05/11/12 1:25pm


A sign of festival bounty or contemporary shortfall, Migrating Forms (May 11-20 at Anthology Film Archives), New York’s annual recap of what used to be called “the avant-garde,” and now might better be called “lo-fi cinema,” offers about a third of its programming to rep considerations: 35mm prints of Chuck Jones shorts, Fritz Lang’s Indian diptych, Adachi and Wakamatsu’s Red Army, and a 16mm, fade-resistant copy of Raúl Ruiz’s On Top of a Whale. Nothing better! With zero competition, Migrating Forms is probably the city’s best film festival; in opposition to the usual form of festival gloat, Migrating Forms’ 31 programs over 10 days seem less dedicated to the dubious hagiography of surveying every vein of avant-garde, than featuring its programmers’ own, divergent interests.

Modesty’s a good question for a YouTube era of art, but films made by friends and for friends, screened by friends and for friends, at least seem the product of specialized networking that’s probably the only viable future for making and distributing work. If right now there’s a lack of figures of central importance, it’s probably because it’s probably a given that central importance is not something any moviemaker could admirably attain. So instead there are smaller pleasures, almost none of which I’ve seen; given the inevitable ass-pulling and hopelessness of A-G shorts to brook consumer reports, it would probably be as well to speculate on all the stuff I’ve yet to see.

There is Daniel Schmidt and Garbiel Abrantes’s Palácios de Pena, a kind of soft-spoken Corman fable, and their grizzly take on Portuguese imperialism in the strange wraiths of teenage girls. There is Ben Rivers’ Slow Action, a film that runs with the otherworldly fetishism of ethnographic docs to posit every captured sight as a beautiful, dubious speculation of science-fiction. And there is Laida Lertxundi’s A Lax Riddle Unit, seemingly another handheld documentary of Lertxundi’s weird, off-suburban zone, where sights seem preconceived with 60s R&B playing in some disjointed netherworld out of time; Lertxundi’s only way to mark time’s passing is to cut to variants off her sites, days earlier or later, when the song and light have changed. The world, in a set groove but zero momentum, plays as some sort of cover of itself.

The highlight for me, critically and otherwise, is automatically Traveling Light, an-hour long record of a day’s train ride by my friend and long-time movie sparring partner, Gina Telaroli. A narrative abandoned twice—first when the cast and crew were halted by a snowstorm halfway through their journey and forced to split; later when GT eschewed all narratives at the editing table to figure only their traces—Traveling Light plays as erstwhile fiction and erstwhile documentary, a travelogue of nothing more than the conditions of it’s making. Deceptively simple, a kind of found piece of concrete dialogue between track sounds and a dwindling light that halfway through turns the movie from half-representational to half-abstract, it’s one of the only recent films, narrative, avant-garde, or otherwise, that seems to have sacrificed itself to its subjects to determine its course.

For a couple weeks, GT and I carried on an email exchange about whatever we wanted, and I let her edit it, with usual scrupulousness, however she pleased. A former inner-city basketball coach, GT’s turn to movies in the past few years seems both a product and response to new possibilities for digital profusion: works seem to emerge on their own timetable, assembled as a critical response to their own subjects and materials. Within these few weeks, her first two features will each have festival premieres—A Little Death at the Berkshire Film Festival, Traveling Light at Migrating Forms—alongside publications of a new series at MUBI, Amuse-Gueule, a piece in Kent Jones’s anthology on Olivier Assayas, and maybe most significantly of all, her piece on Jerry Lewis in an image montage that seems a form of her own invention. Just sampling.

01/26/12 4:00am

Unfinished Business (1941) and She Married Her Boss (1935)
Directed by Greogory La Cava
January 27-29 at “Stuck on the Second Tier: Underknown Auteurs,” at Anthology Film Archives

Pitched some strange place between Victorian disillusionment, with its ethos in the brokenhearted individual, and the 20th century spectacle of Big Business, ethos in the gleefully homogenized mass, lies that treacly cynical, all-1930s ode to bootstrap pioneerism, the show girl bildungsroman. Barbara Stanwyck and William Wellman would make early careers out of the genre, an update on the silent melodrama of displaced waifs facing the passion plays of the modern city grind, in which a farm girl goes to the city—or, occasionally, a city girl goes to a farm—but rather than suffer nobly as she might a decade before, now steps to the music of ermine sin, frothing rakes, a butler’s hair of the dog in the early afternoon. Money of course is king: a counterfeit pass to the upper echelons, a forgery of a personality. That the only real American democracy is a pack of thieves comes through nicely in a favorite phrase, are ya on the level? Often enough the badge of one con to another, sweetly honest that they’re nothing but frauds.

