Robert Kaylor, Derby, 1971, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 93 minutes.

ROBERT KAYLOR’S 1971 documentary Derby is a quintessential movie about the American dream. The film centers on a young factory worker, Michael Robert Snell, and his pursuit of stardom on the professional roller derby circuit, but due to the proclivities of its eccentric subject—a handsome, twenty-three-year-old husband and father of two who has not outgrown his wild adolescence—Derby is also a movie about harsh American realities. Since we never know whether Snell makes it, Kaylor’s movie emphasizes the process of personal transformation rather than the goal of that transformation, and in so doing confronts the viewer with the sadness of a reinvention more deluded than courageous.

Surely over the years we’ve seen enough evidence of the disparity between American dreams and their true, pathetic circumstances—from Grey Gardens (1975) to American Movie (1999) to Capturing the Friedmans (2003)—but Derby flirts with the gawking condescension of those films without ever succumbing to it. Focusing on the boyish insouciance of Snell and the strange movie-star life he leads in Dayton, Ohio—where the sunglasses-sporting pseudo-greaser juggles nine-to-five drudgery with a rotating roster of lovers and indulgences in strip clubs and motorcycles—Kaylor taps into a Midwestern disappointment and ennui that was also finding expression in contemporaneous New Hollywood landmarks like The Last Picture Show (1971) and Five Easy Pieces (1970). Except, of course, Kaylor’s film is all too raw: patio-set confrontations between wives and mistresses, good ol’ boy boasting about extramarital conquests, accounts from returned vets about the battlefields of Vietnam.

There’s also plenty of roller derby, a sport that, judging from the terrific footage Kaylor has compiled, appears to be a succession of brutal fights intermittently broken up by skating. Legend Charlie O’Connell offers a vague history of the game and his own rise to the top, while a host of characters provide colorful locker-room commentary. The almost anarchic violence of roller derby is no doubt a perfect fit for the obliviously destructive Snell, but ironically, our quasi hero is never once shown skating, and thus we can never evaluate his potential in the sport. It seems doubtful that Snell can cut the required training period down from six weeks to three, and his plan to sneak out on his job and transplant his family to San Francisco smacks of horribly selfish judgment. Appropriate, then, that we only see Snell at the rink as a spectator, waiting for the beginning of a contest as the national anthem is canceled due to technical difficulties.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Derby plays Saturday, November 13 at the 92Y Tribeca in New York. For more details, click here.

Park Life


Damien Chazelle, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, 2010, black-and-white film in 16 mm, 82 minutes. Production still. Madeline (Desiree Garcia) and Guy (Jason Palmer). Photo: W. A. W. Parker.

IN GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH (2010), director Damien Chazelle draws on the visual language of direct cinema, an elliptical narrative, and a series of musical numbers to tell the story of a jazz trumpeter and a young woman as they seek their separate paths before effecting a tentative reunion. A studied naturalism seems almost de rigueur for low-budget American films these days, and Chazelle obliges; shooting on 16-mm stock, using handheld cameras and unmotivated zooms, and lingering on peripheral, “documentary” details, the film faithfully adopts the observational aesthetic of nonfiction filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman—only with faster cutting.

But if Chazelle’s adoption of these techniques is marked by a self-consciousness mannerism—the sense that he’s only giving us shots of random people walking down Boston streets because that’s what filmmakers like him are supposed to do—then the musical numbers involving Madeline (Desiree Garcia) use the same reflexive awareness to marginally more productive ends. Simply put, in 2010 you can’t have a young woman burst into song in the middle of a park without calling attention to the deliberate anachronism of the gesture. And Chazelle is more than happy to play up the artificiality, bringing in a background chorus of restaurant workers for Madeline’s second number, set at a local seafood shack. The film’s other musical moments, the live performances by Guy (Jason Palmer), are less successful. Fixing the musicians in close-up as they take their solos, Chazelle attempts to bring us nearer to the soul of the music. The added proximity reveals little, though, given that the tunes are mostly by-the-numbers hard bop and blues.

This is a movie of moments that don’t quite cohere—that don’t even seem to want to. While that may lead to a frustrating opacity, many of said moments are self-contained triumphs: a meeting between Guy and a young woman on the subway that’s viewed as a succession of tighter shots as the two bodies edge closer together; an impromptu jam session in the studio; and a final solo recital by Palmer, shot in a single take as he navigates a ballad of piercing intensity, delivering, for the first time, a performance that can stand up to the relentless scrutiny of Chazelle’s camera.

Andrew Schenker

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench opens at Cinema Village in New York on November 5.

Pedro Costa, Ne change rien, 2009, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Jeanne Balibar.

