Lisandro Alonso, Liverpool, 2008, stills from a color film, 84 minutes. Farrel (Juan Fernández).
LIKE HIS SECOND FEATURE, LOS MUERTOS (2004), Argentine filmmaker Lisandro Alonso’s Liverpool (2008) is a work of rugged solitude, executed with a careful simplicity of unhurried, unbroken, and generously distanced shots. Both study homecomings: While Los Muertos followed its newly ex-con protagonist down a lazy river wending from prison to his village, Liverpool tracks Farrel (Juan Fernández), a cargo-ship worker who goes ashore at Tierra Del Fuego to reunite with his ill mother, who lingers bedridden in a remote logging camp. By placing lone male protagonists against depopulated expanses of wilderness and industry, both these films could be seen as peripatetic masculine counterpoints to the feminine interiors of Chantal Akerman’s similarly languorous Jeanne Dielman (1975), depicting individuals evidently defined by their exterior and exploratory movement through vast territory, nevertheless drawn back inexorably toward their natal sites, compelled by some magnetic and melancholic tropism.
Liverpool’s narrative is barely there, spiderweb thin, plotted from point A to point B, then granted a ghostly tangent through an elongated coda. Alonso uses cinema less as a medium for storytelling and more as a means to capture and replay specific psychogeographies. He employs nonprofessional actors culled from the region and has them portray their characters through movements and actions with a minimum of dialogue. The rural portions of the film show a well-worn system of human tools and structures embedded intimately within the natural world; the color scheme throughout its subarctic land is snowy whites and wooden browns, broken only by bits of artificial blood red: the collar on the jacket of Farrel’s sister or the battered paint on a commissary table. Taken as a carefully relayed sensorium, a set of found gestalts, Alonso’s cinema embodies a philosophy whose basic postulate subtends the Bazinian tradition that itself has wandered the decades through Bresson and Akerman, Benning and Tarr: that our selves are to be found not in us, but around us.
Liverpool has its New York theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives September 2–8. For more details, click here.
THEY ARE AN UNLIKELY COUPLE: editor in chief Anna Wintour and creative director Grace Coddington, numbers one and two on the masthead of the most influential fashion magazine in the world. While Wintour is the face of Vogue, and her celebrity is what will sell R. J. Cutler’s The September Issue, Coddington steals the movie. Cutler, who earned his documentary credentials producing Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker’s The War Room (1993), has an eye for unlikely seducers. As James Carville was to Pennebaker’s behind-the-scenes look at the 1992 Clinton campaign, so Coddington is to The September Issue. I hope she forgives the analogy.
Like The War Room, The September Issue is a process documentary. It follows the six-month production of the September 2007 Vogue, which at 840 pages—the number blazoned on the cover—was the largest issue in the magazine’s history. Whatever the reasons for the year-and-a-half lag between the date Cutler finished shooting and The September Issue’s premiere at Sundance in January 2009 (it shouldn’t have taken seventeen months to cut together fly-on-the-wall HD footage with Sex in the City establishing shots unless the contractual fine print defining “final cut” was stickier than usual for the fly), the delay has yielded an unintended irony. No one on the screen seems to have a clue that anything other than the weight limitations imposed by US Post Office would interfere with the next issue being even bigger. Instead, the September 2008 issue was down forty-two pages, and the current issue’s page count is a mere 584, the number still a defiantly eye-catching element of the cover design. In the fashion world, heavier is better only in regard to the poundage of the book.
As with any glossy magazine, including Artforum, advertising is what determines page count. Of those already legendary 840 pages, 727 were ads. I take that number from no less an authority than Maureen Dowd, one of some half dozen New York Times writers who have used the movie as an opportunity to weigh in on all things Wintour, thus contributing to the publicity bonanza that The September Issue has been for Vogue. Wintour is a brilliant businesswoman who understands how to use the influence her magazine wields over shoppers to convince retailers and designers that advertising in Vogue is a necessary element of their marketing strategy. There is very little in the movie that depicts how Wintour accomplishes this. A glimpse of her fielding a softball question about designers’ tardiness at Vogue’s annual breakfast for retailers; a couple of words of praise from senior VP and publishing director Thomas Florio; a few seconds of a Condé Nast staff meeting during which chairman Si Newhouse can be seen in profile—that’s about it for the symbiotic relations among editorial, publishing, and marketing divisions. Nor is there any analysis of the power of fashion in contemporary culture. (For a brilliant depiction of how fashion was used to economically and politically cripple a fractious bourgeoisie, put Roberto Rossellini’s 1966 The Taking of Power by Louis XIV in your Netflix queue.)
