Trust Issues


Laura Poitras, The Oath, 2010, still from a color film, 90 minutes.

THERE’S NO OPPORTUNITY for the viewer to position himself comfortably in The Oath. Like many of the best documentaries, Laura Poitras’s film places the audience in an ambiguous and untenable relationship with the movie’s subjects, particularly its central figure, Osama bin Laden’s former bodyguard and current Sanaa-based cab driver Abu Jandal. Drawing on a diverse array of footage, Poitras presents the sly and charismatic Jandal through direct interviews, television appearances with both the American and Arab press, footage the filmmaker shot of Jandal interacting with his son or meeting with young followers, material gleaned from a semihidden camera in his cab, and the words of his testimony before the FBI following 9/11.

Jandal emerges as both a captivating figure and a difficult one to come to grips with. A likable man, struggling to earn a living to take care of his young son while wracked with self-doubt, he’s given up his terrorist past, but his level of commitment to the jihadist cause remains uncertain. With minimal direct authorial interference and a seemingly passive role in interviewing her subject, Poitras lets Jandal shape his own image, and the fascination lies in the moments when that ever-cautious man lets on more than he perhaps intends. In a discussion with a young associate, he argues that 9/11 (which he had no involvement with and officially condemns) was a success, while on Arabic TV, he’s placed in a tight spot when asked whether his loyalty oath to bin Laden still holds.

A counterpoint to Jandal’s segments is the slightly less ambiguous narrative of his brother-in-law Salim Hamdan, a Guantánamo detainee: Upon winning a Supreme Court case granting his freedom, Hamdan was immediately arrested under a freshly created law. Seen only in grainy footage of his 2001 arrest, Hamdan’s story is told through his letters, his defense council’s passionate news-conference exhortations, and Jandal’s words. While it’s easy for the viewer to side with Hamdan, his level of involvement in Al Qaeda remains unclear, with his brother-in-law suggesting that he may have been more than the simple paid employee his lawyer claims he was. It’s this constant uncertainty as to the nature of truth—compounded by Poitras’s dense web of material and her strategic withholding of information—that gives the film its dizzying charge and serves as a welcome antidote to the damaging simplicity of the official us-versus-them narrative.

Andrew Schenker

Part of the annual New Directors/New Films festival, The Oath plays Friday, March 26 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Sunday, March 28 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details on the festival, which runs Wednesday, March 24–Sunday, April 4, click here.

Noah Baumbach, Greenberg, 2010, color film in 35 mm, 107 minutes. Production still. Photo: Wilson Webb. Roger Greenberg and Florence Marr (Ben Stiller and Greta Gerwig).

ROGER GREENBERG (Ben Stiller), like the hyperarticulate, acid-tongued narcissists who precede him in writer-director Noah Baumbach’s oeuvre—Bernard Berkman in The Squid and the Whale (2005), Margot in Margot at the Wedding (2007)—repels and attracts. Recovering from a crackup, the forty-one-year-old sometime carpenter, vowing to “do nothing” for a while, arrives in Los Angeles from New York to house-sit for his wealthy brother, Phillip, on vacation with his family in Vietnam. Frequently bedecked in a Steve Winwood T-shirt, the resolutely Gen-X Greenberg reminisces with his pal Ivan (Rhys Ifans), a former bandmate now struggling to keep his family together; writes angry letters to Starbucks, Hollywood Pet Taxi, and Mayor Bloomberg; and commences a dizzyingly passive-aggressive courtship with Florence (Greta Gerwig), Phillip’s twentysomething personal assistant.

“Hurt people hurt people,” according to one of the pop-psych bromides uttered more than once in Greenberg—its banality later revealed to have resonance even for Stiller’s bilious, cranky know-it-all. Baumbach’s fifth feature, unlike Margot at the Wedding, does more than just marvel at the noxious cruelty of its protagonist; Greenberg, though self-absorbed and self-pitying, shows the faintest signs of kindness and compassion when he’s with Florence. Her task isn’t to redeem him but to make him realize when he’s behaving outrageously.

Stiller may have the title role—and gives one of the best performances of his career—but Gerwig, awkwardly radiant, serves as the movie’s emotional ballast. Best known for her roles in mumblecore films like Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and Nights and Weekends (2008), Gerwig opens Greenberg driving down Sunset Boulevard as the Steve Miller Band’s “Jet Airliner” plays on the sound track—a moment of casual ebullience similar to the scene of Gary Lockwood tooling around LA in his MG in Jacques Demy’s Model Shop (1969), which, like Greenberg, is its director’s first film set in Los Angeles. While Greenberg offers the satisfaction of seeing Stiller’s stardom being tweaked, it provides the greater pleasure of witnessing Gerwig’s stardom on the rise.

Melissa Anderson

Greenberg opens March 19 in New York and Los Angeles.

Left: Andrei Tarkovsky, Solaris, 1972, still from a color film in 35 mm, 167 minutes. Right: Andrei Tarkovsky, Andrei Rublev, 1966, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 205 minutes.

