Body Double


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.

Andrew Schenker

To Die Like a Man opens Friday April 8 at the IFC Center in New York.

Left: Maripol, Patti Astor. Right: Marcia Resnick, Underground ‘B’ stars of the No Wave – Filmmakers Scott B. and Beth B., artist Diego Cortez, Lydia Lunch, Johnny O’Kane, Bill Rice and Adele Bertei of the Contortions. New York City, 1980. Both images from Céline Danhier, Blank City, 2010.

“YOU WOULDN’T EAT, you’d buy a guitar or a Super 8 camera.” Musician Pat Place’s recollection of the urgency that drove New York’s underground auteurs in the late 1970s and early ’80s encapsulates both the scenesters’ fiercely do-it-yourself ethic and their— perhaps inevitable—tendency to self-mythologize. Blank City, director Céline Danhier’s document of the rough-and-ready style of filmmaking that emerged in conjunction with punk rock and ultimately ballooned into big-budget indie cinema, gives Place and friends plenty of time to indulge this long-nurtured romanticism. But it also packs in so much detail that people and places central to the story soon begin to acquire an odd equivalency with rather more tangential ingredients. The final effect, while not actually misleading, can be slightly numbing. Still, if there’s a feeling of being rushed through too much interesting stuff, at least the interesting stuff is there.

“It was an explosive moment, a meeting of minds.” Blank City begins with Jim Jarmusch characterizing the birth of what Village Voice critic J. Hoberman termed “No Wave” cinema, a no-holds-barred filmic rejoinder to the grittiness of ’70s Manhattan that acknowledged but played fast and loose with the influence of the French New Wave. That Hoberman’s term was also applied to a fleeting but similarly influential subgenre in music is no accident; Danhier’s film describes two worlds in a state of continual overlap. Ivan Kral’s The Blank Generation, 1976—made, according to its director, on a budget of a hundred bucks—features performances by the Ramones, Television, and the rest of the CBGB’s gang. But it was bands of the more dissonant kind gathered on 1978’s No New York compilation that were the real sonic counterparts to the filmmakers featured in Blank City.

Chief envoy of this group from Danhier’s perspective is James Chance, of James Chance and the Contortions. The film’s only interviewee (with the exception of John Waters) to still look something of an oddball, Chance also gives a beautifully concise account of his first encounter with actor-director John Lurie: “[He] used to follow me around on the street. Then one day he came over and knocked at my door and gave me some speed and we went to his apartment and we made a movie.” Lurie himself is an entertaining source throughout the film, discussing the then au courant emphasis on de-skilling—“Technique was so hated [ . . . ] no one was doing what they knew how to do”—and remembering having to fake a break-in at his apartment to claim the insurance money that he used to fund 1979’s Men in Orbit.

And so the film goes on, ranging across a downtown topography that, while appearing strikingly desolate in numerous atmospheric clips and described ad nauseum as dangerous to life and limb, was seemingly packed with radical innovators. En route, guerrilla cinema is cited as a response to everything from political conservatism to the AIDS pandemic, the indomitability of the cockroach to the gentrification of the Lower East Side. The self-celebration is interrupted only late in the game by director James Nares, who slams Jean-Michel Basquiat for making it cool to have cash. From here, it’s the fast track to something like mainstream success for a select few, and a digging in of heels for others. Most notable among the latter is Nick Zedd, whose 1985 manifesto stakes out a more lurid and confrontational territory in the form of the Cinema of Transgression.

Zedd, who still cuts a youthful (one might even say adolescent) figure, is a riot. Still sulky after all these years, the uncompromising director maintains an admirable poker face as he outlines an ongoing quest to offend. “I was elated to get this kind of attention and this kind of outrage,” he says of the appalled critical reaction to 1979 anti-masterpiece They Eat Scum, his face steadfastly expressionless. Waters describes Zedd’s production Fingered (1986) as “the ultimate date movie for psychos,” and former partner and collaborator Lydia Lunch remembers of the young Zedd, “Even when he did nothing, people hated him. It was amazing!” If Blank City has a star, it’s not the more critically lauded and commercially successful likes of Jarmusch or Steve Buscemi, but this pouting man in black, a stubborn iconoclast who doesn’t wanna grow up.

