Articles by

<Steve Erickson>

07/08/15 1:00pm


Most midlife crises are far less productive than David Thorpe’s. Following a difficult break-up, the filmmaker found himself single in his 40s and newly disgusted by the shrillness of his voice, which he perceived as stereotypically gay. As documented by his film Do I Sound Gay?, he went to a round of speech therapists to try and learn how to “sound straight.” The film, which opens Friday at the IFC Center, tackles the difficult subject of many gay men’s self-loathing and fear of effeminacy, which should be familiar to anyone who’s perused gay personal ads, with a welcome wit. Thorpe talked to George Takei, Dan Savage, Margaret Cho and CNN anchor Don Lemon about the implications of the “gay voice,” but also spoke to linguistics experts and gives a mini-Celluloid Closet lesson in the history of that voice’s association with cinematic villainy.


06/03/15 7:00am
photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence
Directed by Roy Andersson
Opens June 3

A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence is an unfashionably philosophical, if comic, reflection on man’s inhumanity to man—and, in one scene, monkey. But it’s certainly self-aware. Let’s start with the title, which sounds like a 60s European art film sent through translation software. Director Roy Andersson, who has only made five feature films in his 45-year career, viewed his fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman as a rival when the latter was still alive. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence can be seen as a way of trying to top Bergman’s metaphysical aspirations, while retaining a sense of humor.

At first, A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence seems like a series of plotless sketches. (The film consists of 39 shots.) It opens with three deaths in a row, but lets us off easier than World of Glory, the 1991 Andersson short dramatizing the Holocaust. Gradually, a narrative emerges. In the main thread, two shy, down-on-their-luck novelty goods salesmen live in a flophouse and try to scrape together a living. Elsewhere, a flamenco teacher uses her position as an excuse to feel up a male pupil. The film slips in time several times—in parallel to the scene with the teacher, King Charles XII emerges from the 18th century to pick up a male bartender. The patrons of another bar join together in song. The salesmen repeatedly demonstrate the wonders of vampire teeth and a grotesque mask to an apathetic clientele; even they seem as bored as they people they talk to. Most powerfully, Andersson reflects on the horrors of racism and colonialism in a two-scene sequence that never sheds a drop of blood on-screen but outdoes 12 Years A Slave for sheer discomfort.

The strangest thing about A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence is how much it feels like a product of this moment. The film is a contemporary of “the Golden Age of Television,” not Bergman’s Persona. The lighting and cinematography look like video, not 35mm, although Andersson’s framing and blocking do call for the space of a theatrical setting. He never moves the camera and places the actors at a remove from it. A sense of depression is reflected in his reluctance to use close-ups or camera movement, yet Andersson has quite an eye for beautiful set-ups even within the restrictions he’s given himself. His sense of humor is deadpan and misanthropic yet humanist. Andersson’s dour wit isn’t far from Louie. A Pigeon Sat On a Branch Reflecting On Existence expects the worst from the human race but holds out a slim hope for the best.

05/07/15 9:00am
'Saint Laurent'

Starting with his 1998 debut Something Organic, Bertrand Bonello’s films have added a touch of baroque excess to French cinema. While this wasn’t initially apparent from his first major film, 2001’s The Pornographer, it’s quite clear from his two films distributed in the US, House of Pleasures and Saint Laurent. The former is a compassionate examination of life in a 19th-century brothel, the latter follows a hedonistic decade in the life of famed fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent. It dodges the usual pitfalls of the biopic by concentrating on such a short period; indeed, its ending seems like a piss-take on that genre’s clichés. One of two films on Saint Laurent made simultaneously, it’s far superior to Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. Its release follows a Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective of Bonello’s work, which is useful since little of his oeuvre has been released stateside. The film opens tomorrow in NYC; we spoke to Bonello last month.

When did you get the idea to make a film about Yves Saint Laurent?

It’s not my idea. It began with a French producer who wanted for many years to do a film about him. When he saw my previous film, House of Pleasure, he called me and asked if the subject was interesting to me. I very quickly saw an opportunity of cinema. The subject brought something visually. The character was like someone from a novel. I also wanted to make a film about that period, the late 60s and early 70s. So that was my interest.


