Jean Cocteau, The Blood of a Poet, 1930, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 55 minutes.
IN THE AGE of CGI digital wizardry, the homespun effects of Jean Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy appear quaint and sometimes clunky. But even (or especially) in their simplicity, numerous scenes remain seared on our collective cinematic imagination—whether Jean Marais locked in a narcissistic embrace with his own mirrored reflection, or Lee Miller as a talking, armless statue come to life. Of course, the thirty years that separate The Blood of a Poet (1930) from The Testament of Orpheus (1960) underscore a chasm between contexts: from the burgeoning realm of sound film to the technical advances of the postwar period (including a quick color sequence in Testament), in addition to the director’s own aesthetic vicissitudes. But Cocteau’s obsession with keyholes and doorways, mirrors and passages, transformation and nostalgia, remains steadfast. So too does his navel-gazing poetics of the self, and its nexus in the charismatic negotiation between modernity and myth.
That Orpheus was himself the most renowned of poets and musicians in Greek mythology suggests the unabashed self-absorption at the heart of Cocteau’s cinematics—characteristic, too, of his larger, prodigious oeuvre as a poet, artist, playwright, and tireless aesthete. Whether in a self-portrait made out of pipe cleaners, or a cast of his profile inserted into random scenes, the director’s likeness appears in numerous guises. Even when embodied by Marais or Enrique Rivero, Cocteau looms as his films’ thinly veiled protagonist. The themes of opium and frustrated romance saturate Blood of a Poet with allusions to Cocteau’s own addiction and unrequited loves. Still, these are couched in a seamless and mesmerizing alchemy of absurdity and classicizing grace. It was just that fluid mix that got Cocteau in trouble with the more radical strain of the French avant-garde, who accused him of popularizing their work as a mere passing fad, rendered effete and genteel. Cocteau’s vexed relationship to Surrealism is in full evidence in the fifty-five-minute Blood of a Poet (which was funded by the Vicomte de Noailles, who also bankrolled Dalí and Buñuel’s L’Age d’or of the same year). Cocteau’s film borrows certain tropes from the latter artists’ bag of tricks, such as the appearance of disembodied lips on his Poet’s hand. The film’s somewhat fragmented narrative appears more faithful to a set of tableaux vivants than to a narrative drive.
Though certainly elliptical, Orpheus (1949) proceeds in a comparatively linear fashion, transposing the myth of the eponymous figure’s descent onto the underworld into contemporary Paris. For Testament of Orpheus, Cocteau himself assumed the title role, playing an eighteenth-century poet suspended in a kind of temporal purgatory. Following a somewhat overwrought, baroque script—featuring cameos by Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso, as well as roles by Lucia Bosé and Charles Aznavour—the film fails to match real pathos to its overweening ambition. (In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther cruelly deemed it “a glorified home movie” by a Cocteau “who is no longer pretty.”) Still, perhaps more than any of his other films, Cocteau’s “Orpheus” trilogy anticipates his influence on future generations of filmmakers, from Sergei Parajanov to Carmelo Bene. Even when Cocteau’s scenes fail to cohere, or to transcend their heavy-handed stylization, they evoke like few other contemporary films the plastic versatility of the cinematic medium as a nexus between the visual and the verbal, embodiment and cerebration, time and fixed image. At once disaffected and sensual, self-punishing and indulgent, Cocteau’s three “Orphic” films remain dedicated—as announced in the epigraph to his first full-length feature, Blood of a Poet—to the pursuit of enigma. That it is often an entirely personal enigma is, like Cocteau’s poetics in general, equal parts endearing and exasperating.
IN AN AGE when film festivals seem increasingly packaged (as opposed to programmed), when their supposed goal of something-for-everybody plurality mainly begets middlebrow blandness, the curatorial coherence—and one might even say, the unapologetic good taste—of an event like the Viennale sets it apart more than ever. Most festivals of a certain size struggle to retain any trace of personality, but the Viennale, which concluded its forty-eighth edition earlier this month (featuring some 350 screenings over thirteen days), is a big festival with a legible point of view, rooted in a strong sense both of film history and of what matters in contemporary world cinema.
