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Is it possible to say anything about this world-historical year without some amount of preliminary hand-wringing? Culture writers, film critics included, appear to feel obliged to present their bona fides, to relativize their work in view of the pandemic and to pre-empt any accusations of frivolity. We are already masters at the art; it is, after all, a profession that hits you with the question of relevance every single day. The silver lining, if one can call it that, in this catastrophe that has touched every person on the planet may be that barely any other pursuit seems any more relevant. Here’s to all those who lost their lives to the virus, to those who have been fighting to save us, and to those who haven’t lost sight of causes for justice, peace and compassion amid the global health crisis.

The enormous impact of the pandemic on film production, distribution and exhibition has been obvious. Streaming giants, namely Netflix, Amazon and Disney, who have been successful at vertical integration in the past few years (and are poised to go even further), seem to be the biggest gainers from this disruption. Whatever their claim about increase in consumer choice, it seems to me that it hasn’t really resulted in a diversity of viewing patterns. (Consider, for instance, the Sight & Sound critics’ poll: the 2019 edition had a total of 353 films chosen by 100 contributors whereas the 2020 version has 353 films from 104 contributors—hardly a sign of a paradigm shift.) Given their subscription model, these firms have every incentive to pump more and more money into marketing and hog the discourse. If this annus horribilis has proved anything, it’s that publications are more than willing to bend over and serve as unaffiliated PR organs for these companies.

While the cancelling of film festivals across the world was unfortunate, it gave publications and critics an unprecedented opportunity to bypass traditional tastemakers and widen their horizons. Considering that so many organizations, by generosity or lack of choice, presented their programs online for international viewers for the first time, it was an invaluable chance for film journalists to let their readers know that there was good, smart, moving and entertaining work—old and new—available outside of subscription walls and subcultural echo chambers they have themselves helped create. To my limited knowledge, this opportunity was squandered. Publications, predictably, saw their task as giving readers “what they want” instead of elevating them.

My own viewing this year was dominated by older films. Thanks to torrent archives and illegal websites, which are seemingly the only platforms making any effort to save and make older work accessible, I had the privilege of seeing countless great works from across decades and across the globe. Watching dozens of films by William A. Wellman, Luc Moullet and Alfred Hitchcock, most of which are available for free online, remain especially fond memories (Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) are top-drawer works!). I had great fun writing about some of them for my classical Hollywood column until it was scrapped in June.

Of the 130-odd new films I saw this year (of which three in theatres), I found no masterpieces, several accomplished works amidst a sea of middling-to-uninteresting efforts. (Shoutout to Malmkrog, Siberia and The Last City for plunging into territory conventionally considered bad taste and coming out trumps.) What I sense is that, thanks to cheap digital media, more and more independent and experimental filmmakers are simply documenting every aspect of their lives, amassing vast amounts of footage without any specific purpose in mind, and reusing them when a chance arises. With the production halt of 2020, I suspect this habit will only be more apparent in the coming months. While that is certainly a valid method of working, I can’t help but feel that so many films I saw this year came across like half-cooked soups, disparate material thrown together with the hope that it will all, somehow, result in poetry—one reason why works on this list, with their rigour, intelligence and feeling, stand out in my mind.

 

1. Hopper/Welles (Orson Welles, USA)

I’ve had no greater screen delight this year than watching two white dudes chat for two hours. Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Welles plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, conjuring theories to counter him and never allowing him a resting ground. We never see him, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. As Hopper’s cinematic forefather, Welles looms large, appearing to be incarnating some kind of metaphysical force, orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for the young man. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, the subject and the author, the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. But the primary pleasure of the film lies in seeing two artists in a terribly absorbing conversation, grappling with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of their time. Going public after fifty years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

 

2. Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné, France/Germany)

Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s funny, sharp and dizzyingly smart video work begins as a commentary on Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017), a desktop film about the crowd-sourced investigation on Reddit following the Boston bombing of 2013. As the director breaks down Kennedy’s film, analysing its narrative construction and its tendency for geometric abstraction, she voluntarily gets caught in an ‘analytical frenzy’, not unlike the Redditors themselves. As Galibert-Laîné seamlessly chains one stream of thought after another, her film evolves into a meta-reflection on our relation to images and our compulsion to create meaning from visual material. If Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019) saw cinephilia as a self-made prison of images, Forensickness digs deeper, revealing the epistemological malaise that is the search for meaning that animates all cinephilic pursuit. Her film lays bare the adventures of the critical mind, throwing open not only its own making, but also the thoughts producing it. Forensickness may look like an object of pure play, the result of a filmmaker “seduced by her own jokes”, even a solipsistic game in the way it asserts the inescapability from these self-imposed maps of meaning, but this magnificent work is unmistakably insightful regarding the way we make sense of the world through images.

