Zhao Liang, Petition, 2009, stills from a color video, 123 minutes.
EMERGING FROM ARDUOUS, dangerous, in-the-trenches work, Chinese filmmaker Zhao Liang’s documentary investigations open onto profound problems in China that are often kept hidden by the country’s authorities. His interest is in the banal mechanics of systematic oppression: His remarkable debut Crime and Punishment (2007), for instance, provides a rare look into the People’s Armed Police, a branch of law enforcement similar to the military in its regimented lifestyle and coldly abusive administration of “justice.” The emotional frustration and dehumanization of young PAP men working in an isolated Northeastern region becomes fodder for abuse of undeserving suspects: a deaf-mute kleptomaniac beaten when he cannot respond to questions, an elderly scrap collector repeatedly and pointlessly castigated for his son’s antipolice remarks, and a group of timber thieves pummeled in a counterproductive interrogation (fines were reduced after the suspects’ families lodged complaints).
His latest work, Petition (2009), was filmed over more than a decade, and goes even deeper to uncover a segment of Chinese society left silent and demoralized by bureaucracy and corruption. These are the “petitioners” who, after being continually buffeted by local institutions, gravitate toward the State Bureau of Letters and Calls at the Beijing South Railway Station to file grievances against unjust imprisonments, broken financial agreements, and other injustices committed by the government. They transplant their lives to wait by the station; the same persistent petitioners are, year after year, rebuffed by a circuitous ticket system—or else brutal force.
Though their endless fight to be heard seems hopeless and their belief in ultimate vindication appears nearly delusional, the stubborn, vagrant petitioners are depicted as representatives of democratic courage marginalized and torn apart by a dismissive communist dictatorship. In the film’s most notable story line, a petitioning woman must painfully confront the independence of her daughter, who seeks a life and family of her own after having been taken out of school to stay by her mother’s side during her mother’s fruitless quest to receive recognition of her husband’s wrongful death. Petition thoroughly demonstrates China’s farce of due process, but also agonizingly captures the lives emotionally malformed by it.
Petition runs January 14–20 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
Abel Ferrara, Go Go Tales, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes.
AT A TIME when milquetoast Williamsburg postgrad circles are the subculture most visibly represented on New York City art-house screens, it might be worth recalling Abel Ferrara, grimy poet laureate of the Koch and Dinkins eras. Working his way from grindhouse and exploitation—his directorial debut 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy (1976) was an out-and-out porno—to violent crime dramas and character studies (King of New York  and Bad Lieutenant ), Ferrara was, at the height of his powers, the city’s most ferocious, uninhibited chronicler of its underground networks and appetites.
The past decade has not been so kind to him. Just as the independent film boom of the 1990s ebbed, so did the notoriously volatile and uncompromising Ferrara find himself at the margins of distribution, with only a few of his last several films receiving limited releases in this country. This is unfortunate, because Ferrara’s talent and intensity remain a vital rarity within the world of independent filmmaking. Notwithstanding the DOA ’R Xmas (2001), the turn of the millennium has brought two of his best films—Mary (2005) and Go Go Tales (2007)—each revealing new facets of his hustlers and redemption seekers. These works are unusual territory for Ferrara: Mary traverses NYC and Israel following a filmmaker, an actress, and a television journalist as they struggle to understand and accept Christ beyond the realm of myth; as with his other characters, nothing will suffice but the most powerful of experiences.
Go Go Tales, on the other hand, is classic Ferrara filtered through a loose compendium of Mom-and-Pop Operation Fighting Against Gentrification clichés. The action takes place at Willem Defoe’s barely functional strip club, and Ferrara indulges in its comic possibilities with abandon. Camp stage performances (Asia Argento unforgettably smooching a dog) and camp real ones (Sylvia Miles’s piercing landlord) comprise the film’s skeezy (in a good way) raison d’ętre. Though slight, the metaphoric Tales gleefully expresses its director’s own position as a beleaguered, skin-of-the-teeth underdog and scheming focal point of a like-minded community of outcasts.
