Joan Braderman, The Heretics, 2009, stills from a color film, 95 minutes. Left: Detail of Joyce Kozloff's Voyages. Right: Lucy Lippard.


“IT BECAME VERY CLEAR TO ME that everything in my life, in terms of my art, I was going to have to fight for.” So says artist Nina Yankowitz in The Heretics, Joan Braderman’s info-packed documentary on the groundbreaking feminist art magazine Heresies. The film contextualizes the hurdles faced at the dawn of second-wave feminism: Prior to the 1970s, as interviewees attest, one of the highest compliments a female artist might get from teachers and critics was that she “painted like a man.” Published from 1977 to 1992, Heresies was produced out of (still) scrappy Lower Manhattan by a sprawling collective of artists and writers drawn together to support and explore women’s art in defiance of a curatorial and historical vacuum. Herself a Heresies veteran, Braderman reconnects with former participants, now living around the globe, including critic Lucy Lippard; filmmaker Su Friedrich; architect Susana Torre; artists Amy Sillman, Miriam Schapiro, Mary Miss, and Cecilia Vicuna; and twenty or so others, editing together their stories into a fast-paced, thematically chaptered montage.

Upbeat and affirmative, the documentary employs copious low-tech text and graphics sequences in keeping with the style of Braderman’s canonical video-lecture projects like Joan Does Dynasty (1986) and Joan Sees Stars (1992). Though The Heretics ends with a nod to the present with a short sequence on third-wave feminist collective publishers LTTR, it’s Braderman’s portrait of another era that drives the film. The stories these women tell envision a radically different moment in art-world history, one in which questions of career and market are barely mentioned, and philosophical arguments are firmly grounded in street-level politics. Braderman’s take is unabashedly utopian and celebratory but looks to the past for lessons rather than nostalgia. For as artist Emma Amos notes, “There are more women artists than there are male artists. More of them will get into the best programs. And then what happens? The boys still have the edge on us.”

Ed Halter

The Heretics screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, October 9–15. For more details, click here. A website devoted to the film and Heresies archives can be found here.

Chantal Akerman, D’Est (From the East), 1993, stills from a color film in 35 mm, 110 minutes.


“WHILE THERE’S STILL TIME, I would like to make a grand journey across Eastern Europe. To Russia, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the former East Germany, and back to Belgium,” Chantal Akerman says of the impetus behind her monumental 1993 documentary, D’Est (From the East). While there’s still time suggests urgency, a need to capture, if not catalogue, the former Soviet bloc in its earliest, most precarious stages of transition: A fleetingly glimpsed Panasonic shopping bag hints at the free markets to come. Yet time slows and expands in Akerman’s mesmerizing travelogue, as she “shoot[s] everything. Everything that moves me.”

Akerman, the daughter of Polish Holocaust survivors, follows the seasons, beginning at the end of summer and concluding in deepest winter. Slavic languages are heard, Cyrillic letters seen on signs, though towns, cities, and countries are never identified. Rather than having an unmooring, distancing effect (at least for the non–Eastern European viewer), Akerman’s method uncannily draws the spectator in, as we glimpse both public and private settings. There are several shots of interminable lines, people huddled at bus and train stations and outside phone booths, silent resignation sometimes giving way to tetchy-sounding outbursts. Juxtaposed with the exterior scenes are Akerman’s precise, fixed-camera compositions of the rituals, pleasures, and lulls of domestic life—episodes that resonate with the director’s first masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman (1975). A woman standing in her kitchen looks down, her head bobbing slightly to music. A teenage girl, sitting on a couch, assiduously applies lipstick. A little boy watches TV, an older relative (his brother? His father?) playing the piano right next to him.

From the East is the first of Akerman’s documentaries to focus on geographic location; 1999’s Sud (South), set in Jasper, Texas, where James Byrd Jr. was dragged to his death, and 2002’s De l’Autre Côté (From the Other Side), shot along the Arizona-Mexico border, would follow. Of this trilogy, From the East is the only one without interviews. The people and places of From the East may be unnamed, but they are not anonymous: Their images are indelible.

Melissa Anderson

Chantal Akerman’s From the East is available on DVD from Icarus Films Home Video beginning October 6. For more details, click here.

Left: Jack Bond and Jane Arden, Vibration, 1974, still from a color video, 36 minutes. Right: Norman Mailer, untitled, 1947, still from a black-and-white and color film in 16 mm, 9 minutes.