 

3. A Machine to Live In (Yoni Goldstein & Meredith Zielke, USA/Brazil)

What remains of the modernist dream of reshaping human societies from the ground up based on scientific, rationalist principles? Goldstein and Zielke’s ambitious, erudite and formally complex city symphony seeks to find out. Its subject is Brasilia, the artificially created capital of Brazil that architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa forged out of the wilderness in the late fifties. The imposing geometric forms of the city, expressly conceived in cosmic terms and perfected like Kubrickian monoliths from outer space, appear to have all but snuffed out human presence. Machine sees this city as an otherworldly geography unfit for human life, but also allowing the possibilities of imagining utopias, catholic cultists, freemasons, biker gangs and Esperanto evangelists all finding a home within Brasilia’s orbit. Employing heterogenous narrative modes, Goldstein and Zielke develop a visually striking portrait of a city that has come to resemble a religious monument in itself, demanding awestruck worship and constant maintenance by people who can’t afford to live here. Their Brasilia is either a place that inspires dreams of reimagining life or an abyss where dreams come to die. Even as it looks back at a moment in modern intellectual history, Machine evokes questions about the future, inviting us to reflect on the eternal human desire to play demiurge.

 

4. The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane, India)

Tamhane’s superb second film feels like home territory for him. Sharad, an apprentice Hindustani music singer, is not the greatest of talents, but imagines himself as part of a tradition, one that gives a structural meaning to his life. But, the promise of omnipresence and instant gratification of the modern world beckoning him, not only does he find himself unable to live up to the lofty ideals of his tradition, he’s also is gradually disabused of these ideals themselves. In a very direct manner, The Disciple zeroes in on a fundamental, civilizational sentiment that underpins artistic succession in the subcontinent: that of filial piety, as opposed to the parricidal narrative that informs the Western conception of self-realization. Even when his faith has been questioned, Sharad continues to serve his elderly teacher, caring for him till the final days, like icon worshippers who hold on to their idols even (and especially) when the meaning behind them is lost. Tamhane builds up gradually to this assault on Sharad’s worldview, with humour, suspense and a calculated formal reserve that redoubles the impact of the emotional violence. His film invites viewers to constantly process narrative information in order to access it, providing a rich dividend for the effort.

 

5. Unusual Summer (Kamal Aljafari, Palestine)

In Unusual Summer, Aljafari repurposes CCTV tapes that his father left behind after his death in 2015. The tapes are from the summer of 2006 and were used record the parking spot outside his home to see who’s been breaking the car window. Despite the dramatic promises of the CCTV aesthetic and the location of the house in the crime-ridden district of Ramla, what we get in this film are quotidian incidents, sightings of neighbours passing by, the picture of a town going about everyday business. Aljafari adds a sparse ambient soundtrack that imparts Tati-esque colour to the proceedings, with the passers-by on screen becoming veritable characters. This transformation of private surveillance footage into a session of window-watching and people-spotting produces a feeling of community and forges a relation of inheritance between the filmmaker and his father, the only two people to have seen these tapes. Supremely calming though it is, Unusual Summer is also seared by loss and mourning, the familiar faces, places, animals and trees that register like spectral presences on the lo-fi video having vanished in the intervening years following intrusions by the Israeli state. A minimalist gem that speaks to our now-amplified urge to reach out to others.

 

6. The Game of Shifting Mirrors (Amit Dutta, India)

Dutta’s richly dialectical new film draws out themes from Chitrashala and Finished/Unfinished (both 2015) and puts them in a stimulating new conversation. The first section, set in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum in Mumbai, jumps across artefacts from several centuries while a voiceover describes an encounter with tribal artists and paintings. This contrast between the linear time and historical narrative of the British-era museum and the mythical worldview underpinning ‘indigenous’ art is given a third dimension by the film’s latter section that showcases the 8th century rock-cut temples of Masrur. Like tribal art, the temple complex has a founding myth that departs from the rigorously documented secular accounts of archaeological practice. As the industrial working hours of the first section make way for a day-night cycle, we observe the complex’s sculptural reliefs that have been partially eroded by nature. The film’s evocative organization then embodies an ambivalence towards museological conservation: while modern museums salvage art from natural degradation for the benefit of posterity, they wrench objects out of their original context, severing them from the knowledge systems and traditions that gave birth to them. In its fruitful frictions, Game suggests that perhaps all preservation necessarily entails a loss.

 

7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross, USA)

The Ross brothers’ new docuficion follows the last day of operation of The Roaring 20s, a downscale bar fictionally set in Las Vegas, at which a bevy of social castaways gather to mourn and celebrate. While all the actors play themselves, the filmmakers loosely fictionalize the scenario, giving direction to it with certain pertinent themes. Set against the backdrop of collapsing American businesses, Bloody Nose is a hymn for failure, a note of solidarity to what the American lexicon calls “losers”. The Roaring 20s is the opposite of everything one associates with the glitz and glamour of Sin City: it’s a floundering venture that is the negative image of the American Dream. For its regulars, however, the bar is something of an institution that provides them with a public (and, at times, private) space that has become scarce elsewhere and where they can be themselves. The film’s broader view of class is compounded by a specific generational perspective that refutes the idea that the young, the ‘millennials’, can’t make it because they don’t work hard enough. A film that hits the right moods without tipping over into condescension or miserabilism, Bloody Nose deserves all the plaudits it’s been getting.