THE NOTION OF A PEDRO COSTA musical might seem incongruous in light of the Portuguese filmmaker’s best-known work: the stringent, momentous Fontainhas trilogy, about the lives of Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisbon slums (released earlier this year in a Criterion box set). But the hypnotic Ne change rien (2009), a black-and-white study of the French actress-turned-chanteuse Jeanne Balibar’s musical endeavors, is very recognizably a Costa film, from the sculpted lighting and precise compositions to the particular combination of sensuousness and severity, of tender immediacy and analytic distance.

Costa speaks often of the value of work and the daily grind—in describing the Fontainhas films, made in close collaboration with the neighborhood’s poor inhabitants, he has invoked the model of the old-Hollywood studios—and he brings a materialist focus to his subjects and the activities that consume them. The obvious point of comparison for Ne change rien is Costa’s 2001 documentary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, for which he holed up in the editing room with the filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. But while that film was about a specific creative endeavor, the postproduction of the 1999 Straub-Huillet feature Sicilia!, this is a more free-form monument to artistic work process, composed of performances, rehearsals, and studio sessions.

Costa’s extreme chiaroscuro effects push his images to the verge of abstraction: Most scenes are submerged in inky darkness, barely illuminated by a single, sometimes offscreen light source. Balibar and her band are mere silhouettes at times; more often than not, at least half her face is in the shadows. The camera doesn’t move; the framing and lighting tend to render ambiguous the context of a performance. What matters is the moment. Even though a few of the songs ended up on Balibar’s 2006 album Slalom Dame, the movie resists a making-of trajectory. More than a music film, Ne change rien is a film that’s musical in form, and also one that’s utterly committed to filming music as a thing in itself.

Balibar has brought both to period roles (Jacques Rivette’s The Duchess of Langeais [2007]) and to contemporary ones (Arnaud Desplechin’s My Sex Life [1996]) a striking blend of poise and vulnerability, and this paradoxical allure extends to her singing: Her sultry voice has a pearly ring to it but it’s also a bit unsteady, and as a screen star in a world of music pros, she gives off a hint of diffidence. In scene after scene, Costa captures Balibar and her collaborators (most prominently, the guitarist Rodolphe Burger) as they work through long, looping jams, or break down a song into bars and phrases. Costa, a former musician, recognizes the sheer labor involved, most pointedly in a sequence that begins with a wordless vamp—Balibar, chain-smoking, tapping her knee, going da-da-dee-da-dum—and slowly layers on lyrics and instruments over the course of an obsessive, trancelike fifteen minutes. (Costa has said he’s noticed that the walkouts tend to start around here, “when the work begins.”) There are moments of comic exasperation, too, when the singer practices an Offenbach opera, accompanied by an off-screen voice coach whose running critiques (“Genoux doesn’t have three n’s”) provoke a curse under Balibar’s breath.

Above all, Costa has an uncanny feel for what it means to make music together. In one scene, Balibar reshapes and repeats a refrain—“peine perdue” (“pains in vain”)—wringing nuance from the dreamy incantation; Burger backs her up on guitar, singing softly. They never share a frame, but in cutting between a shot of Balibar and a reverse shot of Burger as they listen to the playback track, make adjustments, try again, crack each other up, stop, start again, Costa establishes the shivery intimacy of collaboration. (La Peine perdue is the title of an abandoned script by Jean Eustache, and Ne change rien’s neo-chanson repertoire includes, alongside a few Balibar-Burger originals, several film-buff choices: Kris Jensen’s “Torture,” immortalized in Scorpio Rising [1964]; the Johnny Guitar theme; “Weeping Willows,” from Chaplin’s A King in New York [1957].)

Costa’s films have inspired some fine and enthusiastic writing, but the director, an eloquent polemicist and keen cinephile, may be his own best critic and explicator. Anthology Film Archives is supplementing its run of Ne change rien with a carte blanche selection by Costa that doubles as terrific contextual criticism, connecting the movie’s ideas and gambits to other examples of portraiture and music films. The selections include Eustache’s rarely screened first feature, Numero Zero (1971), which consists mainly of an interview with the filmmaker’s grandmother, and a Thom Andersen double bill, pairing the new Get Out of the Car (2010) with - — (1967), his seminal experimental rock doc, codirected with Malcolm Brodwick. Jean-Luc Godard is represented not with One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968), the Stones-in-the-studio chronicle that Costa has cited as an inspiration for Ne change rien, but with the Jerry Lewis–inflected comic riff Soigne ta Droite (Keep Your Right Up, 1987), which features the noodlings of the electro-rock duo Les Rita Mitsouko. The one performance documentary in the series, also one of the acknowledged classics of the genre, is The Sound of Jazz, a 1957 CBS special that peaks with Billie Holiday’s rendition of “Fine and Mellow.” As Lester Young steps up to deliver a piercing, mournful sax solo, Holiday, perched on a stool, looks in his direction, listens, smiles, and responds. It’s as vivid an instance of artistic collaboration as has ever been filmed: a goose-bump moment involving two people and a third thing.

