Key Figure

09.10.10

Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, 2009, black-and-white and color film, 109 minutes. Left: Cornelia Foss and Glenn Gould on the cruise ship the R.M.S. Segwun, Lake Muskoka, Ontario, June 1968. Personal photo of Christopher Foss. Right: Glenn Gould in Nassau, Bahamas, 1956. Photo: Jock Carroll.


ASIDE FROM THE ABSURD TITLE and what has become a conventional—but in my book, cavalier—use of re-creations, Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont’s documentary about Glenn Gould is both an excellent primer and a reminder of just how revelatory it was to hear, for the first time, Gould’s Bach recordings. By foregrounding the structure of the music, he made the Baroque sound utterly modern. (I’d say the same for his readings of Beethoven, although others might disagree.)

As more than a few of the authoritative talking heads attest in Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould—it really is a laughable title—the Canadian pianist was one of the twentieth century’s greatest keyboard artists. He gave his first solo recital in Toronto in 1947 at age fourteen and made his New York debut eight years later. His instant stardom was attributable to his dazzling piano technique and a musical intelligence that allowed him to radically rethink and hear afresh the warhorses of the classical repertory. It didn’t hurt that he was wildly handsome and, like many shy people, clownishly funny, and that his method of fingering the keys—he used a custom-made piano chair that was only fourteen inches high and allowed him to attack the piano from below—was as weird as it was effective. He also sang quite loudly when he played, as if his voice could coax from the piano exactly the sound he heard in his head.

The day after his first New York appearance, he signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia. The movie includes an amusing and touching sequence of Gould in the Columbia studio telling a skeptical producer that he’s going to begin with the Goldberg Variations. The recording became a classical best seller. In 1981, a year before his death at age fifty, Gould made a second, very different recording of the same work. The two bookend his career and in retrospect become a meditation on mortality.

Hozer and Raymont’s movie is a fast-moving clip job, but it is no less fascinating for it. There are about a half dozen documentaries about Gould, as well as an archive of radio and television programs that Gould himself produced after 1964, when he stopped performing live, explaining that he hated playing on strange pianos in strange halls and having to deal with various conductors, some of whom could not comprehend what he was doing. At the opening of the film Gould describes himself as existing entirely within media, and in the second half of his career, he took control of the analog recording studio in a way that prefigures the digital age. An illuminating sequence has Gould and his audio engineer at work, Gould hovering over the mixing board offering suggestions and then taking control of the dials himself.

The filmmakers claim that they have substantial new material from Russian archives of Gould’s 1957 Soviet Union concert tour, which put him on the international map and, according to another piano giant, Vladimir Ashkenazy, was an amazing experience both for him and for the more than capacity audiences. Still, aside from the Ashkenazy interview, a few photos, and some very brief moving-image sequences, there’s not enough material here to justify a new movie about Gould.

Trailer for Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.

The real journalistic coup is an interview with Cornelia Foss, who only recently publicly acknowledged her long love affair with Gould. She and her husband, the composer/conductor/pianist Lukas Foss, became friends with Gould in 1962. Soon after, her involvement with Gould turned romantic. In 1968, she left her husband and, with their two children, moved to Toronto. She and Gould planned to marry, but after five years, she left him to return to Lukas. Her lucid account of this period and the affectionate memories that the children, who are now middle-aged, have of their substitute father refute previous portraits of the undeniably eccentric pianist as an ascetic recluse or, conversely, shagging groupies like a rock star. What is extremely sad is Cornelia’s description of Gould’s descent into paranoia during the years they spent together, his psychological instability likely exacerbated by his use of prescription drugs including antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds. The film achieves its stated aim of “humanizing” a great artist and a great star while eschewing pop psychology.

Still, I have one serious caveat. Having considerably more audio than visual material, the filmmakers resort to the common but questionable technique of re-created imagery. In shot after shot, a Gould stand-in is shown at a distance and with his face turned from the camera, walking alone through the city, the countryside, and, ridiculously, through the lobby of a New York hotel after the first unsuccessful attempt to revive the relationship with Foss, and along a beach in the Hamptons after a second attempt ends in failure. Much more heartrending is a close-up of the log Gould kept of his compulsive attempts to reach his ex-lover by phone.

