A SKETCHY INK DRAWING of “Tilda” stands out among other portraits of friends in Bento’s Sketchbook (2011), a Spinoza-inspired tome by the charismatic English critic and artist John Berger. Legend has it that the excommunicated philosopher—and late-in-life optical-lens grinder Baruch, aka Bento—carried sketchbooks with him in Holland, though they were never found after his death. Neither was his Treatise on the Rainbow. (Supposedly he burned it.)
There’s no mystery about this Tilda, however; the drawing is certainly of the spry actress Swinton, a longtime pal of Berger’s, who tenderly reveals their friendship in The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (2016), a film she directed with Colin MacCabe, Christopher Roth, and Bartek Dziadosz. Produced by the Derek Jarman Lab in London and the University of Pittsburgh, with an emotive score by Simon Fisher Turner, the four-part film is a cozy affair for viewing in the theater, but it could just as effectively be projected on four screens in a museum or gallery.
In the first chapter, Swinton travels during a snowstorm to Berger’s home in Quincy, a village in the Alpine Haute-Savoie. “I wanted a glimpse of his gimlet eye and a blast of his company,” she says. That was six years ago and the long production of the film mirrors the pacing—nothing is hurried here. They’ve been friends for over twenty years. They also share a birthday: November 5. Of their star-aligned amity Berger ponders: “It’s as though in another life we met or did something. We are aware of it in some department, which isn’t memory although it’s quite close to memory . . . maybe we made an appointment to see each other again in this life—ok, fifth of November?”
“Like we got off at the same station,” Swinton replies.
In one long scene at his kitchen table, the two swap tales about their taciturn military fathers, how public traumas beget private traumas. Swinton peels countless apples for a dessert while Berger sketches. The documentary, if you can call it that, continues in this meandering way; it is less a biopic than, appropriately, a sketch, full of ambiance and unfolding over a leisurely ninety minutes that finally drops you off in a downy cloud of unknowing, as Swinton’s teenage daughter joins Berger to go zipping off on his motorcycle.
Berger, nearly ninety years old, and his late wife Beverly moved from London to Quincy in the mid-1970s to study farming and live as peasants—experiences he’s written about in books such as Pig Earth (1979). The Seasons in Quincy portrays their dropping out as alluring and a little stylized—not unlike the way Bruegel painted peasant life 450 years ago in his watershed cycle of the months for a wealthy patron in Antwerp. Though we never see Berger getting his hands dirty, he does philosophize on a pile of hay. Mike Dibb shot that footage in the early ’80s and it’s included among other flashbacks and voiceovers in the second segment, which was made after Beverly passed away. (Berger is understandably absent.) Against scenes of verdant farms in Quincy, this episode hazily ruminates on Berger’s writings about self-consciousness and different kinds of animals, drawing a parallel to Derrida’s ideas about the same—notably, his embarrassment about being naked in front of his cat.
In the third act, Ben Lerner, Akshi Singh, MacCabe, and Roth sit with Berger for a wide-ranging discussion about resistance. (Berger’s first major book was Permanent Red ; his Marxist positions haven’t changed much.) Finally, in the last portrait, we’re back to Quincy and the hay—Swinton’s son is jumping in it and is later joined by his sister and Berger’s son Yves to pick raspberries from the backyard and eat them with cream in honor of Beverly. The stark contrasts between these two parts suitably reflect the seasons: The subdued conversation is shown in stripped down black-and-white, while the scenes in Quincy are warm, vibrant, and Jarmanesque, sharing the familial tenor of the first segment. After winter comes spring.
It’s apt that in the second segment the filmmakers include an excerpt from Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s 2002 documentary about Derrida. I was reminded of that film’s failure to capture biographical details and how this withholding is constitutive to its success. It’s not that the deconstructionist impedes (ok, he does a little) but rather that the film is a lesson in coming to terms with such a daunting, nearly impossible task. If The Seasons in Quincy fails to give us Berger the myth, which we want, then through subtle details—his gestures, his glances, and even his phrasings—you can glean something here about Berger the man, things you never knew about the depths of his intelligence. It’s more than any orthodox documentary could convey.
José Luis Guerín, The Academy of Muses, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 92 minutes. Emanuela Forgetta.
THE CATALAN FILMMAKER José Luis Guerín has been making movies for more than thirty years now, in the process never achieving more than niche notoriety. In part this may be attributed to the elusiveness of his work, which has moved freely between documentary and fiction, the literary and the cinematic, hard narrative and heady philosophy, a series of switchbacks that have made it difficult to scent his trail or predict where he might pop up next. This low profile suits Guerín’s films, which, though often urban in setting, are struck through by deep reserves of solitude—he is particularly taken with lonely perambulations and the strange tremors of life that can be found enduring inside empty rooms. Several of his movies are practically one-man-band productions, along the lines of Chantal Akerman’s diary films or recent Alain Cavalier, with Guerín himself providing the camerawork and the dialogue. These are small, private productions, meant to be shared with an intimate audience.
