THERE ARE OLDER FESTIVALS in Latin America than the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film—BAFICI, to use its Spanish acronym—and there are certainly flashier ones (like the more mainstream event in the Argentinean coastal resort of Mar del Plata), but none has staked out so central a place in cinephile culture. As a municipally funded event, BAFICI has endured the whims of government bureaucracy during its brief existence—the festival, which concluded its thirteenth edition on Sunday, is already on its fourth artistic director. But while it may be subject to variable political pressures, it has avoided having to make serious artistic compromises. Through personnel changes and through what has been a tumultuous decade in Argentina, BAFICI has cultivated an identity, one might even say an ideology, that sets it apart from the pack. Put simply, this is a festival with both the discernment and the freedom to oppose the pervasive (if often unacknowledged) notion that film festivals should be temples to industry more than to art. The fare that most other fests relegate to the margins or smuggle in amid would-be crowd-pleasers—adventurous, risk-taking work, in other words, the kind that cultural gatekeepers often tar as obscure or elitist—is unapologetically front and center here.
Under its current head, Sergio Wolf, BAFICI has continued on the distinctive path forged by the critic Quintín, the festival director from 2000 to 2004, who did more than anyone to boost the event’s global profile. There are no red carpets at BAFICI, and there is no insistence on premieres; the festival also resists the curatorial habits—or marketing practices—of sectioning work off into, say, documentary, genre, and experimental categories. At the core of the program are three competitive slates—one international; one Argentinean; and one, called “Cinema of the Future,” for nominally edgier work—generally reserved for first- or second-time filmmakers.
The main competition lineup does not simply depend on product availability—more than that, it’s an attempt to survey the cinematic landscape for ripples of urgency and pockets of resistance, to summarize the state of the art. Alongside pickings from last year’s Cannes (Le quattro volte) and Venice (Attenberg), there is room for an oddity like the scruffy Os monstros, by four young Brazilian directors, Guto Parente, Pedro Diógenes, and twin brothers Luiz and Ricardo Pretti. A film in search of something—freedom, art, the real, a means of expression (all of which is to say, itself)—it plays like a melancholic slacker movie, halting and meandering, and culminates in a fifteen-minute free-jazz jam, an extraordinary feat of camaraderie and alchemy.
Both the top prize and the critics’ prize went to the French director Sylvain George for May They Rest in Revolt (Figures of Wars I), a black-and-white portrait of illegal migrants in the shadowy borderlands of Calais, France, as radical in its lyrical intimacy as in its activist point of view. George’s project—to reinvigorate the possibilities of the political documentary—was shared by films as different as Palazzo delle Aquile (by Stefano Savona, Aliessia Porto, and Ester Sparatore), a purposefully grueling vérité immersion in the chaotic daily existence of homeless families during a monthlong occupation of city hall in Palermo, Sicily, and Mercedes Alvares’s Futures Market, a philosophical essay film on the life cycle of objects and the existential crisis of late capitalism, journeying from expos hawking unbuilt Dubai towers to an overstuffed Barcelona junk shop. A highlight of the Cinema of the Future section, Ion de Sosa’s True Love, a chronicle of the Spanish filmmaker’s doomed romance while living in Berlin, boldly subverts another familiar form—the diary film—by both going deeper into self-exposure (literally, as in endoscopy footage) and abstracting emotion into ambient impressionism.
BAFICI is not immune to festival bloat (more than three hundred features this year), but its tentacle-like reach pays off in the many retrospectives, which counter the embalming tendencies of such showcases by featuring not only anointed masters but sundry bodies of work, large and small, that have eluded local (or, for that matter, most) audiences. Stuffed into the mix this year: Japanese New Wave icon Kiju Yoshida; Andrei Ujica’s remarkable post-communist trilogy; a midcareer spotlight on the Canadian comic (sub)urbanist Gary Burns; and a catch-up session on Sandro Aguilar, an important producer and editor in the Portuguese independent film world and, in his own right, a director of several enigmatic experimental shorts and one potently moody feature, Uprise (2008).
