“IF WE NEED ACTION”—camera pans up toward an ominous gray sky—“we know where to look.” The joke, delivered by George Kuchar about halfway through his Weather Diary 5 (1989), is typical fare for the filmmaker, riffing on his frustration with the lack of sexual stimulation in his cooped-up motel room and the inherent dangers of the locale: the “Tornado Alley” region of Oklahoma that Kuchar has been visiting each May for the past two decades. The result is an ongoing personal theater of absurdity, nonpareil in the world of cinema.
Kuchar’s career as a filmmaker can be divided into three discernible phases: his earliest collaborations with his twin brother, Mike, in the 1950s and ’60s, when the two emerged as pioneers of the early New York underground film scene; the chaotic and colorful films he has made with his students each year, since the early ’70s, at the San Francisco Art Institute; and his more personal, diaristic video works. It is this third phase, resulting in several hundred works to date, that forms the focus of a retrospective, curated by scholar Marc Siegel, currently on view as part of the Berlin Biennial. Kuchar began working with a camcorder in the ’80s because, in his words, it was a “despised medium,” ugly and amateur—the stuff of home movies rather than a vehicle for high art. Ever prescient, Kuchar immediately sensed that the most interesting way of dealing with video’s limitations would be to exploit them. The resulting oeuvre can be read as a single, continuous opus, with individual films serving as chapters, ranging in length from under ten minutes to over an hour. Stylistically, the work is neither home movie nor high art, but perhaps a little of both, and it forms a self-portrait of the artist—his journeys, his friends, and his daily motions—all transmitted through Kuchar’s self-deprecating, Bronx-accented narration. The Kuchar oeuvre is an archaeology of the mundane.
The centerpiece of Kuchar’s work since the late ’80s has been his “Weather Diaries” (1986–), which document his annual visits to the El Reno Motel in El Reno, Oklahoma. These trips are a means of temporarily escaping the muck of urban life while simultaneously engaging the artist’s childhood fascination with—and fear of—extreme weather. Much of the footage focuses on Kuchar’s motel room: a collage of banal narrative veering perpetually toward the grotesque (as we are constantly reminded of the artist’s canned-meat-and-fast-food diet—and its gastrointestinal consequences) interspersed with weather reports from television and radio, as well as “action” shots of the (impending) storms outside the window. Occasionally, he ventures out for strained interactions with the locals. In Weather Diary 5, we accompany Kuchar to an empty beauty salon, where the proprietress gives us an in-depth tour of all the hair products. In Weather Diary 3 (1988), he befriends a student storm chaser staying in the room next door. Kuchar’s infatuation with the young man seems more rooted in his awe of the meteorology student’s bravery than in straightforward sexual attraction.
Like his ambivalent fix on El Reno, Kuchar’s relationship with mainstream cinema has always been one of give-and-take. While there’s nothing here resembling a conventional plot, the action is always fast-paced, with most shots in the “Hollywood” three-and-a-half-to-five-second range, thus resisting the strategic slowness on which oppositional strategists of “art cinema” so often rely. Kuchar could be thought of as anti-anti, his art the deployment of a deliberate artlessness. With its wandering gaze, lo-fi effects, and obsessive need to document and find spectacular meaning in the unspectacular, Kuchar’s vision continues to be one of the most endearing in American cinema.
ONE OF THE FINEST literary adaptations ever made, Chantal Akerman’s La Captive (2000) distills La Prisonnière, the fifth volume of Marcel Proust’s sprawling In Search of Lost Time, to a spare, inventive rumination on the author’s key themes: jealousy and possession. Akerman, who co-wrote La Captive with Eric de Kuyper, dispenses with the novel’s belle epoque time frame, setting her film in present-day Paris. Marcel and Albertine, Proust’s mismatched lovers, become Simon (Stanislas Merhar) and Ariane (Sylvie Testud), who live together in Simon’s enormous apartment. A neurasthenic writer, Simon is feverishly jealous, first seen studying Super 8 footage of Ariane playing on the beach with a group of women—a time he refers to as her “other life,” when her romantic relationships were exclusively same-sex.