Ferrara’s three most recent films have been documentaries, and, like Go Go Tales, two of them reflect his fight for cultural survival. In Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Ferrara’s main concern is capturing the present Chelsea as a microcosm of outsider creativity and living, a community at the mercy of new management. Napoli Napoli Napoli (2009) is a staid and underdeveloped sociological study of the Italian city’s festering plague of poverty, drugs, and crime, whereas Mulberry St. (2009) acts as that film’s more personal flip side, with Ferrara exploring his Italian roots and current Little Italy neighborhood during the annual San Gennaro festival. Hard-core Little Italy store owners and neighborhood holdouts lament the decline of the once truly wild festival after the city’s successful efforts at cleaning up its vibrant gambling ring, while Ferrara intimates that his films’ distribution limbo, the stifling of ethnic pride, and the persistent pressure on independent filmmakers are intimately linked. A carnival spirit prevails by Mulberry St.’s end, mostly due to the irrepressible energy of Ferrara, shooting on the fly and playfully interacting with old friends, but a bittersweet shadow lingers. For how long remains to be seen: Ferrara is apparently at work adapting Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a film that could fully unleash his id once more.
Florin Serban, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 94 minutes.
AN ARRESTING CONTRIBUTION to the increasingly evident “new wave” in Romanian cinema, Florin Serban’s remarkably assured debut feature, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle, makes effective use of prison drama conventions to create an impressive portrait of a youthful offender and to introduce a charismatic new actor to the screen. Based on a play, the film has dramatic focus and a temporal urgency that builds with quiet intensity. Though less than two weeks away, eighteen-year old Silviu’s parole is jeopardized when he learns that the mother who abandoned him eight years earlier is about to take the little brother he has raised to Italy with her. Determined to prevent this, Silviu appeals to an understanding warden for a day’s leave; makes frantic deals he cannot honor with a fellow prisoner in exchange for use of a cell phone; and finally resorts to violence that will no doubt result in extended, if not permanent, incarceration. There is an additional though ambiguous suggestion that the dormitory atmosphere where the men sleep facilitates sexual humiliation and that Silviu may be one of its victims.
A volatile but sympathetic protagonist, Silviu is played by George Pistereanu, a nonprofessional still in high school when Serban discovered him. With a natural ability to project charm and threat in a single, wide-eyed glance, the young actor easily embodies Silviu’s cauldron of suppressed rage and unpredictability, fusing the cool single-mindedness of Bresson’s Michel (in Pickpocket ) with the personality and impetuousness of a young Steve McQueen. Genuinely drawn to Ana, an attractive and personable social worker, he is no less frightening holding a shard of glass to her throat and bashing in a guard’s head to compel the warden to call his mother and give him a car to leave the prison so he can take the same Ana out for coffee.
The thirty-six-year-old Serban, having completed a university film program in Romania, then studied directing at New York’s Columbia University, where he also taught film history and theory. Although he claims to “love” Bresson, Serban’s filmmaking style and indulgence with actors could not be more opposed. His restless, handheld camera rarely abandons Silviu’s perspective, repeatedly dogging his tracks by following the back of the actor’s head in close-up, an effect that lends the character an illusory power. This is counteracted by shots of Silviu running toward the prison exit while the camera remains behind as if to register the futility of his efforts. Similarly, when he strains to look beyond the fence to see his brother getting into his mother’s car, the viewer, like Silviu, is limited by an extreme long shot. Though this restrictive technique can often prove forced and monotonous in first features, Serban’s control and purpose are never in question. In the penultimate scene, framed as a two-shot, Silviu sits quietly with Ana in a café, orders another coffee, then leaves. While she waits, the film cuts to an extreme long shot of Silviu walking back to the prison as approaching police sirens wail offscreen. After the authorities cuff him and drive off, the image, for the first time free of Silviu’s desperate but fruitless energy, luxuriates in a serenely still shot of the highway, a field, and the sky as the credits unfurl.
I’d like to believe that the inherent contradictions of Serban’s avowed influences—besides Bresson, he loves Almodóvar, and “can’t wait to get old and make movies like Ozu” but for the moment wants “to make a movie like Gladiator”—are the result of an omnivorous, Tarantino-like appetite for all cinema. But does the world need another sword-and-sandal epic? Or, for that matter, another Almodóvar? My hope is that Serban will apply his considerable filmmaking talents and flair for directing actors to more impassioned accounts of the socially misdirected young people in Romania with whom he clearly seems able to empathize.