In the US Guerín is best known for In the City of Sylvia (2007), a cinematic ode to flâneurism indebted to Baudelaire and Bresson, in which a young man wanders through Strasbourg, France looking for a woman whom he briefly encountered some years ago, being distracted from his quest—and at the same time returned to it—by the city’s many beguiling women. The inspirational quality of the fairer sex is also at the heart of Guerín’s latest feature, The Academy of Muses, a rambunctiously talky documentary-fiction hybrid which takes as its leaping-off point a lecture class that middle-aged Italian philology professor Raffaele Pinto is teaching to a largely female student body on the art of playing the muse, his discourse revolving around some of Guerín’s favorite topics: Dante and Beatrice, Petrarch and Laura.
The Academy of Muses, which was a standout at last year’s Festival del film Locarno and appeared earlier this year at Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real festival, is receiving a weeklong run at Anthology Film Archives, to be preceded by a retrospective of Guerín’s filmography—a happy opportunity for viewers to catch up with this entirely sui generis talent. In taking Guerín’s body of work as a whole, the sensibility that emerges is definitely Romantic. In Some Photos in the City of Sylvia (2007), a kind of essay-film blueprint for the fiction feature made entirely of still images and on-screen text, Guerín recalls first being drawn to Strasbourg in 1982 on a pilgrimage to find traces of Goethe and his Young Werther—then his subsequent returns, looking for an elusive “Sylvia” whom he met for a few moments some twenty years earlier. The tenacity of a lingering image is one of Guerín’s chief preoccupations, and with the Sylvia films he seems to evoke Bernstein in Citizen Kane (1941), ruminating on the girl with the white dress and parasol on the Jersey ferry. (“I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all. But I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I hadn’t thought of that girl.”) He also occasionally risks recalling the beauty-obsessed playboy journalist played by Pep Munné in Whit Stillman’s Barcelona (1994), for he is unabashedly devoted to the depiction and dissection of desire, operating from a distinctly heterosexual male point-of-view—though much of the pleasure in Academy is watching the various women doing sapper work beneath Pinto’s fortified, learned self-confidence. Guerín’s interest lies more with anticipation than fulfillment, and he is fascinated by the possibility offered by the come-hither enigmatic stranger or the incipient gesture—tellingly, his fourth feature, documenting the drastic transformation of Barcelona’s El Chine neighborhood, is titled Work in Progress (2001).
The earliest of Guerín’s features to play Anthology, his 1990 Innisfree, finds most of his pet themes firmly in place. Here the “lingering images” in question are the creations of John Ford, specifically the sights of his The Quiet Man. In 1952, Ford and his crew descended on a village in County Mayo to recreate an Ireland of 1927, and of Irish-American Ford’s sentimental imagination. Some forty years later Guerín visits the locations that made up Ford’s “Innisfree,” and finds that the fiction of The Quiet Man has been added to the overall repository of collective folk memory. Rather than disproving Hollywood mythologizing, Guerín finds something more provocative—that Ford’s ideal of Innisfree has served in a way to reveal a community to itself, even to cement the sense of community.
Time and again through Innisfree we are reminded that most of the talent behind The Quiet Man are long dead and gone—and death likewise haunts Guerín’s next feature, Train of Shadows (1997). The purported basis of the film is the unearthing of several reels of home-movie footage from 1930 attributed to one Gérard Fleury, a Parisian lawyer vacationing with his family at Le Thuit, Normandy, said to have died under mysterious circumstances shortly after. Much of the footage is overgrown by a thick patina of age and distress, and after playing it through, the film investigates the empty rooms of the Fleury estate in the present, the still-life compositions also heavily textured, given a surprising dynamism through Guerín’s layering of shadowplay and use of mirrors. In Academy, shot in cafes, offices, and cars, Guerín also shows this propensity for building dense images, setting up shots through reflective glass and overlaying images like a no-budget von Sternberg—he has the peculiar gift of being able to photograph a puddle showing a bit of the sky and in doing so suggest an aperture leading into another dimension.
As Train of Shadows returns to review Fleury’s films, the movie’s anonymous author begins to fixate on an image of a young woman, trying to tease out the silent conspiracy that seems to exist between her and the photographer. Fleury himself, largely unseen behind the camera until a late, lushly colored coup de cinema reenactment that integrates him into the reimagined action, is Train of Shadows’s structuring absence—a key motif for Guerín. Sylvia is everywhere present and nowhere to be found in the city and in the two films that bear her namesake, while Guerín’s short Two Letters to Ana (2011) meditates on, among other items, the paintings of the Greek Zeuxis, which survive only in descriptions left by the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder. Finally, the subject of Guerín’s medium-length digital-video documentary Memories of a Morning is never seen, only spoken of by various interviewees—he being a fifty-year-old violinist neighbor in Barcelona who jumped to his death from his apartment one day, leaving behind no family and a translation of Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve. (Describing the book’s curious combination of “narrative and essay,” Guerín might be defining his own practice.)