 

8. Corporate Accountability (Jonathan Perel, Argentina)

Perel continues his exploration into Argentina’s military dictatorship by examining the role of large private corporations in enabling and carrying out state-sponsored pogroms against political dissidents of the junta. He photographs the company facilities as they are today while a brisk voiceover lists out how each firm helped military and security forces detain, torture and get rid of problematic workers in exchange for financial perks. The text, read out from an official 2015 report, is numbingly repetitious, and drives home the pervasiveness of these military-industrial operations. Perel’s decision to frame the sites through his car’s windshield creates a sense of illicit access, even though there is visibly little stopping him from going nearer the facilities. Some of the companies continue to operate under their own name, while some others have changed, with at least one site carrying a memorial sign for the injustice perpetrated there. Perel is, in effect, photographing the ur-filmic image of factory entrances, but all we see is a handful of vehicles leaving the gates. This eerie absence of human figures evokes the disappeared workers who, at some companies, were picked up at the entrance, a site, as Harun Farocki has demonstrated, of class dialectics. A tough nut, but wholly rewarding.

 

9. Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs, USA)

Lynne Sachs’ frank, morally messy documentary turns around her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ whose unconventional living and constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his nine children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades. Sachs weaves through footage shot over half a century in half a dozen formats and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. Her film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Father’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

 

10. Victoria (Sofie Benoot, Isabelle Tollenaere & Liesbeth De Ceulaer, Belgium/USA)

As part of his work, Lashay T. Warren, a young family man from Los Angeles, is posted in Cal City, California, a town wrought in the fifties by a lone developer out of the Mojave Desert with the hope that it would become the next Los Angeles—a dream that didn’t come to fruition. Along with other men and women his age, Lashay is responsible for maintaining this ghost town by reclaiming its streets from nature and restoring some semblance of cartographic order. Victoria teases out various thematic layers from this singular scenario. On one level, it is an absurd tale about one of the many dead ends of capitalist enterprise, a kind of anti-Chinatown portrait of a Los Angeles that could’ve been. Lashay is like a worker repairing a remote outpost in space, marvelling at every sign of life in this almost otherworldly landscape. But he also resembles the American pioneers, whose diaries on their way to the West he emulates in the film’s voiceover. Ultimately, Victoria is a poignant, humanist document, in the vein of Killer of Sheep, about the dignity of a young Black man providing for his family, trying to graduate from high school, all the while fighting the gravity of Compton’s streets.

 

Special Mention: Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen, UK)

 

Favourite Films of

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[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

III. CONCLUSION

 

Lang and Our Times

 

Lang’s body of work is among the most important in Germanic cinema. It’s generally placed before those of Lubitsch and Pabst, but immediately after that of Murnau. From an international perspective, Lang is always cited among the greatest, but never among the highest echelons, often because of a respect for tradition rather than a knowledge of his work. He tends to be considered a filmmaker of the past, an academic director. Rare are those who love his entire body of work, from 1919 to 1960: older critics see him disappear from cinema in 1926, reappear furtively in 1931 (M), or even in 1936 (You Only Live Once). The youngest don’t like his first expressionist films, and locate his real beginnings towards 1924, or 1928, or 1936, or even near 1946. Leftist critics consider only the films between 1928 and 1938 as valuable. There’s a fierce and vain battle between the supporters of German Lang and those of American Lang, which hasn’t facilitated the understanding of his work.

As a matter of fact, Lang’s body of work is one and indivisible. That’s what makes for its power and its weakness. Its power, because this unity is evidently made of equal (or almost equal) films, or at least ones worthy of interest, except Guerrillas. It can’t then be said that Lang, who has more than thirty successes to his credit, has made bad films. It’s a performance that was equalled, by Hawks, by Hitchcock most notably, but never surpassed. None of these films is really independent of the others. The body of work is to be explained, in its totality, by the course of its evolution. And it’s nothing less than the moving course of a human life that we have the pleasure of following, a pleasure superior to the one felt before any one of these films taken alone, which is only one moment in the evolution, and thus incomplete.

The period of search, of artistic youth, is logically completed by the period of maturity, which marks an end point. The contrary is equally true, for this second period lacks the power, the ardour of youth. Hence the difficulty in selecting films that are representative of Lang in the public’s eyes, films that stand apart from others and allow us to describe his art to the layman who has neither the time nor the possibility to see his forty-three films, of a total length of sixty-seven hours. Der müde Tod, Siegfried, Metropolis, M, say the old. M, You Only Live Once, say the more moderate ones. M, Fury, Hangmen Also Die, affirms Lang. Human Desire, Moonfleet, While the City Sleeps, according to the young. Finally, the two Hindu films for the extreme-right among our critics. The game is rather vain, and I don’t think it’s any useful to play it. But it shows clearly that there aren’t any perfect masterpieces, superior to the rest of the films, like it is the case with Buñuel, Capra, Dreyer, Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Gance, Mizoguchi, Murnau, Stroheim, Sternberg, Vidor, Vigo, Welles, who are “auteurs of films”. Along with Godard, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Renoir, Rossellini, Lang belongs to the class of “auteurs of bodies of work”.