WHEN INGMAR BERGMAN said of Andrei Tarkovsky that he had invented a cinematic idiom “true to the nature of film,” what did he mean? Of course, the “true” nature of cinematic language itself remains—quite rightly—the subject of sharp, perennial debate in film theory. At the very least, Tarkovsky’s body of work can be said—in just seven examples—to have informed those polemics with compelling purpose. The Anthology Film Archives’ “Tarkovsky X 3” program presents three films at the core of the director’s (already compact) oeuvre—a primer of sorts to his best-known feature-length films.

In both its religious subject matter and its thinly veiled paean to artistic freedom, Tarkovsky’s masterpiece, Andrei Rublev, tested the boundaries of Brezhnev-era aesthetic imperatives. Notorious problems plagued the film’s production; it went through several edits and various iterations before finally being screened in the Soviet Union in 1971 (a different version won a prize at Cannes two years earlier, as, in turn, would Solaris [1972]). Yet despite Tarkovsky’s embattled dodging of Soviet censors, he is perhaps not the consummate countercultural dissident that Western critics or historians might make of him (especially given the increasing shortage of “subversive” Soviet cinema since the fall of the iron curtain). As the art historian Matthew Jesse Jackson recently noted in his volume on Moscow Conceptualism, Tarkovsky enjoyed decided approval among the Soviet intelligentsia. Imbued with a mystical and somewhat wistful melancholy, Tarkovsky’s immersive long takes often match in style his films’ absorptive thematics. That absorption is not, to be sure, solely the domain of medieval archaisms, as in Andrei Rublev; one of the most notable scenes in Solaris—the more cerebral Soviet answer to American science fiction—is a highway drive, by turns hypnotic and anxious (with a nervous sound track to boot). The Mirror (1975) renounces a strict narrative for more paratactic, personal evocations, loosely stitched in a kind of cinematic stream of consciousness.

Tarkovsky’s subsequent collaboration with Tonino Guerra, as well as his marked influence on directors such as Sergei Paradjanov, naturally remain outside the parameters of this tight program. But the range of his subjects and narrative approach in even these three works betray the unflinching cinematographic sensibility—with equal attention to the autonomy of images and the rhythmic momentum of narrative—for which Tarkovsky remains a legend.

Ara H. Merjian

“Tarkovsky X 3” runs March 19–21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.

Gianni Di Gregorio, Mid-August Lunch, 2008, stills from a color film, 75 minutes. Left: Gianni (Gianni Di Gregorio). Right: Aunt Maria (Maria Calì) and Gianni's mother (Valeria De Franciscis).

MID-AUGUST LUNCH (2008) is an easy film to underrate. Its considerable charm lies on its surface; less immediately apparent, but underpinning the whole of the film, is the terror of grappling with the loneliness of aging. Italian actor/writer/director Gianni Di Gregorio demonstrates his multivalent talent, but not in a way that calls attention to itself. The actors, mostly nonprofessionals, are remarkably natural. At times, one can imagine Mid-August Lunch as a documentary.

A fifty-something bachelor, Gianni (Di Gregorio) lives with his ninety-three-year-old mother. The manager of Gianni’s condo solicits him to let his aunt and mother stay with Gianni and his mother; subsequently, Gianni’s doctor requests the same favor for his mother. Gianni winds up cooking and looking after four elderly women for several days. On paper, this sounds like sitcom material, but as filmed by Di Gregorio it flows like a well-crafted ’60s pop song. Mid-August Lunch treads a fine line between naturalism and cloying cuteness, thankfully keeping largely to the former. It’s hard to picture a contemporary American movie being so unself-conscious about its protagonist’s smoking and heavy drinking. Gian Enrico Bianchi’s cinematography has a golden glow, and indeed, the film captures the look and mood of summer in the south of Europe.

Di Gregorio has worked with the filmmaker Matteo Garrone as both a screenwriter (Gomorrah) and an assistant director (First Love; The Embalmer). Garrone, who produced the film, has been one of the few recent signs of life in Italian cinema, but after Mid-August Lunch, one can add Di Gregorio to the brief list of promising Italian directors.

Steven Erickson

Mid-August Lunch is available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films beginning October 5, 2010. For more details, click here.

Axelle Ropert, The Wolberg Family, 2009, color film in 35 mm, 80 minutes. Production stills. Photos: Carole Bethuel.

“LET ME DOWN EASY,” Bettye LaVette begs, in the searing 1965 soul nugget that opens The Wolberg Family, Axelle Ropert’s trenchant, aurally dazzling debut feature. The plea, sung to a lover right before a breakup, could just as easily be the appeal overbearing Jewish paterfamilias Simon Wolberg (François Damiens), a proud small-town mayor, makes to his wife and two children, who, fed up with his grandstanding and prying, insist that he change. This small, modest film explores, with persistent acuity, one of life’s thorniest struggles: how to carve out an identity wholly separate from one’s kin.