Catastrophe strikes, and then life goes on, the same but irrevocably altered. At the conclusion of Memories of a Morning, Guerín seems to locate the dead man’s tune picked up by other musician neighbors, much as the face of Sylvia is reflected in the features of a hundred other women, as Ford’s Innisfree lives on in the shared unconscious of an entire village, or as, unbeknownst to the modern Barcelonans of Work in Progress, they have been living on top of the corpses of Roman Empire subjects, excavated resting peacefully beneath the city’s paving stones. “When the figure disappears,” as Guerín has it in Some Photos in the City of Sylvia, “the surroundings appear”—but are the departed ever actually gone? Hard as it is to pin down Guerín’s eclectic output, it might be that the best we can do to draw his films together is to call him an exemplary teller of modern ghost stories, locating the residue of what has passed through on that which remains.
“The Films of José Luis Guerín” plays August 24 through September 1, while the US theatrical premiere of Guerín’s The Academy of Muses runs September 2 through 13, both at Anthology Film Archives in New York.
LAURA ISRAEL’S PORTRAIT OF ROBERT FRANK is a remarkable reflection of the immediate connection of outer and inner vision that defines the lens-based art of its subject. If you want lists of Frank’s works and achievements, consult the Robert Frank Collection pages at the National Gallery of Art or the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Or for a laugh, you might search out the 1984 Arte documentary, which Israel uses for a few seconds here and there as a foil, to show that Frank doesn’t suffer foolish questions gladly. And that he once possessed, and probably still does, a nice tweed jacket. As he acknowledges in Don’t Blink—Robert Frank, “I’m kind of a collector. I hardly throw anything away.”
Israel, a filmmaker and editor, had been Frank’s moving-image editor and archivist for more than twenty years when a colleague suggested that she make a film about her boss. She thought no, then yes. She asked Frank, who said no, and then yes. Even after she began shooting, she suspected that he believed she was making a ten-minute video. But Frank got into it and, as the movie makes exuberantly clear, became more collaborator than subject. Don’t Blink is a freeform retrospective, in which the now ninety-two-year-old photographer and moviemaker contributes nonstop loop-de-loops of show-and-tell through nearly seventy years of living and making art in North America.
Fast-paced and elliptical, the film is an editing tour de force. Israel and her editor Alex Bingham drop a couple of anchors so that we have some sense of where we are as we follow Frank, who prefers not to know exactly where he’s going. “I love mistakes,” he says. “Sometimes they work out.” There are two main locations: Frank’s cluttered Bleecker Street studio (the film is the best argument against minimalist living) and the more airy house in Mabou, Nova Scotia, where he and his wife, sculptor and painter June Leaf, have lived part-time since the 1970s. The harsh, often snow-covered landscape reminded Frank, he said, of his native Switzerland. Leaf’s comment about their first Mabou winter: “I wouldn’t say it was hard. It was impossible.”
Robert Frank, Life Dances On, 1980, black-and-white and color, sound, 30 minutes.
The other anchor is The Americans (1958), the book of eighty-three photographs that Frank, a European in search of the real America, shot on various road trips across and all around the United States between 1955 and 1957. Don’t Blink opens with a chockablock montage of images from the artist’s films and photographs and a clip of Frank shooting a movie and joking with bystanders who haven’t a clue who the grubby guy with the camera could be, before settling into the Bleecker Street studio where he is examining contact sheets of images from his most celebrated and influential work. Israel and Frank thread The Americans through the nearly sixty years of Frank’s life and art that the film covers in hop, skips, and jumps. When it first appeared, the book was reviled by critics who resented that a foreigner—specifically, a Swiss Jew—had seen through the smiling, airbrushed mask of the Eisenhower ’50s. Recently, a single image from the series sold for $550,000.
Sid Kaplan, the photographer’s longtime darkroom man, explains that Frank wanted the photographs in The Americans to have a similar look to the Fox Movietone News films that he saw in theaters when he arrived in New York just after World War II. At which point, Israel intercuts several images from The Americans with bits of those News films, and even if we know the photographs well, we may see them in a slightly different way—as documentary rather than as art photography. It’s a tiny moment in a film that’s filled with hundreds of just such revealing connections. Asked what makes a good photograph, Frank, whose dry humor is on display throughout, replies, “Sharp, number one. Make sure they see the eyes, hopefully the nose, smiling, say cheese. The main thing: Get it over quick. Get people when they’re not aware of the camera. Usually the first picture is the best.”