Sin is as great a leveler as love, so that the seemingly most conservative directors of the era—McCarey, Cukor, La Cava—with their emphasis flat on home values, marriage, and true love, can also seem the most radical directors, refusing to tease apart notions of love and sin from one other. Each defies society’s pillars of sobriety. The solution to a stratified household, run like a marketing business of table manners to neighbors, inevitably comes in a renewed spontaneity, a romance lived in the present tense, moment-to-moment without any overarching narrative, in the improvised jaunts of two drunk lovers and a kid around a family’s old, half-tuned piano.

It’s a cinema of presence as a constant hamming out. La Cava specializes in the career code’s stratified but schizophrenic world, in which characters wear personalities as masks and oblige themselves into stuttering roles of telephone ops or trophy wives. Against this world of dress-up, La Cava, like McCarey, will isolate his two lost leads as they improvise an on-screen romance sitting side-by-side; these blocked-out spaces, windowsills, bedroom floors, and piano benches, can become like pockets of sanity against the off-screen sounds of a background capitalism, telephone girls, birthdays, recitals, giving each scene its rhythm.

Did La Cava conceive his films sonically? Out of all the everyday business of She Married Her Boss (1935), its title self-explanatory, and Unfinished Business (1941), the story of an Ohio girl’s playboy loves in the city, come these emotional upswells through La Cava’s automatic universe: weird heralds of lilted jingles and drunken ditties replayed on toy and heirloom pianos; an office girl sobbing while her co-workers keep phoning and singing around her; Irene Dunne’s long monologue of clichés about life’s endless horizons seemingly elicited by her cross-country train’s squinching chugs as a lothario stares at her silently. Only when these bursts of feeling come does La Cava finally cut out to show a whole scene, previously heard only, of characters across a space gesturing in their own private rhythms. And the protagonists become relegated to the background, two more dangled marionettes in the hubbub of a world where mutual sympathy only comes knowing that they’re strangers to themselves.

“Don’t let a career fool you. It’s something that sponges up your whole life and leaves you empty,” preaches Claudette Colbert in Boss, a movie, about a woman taking control of her life and the family of the man she marries, that sounds fairly feminist while it argues that women belong in the home, but that men also belong in the home, that nobody should be committed to the role-playing of working life when domesticity is its own unfolding exercise. La Cava’s anti-materialism, anti-capitalism, if that’s really what they are (5th Avenue Girl ironically invokes “dialectical materialism” in a servant’s mouth), come founded in the Hollywood assumption that the working world can be easily ignored for a life of luxury-as-anarchy, an aristocrat’s drunken binge as he throws bricks through his own storefronts. Of course it’s the ultimate, most radical romance, a romance of presence, in which one can be zozzled and have no historical concerns about a material wage or what the dawn will bring. To the 30s parade of welfare babes longing after their reflections in storefront windows, a girl’s starving face superimposed on turbine egg beaters, Boss abolishes consumers and their needs in a long, midnight sequence as two old friends take over the storefront display, throw around the mannequins to make them seem as drunk as they are, and, accompanying themselves on the piano as always, bring the place out of stratified sterility to the life of a barrelhouse beat.

11/16/11 9:48am


Tonight and tomorrow, Film Forum‘s retrospective of the ethnographic documentarian Robert Gardner concludes, with a double feature of his Sons of Shiva and, from 1986, Forest of Bliss.

The sumptuousness of crematory rites by a Benares river. The precise libations and laments of unnamed, unsubtitled mourners baptizing their dead make a cruel abstraction as the passing-on of the dead and of death’s rituals become the one constant of the movie’s world: a ceremony of anonymous performers performing the same role to a chorus of monkeys and dogs. Gardner’s refusal to interpret individuals as anything but visual motifs is the surest way of exoticizing his subjects as icons of local tradition; no translations, explanations, or context are given to comprehend or interfere with “the other,” and Gardner’s respect for his subject doubles as a kind of fetishization, with caveats:

-Gardner, like Jean Rouch, is only turning into a public spectacle events that already are: his non-interference is more or less genuine as the locals sublimate private griefs into communal rituals.