Santiago Mitre, El estudiante (The Student), 2011, still from a color film in HD, 124 minutes.
A major draw for foreign visitors is the prospect of finding Argentina’s next big thing, especially now that the key figures of the last national new wave (Pablo Trapero, Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel) are a decade or more into their careers. The Argentinean jury, on which I served this year, awarded its top prize to Nicolás Grosso’s Animal’s Run, an atmospheric, elliptical drama about the aftermath of a factory closing and the pull of an absent father figure. While this year’s BAFICI offered nothing to match the excitement of the domestic cinema’s last great discovery, Mariano Llinas’s 2008 epic Historias Extraordinarias (which will receive a New York run at MoMA starting May 4), the two Argentinean films that played in the international competition, both debut features, are proof of the local scene’s continued health.
Hermes Paralluelo’s documentary Yatasto follows the lives of a family on the outskirts of Córdoba that subsists on scavenging and begging—follows is the operative word, as Paralluelo’s film implicitly wrestles with the question of how best to observe its subjects and to reveal the particularities of their world. Far from effacing the presence of the camera, Paralluelo calls attention to it with an ingeniously simple, almost theatrical device. The most vivid scenes are captured in long takes with a camera mounted to the clip-clopping horse-drawn cart that transports the family members, primarily the very garrulous kids, through town. It’s a privileged perspective, granting us an unusual, head-on intimacy, but also one that reveals a larger social context as the cartoneros, in these scenes of continuous motion, navigate the traffic and the neighborhoods of the city.
El Estudiante, written and directed by Santiago Mitre (who has cowritten scripts with Trapero), centers on a twenty-something newcomer to Buenos Aires who becomes entangled in the byzantine world of campus politics. Anchored by Esteban Lamothe’s nuanced, charismatic performance, El Estudiante complicates the bildungsroman narrative of education and disillusionment, emphasizing the endless adaptability—or malleability—of its protagonist. An intelligent, engrossing portrayal of politics as a game, an addiction, and a vicious cycle, the film was enthusiastically received (and won a special jury prize). Some wondered whether it would travel, given the hyperlocal details, the allegorical relevance in light of Péronism. But El Estudiante doesn’t merely transcend its specifics. At its best, it’s a truly universal political thriller, one that illuminates the conspiratorial pleasure, the sheer labor, and the moral murk of what it memorably calls “politics in its pure form.”
The thirteenth Buenos Aires Festival Internacional de Cine Independiente ran April 6–17, 2011.
IF JACKIE CURTIS was the most brilliant and mercurial of the drag queens immortalized in Andy Warhol’s films of the late 1960s and early ’70s, Candy Darling was the most moving and devotional. Born James L. Slattery in 1944 to a working-class family and raised in the stultifying conformity of post–World War II Long Island suburbia, Candy discovered her ideal self in the platinum-haired vision of Kim Novak toughing it out in The Eddie Duchin Story (1956). Just as the young Warhol wrote fan letters to Shirley Temple and incorporated her gestures into his blatantly feminized presentation of self, the young Slattery wrote to Novak (who responded with a “personalized” letter that became one of the boy’s most cherished possessions) and fashioned a fantasy life around his desire to become a glamorous Hollywood sex symbol like Kim. (Warhol missed a great opportunity by not remaking Hitchcock’s Vertigo with Candy in Novak’s role, thereby clarifying Hitchcock’s fetishism of women who are not at all what they pretend to be.)
In James Rasin’s tender and intimate documentary, Beautiful Darling (2010), there is a clip from David Bailey’s documentary Bailey on . . . Andy Warhol (1973) in which Warhol tries to parse the difference between “drag queens” and his stars. Drag queens, he opines, “just dress up for eight hours a day. The people we use really think they are girls and stuff, and that’s really different.” According to several sources in Rasin’s documentary, Warhol suggested to Candy that she have a sex-change operation (no one says he went so far as to offer to pay for it, and skinflint that he was, he probably didn’t), but Candy demurred, although she was also said to have regarded Warhol as her Louis B. Mayer (the all-powerful studio head who always knew what was best for his stars or, rather, his wallet). No, Candy preferred to dose herself with the female hormones that very likely caused her death from lymphoma at age twenty-nine.