02/27/15 6:55am
Photo courtesy of Film Movement

The Lesson
Directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov
Opens March 4 at Film Forum

If neo-realism was a baby born out of the rubble of Italy after World War II, it would be a senior citizen now. But the Dardenne brothers and Abbas Kiarostami lent it new life in the 90s. The Dardennes’ use of handheld camera has become a style like any other, imitated by filmmakers with no connection to their leftist politics. While I can’t say that’s exactly the case for Bulgarian directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, their feature debut The Lesson does seem to take most of its cues from other films, despite its ripped-from-the-headlines plot.

Schoolteacher Nade (Margita Gosheva) tries to give her class a lesson in honesty after uncovering a minor theft. She’s about to discover the power of money to ruin her life. Her house is going to be foreclosed because her husband (Ivan Barnev) has spent the mortgage payments on repairs for his car. She turns to her wealthy father (Ivan Savov) for loans, but she can’t conceal her distaste for the man, and keeps sabotaging herself. Finally, she sees a loan shark, but his demands lead to one desperate act.

This is the kind of film where a woman wearing makeup and having large breasts is seen as a sign of her stupidity. (Nade, of course, doesn’t wear visible makeup.) The direction apes the Dardennes, even down to following characters’ backs as they walk. The cinematography is tinted either blue or gray, the latter sufficing to convey Nade’s miserable mood. However, the brothers’ humanism is missing here, replaced by pissiness and cruelty. Grozeva and Valchanov’s sensibility is more akin to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, at best, and Lars von Trier, at worst. (I can easily picture Nade walking here from a von Trier film.) The emphasis on the dire consequences of petty theft recalls Bresson’s L’Argent, but without his mystery. The narrative doesn’t follow a three-act structure so much as set up an obstacle course for Nade. The film’s biggest surprise is that she proves herself equal to it. Gosheva’s fine performance suggests Nade’s growing desperation subtly; she’s not in Marion Cotillard’s class, but she might get there someday. It’s a shame The Lesson isn’t worthy of such work.

02/11/15 9:00am
Photo courtesy of Music Box Films

Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem
Directed by Ronit and Shlomi Elkabetz
Opens February 13 at Lincoln Plaza

Sometimes enemies resemble each other more than friends. The Israeli court depicted in Gett (the Hebrew word for “divorce”) evokes Iranian depictions of patriarchy and theocracy, like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. It’s a world where women are expected to be silent unless called upon, it’s taken for granted that lawyers and judges are middle-aged (or older) men, and husbands alternate between passive-aggressive behavior and overt nastiness.

To understand the film, a little background is necessary: civil marriage doesn’t exist in Israel. Orthodox rabbis preside over all Israeli marriages and divorces. If Gett is accurate, they’re reluctant to grant divorces to women like Viviane (co-director/screenwriter Ronit Elkabetz) who simply don’t get along with their husbands but haven’t been cheated on or physically abused. Her husband, the slimy Elisha (Simon Abkarian), makes a practice of skipping court dates. Their case drags on for five years, with intertitles letting the audience know how much time has passed between scenes.

In style, Gett aims for stark minimalism. Its blocking is limited. The camera rarely leaves the courtroom, which resembles a junior high school classroom (complete with flaking white paint). The film’s first exterior is also its final scene. Elkabetz proves to be just as capable a director as an actor. The requirements of French co-production may have led to the casting of Abkarian—playing a Moroccan Jew, he speaks most of his dialogue in French—but the actor turns out to be a perfect villain. The three bearded rabbinical judges are perfectly ambiguous figures: never demonized, they nevertheless aren’t on Viviane’s side and aren’t afraid to let her know it. The film implies a great deal about what passes for normal in Israeli society, particularly in the Orthodox community. Just when Gett threatens to become overbearingly grim, it throws in a lighter moment (like testimony from Viviane’s dyed-blonde, heavily made-up sister), but it never strays far from its mission of pointing out the injustice of Israeli divorce laws. Fortunately, the Elkabetz siblings are closer to Jafar Panahi than Stanley Kramer.