Dennis Lim

Pedro Costa’s Ne change rien has its New York theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives from November 3–16. For more details, click here.

George Abbott and Stanley Donen, The Pajama Game, 1957, still from a color film in 35 mm, 101 minutes.

JEAN-LUC GODARD memorably hailed The Pajama Game, George Abbott and Stanley Donen’s exhilarating 1957 movie musical, as “the first left-wing operetta.” The first, and maybe the only: The film, an adaptation of the hit 1954 Broadway show, centers on labor unrest at the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory, whose employees are threatening to strike if their demand for an hourly seven-and-a-half-cent raise isn’t met. The Pajama Game, a Bob Fosse–choreographed paean to worker solidarity made during the decade when union membership in the US was at its peak, takes on particular poignancy when seen in today’s era of outsourcing and permalancing.

Loyalty to the union is so important that it derails the romance between Babe Williams (Doris Day, the only principal performer in the film who wasn’t in the Broadway cast), the head of the grievance committee at Sleep-Tite, and Sid Sorokin (John Raitt), the factory’s new superintendent. “No matter what’s with us, Sid, I’m gonna be fightin’ for my team and fightin’ hard,” Babe emphatically spells out to her boss, reminding him just how political the personal is.

George Abbott and Stanley Donen, The Pajama Game, 1957. Excerpt.

Beyond the cognitively dissonant pleasure of seeing the tenets of socialism espoused in a Warner Brothers musical, The Pajama Game will convince audiences of the inaccuracy of the notion of Day as a symbol of virginal, fanatically scrubbed blandness. First appearing on-screen in a light-blue patterned utility smock and surrounded by several Sleep-Tite female staffers devoted to her, Day, peroxided head cocked, fearlessly confronts Raitt about a complaint that’s just been filed against him. The actress’s entrance was greeted by several wolf whistles at a Pajama Game screening I attended almost three years ago, a lusty response that’s fully warranted: Day’s Babe is sexily, supremely self-assured, a sensuous proletariat rousing the members of Local 343 in cherry-red pedal pushers. (Babe’s confidence may have been a reflection of Day’s own: “I must emphasize that I have never had any doubts about my ability in anything I have ever undertaken,” the actress says in her 1975 autobiography, Doris Day: Her Own Story). A Day-Raitt duet, “There Once Was a Man,” remains one of the most ecstatic love songs from films of the 1950s, rivaled only by Day’s solo “Secret Love” from Calamity Jane (1953). Once Sid and Babe reconcile—after the union’s demands are met—you can only imagine what their pillow talk might be.

Melissa Anderson

The Pajama Game screens November 6 at Walter Reade Theater as part of its “The One, the Only Stanley Donen” series, which runs November 3–10. For more details, click here.

Left: Ken Jacobs at the UnionDocs event. Right: Ken Jacobs, Star Spangled to Death, 1956–60/2003–2004, still from a black-and-white and color film, 400 minutes. The Spirit Not of Life But of Living (Jack Smith).

ON THE RELATIVELY warm Sunday morning of October 10, a group of hard-core cinephiles assembled on Seventh Street in Manhattan to extend the epic journey of Ken Jacobs’s six hour–plus magnum opus Star Spangled to Death (1956–60/2003–2004). Organized by UnionDocs, which three weeks earlier had inaugurated its fall 2010 series with Star Spangled, the gathering was accompanied by a walking tour, led by Jacobs, through various East Village sites that provided the memorable locations for his film, itself an experimental odyssey incorporating found-footage highlights and detritus of American culture (Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, surreal archaic animated cartoons), flashes of politically charged text, and footage from the late 1950s, when Jacobs shot puckish avant-garde icon Jack Smith and surly ragamuffin Jerry Sims in loose scenes of play and prank.

