02/20/13 4:00am

Minamata: The Victims and Their World (1971)
Directed by Noriaki Tsuchimoto
February 21 at Anthology, part of its Rituals in the Avant-Garde: Film Experiments in 1960s-70s Japan

Minamata disease was first reported in 1953. It spread throughout a seaside area on the Japanese island of Kyushu where the chemical-producing Chisso Corporation was releasing inorganic mercury compounds into the water, afflicting fishermen and their families, who ate poisoned seafood. The disease would intoxicate a person’s central nervous system, turning limbs and lips numb. Those who got it mildly would strain to maintain basic motor skills, while the extreme cases who didn’t die could be rendered comatose. The listed victim count rose steadily, from 12 (1954) through 14 (1955) through 53 (1956), until Chisso made a reparations contract with victims and their families towards the end of 1959. The company did not publicly admit responsibility, and had even increased contaminating the Minamata River, but officially the epidemic was over.

“We must not let such things happen again,” says a female relative of Minamata disease casualties in Noriaki Tsuchimoto’s documentary Minamata: The Victims and Their World, the first of several films he made about the situation. The film picks up a decade after the reparation contract’s signing, with Minamata residents sickening and dying from mercury poisoning in growing numbers. A movement clamors for Chisso to admit it’s done wrong while Tsuchimoto looks at photographs of the dead and listens to the living tell their stories. A widow explains how the Ministry of Health and Welfare made her shut up and wait to prevent her from filing a complaint; a fisherman demonstrates how best to catch, cook, and eat squid, now a tainted pastime. The filmmaker visits hunched-over people who need help with walking, others who can’t even get out of bed, whole families made pariahs from mistaken fear of contagion, and generations of people born into sickness because their parents ate the wrong fish. A rehabilitation center visit comparing Minamata disease children to those with cerebral palsy quickly reveals which group has worse conditions—the second set of kids, even if physically disabled, at least can understand and remember, while the first, says a center worker, “are pitiful in every respect.”

“Eyes that can’t see, ears that can’t hear, mouths that can’t speak or taste, hands that can’t grasp, legs that can’t walk,” a man cries at a protest rally against Chisso. “You make people bear such babies. You make the sea unfit for bacteria, and you talk of rapid economic growth.” By now, more than 40 years after Tsuchimoto began his project, Chisso has made settlements with over 10,000 people related to Minamata. But no amount of money can bring back the dead. The news last month of the signing of the Minamata Convention, an international agreement to lower mercury emissions, shouldn’t overshadow how thousands of Minamata disease complaints have been filed and settled within the past few years. By acknowledging the victims, Tsuchimoto did what Chisso officially failed to do, but there have been many new victims since his film series ended, and there will be more.

Follow us on Twitter @LMagFilm

02/06/13 4:00am

Troublemakers (1966)
Directed by Robert Machover and Norman Fruchter
February 10, 19 at Anthology Film Archives, part of “Left and Revolutionary Cinema: The West, Program 2,” which is part of A Tribute to Amos Vogel and “Film as a Subversive Art”

“Subversion in cinema starts when the theatre darkens and the screen lights up,” Amos Vogel wrote in the introduction to his 1974 book Film as a Subversive Art. Vogel, the great film programmer who died last April at 91, was a sweet, calm, gentle, pleasant man who spent his life searching for films that could disturb people. The Austrian Jew exchanged Nazi Europe for New York, then transformed his dream of living on a Palestinian farm into the reality of Cinema 16, the largest film society in the world, cofounded with his wife and eternal companion Marcia in 1947; the same year that Cinema 16 shuttered (1963) was the year he and critic Richard Roud cofounded the New York Film Festival.

By the time he wrote his book, Vogel had seen and listed so many films on index cards (still available for browsing through Columbia University’s archives) that he could comfortably order them in categories as varied as the birth film, the trance film, the erotic film, and films of secrets and revelations. The films he valued most, spanning myriad categories, were those that led the charge towards what he called “a more liberated cinema, one in which all previously forbidden subjects are boldly explored.” For him, a film worth keeping around brought new information that undermined how its audiences had previously thought and felt, disrupting them into forming new personal truths. The most basic authority a film could subvert was that of its viewer’s preconceptions.