Ariane is inscrutable in those home movies, as she will be throughout most of La Captive; Simon becomes a possessed private detective, tormented by Ariane’s lesbian past and determined to solve the “mystery” of sapphic desire. Vertigo is a key referent for Akerman’s film: Like Scottie pursuing Madeleine in Hitchcock’s movie, Simon doggedly trails Ariane throughout Paris, spying on her in the Musée Rodin as she transfixedly approaches the marble bust of a woman with a chignon—mirroring the scene of Madeleine’s prolonged gazing at the portrait of Carlotta Valdes, whose hair is arranged in a similar swirl, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
Beyond Akerman’s inspired interventions in this page-to-screen transfer, La Captive’s greatest achievement is its exploration of love between women, a topic that runs throughout In Search of Lost Time and that the director herself has keenly depicted in Je, tu, il, elle (1974) and Portrait of a Young Girl at the End of the 1960s in Brussels (1994). Simon, again in relentless P.I. mode, takes a taxi to a lesbian hangout to interrogate two friends of Ariane’s, a couple named Sarah and Isabelle: “I’m burning to know what goes on between two women that doesn’t between a man and a woman,” he asks. “It can’t be explained,” Isabelle responds. Akerman has never been interested in “explaining” lesbian desire, either—only in demonstrating, sometimes elliptically but always powerfully, its pull. The most erotic scene of La Captive features two women who may not even be looking at each other: On Simon’s balcony, Ariane hears a woman from an apartment above singing an extract from Così fan tutte. Ariane, enraptured, sings back; though the timbre and quality of each woman’s voice is quite different, they reach a climactic moment during their duet. “What goes on between two women” may defy simple explanation, but it can be heard.
La Captive screens June 29 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. For more details, click here.
Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, Restrepo, 2010, color film in SD and HD, 94 minutes. Production stills. Left: Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin and Ross Murphy of Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne. Right: Specialist Misha Pemble-Belkin and fellow soldiers from Battle Company, 173rd US Airborne during a firefight at Outpost Restrepo. Photos: Tim Hetherington.
IN APRIL 2010, the US military pulled its last combat troops out of the Korengal Valley, once regarded as the most dangerous posting of the war in Afghanistan. Now General Stanley A. McChrystal, who rejiggered what was a losing strategy into what likely remains a losing strategy—he moved the battlefront from isolated mountain valleys to more urban areas—is out, a victim of confusion and panicky politics in the White House and the Pentagon, and, of course, his own big, hubristic mouth. (I guess no one warned him how efficiently the hippie burnouts at Rolling Stone had besmirched Goldman Sachs.)
Callous though this observation may be, the McChrystal scandal seems made to order for the release of Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington’s heart-stopping and sometimes heartbreaking documentary about some twenty soldiers tasked with building and defending a remote outpost in the Korengal Valley from mid-2007 to mid-2008. On assignment for Vanity Fair and ABC News, Junger, the writer, and Hetherington, the photographer, brought along a couple of video cameras when they embedded themselves with the Second Platoon of the Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Brigade. The movie was assembled from 150 hours of footage shot during ten extended trips to the Korengal base camp and from there to Outpost Restrepo, a satellite camp built of sandbags, chicken wire, ammo boxes, and a couple of two-by-fours and named for the platoon’s medic PFC Juan Restrepo, killed in the early days of the fighting. The outpost is under constant fire from the Taliban, taking as many as four attacks a day, sometimes from as close as fifty yards. Junger and Hetherington did everything the soldiers did except fire weapons. Restrepo is nerve-racking from beginning to end, especially once one becomes involved—as the moviemakers clearly were—with the soldiers as individuals, most of them very young men who do not want to die and, even more, do not want to see their buddies die.