Michael Wilson

Blank City opens Wednesday, April 6, at the IFC Center in New York.

Left: Ericka Beckman, Out of Hand, 1981, still from a color film in Super 8, 30 minutes. Right: Ericka Beckman, Cinderella, 1986, still from a color film in 16 mm, 30 minutes.

LIKE A BOOMERANG hurled across three-plus decades and carrying today’s viewer back with it to that fervent, hard-edged but oddly innocent downtown moment when the free-for-all 1970s (free because no one had or was willing to admit to having money) gave way to the more practical and materialist ’80s, Ericka Beckman’s Super 8 “Piaget Trilogy” (1978–81) arrives on the Anthology Film Archives screen. Its restoration in 16 mm was made possible by Anthology’s experimental film preservation project, which has recently focused on work from this period. (Two weeks ago, restored movies by Manuel De Landa were screened; on April 15–16, it’s Bette Gordon’s turn.) I can’t remember seeing an actual boomerang in any of Beckman’s works, but so many of the trajectories of camera and object movement in her films evoke that kind of kinetic and aggressive back-and-forth that to include the thing itself would be redundant.

Beckman’s place in the pantheon of daredevil experimental moviemakers should have been secured in 1983, when You the Better, the thirty-five-minute, 16-mm film that followed the “Piaget Trilogy,” caused a riot at the New York Film Festival, where it preceded Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion. I recall that at the time, Godard, perhaps as a defensive maneuver, anointed Beckman as the most talented young American experimentalist. Two years earlier, Beckman’s Super 8 work was lauded by J. Hoberman in his catalogue for “Home Made Movies,” the 1981 marathon survey of 8-mm and Super 8 films he organized at Anthology. Hoberman described the films in what would only later be dubbed the “Piaget Trilogy”—they were partly inspired by the learning theories of the psychologist Jean Piaget—as follows: “Filled with images of disembodied limbs, toy-like models, and anthropomorphized furniture, scored to doo-wop mantras and abstract cheerleader chants, Beckman’s films suggest the amalgam of Max Fleischer’s oneiric Bimbo’s Initiation and Oskar Fischinger’s geometric Composition in Blue.” Of Out of Hand (1981), the last film in the trilogy, he memorably blurbed: “like an Allstate Insurance commercial as it might appear to an autistic child.”

Of all the artist-filmmakers who debuted in the ’70s, none have shown more consistency than Beckman. That is to say that each of her films is distinct from the others while also being part of a uniquely envisioned oeuvre. (You have to see her films to understand how derivative, clumsy, and vacuous Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster” cycle is.) What I wrote in 1979 in the Soho News about two of her early films—about their fragmentation, dreamlike displacements, and associative connections; about how clear, diagrammatic, often primary-colored iconography is placed within a shadowy, shifting, ambiguous space; about the incantatory power of her sound tracks with their repeated percussion riffs and nursery rhyme–like chants—applies to her more recent, technically formidable work as well. In the stunning 2006 Tension Building—an unfortunate omission from the Anthology program, though it can be found in its entirety on her website—she uses stop-motion, camera movement, and variations of focal length and exposure to transform the Harvard University coliseum into a giant thrashing machine. A mere three minutes, it seems to go on for hours, sucking you in like a black hole. It’s the only film that’s ever given me motion sickness.

Milking the Surrealist roots of Pop, Beckman creates brightly colored, psychologically threatening, sexually charged worlds in which her avatars are hurled to and fro, trapped inside a game plan whose rules they desperately try to discern. In what is probably still her most narrative-like film, Cinderella (1986), her heroine, decked out alternately in baggy overalls and a green bouffant prom dress topped with a blonde flip wig, is shunted between an industrial furnace that she’s forced to tend and the ballroom where she dances with the prince until she loses her chance to marry him because she doesn’t make it home by midnight. It’s not until she realizes that she can come home whenever she likes that she breaks out of the confines of the game. “And that night, I didn’t get home until two!” she exclaims, in one of the most thrilling moments of liberation in a Beckman movie. It wasn’t until looking at Cinderella again, twenty-five years after its debut, that I realized how deeply Beckman’s films were lodged in my brain in their entirety, as deeply as the childhood nursery rhymes and picture books that are undoubtedly their sources. They touch down where the wet dreams of girlhood arise.