Vogel liked reminding himself that the world always had problems to solve, and hoped that cinema could help others feel the same way. Paul Cronin’s 2004 film portrait of Vogel, also called Film as a Subversive Art and screening March 7 as part of Anthology Film Archives’s Vogel tribute series (the Museum of the Moving Image will have its own in March), takes us on a guided tour of the self-proclaimed radical’s study. Its walls are filled with photographs—a shot of Mussolini, a recent picture of a Palestinian father holding his son who was killed by Israeli bombs—showing things that Vogel doesn’t like to see. Nearby hangs a quote by Günter Eich reading, “Be uncomfortable; be sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world.”

A film like Robert Machover and Norm Fruchter’s under-seen Troublemakers, which Vogel wrote was “One of the best works of the American Left,” suggests that a true leftist’s work is never finished. Its actors are the residents of a black ghetto in Newark and the young activists trying to organize them. The first part of the film shows the activists discussing what problems can unite people; subsequent sections contain protests against a landlord’s ability to evict tenants freely and the government’s failure to install a traffic light in town. Over and over, the protests are met with silence or with bureaucratic shrugs. The film’s narrator says, “Without effective means of enforcing repair, all actions remain symbolic.”

These individual problems are hard to solve, the film suggests, because the system itself is broken. “The rich man controls Newark,” a townsperson says; the fact that most of the area votes Democrat doesn’t matter, because the common man’s party is still run by the rich. The film tracks an attempt to support a black politician from a working-class background’s campaign, but no matter how many votes he gets, he might not solve things. Nearly 50 years after Troublemakers was made, a full third of Newark’s people still live in poverty. Belief in leaders—regardless of what they look like—hasn’t done enough.

01/23/13 4:00am

Hallelujah the Hills (1963)
Directed by Adolfas Mekas
Thursday, January 24, at Film Forum, part of its New Yawk New Wave series

The New American Cinema began with two Lithuanians. In the 1940s, the brothers Jonas and Adolfas Mekas went from their parents’ farm in Vilnius to a Displaced Persons camp to a small apartment in Brooklyn. They gorged themselves on as many movies as they could afford, and gathered friends to start Film Culture, the United States’ first serious film journal. In time, they led their group to start making independent films.

The brothers were famed for being cranky polemicists—Jonas regularly issued broadsides against the commercial world from his post as The Village Voice’s first film critic, and Adolfas publicly mocked the New York Film Festival when it began. But their own films, for the most part, were anything but angry. Jonas reached his own ideal of, as he put it, “little movies” that did “no shaking” with a still-ongoing series of gently melancholic diary films, shown last month at Anthology Film Archives (the movie theater he founded in the early 1970s) on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

The films by Adolfas, who died last year, and who essentially left filmmaking in the early 70s in order to direct the new film department at Bard College, can feel sad, but are much more frequently joyful. It’s hard not to smile as he, his wife Pola Chapelle, and all four of his brothers play together for the camera in 1972’s great Going Home, a record of a trip back to Lithuania. (This same trip gave birth to Jonas’s wonderful film Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania.) And it’s hard not to laugh at the exuberance of 1963’s Hallelujah the Hills, his first feature, on which Jonas served as assistant director.

The film—subtitled A Romance—shows two eternal male companions caught up in cinema. Jack (Peter Beard) and Leo (Martin Greenbaum) wander through a forest together, enacting different scenarios. At one point they square off accompanied by samurai film music; at another, they dash forward jerkily like silent film clowns. Each has his own beautiful Vera (Sheila Finn and Peggy Steffans) with whom to play out love scenes. Even death becomes just another adventure. Hallelujah the Hills suggests that all you need to make films is the ability to dream. “My movie is better than your movie,” one man tells the other, as they sit against a tree, munch popcorn, and watch what’s passing in front of them.