Beautiful Darling is not a biography of Candy so much a testament to the friendship between Candy and Jeremiah Newton. The movie begins in 2007 with the preparations for the burial of the urn containing Candy’s ashes along with the urn containing the ashes of Newton’s mother in the single grave in which Newton also plans to be buried. Newton obtained Candy’s ashes along with some of her possessions from Candy’s mother. The mother was trying to keep the fact that Candy ever existed a secret from her second husband, who seems to have been even more homophobic than Candy’s actual father.
Rasin looks at Candy largely through Newton’s eyes. They met when Newton was a beautiful gay teenager living in Queens and Candy was looking for a couch to sleep on. Newton says he was afraid to take her home because of what the neighbors would think, but later, when he got a place of his own in Manhattan, it was different. He became her most steadfast friend, throughout her life and beyond. The movie is thus the story of an undying love, and as such, it is immensely affecting and mysterious. The executor of Candy’s estate, Newton coedited the book My Face for the World to See: The Diaries, Letters, and Drawings of Candy Darling, Andy Warhol Superstar (1997) and is a coproducer of Beautiful Darling. Both works have kept Candy’s image and legend alive in ways that would have pleased her as much as the two events that seem to have been the high points of her short life: going to the premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood of Paul Morrissey’s Women in Revolt (1971), in which she costars with Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, and starring in an off-Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’s Small Craft Warnings (1972). (Williams insisted on casting her in the lead.)
Beautiful Darling is an inspired clip job—that is to say, the clips themselves are often amazing and they are brilliantly arranged. There are glimpses of Candy on the swing in Curtis’s fabulous La MaMa production of Vain Victory (1971) singing Paul Serrato’s torchy “My Place Tonight,” a song with which she was identified as much as with the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says.” The music (cuts by Lou Reed, David Bowie, Bryan Ferry) gives the movie a defiant edge, as do some of Candy’s own subtle send-ups of her melodramatic diva image. (The clip from Warhol’s Phoney is choice.) Among the sharpest commentators are Fran Lebowitz, John Waters, Helen Hanft, and the Interview crowd: Pat Hackett, Bob Colacello, Vincent Fremont. After Candy died, a grieving Newton recorded audio conversations with everyone who knew her, and bits of these exchanges serve as narrative glue. It is an illustrious cast of downtown characters, most of them long gone.
Rasin’s riskiest move was to choose Chloë Sevigny to read, in voice-over, from Candy’s diaries and the letter she left to be opened after her death. Sevigny makes no attempt to imitate Candy’s vocal delivery, which mixed the breathy tones of Hollywood sex goddesses with the staccato inflections of Viva. (Did Viva model her delivery on Candy’s or vice versa? Or did they have a common source? The movie casts no light on this conundrum, since Viva, a contemporary of Candy in the Warhol scene, seems to be the great unmentionable for Newton and Rasin alike.) Rather, Sevigny sounds exactly like the well-educated, upper-middle-class, East Coast young woman that she, in fact, is. And that alone expands the meaning of what Candy wrote about her uniquely personal transgendered experience of the world. Near the end of the film, we hear Sevigny’s forthright, transparent reading of one of the last entries in Candy’s diary: “You must always be yourself no matter what the price. It is the highest form of morality.” The words boggle the mind and break the heart.
Beautiful Darling opens Friday, April 22 at the IFC Center in New York.
BETTE GORDON’S FILMS have always put women first. Spanning more than three decades, the five-program retrospective of her moving image work at Anthology Film Archives confirms that the sense of adventure in Gordon’s movies springs from her depiction of women’s psyches and bodies, desires and fears. There is a distinctive sense of camaraderie between the filmmaker and her actors that is slightly different from the empathy we expect a director to have.