AVANT-GARDE CINEMA has become more historically minded in recent years, a phenomenon that can be chalked up to multiple factors: Archival preservation efforts, new scholarship, DVD releases, and programming have explored and expanded the history of experimental filmmaking far beyond the once-standard canons. Paralleling this trend, curators Gavin Smith and Mark McElhatten have annually peppered the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar with older rarities. This year’s edition, the festival’s thirteenth, includes a number of noteworthy revivals, anchoring the three-day program’s slate of new film and videos by contemporary artists.

The most surprising is the world premiere of a nine-minute 16-mm film by Norman Mailer, made in 1947 when the writer was in his mid-twenties, a year prior to the publication of his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. Mailer himself thought the untitled project had been long lost, but after his death in 2007, the majority of the footage was discovered amid a jumble of home movies; the rest was later found in the possession of its lead, Millicent Brower, who had borrowed the opening sequence decades ago for use in securing acting jobs. An amateur but nonetheless carefully constructed work, Mailer’s tyro cinematic effort is designed as a young woman’s dream-state, replete with visual symbols (a bubble of rising bread dough representing pregnancy) and—perhaps meaningfully—a red, white, and blue color scheme. Intriguingly, it shares its oneiric structure with Maya Deren’s Meshes of Afternoon (1943) and At Land (1944); while it remains unknown whether Mailer had seen Deren’s work by this time, it’s more likely he encountered similar themes in European art films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) or Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930).

A more speculative restoration is offered in La Rabbia di Pasolini, a 2008 reconstruction by Giuseppe Bertolucci of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1963 feature La Rabbia (Rage). La Rabbia’s concept came from producer Gastone Ferranti, owner of the archives of Mondo Libero, a defunct 1950s newsreel. Inspired by the international success of the Italian exploitation documentary Mondo Cane (1962), he wanted Pasolini to craft a similar compilation film from the newsreel’s eight years of footage. After viewing the result—a poetic but stridently leftist critique of global postwar politics—Ferranti cut down Pasolini’s film and paired it with an ideological counterweight created by a notoriously conservative journalist. Bertolucci later simulated the excised portions using Pasolini’s original script. In the context of “Views,” La Rabbia reveals itself as an exemplary early instance of a European tradition of avant-garde essay films crafted from appropriated sources, stretching through the work of Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard, and Johan Grimonprez. Its most breathtaking sequence is a proto-Barthesian analysis of Marilyn Monroe, intercutting images of the doomed starlet with atomic-test footage, presaging similar combinations in the work of Andy Warhol and Bruce Conner.

Conner’s contemporary Chick Strand, who passed away earlier this year, is represented with two memorial programs, one at McElhatten’s three-day “Walking Picture Palace” series, which follows at Anthology Film Archives as an unofficial “Views” coda. Mixing deft observational documents, found-footage exercises, and feminist explorations, Strand’s work exhibits significant formal links to that of colleagues Conner and Bruce Baillie; together, the three filmmakers define a distinctly West Coast sensibility. Easily the most far-out artifact, however, is Vibration (1974), a psychedelic mind trip from the UK by Jack Bond and Jane Arden. Shot on Super 8 and then image-processed on analog video, Vibration explores what Arden called “hypnogogic techniques to release the constricted life pulse from our paralysing rationale,” incorporating Jung, Sufic philosophy, and the practice of creative visualization. Unabashedly visionary, Vibration serves as a reminder of the long-standing ambitions of experimental cinema—not simply aesthetic pleasure, but the expansion of consciousness.

Ed Halter

The New York Film Festival’s thirteenth annual “Views from the Avant-Garde” runs October 2–4 at the Walter Reade Theater. For more details, click here. “The Walking Picture Palace,” curated by Mark McElhatten, shows October 5–7 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. For more details, click here.

Ermanno Olmi, The Tree of Wooden Clogs, 1978, color film in 35 mm, 186 minutes. Production still.


IN ONE OF THE MANY CLOSE-UPS in Ermanno Olmi’s Il posto (1961), audiences come face-to-face with the film’s young, wide-eyed protagonist, Domenico, who is seated at the desk of his new big-city position (the “posto” in question), staring at a mimeograph machine as his colleague’s arm works the machine’s rotating plates. The boy’s glazed look registers the rote ceremony with a kind of detached horror. We watch as this aspiring office worker—recently arrived in Milan from a small town—is inducted into the unfeeling rituals of corporate efficiency. More an affectless anticlimax than a momentous denouement, this shot–reverse shot arguably constitutes Il posto’s key moment, a condensation of the film’s chilling pathos and wry humor. For Italy’s belated arrival as an economic and industrial powerhouse after World War II came at a dire price—one etched, with a confusion at once ineffable and definite, into Domenico’s ingenuous face.