Gould, who dressed regardless of the weather in a cap and a long overcoat, his neck swathed in a woolen muffler, his hands protected by thick mittens, is an easy figure to simulate. But to what end? If the filmmakers want to suggest his loneliness, the impression is negated by the presence of the camera and the unseen crew behind it. How could these shots have possibly come into being? Wouldn’t the media-savvy Gould have been aware of being tailed by paparazzi? Wouldn’t he have objected? The re-creations make no sense emotionally or psychologically, and what’s more, Gould almost certainly would have hated them.

Amy Taubin

Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould opens Friday, September 10 in New York. For more details, click here.

Field Trip

09.07.10

Left: Peter Tscherkassky, Coming Attractions, 2010, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 25 minutes. Right: Thom Andersen, Get Out of the Car, 2010, still from a color film in 16 mm, 34 minutes.


AMONG THE MANY virtues of Get Out of the Car, Thom Andersen’s latest essay-film–cum-travelogue, is the often funny commentary provided by folks curious about the reasons why the filmmaker and CalArts professor is so interested in the ephemera that catch his eye. At one point, a gentleman understandably asks why Andersen is filming an empty billboard structure. By way of reply, Andersen wonders aloud whether he might be making “a movie about absence.” Says the passerby in his best deadpan: “When you make a movie about something, call me.”

Viewers who flock to the Toronto International Film Festival for the latest Oscar bait would no doubt have a similar reaction to other components of Wavelengths, the festival’s tenth annual sidebar of avant-garde film and video. Indeed, the works showcased here frequently appear to lack a familiar “something”—narrative, for one, though there are certainly stories aplenty. And for those patrons eager to discover what’s really transpiring on-screen—the studies of spaces real and invented, the questions of time and perception, the mystery and materiality of the cinematic medium and its digital descendants—Wavelengths’s selections prove to be more stimulating than the more easily recognizable fare on offer elsewhere.

A lively “city symphony” of sights and signage that is a worthy companion piece to Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2005), Get Out of the Car is one of several major new works to receive world or North American premieres at Wavelengths. Andersen’s 16-mm film is also presented as part of Wavelengths’s first-night program of urban-oriented short pieces ranging from Callum Cooper’s Victoria, George, Edward & Thatcher (a frantically paced, iPhone-shot survey of near-identical London row houses) and Landscape, semi-surround (the latest in a series of dauntingly intricate frame-by-frame animated pieces by Japanese artist Eriko Sonoda) to Everywhere Was the Same, in which Beirut-based artist Basma Al-Sharif conveys the horror of an air strike on Gaza via an enigmatic mix of narration and slide show.

There are three more tightly curated programs, as well as evenings devoted to new work by two longtime residents of cinema’s outer limits: James Benning and Nathaniel Dorsky. Benning’s Ruhr, filmed on high-definition video in the titular German industrial region, somehow seems a Bela Tarr–like epic of durational cinema, even though it lasts only two hours. The first hour comprises several lengthy, fixed-camera shots that reveal such locations as the interiors of a steelworks and a mosque. (In another sequence, a worker removes graffiti from what turns out to be a sculpture by Richard Serra.) The second hour invites diligent viewers to study every wisp of smoke that emerges from a stack at a Coke factory. Thus do memories of Andy Warhol’s Empire mingle with reveries about empires in decay.

Less arduous is the program of three new films by the transcendentally minded Dorsky, which mark his final efforts to make something on Kodachrome stock, his long-preferred (and recently discontinued) medium. Fellow alchemist Peter Tscherkassky also debuts Coming Attractions, a typically cunning twenty-five-minute piece that interweaves references to the early cinema trickery of Méliès and Léger, glimpses of later masterpieces (Taxi Driver, Pasolini’s Decameron), and the repeated gestures and expressions of unknown actors in the outtake reels of long-forgotten commercials. Just as kinetic are new offerings by Italian master Paolo Gioli—whose Photo Finish Figures (Il finish delle figure) is a rapturous procession of faces, eyes, and assorted shapes—and the one and only Ken Jacobs—who dazzles with two doses of strobophobic excess, including a dance-happy tribute to his friend Jonas Mekas. Like many of the veteran filmmakers represented at Wavelengths, these deans of experimental cinema are eager to show off the spring in their steps.