The series includes two of Gordon’s landmark works, Variety (1984) and The United States of America (1975). The latter was co-directed by James Benning, Gordon’s boyfriend at the time. It plays on Program 1, preceded by two other Gordon-Benning collaborations, Michigan Avenue (1973) and i-94 (1974), and followed by three of Gordon’s solo turns, Still Life (1972), An Erotic Film (1975), and An Algorithm (1977). All six films are being shown in new prints, courtesy of Anthology’s preservations program. All were made during the “structuralist” period of American avant-garde filmmaking, and with the exception of The United States of America, all involve elaborate layering and/or fracturing of movement by means of optical printing. The United States of America is a structuralist film of a different ilk. When it was originally shown, it seemed merely a very smart riff on the reigning avant-garde film of the time, Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967). But the passage of thirty-six years allows it to be seen in its own right, not only as a conceptually canny piece of structuralism but also as a revealing historical document.
One of the myriad ways that Wavelength can be described is as a trip through a single interior space, traced by the slow and staggered movement of a zoom lens from its widest to its narrowest (close-up) position, with all the “distortions” and transformations of the image such a movement creates. (The camera doesn’t move, and certainly the room doesn’t move; only the lens moves, thus transforming what we can see of the room and how we see it.) The United States of America was also filmed with a fixed camera, but one that had a fixed lens. The camera was mounted in the backseat area of a car. Its position—and thus the framing of the images it records—never changes. We see a bit of the backseat area; the backs of the front seats and backs of the heads of the filmmakers who are seated in front (mostly Benning drives, but occasionally he and Gordon exchange places); the front windshield with the rearview mirror fixed in the middle at the top; and a bit of the side windows, left and right.
The movement in the film is created almost entirely by the movement of the car as it is driven by the filmmakers from the East Coast to the West, with some north-south driving in the middle of the country. The United States of America has a runtime of twenty-seven minutes, but it’s not possible to determine how long the actual trip took or if the film was edited from footage taken during one trip or several. Our attention, like the attention of the filmmakers/“actors,” is on the passing landscape as it can be seen through the windshield. The film is shot from what in Hollywood is described, cheatingly, as an over-the-shoulder POV, but here, since the camera is midway between the left shoulder of one person and the right shoulder of the other, the shot is an amalgam of two supposed POVs, i.e., a double cheat. There is no dialogue. The sound track is largely derived from the car’s radio—a mix of music and local newscasts, one of which allows us to fix the period as that of the US’s chaotic withdrawal from Saigon in the closing days of the Vietnam war. The United States of America is pure road movie, absent of character goals or desire, but attentive to the movement of history and fixity of geography.
While Gordon began her filmmaking career as a structuralist, she soon became involved with issues that joined film and feminism. In the midst of the scorched earth theories that all but prohibited images of women on the screen lest they provide voyeuristic satisfaction for “the male gaze,” she insisted on training her camera on women, often unclothed. An Algorithm, an optically printed film edited from several truncated shots of a woman diving off a board but never breaking the surface of the water, contains the germ of much of her later work. Gordon realized that the problem of the objectification of women in film has less to do with the display of the body than with who has control of the narrative—of the desire that motors it and of how that desire is resolved, or left as an opening into the unknown. She also understood, psychologically and pragmatically, that for a woman to become a filmmaker or to simply enjoy movies, she had to take pleasure in her own voyeurism.
Nevertheless, the pressures of the feminist discourse were such that Gordon would have to make several confused efforts at being a “good girl” filmmaker before she could cut loose in her barely disguised autobiography, Variety, the saga of how a nice young woman from the Midwest comes to New York, goes to work as a ticket taker in a porn theater (it’s the end of the 1970s recession), and discovers that she wants to take charge of and act on her fantasies however she pleases. Variety isn’t a perfect movie, but it is one of the most powerful descriptions of the female psyche committed to film by a director who knows how ravishing films can be. Also playing in the Anthology series are Gordon’s subsequent features, Luminous Motion (1998) and Handsome Harry (2009), the latter a reversal of her modus operandi in that it is solely focused on the crisis of male identity. They are polished in ways that the earlier films are not, but for crazy genre-wrestling pleasure, Variety is the one to see.