Insubstantial though it is, The September Issue has its pleasures and even revelations. First and foremost, it does away with the myth that everyone who works for Vogue is physically perfect. There is most obviously the girth of the great André Leon Talley, who is here relegated, in two brief scenes, to the role of court jester. High-definition is an unsparing medium: I really didn’t want to be as intimately acquainted with the pores on Johnny Depp’s nose as Public Enemies (2009) forced me to be, but it was deeply liberating to see that tiny shadow of UFH (undesirable facial hair) above Wintour’s upper lip. Wintour is by far the least eccentric looking and most soigné of everyone in Vogue’s editorial offices, where, aside from a few excursions to Paris, London, and Rome for photo shoots and to cover the European collections, the movie is largely located. “Everyone can’t be perfect in this world. It’s enough that the models are perfect,” says Coddington, refusing Wintour’s orders to eliminate the paunch from a photo of Cutler’s cameraman, Bob Richman, whom Coddington impulsively included in one of her spreads. Coddington enlists the film crew as allies in her daily struggles with Wintour, and her sotto voce asides to the camera are expertly timed and very funny. “I love to talk money in front of you guys with Anna,” she confides after Wintour has insisted that she reshoot an entire spread, “because it drives her crazy and it’s a sure way to get the budget up.”
Wintour and Coddington’s diametrically opposed aesthetic sensibilities—an opposition essential to the success of the past twenty years of American Vogue, not to mention this movie—manifest in their respective presentations of self. Wintour always looks armored, even in the arm-baring clingy print dresses she favors in the office. Her signature bulletproof bob hides both her forehead and her jawline—the areas of the face where gravity and/or the surgeon’s laser most often do their work. I’m pretty sure she eschews Botox, since, within a limited emotional range, her face is extremely expressive. She exhibits as many variations of the disdainful glance—coupled with the withering remark—as Eskimos are said to have words for snow. It will be unfortunate if aspiring editors with less talent but a similarly sadistic streak take her as a role model.
Coddington, on the other hand, combs her shoulder-length mane of fire-red frizzy hair straight back from her high forehead, baring every line, crease, and sag that time has wrought on her parchment-white skin. Already eligible for Medicare when the documentary was shot, she is that nearly extinct creature—a woman who looks her age on-screen and is ravishingly beautiful because we can see her entire life in her face. When Coddington was a teenager in a Welsh convent school, she escaped into the fantasy world of Vogue because, she says, “she loved the pages.” Her modeling career in London was cut short by a car accident that left her with scars around one eye. After working for British Vogue for twenty years, she was hired by American Vogue, a week after Wintour became editor in chief.
R.J. Cutler, The September Issue, 2009. (Clip)
One of the last hands-on stylists at a major fashion magazine (she dresses the models herself), Coddington favors a soft-focused, backlit romantic look that she fears has gone out of favor. “Everyone seems to like things pin sharp these days,” she says regretfully. Her work, she explains, is based on creating a fantasy around the models. Fashion stories like “Texture!” or “The Jacket!” are merely pretexts. Coddington (creative talent) and Wintour (editor) go at each other as nastily as Labour and Conservative party members in British Parliament, although each of them admits at various points that the other is the best at what she does. Coddington credits Wintour with “seeing the celebrity thing coming before everyone else,” and although she hates it, she knows that by putting celebrities on the cover, Wintour pumped up sales. “You’ve got to have something to put your work in,” Coddington explains ruefully. “Otherwise it’s not valid.”
