THE ROCK BAND King Crimson once wrote a lovely, lilting song, inspired by and named after Rembrandt’s The Night Watch, that celebrated “the worthy captain and his squad of troopers standing fast,” “the burghers good and true,” and “Dutch respectability.” Viewers of the painting, which depicts an Amsterdam musketeer militia in motion, have shared in that nostalgia for more than three centuries, but in the eyes of Peter Greenaway they—we—are “visually illiterate.” In Rembrandt’s J’Accuse, a companion documentary to his 2006 audiovisual installation Nightwatching and the 2007 feature film of that name, Greenaway rails against our failure to interpret art correctly (one reason cinema is impoverished, he avers) in telling the story of why Rembrandt painted The Night Watch the way he did in 1642.
His forensic examination of the painting, which is housed in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, convincingly argues that Rembrandt turned his commission against the influential families who ordered it by accusing the captain and lieutenant at the center of the canvas, and most of the other soldiers depicted, of the murder of the former captain, who had been shot through the eye. The ultimate goal of this conspiracy was to share in the wealth that might follow should Charles I pawn the English crown jewels to the Dutch; the murdered captain had been considered too Frenchified to head the militia during the impending visit of Charles’s daughter, Princess Mary.
Greenaway methodically deconstructs the painting, probing thirty-one of the fifty mysteries he found within it, and for much of the film he’s a talking head—a lofty yet accessible lecturer/prosecutor—contained in a small panel center-screen. He not only examines the placement and dress of the figures and the significance of the symbolism (a phallic spear, a dead chicken, a dwarfish girl holding a coffee pot) but also analyzes Rembrandt’s use of artificial light, contrasts The Night Watch with other militia paintings, and reveals how Rembrandt satirized Italian art. The actors from Nightwatching, including Martin Freeman as Rembrandt, re-create moments from the story (but none of the big dramatic moments), while Saskia (Eva Birthistle), the artist’s wife, gives testimony. Greenaway often films the live-action scenes in shadowy settings to echo Rembrandt’s chiaroscuro.
Characteristically, Greenaway cuts the screen into moving panels. The effect is playfully ironic and undermines the film’s rendering of Rembrandt’s tragedy. According to Greenaway, Amsterdam’s power elite closed ranks against the painter after 1642, cutting off his commissions and leaving him impoverished. As usual, Greenaway admits no sentiment, merely asking that the case against the conspirators be reopened. Rembrandt’s J’Accuse—the first of nine documentaries Greenaway is making about classic paintings—is rigorous and enthralling, but fans of The Da Vinci Code (2006) may find it overly literate.
WITHIN THE PAST FIVE YEARS, a boomlet of South American films about domestics has emerged, exploring the fraught push-pull between master and servant: Jorge Gaggero’s Live-In Maid (2004), in which una señora, reeling from the economic meltdown in Buenos Aires, owes her employee seven months’ back pay; Lucía Puenzo’s The Fish Child (2009), which, set in the same city, imagines a teenage bourgeoise and her maid as criminal lovers; and Sebastián Silva’s The Maid, an examination less of class clash in its Santiago, Chile, household than of the pathologies of internalized subservience.
Anchored by the courageous performance of Catalina Saavedra as Raquel, the titular domestic, Silva’s second film (which he wrote with Pedro Peirano) opens with an awkward forty-first birthday celebration for the devoted servant, thrown by her employers of twenty-three years, Mundo and Pilar Valdez (Alejandro Goic and Claudia Celedón), and their brood of four. Honoring Raquel becomes a fascinating set piece of passive-aggressive dynamics, highlighting the tension surrounding the maid’s place within the Valdez family. Is she an indispensable, full-fledged member of the clan, as Raquel—who, beyond the occasional call to her mother, appears to have no family life of her own—believes? Or a beloved caretaker who will nonetheless be forever banished to the kitchen to eat her meals alone? Never an economic or sociological dissection of the inherent imbalance in paying someone to tend to your children and clean up your dirt, Silva’s film is instead a psychological one, its protagonist stunted by disordered behavior.