Jason Anderson

Wavelengths runs September 10–13 at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Jacques Tati, My Uncle, 1958, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Left: Gerard Arpel and Monsieur Hulot (Alain Bécourt and Jacques Tati). Right: Monsieur Hulot (Jacques Tati) (center).


SIMULTANEOUSLY CELEBRATED and overshadowed, My Uncle (1958) represents the peak of pantomime genius Jacques Tati’s career and yet earns a place in his sparse filmography as a transitional film. Located in between the earthy yet moribund “traditional France” satirized in Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and the insulated postmodern fun house of 1967 debacle/masterpiece Playtime, the setting of My Uncle depicts the former world giving way to the latter, with outdoor markets and quaint three-story walk-ups slowly being replaced by automated houses and efficient industrial plants. The contrast is especially marked in the shorter, reedited version of the 1958 original, featuring alternate takes and English dubbing that further accentuate Tati’s signature theme of globalized uniformity.

Lanky, befuddled, and moving with a staggeringly stiff gait that can best be described as hastily hesitant, Tati’s Monsieur Hulot is, of course, the bumbling refugee from a simpler era who must navigate the film’s different worlds. But whereas Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (1922) or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) commented on the disorienting modern industrial era by employing jolting, even violent slapstick, Tati’s stategy is relatively subdued in its amusement. Like much of the Tati universe, My Uncle centers around the sight gag more than the physical gag, and the film’s real protagonist turns out to be the antiseptic, button-operated home of Hulot’s bourgeois, socialite sister Madame Arpel (Adrienne Servantie), with its inconvenient, surrealistically streamlined aesthetic—a garden that must be tiptoed through via haphazard paths, a fish-shaped fountain spewing too-blue water, a kitchen that looks and functions like a dentist’s office.

Comfortably situated in his dilapidated yet close-knit working-class environs, raincoat-attired, pipe-smoking Hulot causes chaos when placed in front of anything slightly modern, though just as often the supporting players find themselves flummoxed by the gadgets with which they’ve surrounded themselves. Disasters and visual puns patiently unfold in perfectly choreographed long shots that subordinate human beings to architecture, give precedence to aural rhythms (sci-fi hums, squeaks, and swooshes) over platitudinous dialogue, and allow the simultaneous occurrence of multiple planes of action (and bold, Pop art color, a first for Tati). As with Holiday and Playtime, the film reaches a high point in a posh party that disintegrates into anarchy as one accoutrement after another is destroyed or else wittily reconfigured for alternate use. Laugh-out-loud moments are rare but well earned; “aha” moments in which one recognizes the follies of technological absurdity are constant.

Though My Uncle’s pokes at the encroaching ersatz values and mindless consumerism of postwar France can be occasionally blunt (a drab, suburbanite couple offers another couple some plastic flowers as a gift), and though it views a vanishing era through a somewhat nostalgic lens (Hulot’s nephew breaks free from his mother and father’s materialistic existence to join a band of creatively mischievous kids who seem to have come from another time), Tati’s humor isn’t merely in the service of a reactionary Luddism. “You just have to get used to these things,” exclaims Arpel to her hopelessly old-fashioned maid in one of the film’s few important lines of dialogue. A decade later, Playtime would realize in the most radical, innovative terms Tati’s vision of a society completely overwhelmed by machines designed to make life easier, but in My Uncle he was already demonstrating that “getting used to” social estrangement—not to mention its accompanying bafflement—may be nearly impossible, even if the things that cause it are the stuff of comic malleability.

Michael Joshua Rowin

A new 35-mm restoration of Jacques Tati’s My Uncle runs September 8–16 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.