The festival trailer sets the tone: Following commissions from Jean-Luc Godard (2008) and James Benning (2009), this year’s was by Cannes Palme d’Or laureate Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose atmospheric minute-long spelunk, Empire, is a refashioned outtake from Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010). As usual, the main selection included most of the year’s cinephile-anointed favorites—films by Apichatpong, Manoel de Oliveira, Raúl Ruiz, Godard—but also made ample room for emerging filmmakers. Quebecois director Denis Côté, the subject of an early-career spotlight, presented his new feature, Curling; the story of an isolated father and daughter in a snowbound backwater, it derives its power from a creeping flavor of mystery and a slowly emerging humanity. Likewise finding surprising depths of emotion in off-kilter moods and characters (not to mention another eccentric father-daughter relationship), Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Attenberg is a wholly original coming-of-age movie, rife with erotic stirrings and mortal dread, and anchored in a Red Desert–like sense of place. (The setting is a Greek industrial town.) An equally intriguing experiment in the art of deadpan, Li Hongqi’s Winter Vacation is yet another dispatch on the spiritual emptiness of the new China, but the film assumes the ingenious guise of a radically distended slacker comedy.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Empire, 2010.
Equal emphasis is given to documentaries, and this year’s nonfiction slate was notable for the range of formal approaches to politically or historically charged subjects. Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu recounts the dictator’s career exclusively through Romanian state footage (and craftily invented sound design). Similarly, Susana de Sousa Dias’s 48 looks back at Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship (the title refers to the number of years he was in power) through official archival images, pairing mugshotlike photographs of political prisoners with their voice-over recollections. Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario, Room 164 filters the familiar headlines of Mexican drug violence through a sustained, gruesomely detailed motel-room monologue of a masked ex–cartel hitman, who provides visual interest by compulsively sketching and list making in a drawing pad. John Gianvito’s four-hour-plus Vapor Trail (Clark), ostensibly an account of toxic military pollution at the US Clark Air Base in the Philippines, opens up—via essayistic digressions, archival photos, and expansive interviews with victims and activists—into a sober, epic indictment of the American imperial project. Equally ambitious and pointed in its politics, Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s The Forgotten Space is a Marxist cine-essay about the contemporary maritime economy. Reminding us that 90 percent of the world’s cargo still travels by sea, the film traverses major ports (from Rotterdam to Hong Kong) and ventures inland on highways and railroads, examining the rise of the shipping container, the changes in transport systems, and the toll that global capitalism has exerted on human labor.
As at the Rotterdam Film Festival, the Viennale’s closest counterpart in terms of sensibility, retrospectives comfortably share center stage. In conjunction with the Viennale, the Austrian Filmmuseum organized a monthlong Éric Rohmer survey. The festival also honored another recently departed giant of French cinema, the director of photography William Lubtchansky, showcasing his collaborations with Jacques Rivette, Straub/Huillet, Godard, Agnès Varda, and others. A less obvious choice, American B-movie pulpmeister Larry Cohen received his own tribute, and the comic anarchy and tabloid energy of films like God Told Me To (1976) and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) seemed as fresh and subversive as ever. It was one of the festival’s most successful retrospectives in years, and Cohen, a youthful seventy, was in conspicuous attendance, wisecracking his way through Q&A sessions. At one introduction, he graciously thanked his hosts for the honor, then added: “Don’t let it happen again.”
The forty-eighth edition of the Viennale ran October 21–November 3, 2010. For more details, click here.
COSMIC RAY FOREVER! Pelting the screen with flickering invocations of sex and death and set to Ray Charles’s arousing, carousing “What’d I Say,” Bruce Conner’s 1961 electrifying five-minute granddaddy of all music videos is the opening salvo in a retrospective of movies by the artist, who died in 2008 at age seventy-four after a long illness. Conner’s reputation as a maker of still images—assemblages, collages, photographs, drawings, and paintings—has taken off in recent years, but it is his moving-image work that cements his place among the innovators and masters of twentieth-century art.