The action sequences are so intense one could overlook the complicated structure of documentary; it’s far from pure cinema verité. Soon after the film’s opening sequence—which shows PFC Restrepo, a week before deployment, horsing around in a home video and mouthing repeatedly into the camera “Going to war”—a more expertly handled camera is in a helicopter swooping vertiginously over the Korengal as it dodges fire, and we hear the soldiers’ dismayed assessment, as they glimpse the densely forested valley ringed with impassable mountains, that they’ll be “like fish in a barrel.” Then, seemingly without a break, the camera is falling, turned upside down in the hands of one of the moviemakers who’s scrambling from a truck that’s been half blown apart by an IED. The sound has dropped out—the recorder has been deafened by the blast, just as the men probably are—and we’re looking down the weirdly silent road at the vehicle, and at the men trying to get their bearings and figure out if anyone’s been injured.
That’s just the beginning. The camera sticks so close to the soldiers when they’re in combat that it shudders with the recoil of their guns. It glimpses, over their shoulders, a fallen comrade. It jerks around as it follows the wary eyes of soldiers moving though thick brush: They know they are surrounded by Taliban, on the mission that most of them describe as the worst of their deployment. The camera is present, too, at a weekly meeting with the village elders, who sit in long rows on the floor, fingering their hennaed beards, yawning, frowning, trying to extort whatever they can from the Americans, whom they clearly despise—and not without reason, as we see when the camera roves around a house where there has been “collateral damage”: wounded children, five dead adults (or at least someone implies that the dead are all adults). And the moviemakers also capture moments of R&R: Three burly guys, their arms wrapped around one another, pogo as they belt out “Touch me, touch me now,” finding ecstasy by letting down their guard.
Threading the action footage together are talking heads—not outside experts, but the same soldiers. Three months after the platoon left Afghanistan, the filmmakers went to Italy to shoot portraits of the men, just before they finally went home. Each man was shot in close-up against a red or black background. On screen, the chiaroscuro lighting makes them look like Renaissance princes—their faces, even when pudgy with baby fat, look chiseled, bare to the bone. As they gaze directly into the camera, they describe their experiences in a mix of past and present tenses. The portraits are in every way the opposite of the action footage; they give us, even in the fragmented way they are edited and placed amid the “verité,” something of the interiority of the men’s experience, at once individual and collective.
No one in Restrepo analyzes the war in Afghanistan in political terms or even describes it in terms of goals larger than the day-to-day mission. And yet, simply by bearing witness, the movie is a call to action. It makes you want to put your fist in the mouth of all the media experts and commentators who, as I write, are demanding that we focus our attention on Afghanistan, without themselves having any firsthand experience. Junger and Hetherington focus on the war in Afghanistan, and their movie is evidence that the only conscionable course of action is to end it totally, right now.
Restrepo opens Friday, June 25 in New York and Los Angeles. For more details and images, see the film’s website here.
A MASTER PORTRAYER of postwar trauma, violence, and insecurity, onetime stage actor Anthony Mann began his directorial career performing yeoman’s work, helming several low-budget comedies and musicals in the 1940s on the Paramount, Universal, Republic, and RKO lots. His breakout year was 1947, when T-Men, Railroaded!, and Desperate—each made in economical B-noir style—conveyed the plights of average men and women forced into the dire margins of American society. The last two in particular formed a double bill of wrong-man/family-under-siege plots that more than stand their own against Hitchcock. Mann, via a string of similarly angst-ridden noirs, soon transitioned to the western, where he applied his penchant for expressionistic lighting and compositions to the historical frontier. The Furies (1950) announces this phase with shocking and delirious ferocity, stirring novelist Niven Busch’s father-daughter battle for the family ranch into a Shakespearean drama and unleashing one of Mann’s trademark moments of brutality, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s Elektra heroine gouges the eyes of her father’s fiancée with a pair of scissors.
Violence is never titillating in Mann, but instead always scarily consequential and the product of familial, political, or moral conflict. This almost too-real cinematic philosophy carried over into a legendary partnership with James Stewart, starting in 1950 with Winchester ’73. Nobody shot bloody psychodramas against crags and plains better than Mann—not even John Ford—and by bringing out what had up to that point been Stewart’s mostly dormant inner turmoil, he found the perfect fallible human figure to frame against harsh, cruel, and daunting landscapes. The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955) are the crown jewels of this collaboration, but under-the-radar Stewart-less gems like Devil’s Doorway (1950), The Last Frontier (1955), and Man of the West (1958) are equally impressive in investigating the specters of racist, authoritarian, and patriarchal misrule that haunt the boundless freedom promised by the West and, in turn, the western itself.