The hazards of Raquel’s embrace of her servitude manifest themselves both physically—she suffers from exhaustion and frequent dizzy spells—and emotionally. Often remote, Raquel finds comfort in the three stuffed animals atop her twin bed and in the assiduousness with which she tackles her repetitive labor. She is fiercely territorial and often unlikable; when Pilar hires Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva), a younger Peruvian woman, to assist her, Raquel responds with sadistic mind games, locking the new employee out of the house and vigorously disinfecting the tub after Mercedes showers. Sonia (Anita Reeves), an older domestic, suffers similar torture.
Sergio Armstrong’s handheld camera work skillfully conveys the claustrophobia of the Valdez household, its two-story sprawl shrunken by the suffocating battle of wills between Raquel and teenage Camila Valdez (Andrea García-Huidobro), Raquel and Pilar, Raquel and the new employees, and the Valdez family among themselves. Silva maintains an uneasy tone throughout, leavening the domestic horror with mordant wit. A final-act shift toward hopefulness, spurred by the arrival of Lucy (Mariana Loyola), yet another servant hired when Raquel is bedridden after a bad dizzy spell, at first seems too easy, too contrived. But when the indefatigable Lucy responds to Raquel’s usual cruel maneuvers not with rage but with pity—“What did they do to you?”—Silva makes his sympathies (and condemnations) clear. Outwardly kind and frequently overindulgent of Raquel’s bad behavior, the Valdez family remind their employee every night that she can never dine at the table with them: Boundaries are dropped only to be rigidly enforced.
The Maid opens October 16 in New York City at the Angelika Film Center. For more details, click here.
IN HIS ESSAY “LA TERRA NUOVA,” ROBERT BEAVERS elucidates a paradoxical principle that has informed his filmmaking from the earliest days of his career: “Like the roots of a plant reaching down into the ground, filming remains hidden within a complex act, neither to be observed by the spectator nor even completely seen by the filmmaker. It is an act that begins in the filmmaker’s eyes and is formed by his gestures in relation to the camera.” While the act of filming is distinguished from painting, say, by the mediating apparatus of the camera, filmmaking is nevertheless inexorably tied to the artist’s hand. In Beavers’s description, the recording device translates interior vision into image by a direct physical action.
The comparison of film with painting provides an insight into Beavers’s profoundly physical understanding of his medium, which is underscored by his unorthodox editing methods. Working without an editing table, he cuts his films manually with a splicer. “I memorize the image and movement while holding the film original in hand. . . . There should be almost no need to view the film projected until the editing is completed,” he wrote in “Editing and the Unseen.” (All of the essays cited here were collected under the title The Searching Measure [University of California, Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, 2004].) The near-complete execution of the entire production process by a single maker has always been a marker of avant-garde film. However, Beavers’s approach goes beyond that of standard noncommercial filmmaking, and for the past forty years he has maintained strict control over the production, exhibition, and preservation of his films, which has resulted in one of the most distinctive—and yet underrecognized—bodies of work in cinema.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Beavers attended Deerfield Academy. In the summer of 1965, at the age of sixteen, he went to New York to do research for a proposed film club at school. In the foyer of the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque (then at the Astor Place Playhouse), he encountered avant-garde film luminary Gregory J. Markopoulos, who went on to play a major role in his life. Shortly afterward, he dropped out of high school and moved to Manhattan to pursue filmmaking.
In 1966 Beavers completed his first film, Spiracle, shot in and near a loft on the Bowery where he lived. After two years of working odd jobs, including printing 16-mm film in a lab, he left for Europe in February 1967. Markopoulos, who had become his partner, followed him soon thereafter. The two filmmakers spent the next twenty-five years living and traveling in Switzerland, Greece, Italy, Austria, Belgium, and Germany, tirelessly plying their art, often working under great financial constraints.
