Jacques Rivette, Around a Small Mountain, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 84 minutes. Left: Kate and Vittorio (Jane Birkin and Sergio Castellitto). Right: Vittorio and Clémence (Sergio Castellitto and Julie‐Marie Parmentier).

THE ELEGIAC MONOLOGUES and bittersweet themes of Around a Small Mountain (2009) seem uniquely appropriate, given the career arc of the film’s director. At eighty-one, Jacques Rivette, key member of the French New Wave, has molded an ephemeral eighty-five-minute daydream about an over-the-hill circus troupe and an outsider who helps a scarred former cast member learn to cherish her roots. Could this be the filmmaker’s requiem for the art of cinema?

The story begins with a broken car: A visibly flustered Kate (Jane Birkin) is stranded on the side of the road in rural France; a man, Vittorio (Sergio Castellitto), comes to the rescue, stopping to silently repair the clunker. Actual introductions don’t occur until later, when both are parked in the next town, where Kate has returned to find a circus founded by her father. She invites Vittorio to a show and he becomes enraptured with the archaic spectacle of the clowns and gymnasts, who are now playing to an audience of three. Vittorio books a hotel room and begins his investigation into the past, befriending the unsung artists, celebrating their passions even as he learns more about Kate’s traumatic history. It was here, during a performance, that she lost her lover, forever imbuing the tent with pain and regret.

Rivette, director of Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) and La Belle Noiseuse (1991), has made a career by building vibrant characters through improvised, almost spontaneous performances. In Around a Small Mountain, the personalities expand and then take flight via reflective chats in empty cafés and afternoon musings in gardens. Vittorio comes to love the simple pleasures of circus life, while Kate attempts to reconcile her despair. Rivette’s own affection for the circus is obvious. He shows the same comedy routine in its entirety three times, underscoring the familiar charm of a classic performance. He emphasizes the dwindling audience, at one point capturing the clown’s shocked reactions when Vittorio actually laughs at a punch line. Even the film’s climax plays out under the big top, as Vittorio tries to heal his new friend’s heart by playing out her lover’s death scene in full makeup: mourning as spectacle. It is Rivette’s doting tribute to the ways life imitates art (and vice versa), his gentle reminder that the show must go on.

S. James Snyder

Around A Small Mountain opens July 9 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.

Left: Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze, 2010, stills from a single channel video, 20 minutes. Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery / Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery. Right: Michael Glawogger, Workingman’s Death, 2005, still from a color film in 35 mm, 122 minutes.

“WORK” WAS THE THEME of the fifty-sixth annual Robert Flaherty Film Seminar—the what, when, where, who, and sometimes why of activity that’s often unseen or unrecognized on-screen. The 150-plus pool of attendees, including the featured filmmakers, watched and discussed a globe-trotting program of films showing drunken bullfighters, toddler water bearers, tyro politicians, fake pimps, expat diarists, open-air butchers, bankrupt farmers, and fantastical cheese manufacturers, among others. The program, curated by critic and editor Dennis Lim, was of course not a matter of “work” as mere occupation; instead it traced the diverse paths filmmakers take in interpreting works and days—spanning Michael Glawogger’s spectacular travelogues, Uruphong Raksasad’s melancholy Thai pastorals, Mika Rottenberg’s fanciful trope-loaded factories, Lisandro Alonso’s temps mort journeys through the Argentine outback, and Akosua Adoma Owusu’s deftly wrought films on craftsmanship and culture.

Two documentaries by Mexican filmmaker Eugenio Polgovsky found the hallucinatory in vérité, parachuting into his country’s impoverished hinterlands for close-up, carnivalesque chronicles of labor that is by turns mundane and macabre. Set in the isolated desert of San Luis Potosi province, Tropic of Cancer (2004) tags along for the hunting and trapping of sundry birds, snakes, and rodents (much of it done by a diabolically focused child of eleven or twelve). The film climaxed, in one of the seminar’s periodic reflexive moments, with roadside sales to tourists (as well as an extraordinary Donald Cammell–esque cut from an eagle’s eye to a snake). Polgovsky’s The Inheritors (2008) is just as unnerving, with unrelenting sequences of rural children shoveling, toting, and picking—a Seven-Dwarfs-gone-wrong world of pint-size workers, spiked with circus-y local music.