-“Communal” not with other people, but with the river, wind, ruins, monkeys, dogs, all of which play their role in the rites; Gardner’s theater, even framed with a proscenium arch, extends to the open air so that the rituals of burial and consumption are never self-contained displays, but part of larger life cycles of animals eating their dead, the river swallowing corpses, and men entering and leaving the film in an ebb and flow of a not totally coherent montage.

-Counter that, the moments of men dragging carcasses down stairs, which cut through the abstraction of the rites, of the “life cycles” that transfigure each event into a thematic hinge, of Gardner’s penchant for the figural over figurative, fog and film grain occluding his subject matter prettily.

-A book, Making Forest of Bliss: Intention, Circumstance and Chance in Nonfiction Film (2001) that gives all the exposition eluded by the movie.

The burden of context and understanding is the viewer’s to shoulder and shed. The feeling that outward appearance and bodily action are enough to conjure some “deeper understanding,” a rapprochement with the spirit world, is after all as much the film’s—or any film’s—as the ritual’s itself. And Gardner’s play of metaphors and meaning can be ignored as he balances his movie on the point where men, like the dead, become nothing but outward apparitions, the stuff of film grain (“an artist,” Brakhage called Gardner).

But that approach could be pitted a few years later against Wiseman’s Near Death: another decontextualized survey of grief rituals in a local population as men are exchanged into corpses across shots. Where Wiseman circles around all the moments in Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital when the ritual becomes a broken mask onto feelings that could never could never be adequately formalized—doctors experimenting with new ways to tell patients their loved ones are dead—Gardner takes the ritual at its word. His movie’s both a corroboration and rebuke of claptrap that poetry’s the opposite of material detail. Gardner’s idea of historical tradition is eternal beauty, that thing beyond time or conscious thought, and maybe the oldest idea of all.

06/24/11 12:00pm


The Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski was living in London and renovating his house in the fall of 1981, when the communist government instituted martial law in response to the burgeoning Solidarity Movement; that winter, he shot Moonlighting, about a Polish construction crew—led by Jeremy Irons, speaking flawless Polish—renovating a London house during the Solidarity crackdown, in and around his own home. The film plays at the Museum of the Moving Image this Saturday and Sunday as part of their Skolimowski retro.

Usually the Skolimowski anti-hero belongs to no world but the room he’s in, and no time but the present: his actions, at best poses and at worst survival strategies, play as deflections from any coherent personality, and the movies themselves treat workaday routine as a state-manufactured carnival. Skolimowski’s movies are “abstract”—with their heaving rhythms of footsteps and panting, with their faces out of fog and snow—only in their precision: the navigation of a character through a setpiece trudging after a single goal, or better, trudging as long as he can to avoid any confrontation at all. His movies are typically quest narratives that go nowhere.

In Moonlighting, Skolimowski finds a practical setting for his anonymous nomads and purgatorial routine: a house under construction in London, 1981, while, over the radio, communism is suppressing workers rights in the illegal building crew’s native Poland. Jeremy Irons, “in a performance worthy of Chaplin” (Dave Kehr), plays victim and victimizer, cheating an impossible grocery bill to reserve money for his wife back home, and bullying his grunting chorus of workers to forsake sleep for their families. Irons isolates his workers from the news of Solidarity less as a symbol of worldwide exploitation than one of its living figures: it’s easy enough to infer from his decision what the consequences would be of informing illegal workers that an independent labor union has started taking hold of their country. So Moonlighting itself isn’t a metaphor of the Polish crisis as it is its product; nearly filmed in a double real-time as communist Poland instituted martial law against unions, and the house itself is built, it’s one of the few movie to show workers working, the same anonymous routine, and one of the few movies to show history passing in the microscopic changes of plaster, plumbing, and floorboards. Again a Skolimowski hero clings to not changing, being nobody, until everything changes and he’s forced into a role. As a milestone in material realism, Moonlighting is in some ways Skolimowski’s most abstract movie.