Having extracted himself from the New York avant-garde film community before he had established a career, Beavers’s work became almost entirely inaccessible between 1974 and 1996, as he declined all public screenings in the US. Instead, he and Markopoulos worked on the realization of the Temenos (Greek for “a piece of land set apart” or “sacred grove”), the elder artist’s vision of an outdoor viewing site and archive devoted exclusively to their writings and films. From 1980 through 1986, the filmmakers held annual screenings in a rural spot near the village of Lyssaraia on the Peloponnese, and these became the only way to see their work. (The tradition was revived in 2004, when Beavers presented a part of Markopoulos’s late work in the same location for three days in June. [See P. Adams Sitney, “Idyll Worship,” Artforum, November 2004.])
From his earliest to his most recent films, Beavers has combined an exacting formal examination of camera movement and framing with richly filmed depictions of people and places encountered in his nomadic life. The structure of his films—including visual rhymes, repetitions, and equivalences—is akin to that of poetry. In Diminished Frame, for example, made in Berlin in 1970, he used a variety of mattes to partially mask the frame in each shot: A black rectangle obscures the view from an elevated-train stop or blots out a group of boys posing in front of the camera on their bikes. In Work Done (1972/1999), which uses colored filters to luminous effect, Beavers constructs a series of metonymic shots—intercutting the image of a block of ice with that of a river, or the felling of a tree with a book being bound.
At the beginning of his career, Beavers often made reference in his films to his own artistic process and to the material conditions of filmmaking, inserting shots of himself, the camera, or his editing table. From the Notebook of . . . (1971/1998), inspired by the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci and an 1895 Paul Valéry essay on Leonardo’s methods, examines Beavers’s own mode of working, juxtaposing shots of pages noting ideas for filming with views from his hotel window in Florence.
In his later work, he shifts away from a formal investigation of the filmmaking apparatus toward precisely structured relationships between objects and entities. In AMOR (1980), he sets the recurring motifs of cutting and sewing cloth into a metaphorical relationship with romantic love, and in The Ground (1993–2001) the work of a stonemason is paralleled with the ruins of a tower on the Greek island of Hydra.
The Hedge Theater (1986–90/2002)—combining footage from two earlier projects on the architecture of Borromini and the fifteenth-century Sienese painter Il Sassetta—marks the completion of a cycle titled My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure. Beavers began to rework almost all of his films in the late ’80s, a project that would eventually take him more than a decade. The final versions are typically shorter, and they have acquired newly recorded and edited sound tracks. Encompassing his reedited films from 1967 to 2002, the cycle asserts the clarity and rigor of Beavers’s vision.
This piece was originally published in the September 2005 issue of Artforum. The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley will present My Hand Outstretched to the Winged Distance and Sightless Measure October 13–20 and will host a special conversation between film historian P. Adams Sitney and Robert Beavers on Tuesday, October 13. For more details, click here.
MODERN ARCHITECTURE found its greatest proponent not among its designers and manifestoists, but in a twenty-five-year-old college dropout with a penchant for pictures. Or at least so goes the claim of Eric Bricker’s directorial debut, Visual Acoustics (2009), a documentary portrait of the architectural photographer Julius Shulman. In 1936, Shulman, wholly ignorant of anything to do with architecture, accompanied a draftsman from Richard Neutra’s office on a visit to Neutra’s recently completed Kun residence in Hollywood. Shulman sent his snaps to the architect and unwittingly jump-started a career in architectural photography that would continue—suspended only during the years of postmodernism’s ascendance (a movement Shulman despised)—until his death this past July at the age of ninety-eight.
Guided by Neutra and his Los Angeles associates (including his close friend Rudolph Schindler, who had similarly found his way westward from Vienna to work at Taliesen), Shulman became closely associated with modernism’s Southern California strain, whose protagonists included Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, and Albert Frey. Before descending into tedious encomium, the film, dryly narrated by Dustin Hoffman, offers a few pertinent observations into Shulman’s creative relationship with Neutra that effectively encapsulate the story of California modernism. Architect Michael Webb explains that Neutra’s quick adoption of Shulman as his personal photographer was pure business strategy, the savvy decision of a “terrific self-promoter.” Under Neutra’s guidance, Shulman developed a set of photographic techniques tailored to the representation of modern buildings. In the film, an impossibly sharp ninety-three-year old Shulman recounts the architect’s disappointment with the budding photographer’s even and unnatural illumination of perpendicular walls (an early effort), before he learned to balance artificial and natural illumination, an effect suggestive of a modern interior coextensive with the surrounding landscape. “That’s God,” credits Shulman while pointing a finger to a sun-drenched exterior wall; “This is Julius,” he says, referring to a strobe-lit fireplace reproduced in Taschen’s oversize, three-volume edition devoted to his life’s work.