In her screenplay for La France (2007), directed by frequent collaborator Serge Bozon (he plays Simon’s brother-in-law in Wolberg), Ropert gloriously reimagined both the war movie and the musical. Wolberg, which Ropert also scripted, fulfills an even greater challenge: reinvigorating the nuclear-family drama, one of cinema’s most shopworn genres. “Family isn’t sexy,” Simon’s daughter, Delphine (Léopoldine Serre), a few weeks shy of her eighteenth birthday, announces at the dinner table to her father, a man who insists that what defines a family is its lack of secrets (though he himself is hiding something). Simon’s wife, Marianne (Valérie Benguigui), must also constantly discredit his desperate, suffocating ideas about closeness: “We all have our own private world.” With these pithy pronouncements, Ropert shows that movies about what Susan Sontag once referred to as “that claustrophobic unit” need not constantly erupt into hysteria (cf. Rachel Getting Married) or relentlessly catalogue simmering grievances (cf. Revolutionary Road). What distinguishes Ropert’s celluloid clan is their ability to honestly articulate the complexity—and enormity—of their emotions. Like LaVette, Sam Fletcher (whose “I’d Think It Over Twice” is one of Marianne’s beloved 45s), and Wilson Pickett (whose framed head shot, along with those of other ’60s legends, adorns Simon and Marianne’s bedroom), the Wolbergs stir the soul.

The Wolberg Family screens March 20 and 21 at New York’s Walter Reade Theater as part of “Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.” Axelle Ropert will be present at both screenings. For more details, click here.

Melissa Anderson

Kathryn Bigelow, Strange Days, 1995, still from a color film in 35 mm, 145 minutes. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) and Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett).

A PAINTER WHO ENROLLED in the Whitney Program before migrating to Columbia Film School, Kathryn Bigelow is something of an anomaly in Planet Hollywood. Combining an affinity for the frenetic rhythms of the thriller with a taste for subversive genre-bending that recalls her “high art” beginnings, Bigelow is a consummate technician whose balletic action sequences remind us how cinematically pure the language of violence can be. Her latest film, Strange Days (1995), is a tech-noir set in a Los Angeles on the brink of the millennium, where conflicting visions of rapture and revolution divide the collective psyche, and the apolitical insulate themselves by getting high on other people’s lives.

With a script by director James Cameron (True Lies, 1994) and writer Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, 1993; The Last Temptation of Christ, 1988), Strange Days—a cyberpunk extrapolation of the archetypal noir—recasts Chandler’s mean streets as paramilitarized zones where tanks roll by impassively while wasted youth bludgeon Santa Claus on the curb. Scurrying through the back alleys of a decadent underground like an oiled rat, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) peddles other people’s realities preserved on MiniDiscs through the magic of SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), a technology that records and plays back human experience “straight from the cerebral cortex,” allowing the user to be anyone this time around, for a price.

Nero has broken the first commandment of the Dealer’s Credo—“never get high off your own supply”—and has be come a memory addict, hooked on a feedback loop of happier times with a femme fatale who has gutted his life by the time the film begins. When he gets a snuff clip of his friend’s murder, he reluctantly assumes the mantle of Philip Marlowe, and enlisting the aid of Mace (Angela Bassett), an Amazon Warrior moonlighting as a chauffeur, becomes embroiled in a conspiratorial web with enough red herrings to rival The Big Sleep.

Like Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), Strange Days is no less noir for being in color. Bigelow’s blacks are black, and her light, what there is of it, is dark cyan, a visual correlative to the creeping rot eating away at her characters. And, as in her last three studio releases (Near Dark, 1987; Blue Steel, 1989; Point Break, 1991), Bigelow is no slave to the fast cut. Strange Days, her best film to date, closes with a sequence that leaves us rattled long after the credits roll. The camera lingers on the bloody face of a racist cop. Gun drawn, he drags his suicided partner along by his own handcuffs, attempting, one last time, to effect his Final Solution as confetti falls from the night sky like acid snow.

ANDREW HULTKRANS: It’s quite a leap from Conceptual art to the culture industry.

KATHRYN BIGELOW: It does seem like a departure. I was studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and one of my teachers put me up for the Whitney Program, so I went. This was ’73 or ’74, when Conceptual art really came to the fore. I did a couple of videos with Lawrence Weiner, and I worked with Art & Language, an artists group who were critiquing the commodification of culture. So I was very influenced by them, and my concerns moved from the plastic arts to Conceptual art and a more politicized framework. And I became dissatisfied with the art world—the fact that it requires a certain amount of knowledge to appreciate abstract material.

Film, of course, does not demand this kind of knowledge. Film was this incredible social tool that required nothing of you besides twenty minutes to two hours of your time. I felt that film was more politically correct, and I challenged myself to try to make something accessible using film, but with a conscience. I still work off that foundation. So I shot this short piece called Set Up [1978].