Jack Kerouac, whose introduction to The Americans nudged a series of still photographs into the shape of a road movie, is also the narrator of Frank’s first film, Pull My Daisy (1959), a slightly fictionalized Beat Generation home movie which has Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso hanging out in a Tenth Street loft that is home to a railroad engineer (Larry Rivers), his painter wife (Delphine Seyrig), and their son (Pablo Frank). “The Beat writers were very important in my development, they showed you could create your own rules,” says Frank. One of the rules was to ignore the differentiation of documentary and fiction, leading to the Pirandelloesque Me and My Brother (1969), in which an answer to the question of what happens between a camera and its subject comes from Julius Orlovsky, for many years a catatonic schizophrenic. Frank, who had an amazing rapport with Julius, asks what he thinks about being in a movie. Julius paces around as he speaks, and although you have to fill in a keyword or two, his meaning is clear: “The camera is a reflection of disapproval or disgust… or unexplainability to disclose any real truth.”
In Don’t Blink, Frank is almost never without a still camera in his hand, most of them of the small, easy-to-use variety. There’s a lovely sequence in which he and the cinematographer Ed Lachman take Polaroids of each other. (Don’t Blink was shot by Lisa Rinzler with additional camerawork by Lachman.) But looking at a sequence from the twisty self-portrait About Me: A Musical (1971) that Israel projected on the wall of his studio, he is struck by how alive it is. “They come back, they move and talk.…It brings back the real scene. A photograph is just a memory. Put it back in the drawer.” These days, he shoots video. It’s cheaper and more immediate than film. “I think I should shoot ten minutes of video a day. With people in it,” he tells Israel when they are hanging out in Mabou.
The New York bohemia that Frank captured—“people who lived on the edge”—is mostly gone, as are his children, Andrea and Pablo, who died much too young. Frank coped with terrible loss by working—making movies and shooting photographs that he wrote on and scratched over because single beautiful images were not enough to express grief and anger and a whole mess of emotions and ideas. “An important part of a photographer’s work is to choose the pictures. Make big prints, put them on the wall.” In the Bleecker Street studio, all the images of a lifetime seem to be just an arm’s-length away—the ones already chosen and those yet to be. Don’t Blink captures “the real scene” that Frank inhabits and continues to transform with his art.
“The Films of Robert Frank,” a series of eight Thursday-evening programs at BAMcinématek (August 4 through September 22) includes some twenty-five moving-image works of varying lengths and genres. The series as a whole cannot be summarized, nor can the individual films except to say that they share the characteristic of having been made by someone who stubbornly insists on walking out on a high wire without a net. If you’ve not seen Pull My Daisy, it is the classic. But do not miss Conversations in Vermont (1969), Life Dances On (1980), and True Story (2008)—all of them naked in their confusion and anguish about fathering. Best of all is the seemingly casual Paper Route (2002), as close to a perfect movie as you’ll ever see. The last Thursday (September 22) is listed as TBA, which is usually a signal that Mick Jagger has granted permission to show Cocksucker Blues (1972), Frank’s documentary about the Exile on Main St tour. Take a chance and buy a ticket in advance. It is the most thrilling movie about performer-as-magician ever made.
Jacob Ciocci, FREEDOM ISN'T FREE/I'M NOT CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, SOCIETY IS CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, 2016, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes.
THE WONDERFUL, HORRIBLE WEB 2.0 YEARS, with their bounty of image, information, and emotion, have been accompanied by the emergence of a pervasive satirical style whose basic tenets are overkill and gluttony. Like the parent who finds you with a cigarette and makes you smoke yourself sick on the whole pack, these are works that say “So you like garbage, huh? Well open wide, ’cause here comes the whole landfill!” Some of the more popular manifestations can be found in the Adult Swim aesthetic (exemplified and transcended by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim), the ZOMFG mashups of TV Carnage and Everything Is Awful, and the not-too-distant vogue for novelty records by the likes of Girl Talk and Dan Deacon. We might refer to the phrase “accelerationist aesthetics,” coined a few years ago by Steven Shaviro, who, amid a dense thicket of “neoliberalisms,” identifies the tendency in Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Gamer (2009) and an obscure Alex Cox film, works that display “enlightened cynicism” while “they also revel in the sleaze and exploitation that they so eagerly put on display.”
This brings me to videos that Jacob Ciocci will be presenting at the Microscope Gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn this Friday night, work that is fraught, a little nerve-wracking, and certainly rich with the alluvium of pop junk. (That they revel in the detritus they present is undeniable, but that “cynicism” shoe doesn’t quite fit—he’s slipped off the ironic-sincere grid.) Ciocci has been around since the days of the Zip disk—beginning in 2000 he was active with the art group Paper Rad, making up the core of the loose coalition of collaborators alongside his sister Jessica and their friend Ben Jones. In addition to keeping up homepage paperrad.org, the IRL activities of Paper Rad—“an Internet art Wu-Tang,” per Cory Arcangel—included touring bands on the noise circuit and the publication of old-fashioned zines. Paper Rad’s existence as a collective entity tapered off sometime around 2008, though their candy-colored doggerelist publishing activities were given the posh hardcover treatment last year by the publisher Delema as The Zines of Paper Rad, and at least one of the affiliated bands labors on: Extreme Animals, comprising Ciocci and David Wightman, who’ve known one another since high school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Wightman also releases brilliant, nauseating mixtapes from deep-dive research into unfashionable subgenres under the pseudonym DJ George Costanza.)