The film also records Neutra and Shulman’s tiffs: Neutra’s insistence, increasingly to Shulman’s irritation, on waving eucalyptus branches in front of the camera lens to give the appearance of a view opening from a grove of trees, or Shulman’s carload of household items with which he would furnish Neutra’s deliberately arid interiors. The latter technique—the constructed appearance of modern living for which Shulman became known—helped feed a growing appetite for modern architecture in consumer publications and home and gardening magazines. Shulman made modernism not only palatable but chic. Breaking with the tradition of presenting the building as an isolated object, Shulman highlighted the building’s relationship to its site and, most important, populated his photographs with fashionable inhabitants. Shulman’s modernism was, to take a cue from Columbia University’s Kazys Varnelis summation of Southern California modernism, “less . . . a societal utopia, and more . . . a personal utopia.”
It is this utopia that Visual Acoustic’s star-studded cast giddily rediscovers, whether it’s Tom Ford describing the “optimism” of the modernist moment in tones of breathless 1-900-number ecstasy, actress Kelly Lynch calling Shulman a “rock star” (twice, for the nonagenarian’s failing ears) and enthusing over the parties she’s hosted in her experimental John Lautner house, or Benedikt Taschen promising Shulman a monograph “bigger, of course,” than Taschen’s titles on Nobuyoshi Araki and Leni Riefenstahl. Like the book publishers and art directors the film follows (the Hollywood cinematographer Dante Spinotti re-creates an iconic Shulman photograph in a self-referential, dolly-driven sequence), Visual Acoustics, too, is fascinated more with the image of this architecture than with the buildings themselves. It’s an attitude that doesn’t perhaps do justice to its subject: a photographer who genuinely loved architecture and who, in a telling moment, contrasts his work with that of the architects he admires. Discussing the photography profession with the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, the usually outsize Shulman deprecates: “It’s a good business—let the architects do all the heavy work, and we come in and take pictures.”
Margot Benacerraf, Araya, 1959, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 82 minutes.
A STUNNING, STRANGELY LIMINAL MOVIE in form and content, Margot Benacerraf’s Araya (1959) takes its name from the place where it was shot—a Caribbean peninsula in northern Venezuela where for centuries a closed economy has been supported by the sea. Araya’s indigenous population makes its living either by gathering salt from the seemingly inexhaustible marshes or through fishing. The salt gatherers sell what they collect to exporters who arrive every day in cargo boats. They use the money to buy fish (fresh or salted) from the fisherman. Three generations of men, women, and children labor side by side. Almost no one from the fishing or the salt-gathering villages has ever left the peninsula. Once a week, they purchase water from a tanker truck that comes from inland. One woman makes pots—without the aid of a wheel. The soil is so arid and the sun so baking that only cacti and a few stunted trees survive. The trees are dry even before they are cut down for firewood.
In 1957, Benacerraf, a Venezuelan who had studied film at the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématografiques in Paris and had made a short experimental documentary about the Venezuelan artist Reveron (which brought her to the attention of the legendary head of the Cinémathèque Française, Henri Langlois), returned to her home country to scout locations for what she thought would be a fiction film. She found Araya, and the feature she shot there shared the Critics Prize at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival with Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima mon amour. It was a moment of boundary-breaking filmmaking in France, but Araya defied categories to the extent that it never received theatrical distribution, although it has been programmed and won awards in various documentary retrospectives in the fifty years since its premiere. Benacerraf abandoned filmmaking after one or two aborted attempts to make another feature and, like two other radical female filmmakers before her—Germaine Dulac and Maya Deren—devoted her energies to creating an infrastructure for film distribution and preservation, founding Venezuela’s Cinemateca Nacional in 1966.