Like Polgovsky’s work, Zhao Dayong’s lauded Ghost Town (2009) conjures a marginal community in the provinces—a former Communist workers’ village perched in the mountains. Its unification of artistry (Zhao trained as an oil painter) with social portraiture made the centrally placed film a capstone to the week’s percolating dialogue on how work forges identity. Accordingly, Zhao’s embedded look at the Shanghai homeless, Street Life (2006), offered a fascinating vision of unmade man: a prolonged finale showing one of the subjects (recently beaten by police) engaged in demented Situationist crumping in a public square under a Jumbotron. The seminar’s most ironic statement on disenfranchisement, however, might have been Kazuhiro Soda’s tragicomic Campaign (2008), which follows a clumsy candidate in liberal Kawasaki through to the ultimate end: absorption and integration into the conservative party machine.

The Flaherty is not “about” premieres, but a presentation of Mika Rottenberg’s latest work preceded its unveiling this week at SF MoMA. Partly inspired by build-your-own salad bars, Squeeze (2010) showcases another tightly but mysteriously constructed whatzit-box of components—a disembodied tongue, a black Buddha, bare bottoms, lettuce, Indian rubber extraction—that defamiliarizes the ritual of work. Rottenberg’s use of montage in Squeeze and earlier works acquired new dimensions when seen in the context of the conversation on technique and distance that was running through the programs. An early short by Glawogger, Haiku (1987), becomes virtually indistinguishable from ads in setting metalworking and domestic routine to a pounding factory beat. Glawogger’s stunning world tours (from Bombay to Moscow to Mexico City to New York) in Megacities (1998) deploy restaging (a simulated Times Square hustle, a minimusical of babushkas singing), city-specific color schemes, and the impression of angelically ubiquitous access. Portraying dazzling beauty at the margins, Megacities and the better-known Workingman’s Death (2005) could evoke comparisons to National Geographic: Extreme voyeurism or, as one attendee put it, the sublime wonder/horror of Turner’s burning boats.

Perhaps most striking across the program was the tug of the rural—upon documentary subjects and filmmakers alike. Alonso saw the solitude of the urban young in the lone woodsman of La Libertad (2001); Pedro González-Rubio (director of soon-to-be-released Alamar) recounted fleeing soulless Mexico City TV production to make Toro Negro, a 2005 portrait of a wife-beating bullfighter weaned on soap operas; and Naomi Uman presented 16-mm diaristic and present-tense-nostalgic works on her (re)adopted Ukrainian homeland (one of which was wonderfully programmed with Uruphong’s 2009 Agrarian Utopia). In such crossing and bridging of boundaries there arises an ecumenical sense of documentary as not simply filmmaking but also a kind of shared experience.

Nicolas Rapold

The 56th Robert Flaherty Film Seminar, programmed by Dennis Lim, ran June 19–25 at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY. To see the full seminar schedule, click here.

Rein of Fire


Left: Anthony Mann, The Furies, 1950, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 109 minutes. Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck). Right: Billy Wilder, Double Indemnity, 1944, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 107 minutes. Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff (Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray).

BROOKLYN’S GREATEST GIFT to the world (Walt Whitman runs a close second), Barbara Stanwyck exemplifies a certain kind of big-city dame: whether as slang-slinging nightclub singer Sugarpuss O’Shea in Ball of Fire (1941) or platinum-blonde femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944).

But starting in the 1950s, Stanwyck would slip out of sequined gowns, white-belted dresses, and anklets to don dungarees, flannel, and holsters. The westerns Stanwyck made—most notably Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950); Allan Dwan’s Cattle Queen of Montana (1954); Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957); and, on the small screen, The Big Valley (1965–69)—mark her shift from metropolitan wisecracker/double-crosser to butch frontierswoman, determined to keep (or reclaim) her land. (Her mettle extended beyond the characters she played: Stanwyck, forty-nine at the time, did all her own stunts for Forty Guns, including being dragged by a horse in a windstorm.)

True to the film’s title, Stanwyck’s Vance Jeffords is an avenging woman in The Furies, set in the New Mexico Territory during the 1870s. When Flo Burnett (Judith Anderson) threatens to come between Vance and her ranch-owner father, T.C. (Walter Huston), to whom she’s unnaturally attached, the enraged daughter permanently disfigures her stepmother-to-be with a well-aimed pair of scissors. Later betrayed by T.C., Vance will spend years and travel thousands of miles to ruin him.

“Do you mind if I take the reins? I like to know where I’m going,” Vance insists to Rip Darrow (Wendell Corey), one of two men (not including Dad) she’s romantically attached to, her feelings often expressed by a hard slap across the face. Stanwyck grounds Mann’s western—which, as a combination of Greek mythology, Freudianism, and scenery chewing from Huston (in his last screen role), often threatens to tip over into hysteria—through her unwavering commitment to her character’s hot-headed dignity. “You’re in love with hate,” Rip tells Vance. Stanwyck makes wrath a virtue, never once letting go of the reins.