It was with the western that Mann cemented his reputation for thoroughly mining complex material within a single genre, an inimitable talent already anticipated in the noirs. Several themes run through this earlier and frequently overlooked period of Mann’s career—perhaps richest of all is the tenuous and unstable nature of identity in a threatening, suspicious world. Minor masterpieces T-Men and Border Incident (1949), in which cops go undercover to infiltrate a crime syndicate and must negotiate the unsteady parameters of authenticity and duplicity, were written by John C. Higgins, who also co-wrote two other terrific Mann noirs, raw police procedural He Walked by Night (1948) and the strikingly designed revenge yarn Raw Deal (1948). But motifs of disguise, subterfuge, detection, assumed personality, and persuasive artificiality are also at the core of paranoid French Revolution intrigue Reign of Terror (1949), tough Lincoln thriller The Tall Target (1951), and especially Strange Impersonation (1946), the first great Mann. The last film dives into the sexual anxieties of Brenda Marshall’s mousy research scientist as they spill over into a fever dream that places her in the role of a disfigured and presumed dead victim transformed by plastic surgery into one of her persecutors. With her new identity she goes after the other, her romantic rival, only to eventually be implicated in the murder of herself. It’s a proto-Lynchian scenario made even more bizarre by Mann’s giddy, nightmarish, and pressure-chamber sense of direction (you can almost feel the protagonist’s psyche splitting under the interrogation of the camera), the essence of his genius that would flower in nearly everything to follow.
Michelangelo Antonioni, Le Amiche (The Girlfriends), 1955, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 95 minutes. Left: Rosetta and Cesare (Madeleine Fischer and Franco Fabrizi). Right: Clelia and Momina (Eleonora Rossi Drago and Yvonne Furneaux).
RESTORED TO A LUSTROUS GLOW, the blacks, whites, and grays of a new print of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Le Amiche (The Girlfriends, 1955) accent the elegant surfaces of mid-1950s Turin where it was filmed. From the opening pan under the credits to the long shots of the arcades and buildings that form the backdrop for the fashionable personae in the story, the city’s modernity sparkles before us. There is no evidence of the ruins from the Second World War, a conflict that still haunts the lives of the characters in the 1949 Cesare Pavese novel on which the film is based, titled Among Women Only. The adaptation’s ambience is not quite as bleak as the novel’s, but Pavese was nevertheless an important influence on Antonioni’s work. Although Le Amiche differs from its source, the tone of the novel, discernible only intermittently, has greater affinity with the director’s future work, foreshadowing the ennui that imbues the atmosphere of L’Avventura (1960) and the masterpieces that would follow. Not that Le Amiche capitulates entirely to the generic romanticism of its screenplay. A scene of two lovers making out on a beach as one of le amiche strolls by indifferently has the air of casual, meaningless sex typical of Antonioni’s later films.
Both novel and film begin with Clelia (Eleonora Rossi Drago) returning to Turin to open a dress salon, having left her working-class life there years earlier to become an assistant to a couturiere in Rome. Her arrival is marked by the botched suicide attempt of Rosetta (Madeleine Fischer), a young woman in the adjacent hotel room––an event that hangs ominously over the film. Rosetta, secretly in love with Lorenzo (Gabriele Ferzetti), a moody, failing artist who painted her portrait, finally confesses, only to be swept into a fleeting affair that ends in abandonment and her successful suicide at the end. For Pavese, however, it is not romantic rejection but existential despair that plagues Rosetta. A malaise pervades the novel’s atmosphere––partly an effect of the recently ended war––lending a somewhat different cast to the escapist lifestyles of the girlfriends and their men as they appear in the film. But while Antonioni alters Rosetta’s motive, her demeanor, as portrayed by Fischer, bears more than a little resemblance to the young woman whose disappearance on an island is the premise of the plot of L’Avventura.