As part of what film scholar P. Adams Sitney once dubbed “New Wave Neorealism,” Il posto rode the resurgence of Italy’s postwar cinema scene, which had crested a year earlier with Fellini’s La dolce vita, Antonioni’s L’avventura, and Visconti’s Rocco e i sue fratelli. Like these directors, the young Olmi used the recent lessons of Neorealist film to forge his own, somewhat more auteurist vision—though one still rooted in a basic concern with ordinary subjects and featuring nonprofessional actors. If any single leitmotif links together the works in Olmi’s expansive oeuvre, which has evolved over several generations and countless governments, it is the theme of work. Whether as a dehumanizing atomization of individual plight or a redemptive source of intimacy and solidarity, the labor trope threads together films as disparate in setting and subject as Il posto, One Fine Day (1969), and The Scavengers (1970).

In ways comparable to his contemporary Pier Paolo Pasolini, Olmi fetishized certain aspects of premodern society and culture, using them as counterpoints to the alienated (and alienating) conditions that subtended Italy’s induction to urban modernity. Another peer, Antonioni, distilled that alienation into a visual and spatial subject in its own right. But Olmi never relinquished his belief in, and evocation of, the redemptive humanism of social bonds. Olmi’s origins—he hails from a Lombardian farming family of humble means and worked as a clerk for the Edison-Volta electric plant before turning to film—clearly inform his cinematic career. Perhaps most striking in this vein is the nostalgia that underlines his important film The Tree of Wooden Clogs (1978), for which he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (All the film’s actors were peasants with no previous acting experience.) But if this film revisited the spontaneous rhythms and humble textures characteristic of Neorealism (Visconti’s 1948 La terra trema stands as a notable precedent), Olmi’s work also increasingly engaged with aspects of cinematic modernism. The Circumstance (1974) ventured further in this direction than his other works, while still engaging with the theme of work (in this case, the consequences of industrialization on its bourgeois protagonists).

In Terra madre (2009), a documentary released this year that focuses on Italy’s so-called Slow Food movement, the octogenarian Olmi returns to a genre that informed his cinematic debut. (He incorporated aspects of documentary into his 1959 Time Stood Still, which considered the relationship between two laborers, one young and one old.) Whether in this final work or manifested in the environmental concerns of his 1993 narrative, The Secret of the Old Woods, Olmi has refused to recoil from the ideological and social concerns that shaped his earliest efforts. A fixture of Italy’s cinematic history and an industry outsider, Olmi stands as both emblematic of the Italian postwar film scene and exceptional to some of its fitful logics.

Ara H. Merjian

“Life’s Work: The Cinema of Ermanno Olmi” is showing at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA) from September 25 to October 30. For more details, click here.

Abel Ferrara, Chelsea on the Rocks, 2008, still from a color film in 35 mm, 88 minutes. William Burroughs and Andy Warhol.


LONG A STUBBORN TOTEM of downbeat bohemia in the face of Manhattan’s gentrification, the Chelsea Hotel was wrenched into the corporate present in 2007, when members of the hotel’s board forced out the seemingly eternal manager/owner Stanley Bard in favor of BD Hotels, a boutique hotel firm that threatened to turn it into the Chambers, the Mercer, or something worse. (The board has since fired BD, with various scuffles and changeovers in management tracked on the Hotel Chelsea Blog.) Producer Jen Gatien was living in the Chelsea at the time of the initial ouster and was determined to document the last days of the old ways, when writers, artists, and musicians both famous and obscure could find refuge from rent and reality in the seedy grandeur of the 1883 landmark building. After beginning the project herself, she quickly turned to her father’s old friend and quintessential New York filmmaker Abel Ferrara (King of New York [1990], Bad Lieutenant [1992], The Addiction [1995]) to direct the doc. A native son currently living in Rome, Ferrara, who resembles the love child of Dennis Hopper and Andre the Giant and subsists largely on beer, returned to live at the hotel and began shooting.