05/19/11 1:00pm

Migrating Forms
May 20-29 at Anthology Film Archives

Benefits of a festival as useful as Migrating Forms are as much sociological as cinematic. I’ve seen 16 of its 45 or so hours of shorts, presentations, and retrospectives, a knot of video essays, flipcam body-horror, and “color series” from 5+ continents; even the title of the series deliberately evades classification. Older works are stalwartly documentary and avant-garde both: Straub-Huillet’s Too Early, Too Late, a Glauber Rocha mini-retro, and, rarest, a double-feature of Georges Perec scripts: Alain Tourneau’s Série Noire, with a Warren Oates-type killer who reinvents his character as he tip-toes around a slummy French town, and Bernard Queysanne’s Un homme qui dort, a late city symphony of an empty, Atget Paris in fragments, filmed fluidly as a continuous work of architecture beyond time. Chicly existential, it’s now clearly one of the last gasp of city-maze films, alongside Wheel of Ashes and Blast of Silence, with solitary walkers and second-person voiceover, as dérives were still popular ways of losing one’s sense of physical place —in physical places. That there are other means of doing so now is a recurring theme elsewhere in the program.

The impossibility of generalizations is a key generalization: eschewal of classification’s particularly current. As Hollywood becomes as marginalized as the avant-garde from New York consciousness, the hearts of critics seem to swing to the fiction-documentary “hybrid film” of Costa-Gomes-Alonso-Haroun-Reichhardt-Porterfield-Serra-Denis, and one of Migrating Forms’ specialties, alone among New York festivals, happens to be passive portraiture of disenfranchised nomads, bodies without voices traipsing through the daily coordinates of dramatic lives. Pioneered by the Lumière brothers, popularized digitally, interrogating the limits of narrative but rarely the image, the “hybrid film” is at best as perspectival as Poussin, at worst prose-poetry making an easy alibi of lazy camerawork and dramaturgy on faith that life in front of the camera is its own sort of found footage. A conversional idyll, masking pangs of 00s disengagement through 90s slackerdom, the hybrid film offers, per Zadie Smith, the “slightly sublime.” Often it’s as much a zeitgeist as an evasion of the times, but against the pretty lolling of Hollywood and the avant-garde’s artier heights, it returns cinema to level 0 and offers an easy basis for experimentation.

This is not the experimentation of lyrical “experimental film,” but experimentation as scientific experiment, enabled digitally, as Godard called his first videos “research” in the 70s: surveillance footage shooting perpetually, reducing the artist’s role to following the scientific method in a controlled environment, establishing an operative method for shooting and editing with the movie itself as test and conclusion both. The movie becomes a document of a single element.

Oxhide II, a 132-minute, 9-shot survey of a table as a Chinese family cooks in real-time, is not so different from Chewbacca Supercut, the cobbled 13 minutes of Chewbacca’s on-screen time in A New Hope. Documentary or fiction? Both would seem “formalist” but are still totally content-based; the formal decisions treat the material as test-subject so that it might reveal something about itself unknowingly. Like neither Warhol’s blank slate and stare, that let the characters determine their own movie out of scratch, nor Michael Snow’s imposed grammar, that transforms the image and outpaces it’s the grammar’s own intentions, the test-film seems to spring improbably from the post-cinema of Quentin Tarantino and his fetishizing genre outskirts, those points of downtime on the edges of noirs and Westerns where iconographic characters eat, gossip, watch TV, and shit.

Chewbacca retells the battle for the galaxy through the perspective of an unseen man plodding in a suit of a 7-foot hypertrichosis victim: incidental to the story, the story is still his only geography, and typically he seems to be out of the scene altogether until a faraway storm-trooper steps out of his way or a wisp of brown threads are spotted sprouting at frame’s edge. As Bérénice Reynaud’s suggested, Oxhide II is a martial-arts training montage—the befuddled daughter aping the wisdom of her parents in the art of the dumpling in real time. Again traditional focus on narrative drama is flipped with stress on more banal, eternal dramas: the hands of off-screen characters working in improvised harmony to make dumplings. More material, more abstract. The moment-by-moment rhythms make a music of bodies—hands—across the screen, the physical in its unthinking routine vitalized by some off-screen force. For moments it’s as miraculous as Vertov or Bresson, filmmakers of hands as tools, process and procedure as creation.