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A Fish Swimming Upside Down (Eliza Petkova)

Philipp, an affluent, middle-aged widower (Henning Kober), marries young Andrea (Nina Schwabe) and installs her at his swanky house. Also living in the house is his son Martin (Theo Trebs), a young man who holds onto his mother’s photos and resents his father bringing home a new wife. Philipp is constantly away on business, and with little to do outside of her work with developmentally challenged children, Andrea languishes in the spacious house. It’s peak summer, and with the beautiful Andrea lounging around the swimming pool, you can be sure Martin isn’t going to end up calling her ‘mommy’. Petkova’s second feature is reminiscent of early works from the so-called Berlin School: stories about rich, white people suffering existential ennui presented in a clinical steel-and-glass style made of static shots or discreet camera movements and no music. This is a resolutely low-key work that limits itself to the love triangle at the centre. Like the outsider in Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), Andrea is a mysterious figure with no past whose love is boundless; everyone comes under her aura. But this inclusivity doesn’t sit well with Martin, who becomes blind with jealousy. The film moves along this unveiled Oedipal rage that takes many victims and eventually implodes. Petkova populates the film with several children’s games, presumably with a view to impact some psychological nuance to the relationships. She finely evokes the languid mood of summer afternoons, and is able to introduce a vital element of sensuality into the Berlin School style. But the rewards are minor: the film is so enamoured with its provocation that, minus the underlying myth, its characters become shadow beings outside of society and history.

The Metamorphosis of Birds (Catarina Vasconcelos)

Catarina Vasconcelos’ debut feature is a very easy film to like. There is, firstly, its spellbinding plastic beauty. Shot in 16mm, the film lovingly combines soft diffused lighting, oil-painting colour, richly detailed period objects into striking tableaux, often seeking to emulate Renaissance still life. Then there is its evocative voiceover, in which Vasconcelos details the life of her grandparents through poetically reimagined letters. Grandfather Henrique is at sea touring Portugal’s colonies while Grandmother Beatriz raises her many children alone. The exchange between them revolves firstly around, of course, the distance between them, and then the children, who haven’t seen their father for years. In Vasconcelos’ rarefied, romanticized re-conception, they become quasi-mythical figures—the absent Father, the suffering Mother—who come alive through the objects associated with them. The items chart the passing of the years, reflecting political changes: the fall of the empire, counterculture stirrings and the end of the Salazar regime. Jacinto, the filmmaker’s father, comes of age, discovering love and death. When Grandmother dies, and as the film’s focus shifts to Jacinto and the loss of his wife, the tone changes from yearning to mourning, and the narrative devolves into pure metaphor around a Tarkovskian desire to become one with nature, reprising symbols established earlier. On its face, Metamorphosis is a tribute to Vasconcelos’ father, one that preserves the memory of his parents and narrativizes his life for him, sharing the burden of bereavement in the process. The film recalls the work of Victor Erice and Sergei Paradjanov to some degree, especially in its capacity to create ravishing images out of personal history. It is evident that the film seeks to be a work of aching beauty, but there’s the lingering feeling that it does the aching for us.

Garage People (Natalija Yefimkina)

Natalija Yefimkina’s creative documentary centres on a small-town subculture in the far reaches of Russia. In a chain of garages located at a remove from their low-income homes, mostly middle-aged men spend their free time working on their passions. They have converted these tin-shed structures into a veritable ‘man cave’ serving various functions: carving workshop, metal foundry, scrap recycling yard, quail breeding facility, music room, even a WW2 cosplay warehouse. For these men on the fringes of Putin’s Russia, such privately-owned garages are a ‘third place’ away from their soul-crushing mining work and the strictures of domesticity, a space that helps create meaning to their lives. Like a primitive artist par excellence, Viktor has built four floors underneath his garage by digging with a shovel for over fifty years. He doesn’t know its purpose yet, but the digging has provided him with a purpose—a purpose that he inexplicably loses all of a sudden shortly before his demise. The whole town seems stuck in time, isolated from the rest of the world, save for a train that passes now and them. The younger folk hope to escape to greener pastures, while the older ones have found some sort of meaning between individual pursuit and communal life. Whether they are belting out a heavy metal number or getting into drunken brawls, director Yefimkina observes the garagists from a distance, synthesizing these vignettes along different thematic lines such as work, family, romance and community. Garage culture isn’t exactly news, but Yefimkina succeeds in infusing the film with a melancholy mood that is usually the reserve of fictional works. By imaginatively rearranging her material and slightly fictionalizing it, she has been able to convert it into an empathetic portrait of dead-end lives comparable to wistful snapshots of small-town America such as The Last Picture Show (1971) and Ham on Rye (2019).