Born of a scene which put a premium on difficult and forbidding work, Extreme Animals developed a hooky, insidiously accessible sound—among the influences they’ve cited for their combination of MIDI synch crunch and imperious chugga-chugga thrash are Andrew W.K. and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Ciocci is no gnomic obscurantist, nor is he a minimalist of any kind, as should be evident in the title of the evening of screenings at Microscope: “Inside the Box: People Don’t Actually Like Creativity aka F.E.A.R.=False Evidence Appearing Real aka Un-Boxing The Box from Within: Everyone Has Problems (55 likes and 43 shares) aka I’m not crazy, Society is Crazy: #hope #struggle #planetfitness #chipotle, aka This Is Dedicated To All The People Who Have Had Their Lives Wrecked by Computers, the Internet, or Social Media.”
Jacob Ciocci, The Urgency, 2014, digital video, color, sound, 33 minutes.
That final dedication is lifted from The Urgency, the centerpiece of the evening, a magisterial video-album suite of nine tracks/chapters first released on VHS by Thunder Zone Entertainment in late 2013, since which it’s been making the rounds. (It played BAMcinématek’s Migrating Forms festival in December 2014.) The strobing collage of found-footage images, which Ciocci refers to on his website as “my most recent attempt at grappling with life in contemporary USA,” is cut in tune to songs that try on and discard idioms including nu metal rap-rock, video game Bonus stage, and ’90s German techno. Throughout its thirty-three minutes The Urgency returns periodically to a vexed humanoid figure trapped in a red-and-blue dungeon cube suspended in space—all rendered with ultra-primitive computer graphics—while the album proceeds through various tracklist subsections (titles include “Surfing/Suffering” and “The Puzzle of Life”) which taken altogether have the character of a spiritual journey, impending breakdown, or both. Flashes of mall kiosk T-shirt sloganeering are accompanied by a soundtrack medley that includes appropriated and distorted snatches from Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” Drowning Pool’s “Bodies,” and Ke$ha’s “We R Who We R,” setting the tempo for a blizzard of crosscut or layered found-footage images, a regurgitation of undigested Internet from Angelfire to YouTube. In the disgorging you may recognize viral phenomena of years past—Torontonian nutter Steve Spiros’s on-camera rant to an aghast reporter (“All those people who called me a sleepwalker… I woke up”) and Tea Party Republican Christine O’Donnell denying her allegiance to Wicca during her Delaware senate campaign—alongside Ciocci’s cut-and-paste animated GIF paintings from his “New Expressions” series, clip art, and images of unknown provenance, like that of girl hiding under a blanket of MacBooks, which exude profound exhaustion and genuine pathos.
Ciocci has a knack for scooping up the effluvium of psychic disturbance that collects around the square-hole templates of various pieces of folk art: the so-called “digital vernacular” or old-fashioned community theater and arts-and-crafts. The Urgency concludes with a montage of direct-address videos in which multiple confessions of vague discontent (“Something’s not right… I’m failing… Screwed up… Alone…”), apparently culled from video diaries and anti-depressant commercials, build to a climactic psychic break/enlightenment, in which generic expressions of depression and repression gives way to generic expressions of liberation. Ciocci doesn’t disdain clichés, however—he’s fascinated by them, and the metaphor through which many of the speakers in The Urgency describe their entrapment, that of being closed into a box, is the same that he’s been reiterating and repurposing for years. In The Zines of Paper Rad, one can find several analog-pixelated “Box Eye Scrolls” ’toons by Ciocci dating back to 2001. (Sample dialogue: “YOU HAVE THE POWER… TO TURN SHIT INTO GOLD.”) A 2006 animated short titled How to Escape Stress Boxes (also playing Microscope) features two mischievous Troll dolls (another favorite motif) pulling a man from his meditation to lead him down a primrose path of Geocities junk and urge him to self-actualization via auto-decapitation. Finally, the 2015 essay “Some Thoughts on ‘Shadows, Boxes, and Computers,’” published on the platform NewHive, is a freewheeling rumination of fixed identity and “transformative rupture” that exemplifies Ciocci’s protean style.