An inveterate tinkerer, Conner was determined to leave authorized versions of his films when he passed. The retrospective “Bruce Conner: The Art of Montage” playing at Film Forum (November 10–23) comprises seventeen single-screen works, varying in length between ten seconds and thirty-five minutes, and is divided into two programs of roughly seventy-five and seventy minutes respectively. Program A is the stronger of the two, with six breathtaking works: Cosmic Ray, A Movie (1958), Marilyn Times Five (1968–73), Easter Morning (1966/2008), Valse Triste (1978), and Take the 5:10 to Dreamland (1977). Program B starts strong with Mongoloid (1978), America Is Waiting (1981), and Report (1963–67), but the two films that conclude the program—Looking for Mushrooms (1959–67/1996) and Crossroads (1976)— are lesser works (others strongly disagree) and, at thirty-five minutes, Crossroads is also the longest. If you are unfamiliar with Conner’s work, you should start with program A.
With a few exceptions, Conner’s films were originally released in 16 mm. After his death, the Conner Family Trust transferred the film masters to digital for preservation. (The Trust also removed the bootlegs from YouTube.) At Film Forum, all the films are being projected in DigiBeta, and they look so splendid that for a minute I thought I was watching 35 mm.
Conner began working in film in the late 1950s, extending his assemblages and collages into the time-based medium. It was the moment of Rauschenberg’s Combines and Burroughs’s cut-up novels (and, with Brion Gysin, cut-up audiotapes and movies). Conner’s fascination with underground movies began when he was part of a small circle of filmmakers and artists—first in Boulder, Colorado, then in San Francisco—who organized screenings in galleries and impromptu spaces. In the evocatively and concretely titled essay “How I Discovered Electricity” (reprinted in the new anthology Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Area 1945–2000), Conner describes how he had no choice but to make his own movie when filmmaker Larry Jordan, who was running the Camera Obscura film series, refused to allow him to insert a filmstrip of a nude woman in the countdown leader for someone else’s film. (This anecdote was perhaps the source decades later for one of Brad Pitt’s character’s subversive activities in David Fincher’s Fight Club , except by then the forbidden image was an erect penis—or, for all I know, this was a practice adopted in the intervening years by bored projectionists/frustrated filmmakers everywhere.) Conner looked on both soft-core nudies and the countdown leader (used to focus the film but unseen by the audience unless the projectionist is careless or is an avant-gardist dedicated to the materiality of the medium) as the cinematic repressed and suppressed. He collected examples of both categories along with other “worthless” genres—old newsreels; training, educational, and science films; cartoons; and 16-mm condensed versions of Hollywood westerns and other kinds of B movies that were sold for home entertainment (they were the predecessors of VHS cassettes).
Conner’s first official film, the twelve-minute A Movie, is a rapid-fire edit of clips from all these categories. It begins, as movies do, with the title and the filmmaker’s name writ large on the screen. The opening also includes flashes of the taboo girlie flick and various focus leaders as well as the intertitle THE END. After this introduction, what could be termed the “film proper” begins (although it is in fact no more “proper” than the title sequence, variations of which punctuate the succeeding eleven minutes) with a celebration of the essence of all movies—they show stuff moving—and of the kinetic effect on the viewer when subject movement or camera movement or both at once is combined with lightning-fast editing, especially when the alternation of predominantly bright images with predominantly dark images produces a flicker that seems to expand the screen. The thrills and laughter induced by the initial cascade of speeding cars, galloping horses, a charging elephant, and careening wagon trains (as if the trailers for a dozen different movies were contesting for first place in the viewer’s eyes) soon give way to a darker strain of images: The cars crash, the Hindenburg explodes midair, the soldiers fall, the A-bomb releases its mushroom cloud. Horror and elegy are one. The apocalypse is nigh. A Movie contains the infamous seemingly causal montage of a German U-boat gunner looking through his periscope/a naked woman posing/a missile speeding toward an unseen target—a two-second sight-gag illustration of D. W. Griffith’s maxim, later claimed by Godard, that “cinema is a girl and a gun.”