Follow us on Twitter @LMagFilm

12/05/12 4:00am

Silence Has No Wings (1966)
Directed by Kazuo Kuroki
December 8, 14 at MoMA, part of its “Art Theater Guild and Japanese Underground Cinema, 1960-1984” series

In the 1950s, avant-garde art and artists exploded across Tokyo with institutional help. In cinema, the key Japanese experimental film distributor and producer became the Tokyo-based Art Theater Guild (ATG), which ran from 1961 to 1984; MoMA will screen 71 of its 180 titles. Its genre-busting releases, which included a gay Oedipus Rex adaptation (Funeral Parade of Roses) as well as a radical agitprop sex film (Ecstasy of the Angels), broke through conventional forms with sudden, shocking cuts and zooms. From ATG’s first coproduction, the amazing Shohei Imamura’s partly staged missing-person investigation A Man Vanishes, and onwards, documentary and fiction were forever in dialogue, often playing out opposite each other in theatricalized settings or even (as in Masahiro Shinoda’s great Double Suicide) on a shape-shifting theatrical stage. The major differences between ATG’s greatly varied films came largely from the great variety of its directors, whether State-smashing titans too radical to work anywhere else (all hail Double Suicide, Boy, and the master Nagisa Oshima) or little-known one- and two-offs like The Youth Killer’s Hasegawa Kazuhiko.

Considering that the first non-Japanese publication devoted entirely to the ATG was only released in 2004, it makes sense that Kazuo Kuroki, one of the company’s chief auteurs, would be unknown to overseas audiences. But his delicate, elusive Silence Has No Wings is well worth seeking out. The film begins with a boy in the northern countryside of Hokkaido who’s caught a Nagasaki swallowtail, a possibility that his teacher dismisses (to the point of demonstrating the impossibility of the Southern butterfly’s arrival with a map). Yet even if what he had was once a butterfly, the boy comes to believe, it isn’t anymore. A butterfly is supposed to be flying; what rests in his hands, instead, is a corpse.

“The dead can’t speak anymore,” we’re told, before a move to Nagasaki, one of many flights the film will take through space and time. A caterpillar develops indoors until a terrified man throws it out his window; later, in Hiroshima, outraged citizens (“Every day we’re stained with black oil. And we’re paid peanuts”) march united against atomic and hydrogen bombs. The movie involves itself in their feelings, and even criticizes Japan’s own government—a country in which hospitals have stopped reporting their death counts really should not be developing its military any further—while also maintaining a distance. “It’s not about anger, sorrow, nor pain,” a character says of his reaction to devastation. “It’s there.” The line echoes in the mind later in a Kyoto cemetery, as a man tells a woman he loves her while a caterpillar crawls on a nearby gravestone. Life and death are each simply there.

11/28/12 4:00am

Small Soldiers (1998)
Directed by Joe Dante
November 30-December 1 at the IFC Center, part of its America, Fuck Yeah! series

The statement “War is hell” implicitly validates battle, suggesting grim inevitability. It’s different from “war is wrong.” Accordingly, the “war is hell” film often takes place directly from a soldier’s point of view and gives the bloody impression of having plunged us into the thick of battle, usually without context beyond the sense of a greater purpose; when there are jokes, they’re cracked by the soldiers to make the guys look more charismatic, to line us up closer to them and, by extension, to make us more willing to accept bloodshed for forming part of their characters. The “war is wrong” film, by contrast, avoids direct representation of battle, preferring didacticism to suspense and alienation to direct engagement. Its goal is to take us far enough away from war for us to see war’s problems clearly. Our laughter at a “war is wrong” movie comes from shocks of recognition.

Small Soldiers is a “war is wrong” film, and the sharpness of its satire comes from how it acknowledges “war is hell”‘s appeal. The film begins with two toy designers at the company Globotech pushed to answer their boss’s call for more aggressive Commando Elites; when they protest about making the toys too violent, the CEO snaps, “So don’t call it violence. Call it action.” The plastic action figures, programmed with microchips swiped from the military, quickly come to karate-chopping life. At first suburban boys greet them bedazzledly (“They’re walking and fighting and they’re so cool!”), but wonder turns to horror as it becomes clear that the Commandos have been programmed only to wreak havoc: their sole purpose is to annihilate the Gorgonites, a peaceful race of other toys, at all costs, including bombing suburban homes.