WHEN A CONTEMPORARY MUSICAL ACT is brought in to create and perform a new score for a silent film classic, the result is typically tasteful and restrained. But as one might surmise from the band’s moniker, Fucked Up doesn’t exactly do restraint. Enlisted by the Images Festival—Toronto’s lively annual survey of experimental film, video, installation, and media art—to provide new music for a screening of Tod Browning’s film West of Zanzibar (1928) on the festival’s closing night, the local hardcore favorites handled the assignment with all the delicacy of a UFC cage match.
Fucked Up expanded on the most epic moments on their 2009 album The Chemistry of Common Life, deploying an arsenal of razor-sharp guitar riffage and thunderous drum solos to accentuate and intensify the lurid lunacy of Browning’s curio, a compelling if egregiously racist jungle melodrama by the director of Dracula and Freaks. While many films of its vintage might have been overpowered by such a visceral display of power, West of Zanzibar was sufficiently feisty to match the band blow for blow.
In their rejection of timid tactics, Fucked Up’s efforts were very much in line with the playfully subversive energies present throughout the festival. That energy was certainly there in the opening-night film. Rivers and My Father, Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Luo Li’s impressive sophomore feature, freely mixes fiction and documentary elements as Luo juxtaposes reenacted scenes from his father’s boyhood in rural China with footage of his family in the present day. But after an hour of hushed, ambiguous, and lyrical black-and-white vignettes, Luo’s work takes a surprising turn. Explaining via on-screen text that he sent the film we’ve just watched to his father, the director then presents Luo Sr.’s well-meaning comments on how it might be improved. The result is an ingenious sort of autocritique, one that immediately deflates any air of pretension while adding texture to the film’s key themes of family, landscape, and memory.
Two events by visiting Brooklynites in the festival’s Live Images program proved to be similarly unpredictable. The Fortunetellers, a performative lecture by Ellie Ga based on her experiences during a scientific expedition in the Arctic Ocean in the winter of 2007–2008, used a variety of means—photo transparencies presented via overhead projector, digital video collected during her very dark days on the Tara, cryptic slides of wristwatch ads, and live narration by Ga—to create a wry and touching portrait of a temporary community at the end of the world. Andrew Lampert, an archivist at the Anthology Film Archives and an artist in his own right, was also in Toronto to present three recent films that reflected his new interest in “contracted cinema,” a cheeky term that points to his shift away from the multiprojector works he had previously favored. In his introductory remarks, he also admitted that he risked the rancor of fringe-film purists by using video to preserve and present works originally shot on Super 8. But the results—including two hilarious films in which actress Caroline Golum channels the woeful spirit of one of Lampert’s Siberian ancestors—suggest that the director’s move to narrow his scope has also revitalized his work.
The twenty-fourth edition of Toronto’s Images Festival ran through April 9, 2011. The festival’s “Off-Screen” program continues through April at participating galleries and venues.
THE REVIVAL OF 1970S UNDERGROUND “three-chord” movies continues apace at the IFC Center and Anthology Film Archives in New York. With Céline Danhier’s randomly informative and completely uncritical documentary Blank City (2010) currently booked for an unlimited run at the IFC, the theater is also showcasing, as part of its ongoing “Short Attention Span” series, moving image work by the film’s most articulate interview subject, James Nares.