Camagroga (Alfonso Amador)

Alfonso Amador’s absorbing documentary about the Horta of Valencia, said to be one of the most fertile corners of Europe, pivots around the Ramón family: farmer Antonio, his daughter Inma and her son Marc. Over one year, they grow, harvest, sort and ship tiger nuts to milk extraction facilities. There are highways and railway lines running adjacent to their land, which is under the threat of being invaded by commercial establishments and public infrastructure projects. Camagroga shuttles between two types of documentaries, at times uneasily: one that follows the lifecycle of a food commodity from production to consumption and one that observes life in a rural region under the throes of ‘globalization’. It complicates the former narrative further by intercutting it with shots of other crops being grown and processed, such that it’s not always clear at what stage of the cycle we are in. But what is most striking about the film is its rhythm. Director Amador cuts close. When there isn’t much movement within a shot, he lets it linger for no more than 3-5 seconds. This almost metronymic, Emigholz-like editing imparts a slightly frenetic pace to the film. As a result, we don’t get a sense of the rhythm of life in the region, in a way that we do from Shinsuke Ogawa’s A Japanese Village (1982), an important precursor to Camagroga. What is gained, however, is the knowledge of how labour intense the process is, involving manual intervention at all stages of production, with the only ‘dead times’ being Antonio and co. breaking for a sandwich or a cigarette while talking to the camera. It’s notable in this regard that Amador only shoots in daytime, that is to say work hours, keeping out all private aspects of his subjects’ lives. A tribute, then, to the labour of these folks whose faces seem as worked over by time as their land.

Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné)

Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s funny, sharp and dizzyingly smart video work is an antidote to the overdose of audiovisual soup that passes for essay film these days. Forensickness begins as a commentary on Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017), a desktop film about the crowd-sourced investigation on Reddit following the Boston bombing of 2013. As the director breaks down Kennedy’s film, analysing its narrative construction and its tendency for geometric abstraction, she voluntarily gets caught in an ‘analytical frenzy’, not unlike the Redditors who ascribed meaning to every detail that caught their eye in photographs from the bombing site. As Galibert-Laîné seamlessly chains one stream of thought after another, her film evolves into a meta-reflection on our relation to images and our compulsion to create meaning from visual material. Even as she exposes how we live in an era of debunking that firmly believes that images conceal messages, she can’t help but point at similar motivations driving her interrogation. Every proposition, every experience of hers on the desktop is turned on itself and subject to interrogation. And it works perfectly because Forensickness is precisely about the need to meaningful synthesis of divergent experiences. If Frank Beauvais, in Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019), saw cinephilia as a self-made prison of images, Galibert-Laîné digs deeper, revealing the epistemological malaise that is the search for meaning that animates all cinephilic pursuit. Her film lays bare the adventures of the critical mind, throwing open not only its own making, but also the thoughts producing it. The film may look like an object of pure play, the result of a filmmaker “seduced by her own jokes”, even a solipsistic game in the way it asserts the inescapability from these self-imposed maps of meaning. But even as a snake eating its own tail, Forensickness is unmistakably insightful regarding the way we experience the world through images. If it isn’t the desktop film to end all desktop films, it’s hard to imagine what lies ahead for this form.

The American Sector (Pacho Velez, Courtney Stephens)

The American Sector takes up a subject matter that ships with a bundle of contained themes: scores of Berlin Wall fragments scattered across the United States. Anyone (like me) who has hunted for fragments of the Wall or even looked at the Wikipedia page of the location of the fragments must’ve had at least a faint thought about the implications of decontextualizing a historical object. Velez and Stephens’ film latches onto these incongruities, giving us a tour of Wall fragments installed in various public and private spaces including five-star hotels, movie studios, army bases, corporate retreats, hobbyist clubs, universities, museums and even the CIA HQ in Langley, Virginia. Shots of the fragments quietly towering over surroundings alien to it are sometimes mixed with soundbites by citizens and public officials about the provenance and the meaning of these monoliths. The filmmakers probe interviewees for what the Wall means to them, and we get fairly interesting and varied answers: a symbol for the abstract notion of freedom, a sign of hope for immigrants hoping for a better life, a reassurance for Black families that they are historically not alone, a token of cordial US-German political relations, a remembrance of a simpler time when the enemy was clear, even a container of religious truth serving as the backdrop for Christian passion plays. The overarching irony—the appropriation of foreign history to reinforce American exceptionalism—is echoed by two students at the University of Virginia, who see the amplified presence of the fragments in the campus, which has little relation to the Wall’s history in the first place, as an affront to the local history of slave labour that built the university. Thanks to its fertile subject, the film doesn’t have to sweat to bring these frictions to the surface. The American Sector accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it may have had been more rewarding had it been willing to stick its neck out and embrace a larger debate, especially at a moment where our discourse on monuments and their context is more fraught than ever.