Araya is what is often termed a poetic documentary. It depicts the daily labors of the salt gatherers and fishermen in ethnographic detail, but it also employs expressive sound and image elements that exceed or violate the codes of documentary realism. Benacerraf combines audio recorded on location (the voices of the workers, the sound of the waves and of the salt being dredged and cut) with music that surges like the sea and is as harsh as the salt tearing the skin of the people who handle and walk on it. She also employs a voice-over narration (the film’s weakest element) that leans toward purple prose and poeticisms (which Benacerraf refers to as “biblical”), and interjects bits of fiction, which are not identified as such. The black-and-white cinematography by Giuseppe Nisoli captures the strange, pitiless beauty of the marshes, the salt pyramids, and the sea. The sound mix is extraordinarily rich. (The press kit describes how Benacerraf asked Raoul Coutard—Godard’s favorite cinematographer in the 1960s, then working as a sound-effects technician—to create “the sound of the earth as it expands from the heat of the sun.” He responded that the director editing in a nearby studio had just asked him “to produce the sound of a caress.” That director was Resnais and the film was Hiroshima mon amour.)
Trailer for Margot Benacerraf’s, Araya, 1959.
Despite the dated voice-over prose and the questionable mini-fictions, Araya remains a powerful and suggestive hybrid. Its liminality is not merely a matter of a form located between documentary and fiction: Araya itself was, at the moment Benacerraf made her movie, in transition from primitive past to industrialized future, the derricks, cranes, and conveyor belts of which were only just arriving. Benacerraf shows the machinery but never speculates on how mechanization will affect people who’ve labored with their bodies and bare hands and need to work to survive. For anyone involved with documentary, Araya is necessary viewing. It would also make a great double bill with Harun Farocki’s elegant In Comparison (2009), which screened last week in the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar and which depicts brick making and bricklaying in some half-dozen societies.
Araya plays at the IFC Center in New York from October 7–20. For more details, click here. The film was restored by Milestone and will be available on DVD in the near future.
“IT BECAME VERY CLEAR TO ME that everything in my life, in terms of my art, I was going to have to fight for.” So says artist Nina Yankowitz in The Heretics, Joan Braderman’s info-packed documentary on the groundbreaking feminist art magazine Heresies. The film contextualizes the hurdles faced at the dawn of second-wave feminism: Prior to the 1970s, as interviewees attest, one of the highest compliments a female artist might get from teachers and critics was that she “painted like a man.” Published from 1977 to 1992, Heresies was produced out of (still) scrappy Lower Manhattan by a sprawling collective of artists and writers drawn together to support and explore women’s art in defiance of a curatorial and historical vacuum. Herself a Heresies veteran, Braderman reconnects with former participants, now living around the globe, including critic Lucy Lippard; filmmaker Su Friedrich; architect Susana Torre; artists Amy Sillman, Miriam Schapiro, Mary Miss, and Cecilia Vicuna; and twenty or so others, editing together their stories into a fast-paced, thematically chaptered montage.
Upbeat and affirmative, the documentary employs copious low-tech text and graphics sequences in keeping with the style of Braderman’s canonical video-lecture projects like Joan Does Dynasty (1986) and Joan Sees Stars (1992). Though The Heretics ends with a nod to the present with a short sequence on third-wave feminist collective publishers LTTR, it’s Braderman’s portrait of another era that drives the film. The stories these women tell envision a radically different moment in art-world history, one in which questions of career and market are barely mentioned, and philosophical arguments are firmly grounded in street-level politics. Braderman’s take is unabashedly utopian and celebratory but looks to the past for lessons rather than nostalgia. For as artist Emma Amos notes, “There are more women artists than there are male artists. More of them will get into the best programs. And then what happens? The boys still have the edge on us.”