03/18/11 11:14am


The Museum of the Moving Image’s Alain Resnais retro, in its final weekend, screens 1997’s Same Old Song tomorrow at 4:30pm.

Resnais’s exploration of the musical comedy as a vehicle for emotions erupting mid-dialogue—as pop songs, lip-synced by characters—with frivolous objective triggers: beauty and silliness are their own objects. But Resnais’s grounding of these narrative frills in a slight comedy of manners on-location in 90s Paris conceives naturalism as its own art and artifice. Like all Resnais’s films, it’s a portrait of consciousness mired in dull routine and extraordinary feeling, spinning facts and fiction as equal possibilities for each other. As in Marienbad, the characters are puppets to a collective dream, and like in Toute la mémoire du monde, they’re individual texts onto a worldbank of knowledge. But here this collective mind and embodied imagination thinks mostly of money and bobo hauteur, and mostly imagines hit singles.

The modern disjunctions—naturalism vs. musical; objective vs. subjective—becomes less disruptive as it starts to appear the characters have conceived their lives in a classical movie’s image as much as the movie’s conceived them for its purposes of classical dramaturgy. As in Marienbad, there’s some question whether they’ve willed these visions, or whether these visions have willed them, but Resnais’s indication that they’re victims to their own social fantasies is in perfect keeping with classical farce, as is the neat mix-and-match between couples whose personalities are branded at the start and ciphers by the end. And yet, however caustic seems the sight of a millionaire gushing arias for an obstructed skyline, his spasmodic lament is treated poker-faced: the fantasies are the audience’s, if not before then by now in sympathizing with the man on-screen, and Resnais offers no point of privilege from which to judge his world knowingly. As this nouveau riche sings a cocktail dirge for a brutalist high-rise, Resnais’s achievements converge: his treatment of men as inanimate puppets, their treatment of buildings and texts as living organisms, and another elevated ode to Real Estate, architecture, as the synchronic matchmaker determining the habits men live by.

01/18/11 8:56am


Through the 29th, the first-ever My French Film Festival makes ten new features and ten new shorts streamable online—it’s marketed as ” the first worldwide, exclusively online film festival celebrating French talent,” and includes Nicolas Saada’s film Espion(s) (“espions” means “spies”), starring Guillame Canet (pictured) and streamable here.

In Nicolas Saada’s Espion(s), as in recent polyglot, global games of hopscotch like Tarantino’s Inglourious Bastards, Assayas’ Carlos, Godard’s Film Socialisme, and in some ways, Petzold’s Yella, the double life of spies—personal vs. professional, nation vs. nation, past vs. present—becomes the nature of everyday life in international business. There is no personal in these movies: only a public space, furnished suite, whose host of TV stations determines the characters’ consciousness and movie’s own. Players of crime become pawns, actors and functionaries, even, in Petzold/Assayas/Godard in their free time in chrome hotel rooms and labyrinthine hallways.

In Espion(s) a baggage swindler burns alive at the touch of a diplomatic pouch to Damascus and, in genre logic, his French partner is inducted into an English spy ring to filch info off a billionaire’s hard drive by seducing his wife: the story is, for once, important in a necessary absence of character motivation or authorial effect, as events take focus for their everyday locations (metro, airport, parking lots, offices) and off-hand revelations. Camera movement—handheld, peripatetic, with an Assayas pretense of tag-along and floating splays of streetlights, with piano, as characters seem lost even to themselves—wouldn’t be so different from Salt, with its reflecting glass surface, except that here every shot is operative. Not Realism nor Assayas allegory, the movie’s less like its allusions, Spione and Mabuse (which propagate entire worlds in chain-linked units as director-surrogate characters invoke them) than the Hollywood Fritz Lang of Ministry of Fear—and the video games that seem to have legitimized these close-up mad-dashes through foreign worlds: the protagonist, and the movie with him, becomes an unfolding vector with the illusion of free time and free will through a closed world inscribed by the possibilities of real places and the technologies of the time.

10/22/10 9:37am


Abel Gance’s silent epic J’Accuse, a WWI film made in the last year of WWI, plays tonight and Sunday afternoon at MoMA, as part of their annual Save and Project series of newly restored and rediscovered works.