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Contemplation (1954-60)

 

The last phase of Lang’s work embodies, not the view of a man who asks himself painful questions about life, its meaning and the moral value of men of his time, but a superior view, that of God, which observes the indifference of the external world to the individual, the difficulty of communication between individuals caught up in the Social Order. Lang responds to it with an equal indifference that establishes his superiority. That was already the attitude of his positive heroes, stingy when it came to gestures and movements.

Critique now gives way to contemplation. Films like Ministry of Fear, The Woman in the Window, Rancho Notorious, and The Big Heat at times demonstrate this contemplative style inherited largely from a tradition of objectivity in classical American cinema and from the commercial necessity for double games. But now contemplation attains an excessive degree, moving far away from classicism.

Truth be told, there was a film foreshadowing this tendency even in the German period. Twenty-six years before Human Desire, Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon, 1928) reconciled its sets and its style: it’s indeed a lunar film. The plot, centred on the conquest of the moon and on the conflicts between scientists and profiteers in search of precious metals, conflicts aggravated by the presence of Gerda Maurus, is simply a pretext to showcase the sets and to place characters within these sets. There’s no human emotion. Everything here is a decomposition of the emotional and physical movements of characters who are analysed with a meticulousness, a mania that makes Frau im Mond the longest (two-and-a-half hours), the most boring and the most painful film by Lang for those who aren’t interested in following the work of the creator through the plot. There’s here the same abstract scheme as in Kriemhilds Rache, a scheme based on the repetition of identical movements, on the rotation of similar acts that end up bestowing even such excess with the outline of a vertiginous, wholly intellectual fascination, producing a new form of poetry.

Five films fall in this line, two American works, one of them rather Germanic in its style, and three other German ones. All five reprise earlier attempts made from a very different point of view, one which isn’t that of contemplative maturity: Human Desire (1954) is an improved version of Clash by Night (1951), in the similarity of its atmosphere and themes, and The Big Heat (1953), whose actors reappear here, but not in their critical virulence. Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956) takes While the City Sleeps (1955) further, minus the critique once more. Der Tiger von Eschnapur and Das indische Grabmal (1958), Die 1000 Augen des Dr. Mabuse (1960) rework Lang’s earlier films (1922, 1932) and scripts (1919).

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Birds (Or How to Be One) (Babis Makridis)

Makridis’ peculiar third feature is inspired by Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds, but it exists between three narrative registers: a documentary about an ‘off’ production of the play by Nikos Karathanos and Onassis Stegi, a freewheeling screen adaptation of the play featuring the same actors in several exotic locales around the world and a poetic essay film about human beings’ relationship to their avian peers. Divided into nine thematic chapters answering the titular question, Birds teases out our eternal quest to emulate our feathered friends: the desire for flight, the yearning for lightness, the urge to escape gravity (literal and social), the impulse to rise to the skies through the construction skyscrapers, the fear of falling and the thrill we harness from it, the fantasy of crossing political borders, but also the need for community and for defending it against outsiders, manifesting ultimately through aerial warfare. Makridis does not emphasize or linger on these ideas, instead suggesting associations through fugitive but evocative images. It is the strength of his film that it does not attempt to ‘interpret’ or ‘modernize’ Aristophanes’ comedy. While it dips in and out of metaphor, Birds takes the outlandishness of the original premise at face value. As a result, the adaptation it offers is literal, one in which the human characters imitate bird cries and indeed audition to become birds, not unlike the two prospectors of Amit Dutta’s The Golden Bird (2011) who try to rise above the human form. In doing so, Birds offers another intriguing demonstration of the Greek taste for the absurd. (The equivalence between man and animal is, moreover, a significant motif in Lanthimos’ work.) This loose, opaque treatment produces results that are as funny as they are flummoxing.

This Is Paris Too (Lech Kowalski)

Kowalski’s freestyle documentary seeks to offer images of Paris not generally seen on screen: homeless immigrants on the outskirts of the city leading a nomadic, shadow existence under bridges, on abandoned sites and in urban interstices. It’s winter, and we watch them fight the cold with inadequate blankets and cheap anoraks, subsisting on community kitchen and standing huddled in the daytime without much to do. A few have built some form of shelter, but most just find a spot to sleep. We see them through the eyes of Ken Metoxen, a native American friend of the filmmaker’s, who wanders the breadth of the city on foot and in public transport. Sometimes Ken interacts with individuals such as Aman, an over-enthusiastic boxer from Afghanistan who cannot participate in ring fights because he lacks the necessary papers. The communication is awkward—Ken does not speak French; Aman doesn’t speak English—and is soon replaced by Aman fervently showing his boxing skills to a compliant Ken. The latter listens patiently as Aman pulls out his phone to show videos of Taliban bombings and tortures in Kabul. Ken empathizes with the suffering of the immigrants through a shared history of oppression. But Kowalski’s choice to refract these vignettes of Paris through a native American’s point of view has no theoretical underpinning. He simply wants to film Ken as a flaneur, experiencing (and revealing to us) a foreign city from an outsider perspective, which leads to an exceedingly long, final tracking shot on Ken spanning several blocks of Paris. Much of all this is impressionistic, and there’s very little that seems to have been thought through, the result coming across like outtakes from a larger project between Kowalski and Ken. In a surprising coda, the director discusses his experience as a child of immigrants to America and his relationship with Ken, who is revealed to be a cross-dresser—a gratuitous, inward-looking turn that hints at several unexplored possibilities.