Amy Taubin

Two programs devoted to the filmmaker Ericka Beckman will run April 1–2 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Left: Mikio Naruse, Floating Clouds, 1955, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm. Kengo Tomioka and Yukiko Koda (Masayuki Mori and Hideko Takamine). Right: Mikio Naruse, When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, 1960, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm. Keiko Yashiro (Hideko Takamine [left]).

OF ALL THE WOMEN to suffer on-screen in classic Japanese cinema, few matched actress Hideko Takamine for her startling mixture of resentment, resignation, and resolve. Takamine, who died last December at the age of eighty-six, had a career that lasted five decades: Discovered on a sightseeing trip to Shochiku studios at the age of five, she appeared in her first film (Haha) in 1929. She was a beloved child star in prewar Japan, often sharing a bill with Shirley Temple. Known affectionately as “Deko-chan,” she later played the spirited teenager in movies such as Composition Class (1938) and Horse (1941).

In the 1950s, Takamine made the transition to leading lady. Her comic talents are evident in Keisuke Kinoshita’s Carmen Comes Home (1951), in which she plays a big-city stripper returning to her rural village. But her greatest films are the elegant black-and-white shomin-geki, or dramas of ordinary people, made for director Mikio Naruse, including Lightning (1952), Flowing (1956), and Yearning (1964). In Floating Clouds (1955), her Yukiko is a destitute woman in ruined postwar Tokyo, obsessed with a faithless lover played by Masayuki Mori. In Takamine’s modulated performance, romantic masochism isn’t noble or saintly.

She’s equally sublime in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960), where she plays a thirty-something Ginza bar hostess trapped by circumstance and surveying her limited options: Marry for money? Secure a patron and open her own bar? Pursue the married banker (Mori again) whom she truly loves? This is pure women’s picture, transposed to a different key than Mildred Pierce (1945) or All That Heaven Allows (1955) by Takamine’s understated playing. She maintains a mask of placidity for her customers, but her eyes and posture convey an inner turbulence. Hideko Takamine never played the victim.

Tom Beer

Six films starring Hideko Takamine will screen as part of the series “Five Japanese Divas,” which runs April 1–21 at Film Forum in New York.

Michelangelo Frammartino, Le quattro volte (Four Times), 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 88 minutes.

A TREE IS A TREE IS A TREE, or so Gertrude Stein would have it. Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le quattro volte (Four Times) suggests otherwise. An omniscient view of life with an unerring blend of wit and wisdom, this irresistible fable is inspired by the idea of cyclical transmigration in the natural order. When the body of a deceased goatherd is interred in its tomb, a momentarily black screen bursts into light in sync with a baby goat emerging from its mother’s body. Later, when the goat dies at the foot of a huge fir, it becomes part of the soil that nourishes the tree. After the tree is subsequently cut down and used in a village festival, it is reduced to wood and converted, via the ancient tradition of kiln smoking, into the charcoal that fuels the homes and cooks the food of the inhabitants of the Calabrian village where the film is set. Without dialogue or narration, the unassailable logic of this structure unfolds seamlessly.

Though officially outlawed by certain religions (one of the few things held in common by Christianity and Islam) the ancient belief in metempsychosis—the idea that the soul of a dead being enters a new life, sometimes in a different form—is still held by many peoples all over the globe. Speaking of the genealogy of his work, Frammartino cites the persistence of this doctrine in Calabria, from the time the philosopher Pythagoras taught it and founded a religious community there (then called Kroton) in the sixth century BC through to the present day. But Le quattro volte is neither a documentary nor a religious tract. Serenely composed and paced as befits the subject it delineates, it seduces us with its gentle, assured manner, laced with charity and humor.