I became a Coddington devotee after I saw a spread in a 1989 Vogue where she played clothes made of leopard-skin-print fabrics against archival images of Chanel and Schiaparelli wearing the leopard-fur hats they made famous and a 1966 photo of a model sitting across a dinner table from a leopard wearing a napkin around its neck. The caption for that last image reads: “Fortunately for the big cat, it was around this time that imitation fur reached its state of near perfection.” Coddington went on to publish, in collaboration with her partner, Didier Malige, The Catwalk Cats (2006), a charming illustrated fantasy about the adventures of their five companion felines in the world of high fashion. Vogue, however, did not replace the skins of dead animals, long a staple in its pages, with simulations. In fact, after PETA put a dent in the profits of the fur industry, Wintour almost single-handedly revived it by putting fur back on the covers of Vogue from the mid-’90s on. Missing from The September Issue are glimpses of Wintour and Coddington arguing directly about things that matter, like fur, and maybe celebrity as well. Explaining her relationship to Wintour, Coddington says, “I know when to stop pushing her. She doesn’t know when to stop pushing me.” I imagine that Cutler must have felt the same.
The September Issue opens in New York on August 28 and in Los Angeles and select cities on September 11.
Doug Pray, Art & Copy, 2009, color film, 89 minutes.
IT’S THE DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH that receive their due praise in Art & Copy, Doug Pray’s selective chronicling of evolutions in print and television advertising through the second half of the twentieth century. Navigating this pivotal period in the industry, when copywriters and ad directors were first brought together to fuse image and word, Pray has molded a fawning tribute to the creative teams that gave corporations public faces and personalities in the form of shrewd brand identities. There’s Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign, which went beyond sneakers to articulate a universal mantra of motivation. There are two of the most acclaimed product launches in history—the original Apple “1984” Super Bowl ad and the ubiquitous promotions surrounding the Tommy Hilfiger debut. In the political realm, Pray dissects the nuclear paranoia of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy” ad and the wholesome Americana of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, molded by Hal Riney—the master of employing nostalgia to forge emotional relationships between product and consumer.
Using a case-by-case structure, Pray profiles the creative directors who came to define their era—the real-life Mad Men who convinced us that goods and services were more than just commercial transactions, they were a way of life. These were the masters who pioneered a shift away from copy-based advertising and toward a theatrical mold, convincing generations that one airline company was more fun than another, that MTV was a must-watch, that a major indicator of a healthy life was a morning jog (one that made use of Nike shoes, shorts, and windbreakers). Particularly fascinating is the film’s discussion of the moment when modern advertising splintered into postmodernism: In Pray’s narrative, it’s a 1998 Super Bowl ad that features the Budweiser lizards assassinating the Budweiser frogs. The commercial had absolutely nothing to do with selling beer, the admen assert, but then again maybe it didn’t have to. If you like the lizard ad, they claim, you’ll be more inclined to like the brand associated with it. All that matters now is that the brand “gets” your sensibility.
Pray’s fatal mistake is that he all but ignores the larger ramifications of these campaigns. Ironically, many of the marketers interviewed have nasty things to say about Riney, deriding him for using emotions to mask the underlying commercial intentions of his picturesque advertisements. But they fail to acknowledge any connection between Riney’s manipulations and their own campaigns to convince generations of consumers that they cannot live without exercise equipment, name-brand attire, and personal MP3 devices. What Art & Copy lacks is a discussion of the downsides to brand fixation. Most of the documentary’s creative voices express pride in creating ads with an artistic dimension, making of corporate communications a sort of Pop art. And while Pray sprinkles in bleak facts throughout the film—statistics revealing that people are now bombarded with five thousand advertising messages a day, as they gorge on more than fifty-six hours of television a week—he fails to link these dire figures to the stories viewers are being told. Yes, there have been creative, compelling, possibly revolutionary ad campaigns, but there’s a social cost to this melding of business smarts and creative style—a consumerist con job that Art & Copy never addresses.
Art & Copy runs August 21–27 at IFC Center in New York. For more info, click here.
Spike Lee, Passing Strange, 2009, color film in HD, 135 minutes. Production still. Stew, De'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Daniel Breaker, Chad Goodridge, Heidi Rodewald, and Rebecca Naomi. Photo: David Lee.