The sight of little plastic men flailing and gasping when their limbs have been severed won’t disturb you if you don’t think of them as human, but then again, American media has already trained audiences to approach real battle like it was fiction. The training has happened largely through entertainment, whether video games, television, or cinema. “I think WWII was my favorite war,” a suburban dad says while Commandos gather outside his window; he adjusts his television to make the colors of the war film he’s watching brighter.

In his great essay “Boys’ Weeklies,” George Orwell argued that all forms of power worship come from the same basic impulse. War is boys’ play, and violence becomes action when you swallow the marketing. As the Commando Elites blast pop music on boom boxes to scare a house’s residents out, a girl cries that the Marines did the same thing to Manuel Noriega; as the Globotech CEO wanders through a neighborhood efficiently ravaged by the toys, his secretary paying off everyone who complains, he says to contact the company’s military division.

11/07/12 4:00am

The Law in These Parts
Directed by Ra’anan Alexandrowicz

In 2004, Israeli documentarian Alexandrowicz attended the trial of a Palestinian boy accused of throwing stones at a military Jeep, and it inspired him to make this investigation into how the laws of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories have been shaped and administered. The film contains no talks with Palestinians, whose images appear only in archival footage shot by Israelis; its goal is not to hear from people ruled by laws but to better understand the laws themselves.

The film consists almost entirely of seated interviews with retired Israeli military judges and legal advisors, moving from discussion of the occupation’s 1967 beginning up to the present. A document written years before the Six Day War’s outbreak is produced, outlining how the Israeli Defense Forces would be obeyed under an occupation. Once the war ended, over a million people became the IDF’s subjects overnight. The military established its own set of provisional laws separate from the Israeli government’s and left them open to change. The IDF set up its own courts, with three military-appointed judges deciding each case; proceedings were always to be held in Hebrew, with a soldier translating into Arabic if needed. The judges condoned the settlement of Israeli citizens within occupied areas, justifying it with laws established by the Ottoman Empire, and decided the punishments of Palestinians accused of resisting. “Today, the difference between a soldier and a terrorist is rooted in our legal and political discourse,” says a former judge.

If Palestinians felt that they had been treated unjustly, they could petition the Israeli Supreme Court directly, an unusual right even within a democracy. Yet the more Alexandrowicz looks—and, as he himself points out, chooses to tell us, noting that he controls the truth in this documentary film—the more examples he finds of the Court ruling against petitioners and in favor of the IDF. The filmmaker asks Meir Shamgar, the former President of the Supreme Court for 12 years, whether he believes that Israeli citizens would accept being governed as the Palestinians have been. He answers that he can’t give an opinion on hypothetical situations.

Opens November 14 at Film Forum

10/24/12 4:00am

Wolfen (1981)
Directed by Michael Wadleigh
Friday, October 26, 11:59pm, 35mm, part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Midnight Movies series

Heroes and villains are defined by points of view. As American power structures have consistently demonized the poor, American movies have responded with depictions of crime as the result of social conditions. The great gangster movies Warner Brothers released in the 1930s showed immigrants and first-generation boys robbing and killing for their row-home family’s sake. Whenever Hollywood has leaned towards the side of something like Dirty Harry’s law and order, low-budget studio work (Badlands) and independent productions (Wanda, Super Fly, Last Chants for a Slow Dance) have shown individual alienation and a sense of having no place to go resulting, naturally, in violence.

It’s often fallen on disreputable film genres—whether B-movies (The Phoenix City Story), action (First Blood), exploitation (White Dog), or science fiction (They Live)—to best represent the struggles of American society’s disreputable people. The American horror film in particular has helped audiences identify with those whom society sees as monsters. Wolfen is an unusual blending of horror and crime films that begins by seeing the world through a potentially monstrous killer’s eyes. An unknown creature stalks a New York park at night in hunt of a millionaire, his wife, and his bodyguard. We view everything in bright greens and infrared; as isolated elements pick up on the soundtrack—a gust of wind, the clomp of a shoe—our hearing grows keenly in tune. Well after the people have been torn to bits, what registers more than terror is the sheer curiosity of wanting to know who or what we’ve identified with.