Like all of Conner’s films, A Movie both embraces and critiques that maxim and everything else that thrills and appalls us in the movies and in the history of the century written in the language of movies. A Movie is—as are the films that follow, different though they are from one another—an engine of desire, of analysis, and of transcendence. If the first two speak largely to what is called “content,” the last has to do with form—the deployment of light and time, cinema as cosmic ray. Or, rather, cinema is Cosmic Ray. The title of Conner’s second film refers both to the eponymous musician and to the ecstasy induced by the combination of the incantatory sound of Charles’s voice and the pulsating radiance of the image, which meet where the orgiastic dissolves into pure visual and aural vibration.
Even in my brief period of scorched-earth feminism (around 1978), I found Cosmic Ray irresistible, a more carnal version of the light and movement overload in the final sequence of Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). In those years, I had no patience, however, with Marilyn Times Five, which now seems to me not only one of Conner’s greatest films but also among the most witty and poignant of so-called structural films. Its basis is a filmstrip of a Marilyn Monroe look-alike posing as if for the calendar photo that jump-started Monroe’s career. The model teasingly removes her undies, caresses her breasts, twists her torso this way and that while reclining on a towel, takes a bite from an apple and rolls it down her body, sips from a Coke bottle—all this (but not necessarily in that order) while the camera hovers over her, angling for a shot that might make the exercise seem erotic rather than ridiculous. Conner edits this tawdry footage into five variations of equal length, step printing and overexposing the original image of the simulated Marilyn so that her flesh turns to white light as if she were burning up from within even as she’s buried in the tumultuous motion of the film grain. He sets each of these variations to the same recording, from the sound track of Some Like It Hot (1959), of the actual Monroe singing the torchy “I’m Through with Love” in her heartbreakingly breathy voice. In the last variation, the play of real and fake, desire and boredom, reaches a climax via negation. Just when you feel as if you’ll go nuts if you have to look at this woman writhing around once more, Conner denies the viewer the image of the fake Marilyn, replacing her with black leader until halfway through the song. Absence creates a desire more intense than does the film incarnation of her flesh when it finally reappears. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” applies even to simulacra.
Conner is often categorized as a found-footage filmmaker, but several of his movies include or are entirely edited from material he shot directly from life. His last film, the lyrical, lushly colored Easter Morning, is derived from 8-mm Kodachrome footage that he shot during the ’60s, the images superimposed in two and three layers in the camera. Forty-two years later, he transformed and rearranged these images, pixelating some, lingering over others in slow motion. The yellow-red flame of a candle seems to illuminate the dark foliage and riotously colored flowers of a garden and then the interior of a house in which a naked woman sits; a large cross atop a white church is glimpsed through an open window. It is a deeply personal, erotic, cryptic, and mysterious work, as personal, erotic, cryptic, and mysterious as another last work that may have been its inspiration: Duchamp’s Étant donnés, with its “illuminating gas,” its garden, its naked female figure. In the last months of Conner’s life, one devotee of the peep show (the sexual substratum of modernist reflexivity) paid tribute to another.
Robert Kaylor, Derby, 1971, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes.
ROBERT KAYLOR’S 1971 documentary Derby is a quintessential movie about the American dream. The film centers on a young factory worker, Michael Robert Snell, and his pursuit of stardom on the professional roller derby circuit, but due to the proclivities of its eccentric subject—a handsome, twenty-three-year-old husband and father of two who has not outgrown his wild adolescence—Derby is also a movie about harsh American realities. Since we never know whether Snell makes it, Kaylor’s movie emphasizes the process of personal transformation rather than the goal of that transformation, and in so doing confronts the viewer with the sadness of a reinvention more deluded than courageous.
Surely over the years we’ve seen enough evidence of the disparity between American dreams and their true, pathetic circumstances—from Grey Gardens (1975) to American Movie (1999) to Capturing the Friedmans (2003)—but Derby flirts with the gawking condescension of those films without ever succumbing to it. Focusing on the boyish insouciance of Snell and the strange movie-star life he leads in Dayton, Ohio—where the sunglasses-sporting pseudo-greaser juggles nine-to-five drudgery with a rotating roster of lovers and indulgences in strip clubs and motorcycles—Kaylor taps into a Midwestern disappointment and ennui that was also finding expression in contemporaneous New Hollywood landmarks like The Last Picture Show (1971) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). Except, of course, Kaylor’s film is all too raw: patio-set confrontations between wives and mistresses, good ol’ boy boasting about extramarital conquests, accounts from returned vets about the battlefields of Vietnam.