Soul Train

09.01.10

Lixin Fan, Last Train Home, 2009, still from a color film, 89 minutes.


RARELY IN A DOCUMENTARY does every shot matter as a bearer of emotion and information. Lixin Fan’s nonfiction debut, Last Train Home (2009), is just such an exceptional movie. The three opening images establish the conditions that shape the lives of the film’s subject, the Zhang family. First, an overhead camera pans across hundreds of people packed into a roofless railroad waiting-hall, their open umbrellas suggesting a field of pastel flowers. The image immediately brings to mind a digitally extended Andreas Gursky photo, but here, the space and all the people occupying it are actual, not virtual. In the second shot, the angle changes to show that the people in the hall are only a small fraction of the crowd that stretches for blocks outside the station, and now all of them are pressing forward, running toward the unseen trains. The third shot is simply a title card that explains what we have seen: During the New Year’s holiday, 130 million Chinese migrant workers pack the trains that take them from the cities to their home villages. It is the world’s largest human migration and, as we soon learn, the only time they get to see the children and parents they’ve left behind.

Zhang Changhua and his wife Chen Suqin left their Sichuan village to work in the sweatshops of Guangzhou when their daughter Zhang Qin was only a year old. Later they had a son who was also left with his grandparents on their tiny farm. At the time Lixin began his documentary, the father and mother had been working in Guangzhou for roughly seventeen years; their pay is about five dollars for a twelve-to-fourteen-hour day. They work six days a week and live in a dormitory cubicle near the factory. They try to save everything they earn to pay for the exorbitantly priced New Year’s holiday railroad tickets and to support the family back home. Their only goal is for their children to get a good education so that they can have better lives than their own. Unfortunately, the children are not cooperating.

Lixin filmed the Zhang family over a period of three years. The beginning, middle, and end of the film are punctuated by the spectacle of the migration—the camera jostling through the crowds in the station, boarding and riding the packed trains along with the Zhangs. (If any of the passengers questioned what the cameraman was doing taking up valuable space, there is no evidence of that on the screen.) Aside from these scenes, the documentary is stunningly intimate. Lixin’s technique is observational but not fly-on-the-wall. As the Zhangs go about their lives they are also engaged in an ongoing conversation with the filmmaker, confiding in him their thoughts and feelings. Lixin avoids any semblance of talking heads, keeping his camera to one side, framing his subjects close but mostly in profile. Thus it is all the more shocking when Qin, who is in the middle of a full-fledged adolescent rebellion, comes to blows with her father and then confronts the cameraman head-on, goading him to film her as, she shouts, she “really” is. Qin’s story is so typical it could seem like a dramatic cliché—she defies her parents, leaves school, and goes to work in the city, first in a sweatshop, then as a waitress in a topless bar where the female workers begin each shift chanting in unison, “The customer is always right. The boss is always right.” But the truth of her anguish and anger is heart wrenching and undeniable, as is the more restrained emotional expression of her parents and grandmother.

Elegantly edited and impeccably shot, Last Train Home builds a visual dynamic through the contrast between the gray, smog-ridden city and the gloriously beautiful countryside. One’s first reaction to seeing the Zhang children and their grandmother at home and in the fields of their tiny farm is to wonder why anyone would give up this natural paradise for the crowded, filthy city. But it soon becomes apparent that producing enough food for their own survival—a tiny harvest of bitter melons and rice—is as backbreaking as working the factories, and much lonelier. There is not even the illusion of a better future in rural China.

Lixin Fan, Last Train Home, 2009, still from a color film, 89 minutes. Zhang Qin and Zhang Yang.