In time (without giving too much away) the killer’s revealed to be someone targeting either those most expendable or most harmful to society. It also only attacks when attacked. This information enters the duller eyes and more blunted ears of a tough and weathered detective (played by Albert Finney), who rides through the expected rhythms of a cop film—tough guy talk, jurisdictional squabbles, black-white male buddy bonding—before hitting a bump. The mogul’s money was knocking poor communities to rubble and then planning to build sleek real estate on top of sacred Native American hunting grounds. As the detective investigates, he sees and hears more than he ever has before about how rich white men have been destroying Nature for the sake of greed, and how the system for which he works has been helping them do it. “She’s an urban guerrilla fighting all of us fascist pigs,” he says, smirking, early on about an ecoterrorist his squad’s picked up; much later, though, he listens, eyes wide open, as the people he’s been looking for tell him, “You are the savage.”

10/10/12 4:00am

11 x 14 (1977)
Directed by James Benning
Tuesday, October 16, at Light Industry, 16mm

Shock and horror spread—James Benning was switching to digital. It was 2008. The Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, who’d been shooting on 16mm film stock for nearly 40 years, had made his last work in the medium with RR, a feature film whose conceit was as simple as watching trains traverse their paths. The essence of his work would change now.

A lot of great filmmakers help make their viewers more aware of film’s material essence—celluloid’s physical grace or brutality in bringing out dimensions of movement and light. Benning did this while also helping viewers see his artworks as based in time. His films are often shot with the camera in a fixed frontal position overlooking a landscape with an object moving across it; this describes many of the 65 shots in 11 x 14, among his most celebrated films, which show small figures traversing fields or cars motoring across roads. The film’s methodology announces itself quickly—a shot beginning when an action does, and cutting to white when the action stops. Each shot tells its own small, self-contained story, and your mind builds a larger one from adding them up. Because the actions of all of them are fairly straightforward, your eyes and mind roam free to enjoy their vibrating details.

The pleasure of Benning’s shots, whether they are static or moving, lies in how they catch everything in front of them. Rather than searching for drama, they simply let it come. “It just accumulated into what it is—collecting things here that would then suggest there,” Benning wrote to me in an email about 11 x 14. One shot, inside an elevated train, presents a man sitting in front of the camera. He’s darkly lighted, so you can’t see his face; what registers are all the buildings in the city he’s passing through, which will vanish at the same time that the ride ends and the film stock runs out. There’s also the tale of the woman who walks up her stairway, and that of the baseball shortstop waiting for a ball to come his way. Even a smokestack gets involved in the action, its billowing white clouds animated by and timed to a Bob Dylan song. It’s hard to convey how much fun this film and Benning’s others are; the movies are constantly moving, even and especially when it initially seems like they’re not.

So what’s happened since he went digital? At first, Ruhr posed challenges to viewers—since he wouldn’t run out of film stock, he could film that flaming building forever, and boy, it felt like he would. But he found other paths within the far flatter, more infinite-seeming digital world soon enough. Twenty Cigarettes (2010) presented people face-forward in front of walls, ending and beginning again with each smoke break; small roads (2012, and recently screened at the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde series) showcased exactly 47 tiny paths across the United States for which cars could search. The last time I checked, he was remaking Easy Rider. The playful sense of discovery still moves through his work, regardless of what he’s shooting on. I feel like I know what I’m going to get with a Benning film. And I look forward to its surprises each time.

10/03/12 4:00am

White Zombie (1932)
Directed by Victor Halperin
Sunday, October 7, at Spectacle Theater, and again October 19. Digital projection.

There’s a history of the zombie film as colonial metaphor. In both Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie (1942) and its Portuguese remake, Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava (1994), the black undead serve as living reminders of crumbling white patriarchal control. They hulk through areas full of workers and servants, and though they, too, seem to be serving their masters, but that same appearance of mindlessness makes you wonder whether they would hesitate to revolt.