The Urgency paradoxically envisions “transformative rupture” through stereotyped means of transcendence—i.e. red pill/blue pill, “Think Outside the Box”—not atypical of Ciocci’s peculiar deadpan kitsch-optimism, which routinely turns shit into gold. (A 2006 video set to a deconstructed version of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is also on the menu at Microscope.) However, one of the two new works that Ciocci is premiering on Friday, titled at the time of this writing FREEDOM ISN'T FREE/I'M NOT CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, SOCIETY IS CRAZY, IN AN INSTITUTION, skirts straightforward pessimism. Over a spindly, repeated keyboard melody that recalls something out of a giallo, Ciocci, speaking in the style of intimate, late-night webcam confessional, mocks the prospect of rebellion. (“You don’t have to be a genius to realize that the more free you feel, the less free you actually are.”) The meandering speech is matched to the recurring image of a road at night, intercut with Internet ephemera, one recurring theme of which is large inflatable objects run amok: Camera-phone footage of a massive Minion rolling down a street outside of Dublin, a bouncy castle bounding along a beach, a velour Eeyore slowly losing air, or a mortally wounded Barney the Dinosaur flapping in the breeze at the 1997 Macy’s Day Parade while his handlers hold on for dear life. (The last-named clip has previously featured in a video loop by Ciocci called Why Are So Many Americans So Powerless?, titled after what looks to be a sidebar bit of targeted advertising used here.) The music swells and dies, the road arrives at its destination, a spreading forest fire, and all the while intertitles pose insoluble questions: “Who Really Has the Answers?” You certainly won’t find them here—just a powerful distillation of the present mania for apocalyptic thinking amid great prosperity.
Emile de Antonio, America Is Hard to See, 1970, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes.
THIS YEAR, the People (poor things) shall choose a new president. The attendant Grand Guignol will entail the usual insults to our collective intelligence. Now is the time for brayed assurances, spurious commiserations, mawkish appeals, winking threats, plagiarized bromides—a whole sloppy revue of cheap, bullying speech. And the stakes have been raised especially high this time, as Nixon’s “silent majority” finds its mouthpiece in a billionaire chauvinist who grasps—with an acuity that eludes the liberal elite—the sense of bitter abandonment that churns within the white working class. So this pied-piper of proletarian resentment sidles up to the very people once claimed and inspired—and later failed—by the Left.
Donald Trump, of course, comes from the land of TV. One wonders what Debord would think of all this: a fascist sprouting like a blister from a little crease in the Spectacle. So it’s with acrid timeliness that “Four More Years: An Election Special,” a series on now at BAMcinématek, offers us a chance to consider anew the relationship between electoral politics and the moving image. It’s a link made most explicit, perhaps, in Haskell Wexler’s marvelous Medium Cool (1969), about a cameraman who finds out his footage is being handed over to the FBI. (Wexler’s fiction ends with a documentary wobble, as he filmed his actors being tossed about by the actual riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.) And BAM has summoned a few canonical films for the two-week program—Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), Frank Capra’s State of the Union (1948), and John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962)—which sit grandly among more obscure artifacts of direct cinema (Robert Drew’s Primary ) and guerrilla video (the TVTV collective of the 1970s). But one film from half a century ago—set amid the same events as Medium Cool—offers a strange, oblique insight into the current situation. It snipes at the present. After all, 1968 was another election year in which the primary season was flanked by clamorous social movements on the Left and the Right’s rising bile; and at the Democratic center, the conformism of political dynasty.
Emile de Antonio’s America Is Hard to See (1970) comports itself like any staid political documentary, built from talking-head interviews and public speeches. The film stands like an obelisk of partisan chatter. But this brisk synopsis of Eugene McCarthy’s failed bid to be the Democratic nominee—a process that saw Lyndon Johnson scuttle out, Bobby Kennedy stride in, and Hubert Humphrey win the nomination after Kennedy was killed—draws a perverse force from its blanched quality, its annulment of differences. De Antonio has instituted a clenched visual discipline: The shots are all frontal and fixed. The interviewees are squarely framed. And everyone who speaks—with the exception of a single McCarthy volunteer and a throng of young women shouting “Bobby! BOBBY!”—is a man.
Behold the world of American politics, mashed to a dreary paste. (The men, needless to say, are white.) The film, then, contracts into a study of the morphology of the political class: By the end, you find you’ve developed an eye and ear for the miniscule distinctions, the exquisite taxonomical gradations, in accent, style, grain of voice—as Johnson, Kennedy, J.K. Galbraith, Arthur Miller, and McCarthy himself wriggle around within the same stifling phenotype. So this is what power used to look like: a pomaded, Windsor-knotted, smugly smiling masculinity. A masculinity with a sonorous voice and an aphoristic reflex. McCarthy himself is graceful, even pleasant. His role as insurgent candidate—the first to challenge Johnson for the nomination—seems a mere extension of his drifting charm, his amused, patrician distance. Kennedy’s elocution is glittering and abrupt: He speaks from the top of his voicebox. And Johnson, drawling his self-exculpating lies about the Vietnam War, seems a kind of lolloping old dog, quickly banished from the house.