Abel Gance’s 1919 melodrama of daydreams/nightmares, provincial maids peering out windows onto dandy lovers and eventually The Great War, has medieval feeling for a modern-day ménage-a-trois. In the same year as Griffith’s The Girl Who Stayed Home, with its upended cross-cuts between both spaces and times circulating freely amongst each other as if in a line of thought, Gance takes war as the essence of consciousness and movie-making. The shot-reverse shots are like shrapnel: anticipations and memories, dreams and nightmares, shadowy ideals and minute realities, people and their visions, light and dark, all opposed at first and finally fused in the chiaroscuro sight of a couple and an operatic beat. What’s heroic in Gance’s modern hell is simply the recognition of where they are in time, detached from everything they’ve known, and the particularities of dealing with it: sleeping in the mud or cleaning up a meal.

Dreams and montage merge major/minor thrills of heaven and hell into a superimposed skeleton dance of the living and the dead unmoored from each other, tradition, the landscape, love, reason, and all past; each shot reconfigures the last. Bruegel’s invoked, Romanticism elegized as in Romances, but the tragedy’s that there’s no Tragedy: war vets discover they died senselessly and shout the title as collective unconscious. The large-format form, location shooting, intertitles of real soldiers’ love letters, and catch-release rhythms of irises/wide-shots, still-shots/dollies, blues/reds, is modernist: a strained meter for time and a country’s conscience in shards.

10/21/10 10:10am


BAM’s Olivier Assayas series continues tonight with his breakout film, 1994’s 60s-set coming-of-age Cold Water. You’re really running out of excuses not to see this film, as it’s returning to BAM after just a couple months. When it played there in August, as part of a selected-by-the-Safdie-Brothers series, The L’s David Phelps had this to say:

Cold Water, from 1994, is Olivier Assayas’ last doomed love romance, structured as teen transcendence (the lead teen is Virginie Ledoyen), before his characters and films take on cosmic contemplation of stratigraphic problems. The first part is teen clichés, expulsions and shoplifting, done in usual harried, present-tense glimpses, though the time is post-’68. The last pastiches Mouchette. But the second seems more concrete and abstract, evolving Andrei Rublev and 47 Ronin into the 70s with fugue-like play between subject and camera: teens build a fire outside a ramshackle fortress, burn furniture, hook up, dance, and play, replay, and cut off CCR, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen off-screen. The camera slowly tracks the walls as if, like the teens, to buttress the place from history but vainly pin down a moment in time and structure in place that’s as evasive as fire or teen ideals of communism, nature, and a punk-rock treehouse. Assayas’ movies, like his characters, are so lost in a recognizable reality that it feels like a dream they can’t and won’t wake up from.

After the jump, a clip (identified on YouTube as “smoking to bob dylan”):

10/04/10 8:55am


Anthology Film Archives is currently hosting the Walking Picture Palace, an annual avant-garde film showcase which this year includes “Illuminated Hours and Days,” a round-up of recent work by Nathanial Dorsky. Program 1, which includes his films Sarabande and Winter among others, screens tonight.

Winter is the 20-minute companion piece to Dorsky’s Eisensteinian/Mahlerian Sarabande, which mounts like a double helix out of dialectical clashes in color, speed, location, and abstraction/figuration as it builds twining strains. Winter is more traditional, horizontal lieder accelerating fluidly through a San Francisco Indian Summer refocused to single strains of light and sudden bursts of clarity.

The film looks shot day-for night, and often like Dorsky’s held a flashlight to an underground civilization, so that time, season, city and country are already in sickly dissolve; Dorsky’s abstractions—silhouettes, liquids, and window reflections—make it seem like the simple play of light could wash them away. In Dorsky’s comedy, the city is an enclosed playhouse with a view onto the galaxy; repeatedly Dorsky emphasizes living things that look like toys (someone’s body, face unseen, and a dog that looks stuffed gazing cockeyed at the cosmos) and toys that look alive (an extended magic lantern show). The effect is a sleep-walking city moving unconsciously to a dance, the rhythm as always in Dorsky’s crescendos of light and montage. Where Sarabande ends portentously on its opening shot, Winter finishes in a frantic burst of roses, as though there’s no way to grasp these things but the last, most insignificant shot, is let to spin on in the imagination.