The exemplary Renaissance man of ’70s downtown New York, Nares made movies, played guitar (with James Chance in the Contortions and with Jim Jarmusch in the Del-Byzanteens), and staged performances for minuscule audiences in his loft where he also produced sculpture and paintings. Today, he is perhaps best known as a painter, although he has never stopped shooting still and moving photographic work. Ranging across thirty years, the five movies included in the “Short Attention Span” series are lyrical but heady one-liners. Ramp (1975), Hammered (1975), and Drip (2007) are mini documents of sculptural activity, involving the effects of gravity on weighty objects. Game (1976) is like a stoner’s dream—a fast and furious chess game played with very small indistinguishable rocks—while Weather Bed (1990) depicts what might have happened the night before as a slowly gathering tornado in the sheets. Nares’s longest movie, the mostly soporific, occasionally hilarious Rome 78 (1978) which features various Mudd Club denizens stalking around in togas, plays at IFC the weekend of April 8–9 in the midnight movie slot, as does Charlie Ahearn’s livelier Wild Style (1983), an invaluable document of early hip-hop, break-dancing, and graffiti artists.
Unlike Nares, Eric Mitchell, one of the stars of Rome 78, had feature filmmaking ambitions. Anthology Film Archives, which has programmed its own ’70s underground series, is showing two of Mitchell’s riff's on Warhol’s tabloid-inspired talkies, Kidnapped (1978) and Underground, U.S.A. (1980). Both movies are notable for frantic and relentless camera movement and feature downtown luminary Patti Astor, whose attempted Edie Sedgwick imitation is closer to Ingrid Superstar, who herself had created the first and least self-conscious Edie parody. If you only have time for one Mitchell movie, choose Kidnapped. It’s the shorter and purer of the two, and it’s preceded by the bluntly titled, seven-minute Mass Homicide (1977), which will give you a taste of what you’re in for.
“The Films of James Nares” runs at the IFC Center in New York through April 21 as part of the theater’s “Short Attention Span” series. Rome 78 and Wild Style play at the IFC Center on Saturday, April 9 at midnight. Films by Eric Mitchell will show at Anthology Film Archives in New York on Saturday April 9 and Sunday April 10. Céline Danhier’s Blank City opened at the IFC Center on Wednesday, April 6.
João Pedro Rodrigues, To Die Like a Man, 2009, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 133 minutes. Left: Tonia (Fernando Santos). Right: Tonia and Rosário (Fernando Santos and Alexander David).
JOÃO PEDRO RODRIGUES’S brilliant To Die Like a Man effortlessly shuttles between nose-to-the-ground melodrama and airy fantasy, embracing both the ethereal and the cruelly physical. The film’s central dichotomy is between body and soul, a dualism best evinced by the lightly worn but deterministic Catholicism of the film’s transgendered protagonist Tonia (Fernando Santos).
Working as a drag queen in a Lisbon discotheque—and living as a woman off the job—Tonia is hesitant to undergo the full sex-change operation demanded by her younger, junky boyfriend. Her reasons for resisting are a botched breast job and a dose of Catholic guilt about altering the body that God gave her. While dealing with her unstable beau, Rosário (Alexander David), and the potential loss of work to younger performers, Tonia begins to produce a milky, bloody discharge from her areola, a sign that her body is rejecting its silicone implants.
To Die Like a Man is highly attuned to the body in all its naked humbleness—never more so than in a scene when, shades of Mary Magdalene, Rosário washes Tonia’s unsightly feet, eventually moving up the torso to definitively expose Tonia’s “manhood.” But Rodrigues’s film is also given to delirious flights of fancy, emphasizing that human experience is by no means limited to the grueling vagaries of day-to-day life. In a series of largely non-narrative sequences that seem to exist outside of time, the film explores higher yearnings that also acknowledge the cruelties of the quotidian temporarily left behind.
In the most bizarre of these moments, Tonia and Rosário stumble upon a trio living away from society in the forest. Everyday time comes to a halt while the five of them go snipe hunting. Suddenly the moon turns red, a crimson haze is thrown across the screen, and the characters sit motionless, listening to an off-screen song about Jesus at Calvary whose audio source remains unspecified, but which provides Tonia with a hard-earned, if temporary, release from the conflicting demands of her corporality. A person may be bound to his or her body, the film suggests, but they need not be defined by it.
To Die Like a Man opens Friday April 8 at the IFC Center in New York.