12/31/14 9:00am
Photo Courtesy of Cinema Guild

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism
Directed by Corneliu Porumboiu
Opens January 9 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

Romanian director Corneliu Porumboiu has followed up Police, Adjective—a hit on the festival circuit and with critics, if not American audiences—with a far more oblique film, albeit one just as obsessed with language. Dividing its eighty-four minutes into eighteen shots, most of the film consists of conversations between two people, taken from a fixed camera. There are three scenes in cars, in which we get to see little besides the backs of the characters’ heads. This backstage drama makes Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore look as glamorous as an Entourage episode.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism takes place during a film shoot. Director Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache) tries to talk actress Alina (Diana Avramut) into appearing in a nude scene in the opening car ride. Then he goes on to discuss the implications of the 11-minute running time of a 35mm film reel. Actual filmmaking is never shown, just rehearsals, conversations and bits of business. Paul reveals himself to be a lecher and a liar, although compared to the real-life Fassbinder, much less Roman Polanski, he’s not that bad a person.

The film is uneven but often fascinating. Its extreme talkiness sometimes hampers it. A scene where Paul and Alina discuss the intricacies of how she should get dressed becomes interminable. However, the conversations are always relevant to filmmaking, even when they don’t appear to have any direct connection.When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is preoccupied by the switch from celluloid to video, although Paul only brings it up directly once. A discussion between Paul and Alina about the relative sophistication of Asian, Arab and European cuisine gets into the pressures form—in this case, utensils like forks and chopsticks—puts upon content. Its characters are in the business of creating fantasy; Porumboiu manages to give the illusion we’re watching reality pass by. It may not appear to have an obvious link to his subsequent documentary, The Second Game (in which he recorded himself and his father watching a snowy VHS tape of a soccer game), but both films are concerned with the possibility of capturing life, with or without artifice.


12/03/14 4:00am
Photo courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center


A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness
Directed by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell
Opens December 5 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

It would be wonderful to report that Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness achieves a new kind of synthesis of documentary, narrative and the avant-garde; unfortunately, like many films which attempt such alchemy, it’s neither fish nor fowl and winds up being rather unsatisfying. It peaks in its opening scene, a lengthy pan around a Scandinavian lake at night, rendered in a painterly palette of blue and black tones. This is the pagan spirit of nature and wilderness that Norwegian black metal often sets out to evoke. Alas, the rest of A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness never recaptures it.


10/22/14 4:00am

Revenge of the Mekons
Directed by Joe Angio
Opens October 29 at Film Forum

Brian Eno famously said that while very few people bought the first Velvet Underground album, most of them went out and formed bands. To paraphrase his statement, it sometimes seems like most Mekons fans have gone out and become rock critics; as with the Velvets, a fair percentage do also seem to have become musicians, given the band’s influence on the alt-country movement. Joe Angio’s documentary covers the band’s 37-year existence in a little more than 90 minutes. While one interview subject enthuses that the band are making their best albums right now, Angio rightly focuses on two periods: the band’s birth in the punk revolution and their reinvention in the mid 80s after discovering folk and country music. Forming in 1977 Leeds, the original Mekons were inspired by the DIY aesthetic of the punk movement, but even then they were suspicious of its tendencies towards self-mythologizing. As told by early member Kevin Lycett, their early single “Never Been in a Riot” was a more realistic reply to the bravado of the Clash’s “White Riot.” Angio relies heavily on relatively recent live footage, although he seems to have access to film of the band at all stages of its existence. (As a general rule, the earlier it is, the rougher it looks.) This is one band portrait that doesn’t stint on music.

Editor Jane Rizzo’s montage mixes interviews with band members and famous fans (Jonathan Franzen’s cogent explanation of the way the Mekons’ music mixes despair, rage and wit makes him sound like the smartest talking head in the film), still photos and concert footage, while dividing the film into sections like “the Mekons vs. America” and “the Mekons vs. the Man.” Those spectators familiar with the band’s history can guess that the latter discusses its ill-fated ventures with major labels Virgin and A&M, neither of which lasted more than one album. A representative of indie label Touch & Go, for whom they recorded for a long stretch, says that Mekons album sales average about 8,000 copies. But there remains something inspiring about their refusal to compromise and their determination to persist and evolve, even in the face of a world that often values empty novelty. Revenge of the Mekons captures this resistance well.