Banished, too, are any images of Vietnam itself: Hanoi stalks the film like a specter, part of the vicious outside world that limns the insular talk. De Antonio’s In the Year of the Pig (1968) is his direct handling of the war: Scenes of bombed villages and well-groomed Westerners are thrust together in an arranged marriage of dialectical opposition. But in America Is Hard to See, “American engagement” is reduced to glib rhetorical object, bounced along by a broken party machine. Vietnam was McCarthy’s platform, after all. He favored an immediate withdrawal, a position that let him harness the discontent spuming up from college campuses. The campaign was meant to be “an adult enterprise, not a children’s crusade” (odious phrasing, considering all the young men who died in the actual war), but McCarthy had the poor judgment to take the youth movement—and the tenets of liberalism—seriously. A simple disinclination to hypocrisy made him stumble amiably into a radical position, where he was caricatured by the “realists” and clung to by the kids.
Ibsen seems to have penned de Antonio’s final scene. Humphrey is put forth as the candidate, to the dutiful applause of apparatchiks—and just outside the Chicago Amphitheatre, the now-mythic riots at the Democratic National Convention are hacking their way into history. The irony is slicing, the doom inevitable, the Democrats—unmoved. De Antonio’s restraint vaults from formal exercise to tragicomic bliss as we observe this dense bundle of Party power, dreaming of ruling a burning world. The Siege on Chicago is taking place, but all de Antonio gives us is the clapping and the spotlight and the rousing speeches—and the obedient faces of the DNC, tense, grinning metaphors for a liberalism in distress. Soon they fade to black.
Leo McCarey, Love Affair, 1939, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.
DIRECTOR LEO MCCAREY was an on-set improviser, routinely jettisoning reams of screenplay to be replaced, he hoped, by happy (and funny) accident. When the muse was proving elusive, he would retreat to a piano he kept at hand for just such occasions, and tickle the ivories until the music coaxed her out of hiding. The atmosphere of collaborative creativity that he fostered during a career that began in the 1920s acted as an incubator to the star personas of Laurel and Hardy and Cary Grant and, in Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), got star performances from two less heralded names, Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi. Orson Welles said of that film that it “would make a stone cry.” Kōgo Noda reportedly took inspiration from it for his screenplay for Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). Jean Renoir adored McCarey, once stating that he “understands people better perhaps than anyone else in Hollywood.” McCarey was parochial and universal. His approach was, as the saying goes, “revolutionary,” though like more than a few revolutionary artists he found the prospect of actual revolution abhorrent. He was both devout Catholic and a right-winger—and a sharp satirist of the institutions which he held dear.
The Museum of Modern Art’s McCarey retrospective expresses the paradoxical personality evident in McCarey’s films in its title: “Seriously Funny.” One of McCarey’s signature moves is a stop-on-a-dime turn to sobriety, the discovery of a little patch of holy ground in the midst of light badinage: Bulbous butler Charles Laughton quieting a western saloon with his recital of the Gettysburg Address in Ruggles of Red Gap (1935); Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer’s inconsequential flirts, suddenly brought to a recollection of their immortal souls while kneeling in a chapel in Love Affair (1939). While the Criterion Collection’s release of Make Way for Tomorrow has gone some way toward redressing the shameful state of the availability of McCarey films on home video, there’s still much ground to cover, so in the meantime MoMA’s 35-mm-heavy program will have to pick up the slack.
McCarey was born in 1898 to an Irish-Catholic family in Los Angeles, but he only joined the local Industry after failing as a lawyer, copper miner, vaudeville songwriter, and middleweight slugger. (His father was the ballyhooed boxing promoter Thomas J. McCarey.) He entered the picture business through an apprenticeship with the director Tod Browning, who would shortly distinguish himself with a series of ghoulish Lon Chaney pictures, while McCarey found his own métier at Hal Roach Studios, a factory for short-subject comedies, where he cut his teeth writing gags for Sunshine Sammy, Farina, and the rest of Our Gang.
MoMA has divided the surviving products of McCarey’s Roach period among five different shorts programs. One is dedicated to Charley Chase, a spry, bow-legged, lean-sided Baltimorean silent comic unjustly forgotten today, who was something of a mentor to McCarey. Their “Gift of the Magi” goof Mighty Like a Moose (1926), which features a post–plastic surgery couple obliviously cheating on each other with each other, is a scream, and features on an opening-night program with recently rediscovered short The Battle of the Century (1927), starring the Anglo-American duo whom McCarey is sometimes credited with first teaming, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. In fact there’s very little that McCarey didn’t have a hand in at Roach Studios after he became director-general in 1926—so even if the Max Davidson short Pass the Gravy (1928) bears the imprimatur of one Fred Guiol, the masterful control of tempo with which it builds its central dinner table set-piece speaks of McCarey’s serene conductorship.