There’s also plenty of roller derby, a sport that, judging from the terrific footage Kaylor has compiled, appears to be a succession of brutal fights intermittently broken up by skating. Legend Charlie O’Connell offers a vague history of the game and his own rise to the top, while a host of characters provide colorful locker-room commentary. The almost anarchic violence of roller derby is no doubt a perfect fit for the obliviously destructive Snell, but ironically, our quasi hero is never once shown skating, and thus we can never evaluate his potential in the sport. It seems doubtful that Snell can cut the required training period down from six weeks to three, and his plan to sneak out on his job and transplant his family to San Francisco smacks of horribly selfish judgment. Appropriate, then, that we only see Snell at the rink as a spectator, waiting for the beginning of a contest as the national anthem is canceled due to technical difficulties.
Derby plays Saturday, November 13 at the 92Y Tribeca in New York. For more details, click here.
Damien Chazelle, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, 2010, black-and-white film in 16 mm, 82 minutes. Production still. Madeline (Desiree Garcia) and Guy (Jason Palmer). Photo: W. A. W. Parker.
IN GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (2010), director Damien Chazelle draws on the visual language of direct cinema, an elliptical narrative, and a series of musical numbers to tell the story of a jazz trumpeter and a young woman as they seek their separate paths before effecting a tentative reunion. A studied naturalism seems almost de rigueur for low-budget American films these days, and Chazelle obliges; shooting on 16-mm stock, using handheld cameras and unmotivated zooms, and lingering on peripheral, “documentary” details, the film faithfully adopts the observational aesthetic of nonfiction filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman—only with faster cutting.
But if Chazelle’s adoption of these techniques is marked by a self-consciousness mannerism—the sense that he’s only giving us shots of random people walking down Boston streets because that’s what filmmakers like him are supposed to do—then the musical numbers involving Madeline (Desiree Garcia) use the same reflexive awareness to marginally more productive ends. Simply put, in 2010 you can’t have a young woman burst into song in the middle of a park without calling attention to the deliberate anachronism of the gesture. And Chazelle is more than happy to play up the artificiality, bringing in a background chorus of restaurant workers for Madeline’s second number, set at a local seafood shack. The film’s other musical moments, the live performances by Guy (Jason Palmer), are less successful. Fixing the musicians in close-up as they take their solos, Chazelle attempts to bring us nearer to the soul of the music. The added proximity reveals little, though, given that the tunes are mostly by-the-numbers hard bop and blues.
This is a movie of moments that don’t quite cohere—that don’t even seem to want to. While that may lead to a frustrating opacity, many of said moments are self-contained triumphs: a meeting between Guy and a young woman on the subway that’s viewed as a succession of tighter shots as the two bodies edge closer together; an impromptu jam session in the studio; and a final solo recital by Palmer, shot in a single take as he navigates a ballad of piercing intensity, delivering, for the first time, a performance that can stand up to the relentless scrutiny of Chazelle’s camera.
Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench opens at Cinema Village in New York on November 5.
THE NOTION OF A PEDRO COSTA musical might seem incongruous in light of the Portuguese filmmaker’s best-known work: the stringent, momentous Fontainhas trilogy, about the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisbon slums (released earlier this year in a Criterion box set). But the hypnotic Ne change rien (2009), a black-and-white study of the French actress-turned-chanteuse Jeanne Balibar’s musical endeavors, is very recognizably a Costa film, from the sculpted lighting and precise compositions to the particular combination of sensuousness and severity, of tender immediacy and analytic distance.
Costa speaks often of the value of work and the daily grind—in describing the Fontainhas films, made in close collaboration with the neighborhood’s poor inhabitants, he has invoked the model of the old-Hollywood studios—and he brings a materialist focus to his subjects and the activities that consume them. The obvious point of comparison for Ne change rien is Costa’s 2001 documentary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, for which he holed up in the editing room with the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. But while that film was about a specific creative endeavor, the postproduction of the 1999 Straub-Huillet feature Sicilia!, this is a more free-form monument to artistic work process, composed of performances, rehearsals, and studio sessions.