IN DO THE RIGHT THING (1989), Spike Lee introduced the world to radicals Radio Raheem and Buggin’ Out and had audiences everywhere questioning whether Mookie “did the right thing.” Twenty years later, the color line still smolders from Bed-Stuy to Burbank, and despite utopian postracial chatter, the dominant media narratives figuring blackness continue to thrive on stereotype rather than revolution.
Enter Lee in 2009, with a new creative compatriot named Stew—singer, songwriter, and bona fide star of the Tony Award–winning musical Passing Strange. Stew’s semiautobiographical stage production chronicles a young black outsider from South Los Angeles as he struggles to find himself through drugs, sex, and music. First under the wing of a closeted choir director and then with a bevy of bohemians in Europe, he remains in hot pursuit of the forever-fleeting “real.” Like many of Lee’s preceding cinematic stories, Stew’s rebellious, cathartic tale doubles as an examination of blackness and the alienation rooted even within the community.
Employing fourteen probing high-definition cameras, Lee filmed the rock musical’s final two performances at the Belasco Theater in New York, adding footage later shot without an audience. Daring angles and close-ups of the actors’ wildly expressive faces are as reminiscent of Do the Right Thing as a renegade concert DVD. Lee far exceeds his humbly stated purpose: to document the stage production for “generations and generations to see.” He is able to transmit through film the joy of being onstage. As the outstanding ensemble cast ecstatically dances through the last curtain call, viewers can practically smell the sweat-soaked performers’ gift of love and collaboration. Lee registers those emotions exaggerated to epic, stage-worthy proportions, emotions that, by nature of their very theatricality, most aptly approach the real that Stew (and the artist in so many of us) is perennially searching for in life.
Passing Strange: The Movie opens August 21 at the IFC Center in New York and will be on-demand nationwide starting August 26. For more details, click here.
Lucrecia Martel, The Headless Woman, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 87 minutes. Verónica (María Onetto).
CINEMA AS POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER, Lucrecia Martel’s astounding The Headless Woman willfully disorients the viewer while forcefully indicting its subject. Great films have the power to unspool as dreams or nightmares; only the most exceptional, like Martel’s third feature, can make a spectator feel as if she is in a slightly concussed state.
The Headless Woman—shot, like Martel’s previous works, La Ciénaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004), in Salta, a city in northwestern Argentina (the director’s hometown)—begins with three boys and a dog playing, darting across a nearly abandoned highway to a canal. Their laughing and yelling transition, confusingly at first, to the sounds of other children, this group far more privileged, being shuttled back from some kind of family outing by various relatives. Among the adults is tall, bottle-blond, middle-aged Vero (a superb María Onetto). Alone in her Mercedes, listening to “Soley Soley,” a 1971 pop nugget, on the radio, she takes her eyes off the road to answer her cell phone, hitting something: a dog, or maybe one of the kids first seen playing by the road. Vero stops, tries to regain her composure, but drives off, never once looking back.
The sound and motion of the impact jolt us almost as much as Vero, who will spend the rest of the film nearly mute, confused (reporting to work at her dental practice, she takes a seat in the waiting room), terrified of sudden sounds, barely present at various family gatherings. (As in Martel’s first two films, the middle-class extended clan of The Headless Woman is vaguely incestuous: Vero is having an affair with her brother-in-law—or is he her cousin?—and her teenage niece seems to want to seduce her.) Midway through the film, she will dispassionately say to her husband, “I killed someone on the road.” The confession is not a precursor to accountability, triggering instead further concealment. Martel’s visual compositions (using 2.35 Scope for the first time), suggesting a state of consciousness alternately dulled and hyper-alert, and hallucinatory sound design reflect Vero’s psychic and moral collapse: a personal and political failing too readily abetted by those closest to her.
The Headless Woman opens August 19 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Neill Blomkamp, District 9, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes.