Eschewing voice-over and using only minimal intertitles, Lixin manages to include some crucial information about the larger economic picture. We learn, for example, that the grandmother became a farmworker during the Mao regime—when, she says, life was even harder. Her dream of living in the city ended even before the transition to capitalism. When the father gets sick and misses a day of work, we glean from his conversation that the migrant factory workers have no health benefits, unemployment insurance, or pensions. By the end of the film, both the father and mother are forced to acknowledge that when they are no longer strong enough to work, they will end up, impoverished, in their village, their only hope being that the children will take their turn contributing to their parents’ support. From what we’ve seen of Qin, last glimpsed on a dark street wearing heels and hot pants, that’s nothing they can count on. Indeed, Qin’s feeling that she was abandoned by her parents—who, she says, care about nothing except making money—and her understanding that part of their desire for her to have a better life is so that she can support them in their old age have already, perhaps irrevocably, damaged family ties and traditions.

But curiously, the film omits two crucial pieces of information that would allow us to fully understand the dilemma in which the 130 million migrant workers are trapped. Perhaps Lixin was forced into a game with the Chinese censors, or perhaps these underlying conditions are so obvious to the Chinese that he could not believe they would not be common knowledge elsewhere. In any case, it was only by reading interviews with the filmmaker that I learned that in its rush to a capitalist, industrialized economy, China withdrew support from agricultural production, thus forcing workers to flee the impoverished countryside to find work in the cities if they were to survive. Even more important to understanding the double bind in which the Zhangs are trapped is that the children of migrant workers are not allowed to go to school in the cities where their parents labor. To obtain any kind of education they must remain in the villages where they are registered at birth. Thus, the cost of becoming an industrialized giant is not only on individual workers but also on the institution of the family.

Omissions aside, this is a memorable movie, easily on the level of recent documentaries by Jia Zhangke, a filmmaker to whom Lixin is obviously indebted. Last Train Home is wonderfully crafted and has moments of lyric beauty but refuses the veneer of glamour that characterizes much of the cultural production of the new China. The world of the Zhang family is invisible to those who trade in Chinese art and fly in and out of art and information-technology fairs in Beijing and Shanghai. But next time you and I pull on our jeans from Barneys or Target, we should probably ponder who broke their backs to cover our asses.

Amy Taubin

Last Train Home opens Friday, September 3 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.

Left: Production shot from The March of Time (1935–51). Right: Still from The March of Time (1935–51). J. Edgar Hoover.


LONG AFTER ITS 1935–51 theatrical life, The March of Time short-subject series remained the parodic model for naive Chamber of Commerce–style ballyhoo. (One Simpsons take ended with a cart-tugging dachshund “pulling for Springfield.”) But on its seventy-fifth anniversary, these ephemera remain compulsively watchable beyond camp anachronism—appealingly eager to please, they stop at little to pack curiosities, celebrities (historical and Hollywood), intrigue, trend proclaiming, and pontification into each monthly dispatch. The loosely grouped selections screening at the Museum of Modern Art (joined by a marathon on Turner Classic Movies) show that this “new kind of pictorial journalism” reflected a version of the world back to America with a facility and a plenitude that anticipated television, ranging across Leadbelly, Palestine, bootleg coal, auto safety, World War II crises, “arson squads in action,” beauty regimes, strikebreaking, and, of course, “dogs for sale.”

The Lumièresactualités and both studio and collective newsreels preceded The March of Time, which has been aptly characterized as the “magazine” to its “newspaper” precursors. Launched by Henry Luce’s Time magazine and the brainchild of future Life publisher Roy Larsen, it existed first as a radio show, colorfully (even raucously) reenacting news of the day with actors’ voices. Later, as with documentaries of the period, voices ruddered Louis de Rochemont’s film version, guiding us through the antifascist exposés of “Inside Nazi Germany” or providing a teen’s inside-scoop commentary on “Teen-Age Girls.” Unlike mere compilations of footage, the productions involved research, reenactments, and music, becoming so elaborate that even with hundreds of theaters participating, March of Time lost money and almost shut down.

The March of Time template persists today in invent-an-arc documentaries and TV news. (The 1950 reel “Mid-Century: Halfway to Where” becomes a nearly ludicrous exercise in all-nighter-term-paper transition as it leaps from spectator sports to music to psychiatry to total war within minutes.) And while the series was progressive in some regards, it’s hard to forget Robert Coover’s jibe in The Public Burning (1977) at its parent magazine’s role as ridiculous national historian. But a lot can be forgiven by the sight of Marlene Dietrich, in “Show Business at War,” taken for a twirl by a star-struck soldier during a Hollywood visit for the boys. As each episode declared, admirably incontrovertible: “Time... marches on!”