As attentive to the animal, vegetable, and mineral worlds as it is to the human, the film confirms cinema as the “redemption of physical reality.” This was the basis of Siegfried Kracauer’s theory that unlike other art forms, film was inherently democratic. Far from privileging the human, it made all things, animate and inanimate, equally compelling before the camera. Frammartino’s long shots give full measure to this idea. They range from Tati-like tableaux of the human condition that only seem blissfully unorchestrated, to bird’s-eye views that recall the kind of landscape painting—e.g., of Bosch, or Poussin—that encompasses myriad narrative details. Several distant shots of a mountainside reveal microscopic movement—of goats, or a religious procession—making incremental progress along a barely discernible path. From such perspectives, mortal lives and ritual events seem little more than the bustling of so many ant colonies. Frammartino’s canvases give us the big picture, so to speak, within which the daily existence of individuals seems very small indeed.

Whether this wonderfully empathic detachment conceals or reveals the director’s belief in the immortality and transference of souls is a mystery he mischievously exploits. If we look condescendingly, for example, at the superstitious goatherd who believes in the curative power of dust from the local church, we are brought up short when the old fellow dies the morning after failing to take his daily dose. And regarding ants, Frammartino adds a touch that deftly links the imagery and theme of his film in the most naturalistic manner. As the goatherd squats in a field, an ant makes its way across his face and onto his forehead, a motif seen again in a close shot of the goat that loses its way, and on the bark of the tree just before it is felled. Less the grim reaper than the humble instrument of nature’s laws, the ant embodies both the industriousness of all living beings and their ultimate subordination to the scheme of things. Neither preachy nor pretentious, there’s not a lovelier, more resonant piece of moviemaking in New York at the moment.

Tony Pipolo

Le quattro volte runs March 30–April 12 at Film Forum in New York.

Pop Up Video


Left: Michael Robinson, If There Be Thorns, 2009, still from a color film in 16 mm transferred to digital video, 13 minutes. Right: Michael Robinson, And We All Shine On, 2006, still from a color film in 16 mm, 7 minutes.

MICHAEL ROBINSON’S dyspeptic pop concoctions can be unsettling. The first time I saw Light Is Waiting (2007)—a hallucinatory edit, incorporating stroboscopic and mirror effects, of clips from the television series Full House—more than a few experimental film veterans walked out. Robinson’s ability to shock and upset his audience, especially in the context of something that calls itself avant-garde, is significant. He certainly isn’t the first video artist or filmmaker to salvage lowbrow materials, but his use of found footage is distinctly different from the educational filmstrips, newsreels, and classical Hollywood clips typical of many film recyclists. Instead, Robinson mines artifacts of the too-recent past—Top Forty hits, video games, pulpy romance novels, and prime-time sitcoms that haven’t yet accrued the familiar patina of nostalgia—and explores their still-shifting meanings, these semiforgotten objects still rotting atop our collective cultural garbage heap.

Michael Robinson, Light Is Waiting, 2007.

Yet beneath the ironic distance that comes easily when confronting yesterday’s junk, Robinson’s films are moved by an undertow of affect, the pull of the pop hook. He doesn’t avoid the sour connotations of bad taste, but plunges deeper, beyond shame or disavowal, to those secret places where we might take seriously Cyndi Lauper’s vigil in “All Through the Night” or shed a tear for Guns N’ Roses’ cold “November Rain.” And though Robinson, twenty-nine, grew up during the 1980s and ’90s, this isn’t Generation (DI)Y irreverence, either. Rather, his work, interlaced and garbled with VCR tracking, confronts media as media, seducing viewers on multiple registers. The dark thicket of And We All Shine On (2006), for example, opens to a Sega Genesis dreamscape menaced by an 16-bit chimera. And in the karaoke-style video Hold Me Now (2008), a hysterical Mary Ingalls (from Little House on the Prairie) strains against her husband’s embrace as the lyrics to the eponymous Thompson Twins song appear in the frame, inviting us to sing along. But I’ve never heard anyone do it, not aloud. Robinson knows better than most how these cracked pop objects continue to work their power over us even after they’ve been discarded.

Genevieve Yue

“Victory over the Sun: Films and Videos by Michael Robinson” plays Monday, March 28, at 8:30 PM at REDCAT in Los Angeles.