Davidson, a diminutive Berlin-born comic who specialized in playing threadbare Old World Jewish patriarchs whose shiftless New World offspring drove his eyebrows into extraordinary contortions, has a much-overdue showcase in MoMA’s program. These films belong to a period in American entertainment characterized by free, rough ethnic humor, before the Production Code Administration tamped things down—the Marx Brothers got their start doing immigrant burlesque, but only Chico kept his Italian shtick up into the pictures. McCarey directed their maddest movie, Duck Soup (1933), as he was moving over to features at the start of the ’30s, a period otherwise represented at MoMA with proto-screwball Part Time Wife and Let’s Go Native (both 1930), a Broadway-revue-stranded-on-a-desert-island yuk-fest with Jeanette MacDonald and Jackie Oakey.
Leo McCarey, _Ruggles of Red Gap, 1935, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 90 minutes.
Ruggles of Red Gap is a kind of laughing gas turnaround of the Henry James transatlantic itinerary, bringing Laughton’s manservant and his ex-employer, the shy, stammering Earl of Bumstead (Roland Young), to the not-quite-tamed American west c. 1915, where they get swept up in the egalitarian ho-down. Ruggles has its antic moments, but here McCarey’s approach is more observant, revealing nuances of character in small-scale set-pieces, like Young accompanying Leila Hyams’s dancehall chanteuse on drums as she warbles “Pretty Baby.” The Awful Truth (1937) is generally classed with screwball comedies, but McCarey has no interest in setting a land-speed record for snappy wisecracks—he just wants to kick back and watch Grant and Dunne go at it, and especially watch the fond pleasure that they take in one another’s mortification, as when a sparklingly spiteful Grant looks on while Oklahoman Ralph Bellamy galumphs Dunne around a Manhattan nightspot. (Remember the on-set piano: Music is always key for McCarey, as is love, a matter of shared harmony.) It was released in the same year as Make Way for Tomorrow, a film that moves at a pace appropriate to its pokey, elderly protagonists, a long-married couple divvied up between their adult children, waiting for a reunion that they know will never come, failed by a family safety net eaten away by self-interest. By the time McCarey’s Love Affair arrived there was no-one working who could balance the spiritual and carnal, not to speak of the saccharine and sublime, with such seeming ease.
Much of McCarey’s critical reputation rests on this hot-hand run through the 1930s, cut short by a 1940 car accident that took him off the set of Grant-Dunne reunion My Favorite Wife and left him temporarily wheelchair-bound. Like the old gag goes, his big concern was playing the piano again, but he regained use of his left hand and bounced back with his biggest mega-smash to date, Going My Way (1944), which introduced fellow Roman Catholic Bing Crosby in the character of crooning hip priest “Chuck” O’Malley, returning in the following year’s sequel The Bells of St. Mary’s paired with a nun played by Ingrid Bergman, working together to save an inner-city school while simultaneously quashing an unstated romantic yearning.
By McCarey’s own testimony, Bergman’s character in Bells of St. Mary’s was inspired by his aunt, Sister Mary Benedict of the Immaculate Heart Convent in Hollywood, who died in a typhoid epidemic. Far from an impersonal studio clock-puncher, McCarey was a relentlessly personal filmmaker, with all of the foibles and excesses that that implies. (In a day when many commentators praise fan-service above personal vision, the idea that an artist’s strengths and weaknesses could be inextricable from one another is increasingly foreign.) Anti-Communist drama My Son John (1952) is the film that linked McCarey’s rowdy democratic vision to McCarthyite bughouse paranoia, a work that his reputation has struggled upstream against ever since. (It isn’t included in MoMA’s program, but is available on various streaming services.) For about half of its runtime, when educated-above-his-station college boy snoot Robert Walker visits mom and dad (menopause-flustered Helen Hayes and jingo buffoon Dean Jagger), it’s prime McCarey—but then a Make Way for Tomorrow–esque study in familial dysfunction doesn’t survive the sharp pivot into a defense of same hearth and home.
Plagued by chronic aches and a painkiller habit that had lingered since his accident, as well as a longtime fondness for the bottle, McCarey worked sporadically for the rest of his life. An Affair to Remember (1957), a DeLuxe Color auto-remake of his own Love Affair that uses Grant and Deborah Kerr, is for some the last surfacing of his old talent, though for all its significant pleasures it feels like a holding pattern, whereas cracking suburban satire Rally ’Round the Flag, Boys! (1958) is something new and exuberant, a true comeback sans proper follow-up, in which McCarey is seemingly revitalized by young stars Tuesday Weld (a babysitter with beatnik vocabulary), Joanne Woodward, and Paul Newman, who plays a rip-snorting, chandelier-swinging drunk scene. These were a new breed of American actor, or so the papers were saying, just as a new breed of filmmaker was soon to bring an unprecedented emotional candor to the screen in the likes of John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959), and everyone forgot about old red-baitin’ Leo McCarey working off-the-cuff, noodling away at his piano. I’ve never heard any description of the sort of melodies he played during those moments of take-five repose, but imagine them as meandering, sweet, sometimes maudlin, a little bit of barrelhouse and a little bit of church, the entire effect ineffably charming.