If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle plays January 5–18 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
Left: José Val del Omar, Fuego en Castilla, 1958–59, still from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 17 minutes. Right: José Antonio Sistiaga, . . . ere erera baleibu izik subua aruaren . . ., 1968–70, color film in 35 mm, 70 minutes.
EXACTLY WHAT General Franco thought of José Val del Omar’s “longings to communicate the ineffable” is not a matter of record, but the Spanish ruler would most certainly not have approved of the filmmaker’s way with a pietŕ.
The 1958–59 short Fuego en Castilla is the second work in a triptych made in the 1950s and ’60s by the Granada-born film and sound artist whose work has recently attracted considerable interest both in Spain and abroad. In this film, Val del Omar presents various examples of religious statuary by Alonso Berruguete and Juan de Juni in a decidedly impious fashion. Blasting the icons with rapidly shifting patterns of light or draping them in sinister shadows, he situates them in a chiaroscuro hellscape. A crackly voice imploring listeners to “rejoice at your power to be God” adds another sacrilegious flourish to the film, which earned Val del Omar a prize at Cannes and much official consternation at home.
The fact that such a flagrantly strange work could surface during an era of severe political and creative repression points to the surprising hardiness of Spain’s most wayward artistic strains. The earliest film included in a program that spans a half century, Fuego en Castilla serves as an appropriately startling opener for “From Ecstasy to Rapture,” a survey of Spanish experimental film and video at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Charting “50 years of the other Spanish cinema,” the series is the first in TIFF Cinematheque’s shiny new complex for the Free Screen, its long-running Wednesday night program of independent and avant-garde works. Originally curated by Antoni Pinent and Andrés Hispano for the Contemporary Cultural Centre of Barcelona, the series is rich with revelations about what was possible for filmmakers both during the Franco regime and in the decades that followed.
Early selections also demonstrate the influence of artists from far beyond Spain’s borders. The impact of Norman McLaren’s filmic experiments is clear in Joaquim Puigvert’s Exp. I/II, a pair of short animations made in 1958 and 1959. For a more extreme example of McLaren-inspired hyperkineticism, see Jordi Artigas’s Ritmes cromŕtics, a 1978 marvel scored to a jazz-rock instrumental by Billy Cobham.
Even more audacious are the films that put a Spanish spin on the affronts of Warhol and Godard. An artistic by-product of the student protests that rocked Madrid in 1968, Carlos Durán’s BiBiCi Story (1969) is a Molotov cocktail of sex, politics, and death by red spray paint. Ice Cream (1970), underground filmmaker Antoni Padrós’s ode to fellatio, involves more than its fair share of licking, writhing, and heavy breathing.
Each of this series’s two feature-length works qualifies as a milestone in this alternate history of Spanish cinema. Screened from a recently restored 35-mm print that was presented in Los Angeles last year with a live score by Savage Republic, José Antonio Sistiaga’s 1968–70 . . . ere erera baleibu izik subua aruaren . . . (the title is a nonsensical phrase in mock-Basque) is the only full-length Spanish film to deploy an entirely cameraless technique. (Sistiaga painted directly onto each of the frames.) Closing the program, Arrebato (1980) is a freewheeling, semilegendary curio by Iván Zulueta, a designer and director best known for the equally wild posters he made for Pedro Almodóvar.
It can be hard for contemporary filmmakers to match the outrages of their forebears. Nevertheless, recent entries such as Oriol Sánchez’s Copy Scream (2005)—a Super 8 short that makes ingenious use of ever-more-degraded photocopies—and Laida Lertxundi’s Farce Sensationelle! (2004)—a cunning, thoroughly Vertovian self-portrait made while Lertxundi was studying with Jennifer Reeves at Bard College—indicate that Spain’s film artists are still eager to defy whatever authorities may remain.
“From Ecstasy to Rapture: 50 Years of the Other Spanish Cinema” runs January 5–February 2, 2011, at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more details, click here.
Mads Brügger, The Red Chapel, 2009, color film, 87 minutes.