It’s an odd, if charming, little film, blending vintage footage of the hotel and its past residents with casual, rambling talking-head interviews with present-day tenants, the deposed Bard, and some of its more famous veterans—Milos Forman, R. Crumb, Vito Acconci, and Ethan Hawke. Unfortunately, it also includes reenactments of the death spirals of Janis Joplin and Sid and Nancy played by Bijou Phillips, Jamie Burke, Grace Jones, and Adam Goldberg, among others. Now, any viewer of true-crime shows or the History Channel knows that reenactments are the dodgiest of dramatic forms. Ferrara has been a great director of actors and scenes, but these sub-A&E sequences do nothing for the film, the dead celebrities, or the hotel’s legacy. With the exception of a scene featuring Hawke singing and playing one of his “songs” on an out-of-tune piano, the reenactments are the film’s main missteps.

The Chelsea’s story is so storied that Ferrara ignores timeline-style cultural archaeology, preferring to hang out with his subjects in their rooms or the lobby and let the chips fall where they may. Nobody, but nobody, is named, leaving the viewer no idea whom he’s talking to at any time. Watching the film, you might never learn that Dylan Thomas drank himself to death at the Chelsea, that Mark Twain and Tennessee Williams stayed there, that Sir Arthur C. Clarke wrote the script for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey while living inside its walls, or that it was the tallest building in New York until 1902. You will learn that a smoking kitchen pan led the fire department to drown the slumbering cook with their hoses; that a current resident suffered a brain aneurysm, lay on his floor for three days without help, and survived to tell the tale; that ghosts walk the halls at night; and that Bard never actually accepted artists’ paintings in lieu of rent (even though the lobby’s walls are covered with them). You will also see the world’s smallest Schnabel (a painting by Julian, not daughter Lola, who is in the film). It is pretty small.

Still, Ferrara captures the kooky melancholia of the hotel’s past and present, largely through tone and an empathetic, simpatico ear. At its core, the film is really more about the death of old New York than about the Chelsea itself. The city is cleaner, safer, and healthier, but it’s hard to say that something hasn’t been lost in the process. The Chelsea is a glorious, moldering monument to the artistic ferment of twentieth-century New York. Pay it a visit before it goes the way of Times Square.

Andrew Hultkrans

Chelsea on the Rocks has its theatrical premiere on October 2 at Chelsea Clearview Cinemas in New York. For more details, click here.

Dick Flicks

09.25.09

Left: Vivienne Dick, Visibility Moderate, 1981, still from a color film in Super-8, 45 minutes. Right: Vivienne Dick, A Skinny Little Man Attacked Daddy, 1994, still from a color video, 28 minutes.


AVANT-GARDE FILMMAKING of late has been dominated by jewel-cutter formalism and minimalist documentary, but the films of Vivienne Dick serve as reminder that these paradigms have not always been in place. Obsessed with exhuming repressed traumas, voicing beaten-down identities, and generally meandering through a complex matrix of bad vibes, Dick’s works from the late-1970s onward are unapologetically messy, subjective, near plotless, and political—thereby proposing that so, too, is life.

Beginning as an Irish expat in drop-dead New York, Dick made her earliest films on Super-8, becoming one of the most celebrated and theorized of the downtown post-punk No Wave scene; the Spring 1982 issue of October included articles on her work (by J. Hoberman and Scott MacDonald), a crossover unimaginable for her equally underground contemporaries like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. In Beauty Becomes the Beast (1979), Dick sets a baby-faced Lydia Lunch against the decaying, rubble-strewn corners of the city, invoking a backstory of parental abuse through music choices like the Shangri-Las’ heart-torn lament “I Can Never Go Home Anymore” and a wry shot of a subway ad reading HELP DESTROY A FAMILY TRADITION. Leaning against a chain-link fence in a pristine white jacket, Lunch’s angry girl-woman voices lines like “I had a dream that you stitched up my pussy, Daddy. I don’t want a corpse in my mouth.” Visibility Moderate (1981), another Super-8 featurette, obliquely engages with Dick’s own return to Ireland by imagining the vacation movies of an incongruously glam new waver traveling to touristy spots like the Blarney Stone, expressing Dick’s own love-hate distance from home with disjointed bleats of punk and space jazz over ancient megaliths. The subtexts of these earlier works become more explicit in her video essay A Skinny Little Man Attacked Daddy (1994), which uses handheld footage of her family’s happy gatherings as counterpoint to reminiscences like her parents’ coldness toward each other in the ’70s or a sister dying of cancer in apartheid-era South Africa, digging up still-potent artifacts from the wet bogs of memory.

Ed Halter

“Between Truth and Fiction: The Films of Vivienne Dick” runs at Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland, September 18–November 7. A DVD of the same title is available now from Lux.