Clelia is the novel’s narrator and, as a result, conscious of her escape from poverty. Antonioni treats her brief affair with the working-class Carlo (Ettore Manni) as a sign of the life she might have lived had she not pursued a career in Rome. Pavese is careful to distinguish her hard-won success from the shallower lives of the upper-class women she encounters in Turin––especially the cynical, impeccably garbed Momina (Yvonne Furneaux) and the flighty, man-crazy Mariella (Annamaria Pancani). While their flirtations are set against the facades of the modern city, Clelia and Carlo declare their feelings to each other while strolling through the poorer neighborhoods of their roots. And despite her resolve that “working is [her] way of being a woman,” there is, in the final shots of Clelia boarding the train back to Rome, a sense of nostalgia, even regret, as she scans the station for Carlo who observes her departure without revealing his presence. Though an affecting touch, it is one that Antonioni would resist in the future.
Although there are no all-night parties in Le Amiche that end in a somber, disquieting dawn—as in L’Avventura and La Notte (1961)—there are moments that prefigure them. After Lorenzo leaves Rosetta, her desperate flight down a long, dark street, past the bar where her friends still party, cuts abruptly to an overhead shot of the police removing her body from the river the next morning. And the cycle of male weakness and female forgiveness that resonates throughout Antonioni’s oeuvre, appearing at the conclusions of L’Avventura and La Notte, is operative here as well: Lorenzo’s plaintive apology to his mistress, Nene (Valentina Cortese), is met by a steely indifference that melts into a reassuring caress. But while the domestic context in Le Amiche has an intimacy that speaks to human possibilities, Antonioni sets the later scenes within a spatial vastness that dwarfs the pathetic, unchanging nature of mortal beings.
Le Amiche plays at Film Forum in New York June 18–24. For more details, click here.
Agnès Jaoui, Let It Rain, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 110 minutes.
IN LET IT RAIN, a pair of clueless, bumbling documentary filmmakers worry over the tiny details of their framings: whether a fern in the background gives a halo to the subject, whether a poppy pinned to another subject’s dress is “overdoing” it. Director Agnès Jaoui, who is certainly far from clueless, is only a tad less exacting, but her mixture of off-kilter framings and disorientingly close handheld tracking shots (amid more conventionally studied long takes) imparts an appropriately rough-hewn quality to her messily comic look at the familial, racial, and especially sexual resentments of a half-dozen men and women living in or visiting a provincial French town.
The film stars the director as author-turned-politician Agathe, following the character as she visits her sister in the country home where they both grew up, breaks up with her more conventionally minded boyfriend, and agrees to be the subject of the aforementioned documentary as an example of a “successful woman.” As Jaoui divides her focus between Agathe and the other characters, she maps out a tension-filled environment in which everyone is distracted and tuning one another out, each person ruled by his or her particular prejudice.
Key to understanding the characters—whom Jaoui and coscreenwriter Jean-Pierre Bacri treat with a mixture of tentative compassion and critical, often ironic, distance—is the on-screen figures’ attitude toward the film’s two buzzwords: feminism and politics. They become dirty words—the former for most of the film’s men, the latter for just about everyone, including incipient politician Agathe herself. Resentments come out most strikingly during the documentary interviews in which the intradiegetic filmmakers, Michel (Bacri) and especially Karim (Jamel Debbouze), brutally grill their subject with questions about female quotas in politics, which Agathe, who seems uncertain of her political stances, handles with unflappable dignity.
Still, no matter how ugly the expression, every character has his or her justification, and Karim eventually grows from caricature to character as he explains to Agathe the effect of a lifetime of subtle racism—mirrored in the condescension shown toward his mother, who was in fact Agathe’s family’s longtime maid. In the end, communication is possible, resentments can be worked out, and new connections can be established, as Jaoui makes clear, even if the result is that her productively off-kilter film winds up concluding a tad too tidily for its own good.
Let It Rain opens at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York on Friday, June 18.