The tour began at Cooper Union, where in the days of the Third Avenue El that had shrouded Bowery’s notorious skid row—“a city within a city,” as Jacobs called it—Smith confounded passersby with the flamboyant, impromptu street theater Jacobs captured with his camera. In the particular scene from Star Spangled to Death that takes place at Cooper, Smith dons a garbage costume that gives him the appearance of—in the words of another icon of ’50s New York bohemia, Bob Dylan—“a junkyard angel,” a persona called The Spirit Not of Life But of Living; the getup allows him to “free the slaves,” the captives being a couple of shoeshine boys who happen to wander into the frame. In showing the scene to the group on a portable DVD player, Jacobs explained how Smith would so “dazzle” the unsuspecting citizens he brought into his fantasy worlds that he rarely incurred resistance or objection. Which isn’t to say that Smith’s role as an unknown, underground star in an inhospitable postwar milieu was easy. Jacobs recalled, though couldn’t locate, a Catholic church where Smith had climbed the steps to offer a Valentine’s Day candy heart (presumably to the church itself), only to be reprimanded by a perplexed and likely offended police officer. He was let off with a warning.

Other run-ins with the law were not without more serious incident. On Saint Marks Place, Jacobs and his wife, Flo, recalled the bust that occurred at the Saint Marks Theater on the occasion of the premiere of Smith’s notorious Flaming Creatures (1963). Jacobs was serving as the manager at the time, and Flo the ticket-taker; both landed in the slammer overnight after the film was seized on charges of pornography, the first event in a case that would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court. A lengthy detour had Jacobs explaining the parameters of censorship prior to the MPAA film-rating system and the geographic history of the East Village art scene in the ’50s and ’60s (he had some particularly illuminating opinions on the difference between Beats and hipsters—noting that Kerouac was more sincere than the young, opportunistic Cassavetes), but when asked if he missed the good ol’ days of authentic cinematic rebellion against a repressive culture, Jacobs hedged. Smith, who died in 1989, would have enjoyed the new, commercialized bohemia of Saint Marks Place, Jacobs said. The old Saint Marks was depressingly drab (evidence of its bleakness was later shown in a Star Spangled vignette of Smith performing in front of the long-gone Second Avenue Griddle); the new Saint Marks fully allows the freaks to let their flags fly.

Michael Joshua Rowin

Left: Joseph W. Sarno, Confessions of a Young American Housewife, 1974, color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes. Production still. Anna, Eddie, Carole, and Pete (Chris Jordan, David Hausman, Rebecca Brooke, and Eric Edwards). Right: Joseph W. Sarno, Moonlighting Wives, 1966, color film in 35 mm, 86 minutes. Production still. Mrs. Joan Rand and Al Jordan (Tammy Latour and John Aristedes).

“THE HAPPY ENDING is a Hollywood fallacy that I’m not interested in; I like to leave my characters with something to think about, with things they need to resolve.” Strange words coming from a director of what would come to be known as sexploitation films, but, though as prolific as any grind-house purveyor, Joseph W. Sarno was after something more than (just) cheap thrills. He made his first feature, Nude in Charcoal, in 1961, some years after serving in World War II and later chancing into putting together industrial flicks. Throughout the 1960s he directed a number of sometimes exquisitely shot, anxiety-tweaking, exuberantly scored films. Sarno could make a movie like The Bed and How to Make It! (1966), about an exiled young woman run amok in her aunt’s motel, feel ineffably dirty without getting explicit (unless you count the seductively syncopated stripped-down drum-thump that served as a sound track).

Now receiving a weekend tribute at Anthology, the late Brooklyn-born director (who died in April at the must-be-doing-something-right age of eighty-nine) did not resist displays of flesh, and indeed, he survived eras of change when the meaning of exposure in skin flicks got more literal-minded (on through the ’80s video boom). But Moonlighting Wives (1966), for all the semidreamlike stiltedness of the dialogue and pinup color scheme, dwells on an entrepreneurial woman’s problems of fulfillment in business and love—even if the business, in what seems like an American epidemic at the time, was pimping out acquaintances. (“I sell a service. A . . . stenographic service.”) Sarno would attribute his female focus (psychological and sexual) to his mother, a Jewish labor organizer who believed in “powerful women” (and married an Italian onetime bootlegger).

Sarno sometimes shot dialogue scenes that rivaled Welles in depth of field and compactness of composition, in what he called “fore-aft shots”: Whether in a bedroom or kitchen, the two actors are positioned to face the camera as they leer or spar or speak their insinuating minds. Though the “fore-afts” are often cited to demonstrate Sarno’s filmmaking bona fides, the technique wasn’t just a gesture to avoid reaction-shot monotony—there’s a genuine erotic charge to witnessing provocation and reaction at the same time, along with the voyeuristic dramatic irony to the fiction of neither facing the other. It’s one of several examples of Sarno’s forging ahead rather than just working around—even if it did take him until 1974 (Confessions of a Young American Housewife) to name a sex-mad mother character Mrs. Robinson.

Nicolas Rapold

The Joseph Sarno retrospective runs October 29–31 at Anthology Film Archives. For more details, click here.