08/27/14 4:00am

Last Days in Vietnam
Directed by Rory Kennedy

Director Rory Kennedy’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam works effectively on a minute-to-minute basis, but when one examines it as a whole, the larger context seems to be missing. Her film concentrates on the airlift of South Vietnamese refugees in 1975, as the Vietcong quickly took over Saigon. These men and women, many of whom had worked for the US and faced a brutal stint in “reeducation” camps if left behind, depended on the American government for their safety, yet the US proved remarkably cavalier about them at first. It took the heroic efforts of a few soldiers to get the South Vietnamese out. Clearly, the US had no real exit strategy for Vietnam and no sense of how bad things might get for the people who’d helped them if the Vietcong took possession of the whole country. Sound familiar?

Kennedy’s film doesn’t lack contemporary relevance, although Last Days in Vietnam doesn’t push it either—there are no explicit references to Iraq or Afghanistan. As storytelling, its depiction of the airlift, relying heavily on 16mm footage shot in 1975 and structured hour-by-hour, is quite gripping. Kennedy’s montage of archival footage and present-day interviews—including Vietnamese people, who tend to get left out of American films about the war in their own country—is judicious. However, the film, produced by PBS’s American Experience series, does feel like a TV program, never venturing beyond documentary conventions—its most outré touches are computer-animated maps of Saigon.

A larger problem is that the war’s bigger picture gets lost. Granted, Last Days in Vietnam is only 100 minutes long and only attempts to address one aspect of the Vietnam War. Even so, it’s disappointing that it never grapples with the moral and political justifications for the war itself or the fact that the South Vietnamese government was hardly saintly. Kennedy gets access to interview Henry Kissinger but asks him a very timid and limited set of questions. A political insider herself (she’s RFK’s youngest daughter), Kennedy has made a middle-of-the-road film that won’t challenge anyone’s thinking about the Vietnam War, whether they’re liberal or conservative. She’s managed something nearly impossible: giving the war a happy ending.

Opens September 5

02/26/14 4:00am

Fatal Assistance
Directed by Raoul Peck

This documentary could have been a feature-length rant. The subject matter—Haiti’s 2010 earthquake and the country’s subsequent betrayal by foreign governments and NGOs—warrants it, but director Peck, once that country’s Minister of Culture, keeps his rage just below the film’s surface. Shot from 2010 to 2012, Fatal Assistance employs an unusual fictional device: letters between a Haitian man (though they’re read in an American accent, at least in this version of the film) and an American woman working for an NGO. The former expresses his disillusionment with the situation and offers basic information about what happened to Haiti in the wake of the earthquake; the latter grows increasingly bitter. (Peck is careful neither to idealize Haitians nor demonize foreigners.) Yet the two characters never come across as mere contrivances. Their letters are well-written, even poetic in spots.

Fatal Assistance sees the work of NGOs as a form of neocolonialism—though it never uses that word—making the point not through dry argument but instead through interviews with Haitian, American and European aid workers as well as trips into the field. (Peck’s connections grant him an unusual degree of access given the film’s critical tone: Sean Penn pops up, as do the Clintons.) The money promised by governments and given to NGOs, the film argues, would have been better off given directly to the Haitian people, whose reputation for corruption is a racist myth. Instead, the NGOs wasted huge sums of money: we see newly built houses already cracking, letting in rainwater; one aid worker testifies that Haiti attracted every American crackpot with a crazy idea, like the one who wanted to build plastic houses. The Haitian man’s epistles express cynicism about foreigners’ intent to declare war on poverty or to rescue Third World countries from themselves. Peck’s movie depicts the destruction of his country while maintaining such a measured—yet unmistakably pointed—tone.

Opens February 28 at Lincoln Center