Costa’s extreme chiaroscuro effects push his images to the verge of abstraction: Most scenes are submerged in inky darkness, barely illuminated by a single, sometimes offscreen light source. Balibar and her band are mere silhouettes at times; more often than not, at least half her face is in the shadows. The camera doesn’t move; the framing and lighting tend to render ambiguous the context of a performance. What matters is the moment. Even though a few of the songs ended up on Balibar’s 2006 album Slalom Dame, the movie resists a making-of trajectory. More than a music film, Ne change rien is a film that’s musical in form, and also one that’s utterly committed to filming music as a thing in itself.
Balibar has brought both to period roles (Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais ) and to contemporary ones (Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life ) a striking blend of poise and vulnerability, and this paradoxical allure extends to her singing: Her sultry voice has a pearly ring to it but it’s also a bit unsteady, and as a screen star in a world of music pros, she gives off a hint of diffidence. In scene after scene, Costa captures Balibar and her collaborators (most prominently, the guitarist Rodolphe Burger) as they work through long, looping jams, or break down a song into bars and phrases. Costa, a former musician, recognizes the sheer labor involved, most pointedly in a sequence that begins with a wordless vamp—Balibar, chain-smoking, tapping her knee, going da-da-dee-da-dum—and slowly layers on lyrics and instruments over the course of an obsessive, trancelike fifteen minutes. (Costa has said he’s noticed that the walkouts tend to start around here, “when the work begins.”) There are moments of comic exasperation, too, when the singer practices an Offenbach opera, accompanied by an off-screen voice coach whose running critiques (“Genoux doesn’t have three n’s”) provoke a curse under Balibar’s breath.
Above all, Costa has an uncanny feel for what it means to make music together. In one scene, Balibar reshapes and repeats a refrain—“peine perdue” (“pains in vain”)—wringing nuance from the dreamy incantation; Burger backs her up on guitar, singing softly. They never share a frame, but in cutting between a shot of Balibar and a reverse shot of Burger as they listen to the playback track, make adjustments, try again, crack each other up, stop, start again, Costa establishes the shivery intimacy of collaboration. (La Peine perdue is the title of an abandoned script by Jean Eustache, and Ne change rien’s neo-chanson repertoire includes, alongside a few Balibar-Burger originals, several film-buff choices: Kris Jensen’s “Torture,” immortalized in Scorpio Rising ; the Johnny Guitar theme; “Weeping Willows,” from Chaplin’s A King in New York .)
Costa’s films have inspired some fine and enthusiastic writing, but the director, an eloquent polemicist and keen cinephile, may be his own best critic and explicator. Anthology Film Archives is supplementing its run of Ne change rien with a carte blanche selection by Costa that doubles as terrific contextual criticism, connecting the movie’s ideas and gambits to other examples of portraiture and music films. The selections include Eustache’s rarely screened first feature, Numero Zero (1971), which consists mainly of an interview with the filmmaker’s grandmother, and a Thom Andersen double bill, pairing the new Get Out of the Car (2010) with - — (1967), his seminal experimental rock doc, codirected with Malcolm Brodwick. Jean-Luc Godard is represented not with One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968), the Stones-in-the-studio chronicle that Costa has cited as an inspiration for Ne change rien, but with the Jerry Lewis–inflected comic riff Soigne ta Droite (Keep Your Right Up, 1987), which features the noodlings of the electro-rock duo Les Rita Mitsouko. The one performance documentary in the series, also one of the acknowledged classics of the genre, is The Sound of Jazz, a 1957 CBS special that peaks with Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Fine and Mellow.” As Lester Young steps up to deliver a piercing, mournful sax solo, Holiday, perched on a stool, looks in his direction, listens, smiles, and responds. It’s as vivid an instance of artistic collaboration as has ever been filmed: a goose-bump moment involving two people and a third thing.