In Victor Halperin’s White Zombie (1932), set on Haiti, the zombies are mainly former high society members. The local witch doctor Murder Legendre (a grinning, word-savoring Béla Lugosi) introduces each of his workers: the wealthy doctor, the Minister of the Interior, and the High Executioner, each of whom once posed a threat to this mystery man, all of whom now follow his lead. They’ve been robbed of their souls, then taken from their graves and put to labor in the local sugarcane mill; we watch them bent over as they push the wheels forward and hear the floorboards creak from the sounds of their heavy feet. “They work gratefully,” says Legendre. “They are not worried about long hours.” He has made them slaves by removing their free wills.

But even Legendre, with his large eyes and creepy stillness, isn’t the worst person on the island. This particular human monster only follows his nature—the man who commands him is worse. As with other Hollywood horror films of the period, we enter White Zombie through two young lovers (Madge Bellamy and John Harron), who in this case have come to the island to be married. Unbeknown to them, though, the older plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert Frazer), perhaps the wealthiest man in the area, is scheming to steal the bride. He contracts Legendre to help him get her, which the wicked one does by turning her into a walking corpse. While her fiancée grows tormented in a shadowy bar, seeing and hearing her call his name from each wall, Beaumont sees himself as her master, and Legendre’s, and everyone’s. But he’s wrong—even a master is only a man, and can be enslaved like any other. In time, Legendre stares at his former foe, now a zombie, and just another mindless worker. “So I see that you refuse to shake hands,” he says to the rich man. “We understand each other better now.”

09/19/12 4:00am

They All Laughed (1981) (Director’s Cut)
Directed by Peter Bogdanovich
Friday, September 21, 35mm, at 92YTribeca, with a Q&A with Bogdanovich moderated by Alex Ross Perry

Ben Gazzara’s strength as an actor lay in insisting with perfect reason on things that were insane. The actor, who died this past February at 81 after more than half a century of films, made a specialty out of cocking his head and chopping his arm forward with aggressive insistence; like Bogart, he could command a film into moving at his own personal rhythm, and whether you were charmed or alienated by his doing so was often a matter of context. His eyes light up in the early Anatomy of a Murder (1959) as he realizes (with Jimmy Stewart’s help) that he’s not responsible for killing a man because he was out of his mind when he did it. His tongue slows down and he rarely stands up in the late Buffalo 66 (1998) and Dogville (2001) as he addresses his elderly wisdom to younger women he’d like to molest. In between, in his great trio of films for the director John Cassavetes—Husbands (1970), The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976), and Opening Night (1978)—he plays a director trying to corral actors into achieving his vision, and growing angry with them when they break from his script.

Gazzara exuded authority, even if it was mad authority. He controls the screen in Peter Bogdanovich’s comedy They All Laughed as a private detective so confident that he never needs to hide or disguise himself. His coworkers comprise a rotating roundelay of klutzes involved in convoluted cases. He stands in contrast to them with his hands tucked into pockets beneath his leather jacket, ambling from job to job. He ambles, too, from woman to woman. The wolf employs the same subdued sideways smile to seduce a high-strung country singer (Colleen Camp) and a game-for-it female cabbie (Patti Hansen). One day he follows a middle-aged woman into a bookstore. The tailing assignment, which makes him move slower than usual, catches first his eye, then his heart.

She’s played by Audrey Hepburn in her last major screen role, nearly 30 years after Roman Holiday, and more touching as a fading beauty than as a naïve ingénue. This married mother of a young boy knows what she’s getting into, and welcomes it with sad delight. The house style of classical Hollywood-influenced director Peter Bogdanovich allows the actors ample room to play off of each other. As they walk together at night, framed side by side, each looks at the other, then away again, each considering how close a step to take to the other, each keeping one’s hands to oneself. They will never marry, never officially fall in love, but their bodies yearn past propriety. The actors were romantically involved during the film’s shooting, something easy to project onto the screen. You can tell from his eyes that he both wants and doesn’t want this, but also that to stop dreaming of her would be nuts.