Nicolas Rapold

“The March of Time, Seventy-fifth Anniversary” runs September 1–10 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details, click here.

All Quiet

08.24.10

Josef von Sternberg, The Docks of New York, 1928, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 76 minutes. Left: A Girl (Betty Compson). Right: A Girl and The Stoker (Betty Compson and George Bancroft).


AM I LIVING in a dream world if I say that the shadows and fog and gazing faces of The Docks of New York feel realer, more fully realized, more urgently alive with thought and feeling, than most movies aspiring to realism? Josef von Sternberg’s 1928 silent has usually been described as the first full unfurling of his sensuously lit fatalism, the consummate style that leads otherwise rational people to parrot Sternberg’s pronouncements that he was Miss Marlene Dietrich. But it’s rare to find portrayals, in or out of silents, as immediate and finely rendered as the frank desire and force of will embodied by stoker Bill (ex-sailor George Bancroft) or the hard-bitten weariness of waifish barroom beauty Mae (Betty Compson), whom he marries on a one-night shore leave that Sternberg turns into a lifetime.

Docks of New York—set mostly in a bar and flophouse, replete with textured surfaces (cracked walls, strung netting, arcing captain’s wheel)—is in fact a period piece that looks back to an earlier age of the city’s waterfront and dock-wallopers. The Last Command (1928), too, lives mostly in the past—dominated by an hour-long flashback to Imperial Russia that’s twice the length of the story’s crass Hollywood present. The two films are grouped with Sternberg’s mercurial gangster pathbreaker Underworld (1927) in a new suite of restored silents from the Criterion Collection (whose DVD interviews and video essays demonstrate, among other things, the need for a release of his poetic, proto-neorealist 1925 debut feature, The Salvation Hunters). Sternberg was a model of absolute technical mastery—before directing, he supervised an entire film lab. Repeated migratory flights between Old World and New were undergirded by unstinting determination, readable in the American screen dreams and demimondes he wrought with a European sense of exquisite tragic decay, between Frank Borzage and Nicholas Ray.

Before Dietrich’s heavy lids there was Evelyn Brent’s “glum” and “sinister” look, as one early account had it. She’s outfitted in feathers (all over) as mop-haired Bull Weed’s moll in Underworld, drawn too by the street-professor (Clive Brook) her gangsta fella takes under his massive wing. In The Last Command, she’s a revolutionary in furs, in low-cut white, visiting-the-general gown, in slick black flip-collar radical chic (the kind that, briefly, in the future, would connote the future). “Instead of flat lighting, shadows,” explained Sternberg. “In the place of pasty masks, faces in relief.” Was it really this simple: the dazzling-shabby tiger-print blouse of Mae’s self-sacrificing friend in Docks, set off against Bill’s shiny black raincoat that’s so excitingly streaked with light, as if it’s actually visibly landing on him as he swats down a pushy bartender? And throughout and about the docks, seemingly all the steam ever exhaled by all the tugboats and trains in Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s Manhatta (1921).

Underworld ends with something close to wartime bombardment—Bull versus the world, holed up in his hideout—and The Last Command too explodes with tumult: in the flashback, the psychotic czar-ejecting rabble, and at either end, the brash hustle of a Hollywood studio. Bridging the two is Emil Jannings, as the imperial general turned limelight extra with the role of a lifetime: himself. (The intertitle tends to get laughs: “And so the backwash of a tortured nation had carried still another extra to Hollywood.”) Under the studio cameras, he is triggered by a czarist anthem and a wind machine: He rages forth with the full force of Mother Russia, and collapses—one more perfect moment of performance captured before dying. Pull back camera; roll end logo.

Nicolas Rapold

“3 Silent Classics by Josef von Sternberg” is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection. For more details, click here.