THE RED CHAPEL (2009) gives one the impression that director Mads Brügger doesn’t care if he makes himself look like a jerk, so long as it’s in the pursuit of some greater truth. Alternately entertaining and unsettling, the documentary depicts a trip to Pyongyang undertaken by Brügger and two young Danish-Korean comedians, Jacob Nossell and Simon Jul Jřrgensen. Jacob is a self-described “spastic” who often needs to use a wheelchair; his physical challenges and the North Koreans’ response to them are central to the film’s conceit. The jovial Simon is largely ignored by the director.
The duo arrive in Pyongyang to perform a deliberately incoherent comedy skit. Their North Korean handlers, who have power of approval over all footage shot by Brügger, transform the act beyond recognition and shove Jacob to the side. Only by speaking Danish can the director, Jacob, and Simon talk freely. The three men constantly lie in English to the North Koreans.
Brügger sets himself up as The Red Chapel’s conscience. At several moments he reminds the audience of the North Korean regime’s brutality. However, Jacob is the one who is really moved by the poverty and desperation barely concealed by Pyongyang’s urbane facade. While Brügger stays cool behind aviator shades, Jacob breaks down in tears.
Is Brügger exploiting Jacob? The director might be the first person to say yes. If he weren’t, the film wouldn’t have much power. Partly due to Brügger’s regular self-examination, The Red Chapel turns out to be a surprisingly complex experience, rather than a simple exercise in laughing at backwards communists. Imagine Borat (2006) if Sacha Baron Cohen articulated the ethical quandaries posed by his mockery in the film itself.
The Red Chapel opens Wednesday, December 29 at the IFC Center in New York. For more details, click here.
Ernst Lubitsch, Cluny Brown, 1946, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 100 minutes. Left: Cluny Brown and Lord Carmel (Jennifer Jones and Reginald Owen). Right: Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones).
GOING OUT WITH A BANG BANG BANG, Ernst Lubitsch’s final completed film was this terrific, superbly performed 1946 comedy about an eponymous plumbing prodigy named Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) and a cadging Czech émigré (Charles Boyer) ignoring the rungs on England’s class ladder, circa 1938. When Jones’s Brown hears a clogged pipe calling, she gets that look, and must obey her uncontrollable urge to whip out the wrench and play fix-it, to bewilderment and condemnation. Velvet-baritoned and never without an urbane excuse, Boyer’s Belinsky inspires confusion but then respect from the marveling blue bloods who host him, and he grows enamored of this English girl whose name seems built to foil his liquid accent. The two curiosities are employee (maid) and guest (pet cause of the son of Lord and Lady Carmel), respectively, at the Carmel country estate—a Woosterishly oblivious Anglo sanctuary from the Continent’s brewing chaos—and from this most basic fish-out-of-water premise, Lubitsch again makes a film so enjoyable and clever that we too feel like we’re getting away with something.
Wilde is as much a touchstone as Wodehouse, given the sustained double entendre and satire going on, and part of the secret of Cluny Brown’s effortlessness is the execution of its impeccable writing by one of the era’s best comedy ensembles. Jones, though the extreme, is exemplary: The actors plunge into their characters’ worldviews and never look back. Clueless Lord Carmel (Reginald Owen), who wouldn’t survive a second in the wild, and his unflappable wife (Margaret Bannerman), who smoothly gets to the diplomatic heart of every matter, are a microcosm of one society’s workings. Likewise, the village pharmacist, Mr. Wilson (Richard Haydn), is just as insular-minded and self-entitled, and, as a perfectly integrated Englishman, an object of Cluny’s obsession. You can understand why British critics were not chuffed to watch these parodies of pride after enduring the war.
In fact, it’s hard to find a throwaway cast member. Helen Walker’s breezily cruel thoroughbred, for example, is worth watching closely for every line delivery. But for the lines themselves, Lubitsch, who would die a year later from chronic heart problems—shortly after sleeping with his mistress—could thank inveterate scribbler Sam Hoffenstein, who adapted Margery Sharp’s original novel. The author of the bestseller Poems in Praise of Practically Nothing and a spoof of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” called “The Moist Land,” the poet-journalist-screenwriter Hoffenstein sounds like a comic character himself, though maybe one out of Preston Sturges…
Cluny Brown runs December 24–30 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.