SOUTH AFRICAN–BORN DIRECTOR Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) wants badly to be a film of the kind and caliber of Children of Men (2006): a thoughtful, left-leaning treatment of contemporary political issues that doubles as an accessible sci-fi thriller. The movie begins as a mock documentary, complete with talking heads and staged “archival” footage outlining a scenario in which aliens land in Johannesburg, their spaceship having run out of fuel during an escape from a disaster on another planet. The South African government, acting more out of concern for its image than the aliens’ well-being, takes them in as refugees and relocates them to District 9, a shantytown-cum–concentration camp, where they live under the custodianship of a corporation called Multi-National United. This expository sequence is essentially an expanded version of Blomkamp’s 2005 short Alive in Joburg, which uncannily reframed actual documentary footage of police brutality and anti-apartheid marches as science fiction.
District 9 departs from the Alive in Joburg story line when it introduces Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), a casually bigoted MNU official and the movie’s dim-witted protagonist. He is accidentally infected by an alien virus twenty-eight years after the events described in the prologue: The disease slowly transforms him into “one of them” and, conveniently, enables him to use the aliens’ coveted DNA-activated weaponry. Wikus is pursued by MNU’s private military, and in order to save his skin he forges an uncertain alliance with an alien father and son (though lacking any concept of private property, the aliens still form Spielbergian nuclear families), who agree to cure Wikus if he helps them to escape District 9.
The film’s political implications are clear, though its specifically post-apartheid resonances have understandably been lost on many American critics. Up to 8 percent of South Africa’s population are illegal immigrants, the largest contingent of which comprises refugees from the political violence and economic free fall in neighboring Zimbabwe. The South African government has taken a harder line against illegal immigrants since the end of apartheid, with xenophobic rhetoric gaining traction in mainstream political discourse and deportations increasing almost 20 percent in the past five years alone.
Neill Blomkamp, Alive in Joburg, 2005, 6 minutes, 24 seconds.
An ersatz television-news broadcast about anti-alien riots in District 9 alludes to the dramatic rise of violence against immigrants since democratization. Blomkamp was filming in Soweto in May 2008, when a series of devastating anti-immigration riots broke out across South Africa that killed over sixty people, a third of whom were naturalized citizens murdered because of racist sentiments fueled by xenophobia. (Immigrants from elsewhere in Africa are considered darker skinned than South African blacks.) District 9 itself recalls Lindela Repatriation Centre, the largest deportation-processing camp in South Africa. A privately run, highly militarized facility that holds illegal immigrants awaiting deportation, Lindela has become South Africa’s Guantánamo Bay, its name synonymous with gruesome reports of detainee abuse, rapes, “accidental” deaths, indefinite detentions, and material deprivation.
More than mere stand-ins for illegal immigrants, Blomkamp’s repulsive, trash-eating, delinquent aliens function as abject manifestations of respectable society’s unspoken, paranoid fantasies about the lives of the poor. In one of the more direct real-life parallels, an interactive map on the marketing website for District 9 shows that the fictional alien camps are geographically coextensive with the impoverished township areas of Timbesa, Kartorus, and Soweto. Approximately a third of the population of South Africa inhabits such so-called slums, where half the residents live in improvised shacks made of spare wood and corrugated metal.
Neill Blomkamp, District 9, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 112 minutes. Wikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley).
In District 9, Wikus’s grotesque physical transformation allegorizes anxieties that are as much about class as xenophobic racism, especially in a few scenes that focus on the surreal disruption of Wikus’s middle-class existence. In one, his teeth and fingernails begin to fall out as he works at his office desk; in another, the sight of him sends people screaming from a fast-food restaurant. (Wikus, ever the bureaucrat, insists that it’s illegal for the restaurant to deny him service.) Wikus’s dilemma dramatizes the paranoia pervasive in a society that arbitrarily dehumanizes whole sectors of its own population: the fear that anyone, anytime, can become the reviled Other.
With so many trenchant ideas, it is a pity that the film abandons most of them in their larval stage. A needless subplot involving Nigerian gangsters undermines the film’s anti-xenophobic message. The delight that District 9 takes in depicting the slaughter of aliens and laughing at their grotesquerie plays too closely at the border between critique and mere symptom. Whereas Alive in Joburg featured performances by numerous South African township residents, District 9 lacks the visible involvement of those South Africans for whom it seems to want to speak. Yet such lapses are too predictable to spoil the film’s insights entirely, and its laudable lack of resolution at least ensures that audiences will leave theaters as disquieted as they are entertained.
District 9 opens August 14.