Melissa Anderson

The Furies plays July 6 at Film Forum in New York.

Vikram Jayanti, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector, 2008, still from a color film, 102 minutes.

LITERALLY AND FIGURATIVELY GNOMIC, the reclusive music producer Phil Spector had been out of the public eye for decades when he was arrested in 2003 for the murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson. Photographed in court sporting a mammoth Brillo pad of an Afro that threatened to topple his tiny frame, Spector seemed to be another in a long line of LA has-beens—O. J. Simpson and Robert Blake come to mind—who capped their careers with alleged execution-style killings. During his first trial, which ended in a hung jury in 2007, Spector appeared as emotionally distanced from the proceedings as Simpson and as dangerously eccentric as Blake. Through testimony, the jury learned that he had a fondness for firearms, which he often brandished at ex-girlfriends (as well as the Ramones). He was erratic and strange—a sad, twisted little man who hadn’t done anything of merit for years. No doubt that he pulled the trigger.

One of the chief virtues of this fascinating documentary is that it restores Spector to his proper place in music and cultural history, despite the tawdry tabloid conclusion of his life as a free man (he was convicted and sentenced to prison in 2009). Hardly a hagiography, it does not sidestep or skimp on the Clarkson murder—a good quarter of the film is trial footage from Court TV—but in getting hours of intimate interviews with Spector at home, just after the first trial, and mixing in copious vintage performance clips, producer-director Vikram Jayanti has done a great service, reminding generations who knew Spector only as a murderous freak (if they knew him at all) of his importance—and his humanity (he is surprisingly lucid and likable in the film).

From “Spanish Harlem” (1960), “He’s a Rebel,” (1962), and the dum-da-dum-cha intro of the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” (1963)—perhaps the most recognizable opening salvo in pop history—through the Beatles’ Let It Be (1970), George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (1970), and John Lennon’s Imagine (1971), with minor detours along the way like the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” (1963), the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ ” (1964), and Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep—Mountain High” (1966), among many others, Spector turned the recording studio itself into an instrument, piling on layers of orchestration while foregrounding odd percussion, particularly castanets.

He was the first practitioner of the 1950s rock ’n’ roll generation to take pop music seriously, likely giving it more weight than Cole Porter gave his own material. Known for his “wall of sound” technique, Spector pushed primitive four-track recording to its limits, using extreme compression and tape echo to make his productions peerlessly dense and as wide-screen as mono allowed. He was a massive influence, as well as a mentor and later a source of paranoid delusions, for Brian Wilson, who has played “Be My Baby” on his home jukebox every day of his life, still wondering how Spector got that sound. No Spector, no Pet Sounds. He salvaged the Beatles’ biggest mess (Let It Be) and produced Lennon’s and Harrison’s strongest solo work. In our pop present, where producers are as aesthetically and commercially crucial to a record’s success as performers, it’s easy to forget that Spector pioneered the concept of the producer-as-star, becoming the first music-business figure to reach the Hollywood director’s grail: the name above the title.

If Jayanti’s empathetic, psychologically penetrating film can be faulted, it’s for including flowery, overblown “critical texts” by Tearing Down the Wall of Sound author Mick Brown as subtitles while Spector classics play on the sound track. They distract not only from the music but also from the imagery on-screen, whether it’s trial footage, period performances, or Spector’s wan, contemplative face. The profundity of all of the above is clear enough. We don’t need to be told that a piece of early-’60s AM pop is a “masterpiece of chiaroscuro.” Otherwise, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector is a bracingly revealing portrait of a dark, complicated genius. It would fit right in with Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb (1994) and Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2006) in the imaginary PBS series “American Misfits.”

Andrew Hultkrans

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector plays June 30–July 13 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.

Left: George Kuchar, Weather Diary 5, 1989, still from a color video, 38 minutes 17 seconds. Right: George Kuchar, Weather Diary 1, 1986, still from a color video, 79 minutes.

“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.

Travis Jeppesen

A selection of George Kuchar’s video works curated by Marc Siegel is on view through August 8, 2010, at Mehringdamm 28, D-10961 Berlin, as part of the 6th Berlin Biennial.

The L Word


Chantal Akerman, La Captive, 2000, still from a color film in 35 mm, 118 minutes. Simon and Ariane (Stanislas Merhar and Sylvie Testud).

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.

Melissa Anderson

La Captive screens June 29 at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York. For more details, click here.