Very rarely are film festivals devoted to those who are neither filmmakers nor actors. But Susan Sontag’s contribution to 20th century artistic endeavor defies convention. The film series in her honor at BAM (May 11-12) screens some of the films which inspired her scalpel-sharp analysis. In On Photography she piles truth upon truth and builds a tower of polemical might. Regarding the Pain of Others and Notes on Camp are also cited as references for this compact but far-reaching program.
The invention which transformed and defined her lifetime is represented by Chris Marker’s remarkable Cuba Si (1961) a photo album of the Cuban revolution which basks in its promise while illuminating the chiaroscuro tones of its conflicted morality. Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1971) is a devastating glimpse of the banality of American evil, while Godard’s unsubtitled deconstruction of a photo from the Yugoslav war Je Vous salue Sarajevo (1994) "s’agit d’une moment de vivre mal et mourir bien." A special treat are the 6 Sontag Screen Tests, Warhol’s characteristically static portraits of an impossibly young Sontag posing as a vamp, beatnik and blank-faced icon. It’s collaboration between an artist whose entire career was a coronation of the mundane and an intellect who found within the commonplace miniature universes of truth. — Jason BogdanerisOur cultural heritage comes to us secondhand. By the time we see the movies we’ve heard so much about, we already have in our minds an idea of what they’re going to be, notions informed by the chiaroscuro lighting and upturned trench coat collars in a noir parody on our favorite cartoon show, or a night spent staying up late with our parents in a hotel room, drifting in and out of sleep and catching fragments of Raiders of the Lost Ark. And so, a decade later, the movies themselves seem insubstantial in comparison to our brilliant, inarticulate imagination.
How can anybody make a movie that lives up to something so primal we can’t even express it? In Miller’s Crossing (at MoMA on the 21st), the Coens attempt to craft a movie made up of the dark, vague contours of the subconscious. Something is inevitably lost in the filling in, but one image — a long shot of two men in the woods, one black-clad, standing with a gun over the other, on his knees and begging for his life — eludes the diminishing grasp of context. (They’ve achieved that excitement one other time in their careers, with the opening shot of Fargo.)
Sergio Leone’s immense gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America (part of BAM’s Leone retrospective) staggers under its own weight, as if Leone thought he could corral the elusiveness of nostalgia by sheer scope. It doesn’t work — it couldn’t — but it’s a hard movie to get out of your head. — Mark Asch