shrieks in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to her constantly soused husband, Brick (Paul Newman), a onetime football hero who hasn’t touched his concupiscent wife in months. The unmarked antecedent of it in Maggie’s aggrieved claim is eventually revealed to be the wretched set of circumstances surrounding the suicide of Brick’s gridiron teammate Skipper: her jealousy of the closeness the two men shared; her attempt, abandoned at the last minute, to seduce her husband’s buddy; Skipper’s desperate phone calls to an indifferent Brick after Maggie’s machinations. Movie Maggie gets to “tell it,” but only part of it; the Motion Picture Production Code demanded the excision of the original play’s more explicit references to the true nature of Brick and Skipper’s relationship. Though Taylor’s speech in this Mississippi Delta–set story also demonstrates conspicuous elision, the letter g all but eliminated from the alphabet—“You were such an excitin’ lover”—the actress flourishes when delivering her character’s self-evident proclamations: “Maggie the Cat is alive!” (The line is spoken by a woman who had just escaped death: During the filming of Cat, Taylor was granted permission to fly with her third husband, producer Mike Todd, to an event in New York in his private plane, Lucky Liz, but a bad cold prevented her from making the trip. Lucky Liz crashed in New Mexico, killing Todd and the three others on board.)

Like Maggie, the ultimately talking-cured Catherine Holly in the garish Southern gay-gothic Suddenly, Last Summer also has a penchant for referring to herself in the third person: “She’s here, Doctor. Miss Catherine is here,” she says to John Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift), a psychosurgeon. (Monty Clift is—barely—alive: Suddenly is the actor’s third and final film with Taylor, who rushed to his aid on May 12, 1956, the night he smashed his car into a telephone pole after leaving a dinner party at her house.) Dr. Cukrowicz has been summoned by the moneyed Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) to lobotomize Catherine, her niece. The imperious older woman insists on the procedure so her relative will cease “her dreadful, obscene babbling” about Sebastian, Violet’s beloved son, who died under mysterious circumstances while on holiday with Catherine in the Spanish resort town Cabeza de Lobo—a fictional place made even more mythic by Taylor’s insistent Castilian lisp when pronouncing the last syllable of the first word. What’s most unreal, though, are the sordid descriptions that come pouring out of Catherine after she’s given a shot of truth serum: Her gay cousin, we learn, was eaten alive by the young Iberian trade he had solicited. (Unlike that of Cat, this traumatic recapitulation was given a special dispensation by the Production Code, which, according to Vito Russo in The Celluloid Closet, concluded: “Since the film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle, it can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.”)

As Catherine nears the climax of this gruesome flashback, Taylor lets out a piercing cry of Heeelllllppppp! The moment typifies what Wayne Koestenbaum, in his magisterial essay on the actress, “The Elizabeth Taylor Puzzle,” collected in Cleavage (2000), calls her “vocal incongruity”: “[H]er voice sometimes curdles, as when she screams at the end of Suddenly, Last Summer, and we hear a dip or hollow or indentation inside the scream...” The sounds that Taylor makes in Boom (written by Williams, adapting his 1963 play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore) startle, confuse, delight, and terrify, often all at once, as with her first words uttered in the film: “Pain! Injection!” Playing the monstrous, dying Sissy Goforth, who lives in a villa on an island in the Mediterranean that she has essentially declared a nation-state, Taylor speaks pidgin Italian and exchanges, as a bizarre greeting, a series of yahoos with Noël Coward (playing the Witch of Capri.). Responding to the recital of the first stanza of Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” by costar (and then spouse) Richard Burton, Taylor lets out, in her blowsiest register, a befuddled Whaaaaat? Pure folly and often unendurable, Boom was instructively categorized for me recently by a friend and fellow Taylor fan as part of the actress’s “avant-garde period.” I’m not sure which films would constitute the bookends of this “phase” of the actress’s career—1967’s Doctor Faustus to the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads? More generously, I’m inclined to say every project she starred in bears the trace of her innovation and experimenting, each role an exercise in breaking down—and rendering superfluous—the distinction between “good” and “bad” acting.

Melissa Anderson

“Tennessee Williams” runs at Film Forum September 26–October 6. Boom screens October 3; Suddenly, Last Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof screen October 4–5.