The Last City (Heinz Emigholz)

Emigholz’s return to fiction opens with a reminiscence by the filmmaker about a dream city that keeps changing place and about people who keep changing shape. This personal statement gives way to five interconnected stories taking place in five different cities: a filmmaker and a weapons designer talk about war in the Israeli city of Beersheba; an elderly artist converses with his 30-year-old self in Athens, a mother finds contentment in her incestuous family in Berlin; in Hong Kong, a Chinese woman schools a Japanese woman on her country’s unspeakable war crimes; an art dealer and a cosmologist discuss the possibility of life outside earth in São Paulo. The Last City scans like a long pedagogical exercise demonstrating everything that shouldn’t be done in films: camera that is constantly canted and misaligned with the horizon, eyelines that never match, cuts that break the 180-degree rule, camera setups that keep changing, actors who play multiple roles of ethnicities different from their own, blatant discontinuities in makeup, costume and décor not just within scenes, but within a single line of dialogue. All this, of course, is part of the setup. Filming pieces of buildings through extreme angles, Emigholz is integrating the city space into the conversations. His ‘last city’ is an ever-changing, universal town that has been homogenized out of its history and identity, just like its people who seem to have no ethnic essence. A wild, entertaining speculative fiction, Emigholz’s film recalls Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) in the way its characters work on each other’s memory and history in fraught urban encounters. Only that there is neither Hiroshima nor any social taboo conditioning the encounters anymore. Edited in a brisk rhythm, The Last City is also a very funny work in the way it pokes fun at its own ridiculous, disparate premises, which are tied together in some sort of a logic-defying hyperreality.

Undine (Christian Petzold)

If, in Transit (2018), Petzold drew on American film noir to create fruitful frictions with his basic realist style, in Undine, reportedly the first of a new trilogy based on elemental beings, he leans on the legend of the eponymous water nymph whose curse it is that her human lover will meet his death if he is ever unfaithful to her. In Petzold’s version though, it is Undine (Paula Beer) who appears to be cursed, unable to break the tragic mould of the legend. Jilted by her boyfriend, Undine finds an ideal love almost immediately in Christoph (Franz Rogowski), an industrial diver who seems to be as ethereal a creature as her, but fate plays a nasty hand. The film harks back to Yella (2007), firstly in its forked narrative in which the protagonist enters a new life just when everything closes in on her. More notably, like Yella, Undine transposes a supernatural reality onto the banal, hyperrealist surface of reunified Germany. Petzold offsets stretches of dead time showing characters doing everyday activities with evocative images of heightened intensity that signal the coexistence of a fantastic realm. Both Undine and Christoph experience each other as quasi-spectral beings, and because they take turns leading the narrative, we are never sure whose fantasy we are in. Petzold, moreover, imposes another layer of signification onto this composite: Undine is an urban historian dealing with the many narratives that impose themselves on Berlin. Professionally and personally, the past for her, as for Yella, is never dead and buried, but something to be always reckoned with. So the film offers a three-fold narrative, with the romantic story, the Undine legend and a political allegory finding echo in each other. If this layering allows Petzold a way to animate his clinical style with mystery, at times it also gives the impression that he is hedging his bets.

Glauber, Claro (César Meneghetti)

In 1975, Brazilian auteur Glauber Rocha made a film in Italy titled Claro in which he reimagined Rome as the historical centre of imperialism. Meneghetti’s documentary about the film—and about Rocha’s sojourn in Italy—assembles archival footage and interviews with surviving cast and crew members, film critics and the director’s Italian friends. The interviewees watch clips from Rocha’s film and recall how such and such scene was shot. The discussion blossoms outward to include the general social situation of the time: the cultural permissiveness that allowed Rocha and co. to live in apartments without paying rent, cohabit while blurring the boundary between friendship and love, and spike each other’s drinks before shoot. With interesting anecdotes about the Brazilian’s bluster and idiosyncrasy, the testimonies help locate Rocha within the intellectual landscape of Italy at the time. Throughout, Meneghetti cuts outdoor scenes from Rocha’s film with shots of the same places in current-day Rome, suggesting the demise of radical political dreams, but evoking certain continuities as well. Interestingly scored, these interludes also serve as spaces of reflection for the viewer, a respite from all the talking heads. In all, we get a sense of Rocha’s complex relationship to the European country: even as he was criticizing it as a ‘colonizing’ empire, the filmmaker saw in Italy a channel for distributing Cinema Novo works and, indirectly, a rampart against the growing authoritarianism back home. But there is hardly any rough edge to Rocha himself. His Latin American background gets little notice and he comes across as a mad prophet conjured into existence in Rome. Most collaborators describe him as an eccentric visionary who saw beyond his time, some others speak of their great love for him. But one piece of priceless archival clip at the end alone makes up for any deficiency: Rocha having a glorious public meltdown after the 1980 Venice Film Festival, where he destroys Louis Malle (‘second-rate filmmaker’), Cassavetes (‘commercial director under avant-garde garb’), Michel Ciment (‘takes American money’), Andrew Sarris (‘CIA-backed imperialist’) and other ‘Hitchcock lovers’.

Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs)

At first glance, Lynne Sachs’ latest documentary comes across as another iteration on the now all-too-common work of ‘personal archaeology’ in which filmmakers trace their roots through public and private archives, at times rending open the specific ways their unhappy families have been dysfunctional. Sachs, for one, employs home movies shot over half a century in half a dozen formats—8mm, 16mm, VHS, Hi8, Mini DV and digital—by herself, her father and her siblings, filmmakers Dana and Ira Sachs. The material turns around their father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ who sowed his wild oats across the world and virtually birthed a baseball team. Senior’s constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades, but also upon his mother, with whom he nevertheless shares a close but complicated relationship. Sachs weaves through years’ worth of footage and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. As she says, the film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs and her siblings sit with their father, now infirm with age, and ask him to recollect episodes from the past. What do they expect? Confession? Reckoning? Simple testimony wrought from a gradually vanishing consciousness? Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Senior’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Two living room discussions are intercut as though they are unfolding in the same space, the only way the filmmaker is able to bridge these invisible branches of the family tree. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

Critique of Our Times

Clash by Night (1951) is an adaptation of a play by Clifford Odets. Lang is certainly at ease in modern New York theatre which wallows in the spectacle of human degradation. But where the New Yorkers ascribe degradation to a kind of undefined Ananke, clumsily associated with the social constitution of America, and mostly explicable by the playwrights’ resentments, Lang insists on the notion of responsibility. Fate, represented once more by the movement of waves, becomes one with the realist document, the presentation of port life, boats and fishermen in the credits sequence.

This time around, the characters are bestowed with a certain psychological depth, which rules out implausibility. After ten years of tumultuous life, Mae comes back home to lead a more orderly existence; she marries Jerry, a brutish and unsophisticated fisherman older than her, whom she leaves for one of his friends; but she returns to her house for her child. Jerry is full of good will, but can’t understand a woman who has lived in other milieus. In contrast, Earl the lover is rather abject; with Jerry refusing to hand over the child to the adulterous couple, and Mae refusing to leave without the child, he splits without confronting Jerry. Earl is a violent lunatic.

It’s one of the rare occasions in Lang’s work where secondary characters have their own existence, which can be explained by the faithfulness to the original play. There’s the completely senile grandfather, tormented by the image of an abandoned baby girl, the infirm and alcoholic uncle, and especially the typical young American couple: Marilyn Monroe plays a worker who knows perfectly what she wants, where she’s going and whom she wants to marry. The man she has chosen, Keith Andes, is passive, listless; he lets himself be led around by the nose. It’s a microscopic study of American society, run by women, just as they dominated the fake Übermenschen of the German period.

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Judy Versus Capitalism (Mike Hoolboom)

Hoolboom’s hourlong documentary is a biography of Canadian feminist and activist Judy Rebick presented in the voice of the subject herself. Divided arbitrarily into six chapters—titled ‘weight’, ‘abortion’, ‘others’ etc.—it traces Rebick’s childhood, the influence of her father on her romantic life, her first activist interventions, her conscious decision to gain weight as a defence mechanism, her involvement in the pro-choice movement leading up the legalization of abortion in Canada, her mental disorder and its roots, and her continuing struggle for the cause of social justice. As the years progress, we see Rebick’s concern grow beyond feminism, gradually encompassing questions of mental health and Israel-Palestine, and we end up with a picture of resistance and activism as a way of life. The account is chronological, and Hoolboom lets Rebick’s words drive the narrative. He illustrates her words with photos and videos from her personal album or associated archival footage from the corresponding time periods. The film is at its most inspired when Rebick opens up about her dissociative identity disorder, about the way it serves as a protective shield against the trauma of childhood abuse. As she talks about her various alters, Hoolboom, whose Scrapbook (2015) constitutes one of the most resonating cinematic explorations of selfhood and the ego, cuts to a series of faces of different ethnicities, genders and ages—a witty, sideways association with Rebick’s activism that’s constantly bound up with the question of ‘others’ outside herself. But for the most part, Judy Versus Capitalism falls short of its inventive title and remains a conventional portrait. Because Rebick’s testimony is powerful and stands on its own, Hoolboom is (rightfully) obliged to respect it and let it take centre stage. As a result, there’s little here that couldn’t have been accomplished by a more academic documentary.

From Time to Time, I Burn (Carlos Segundo)

With his dazzling debut Slits (2019), Brazilian filmmaker Carlos Segundo initiated a meditation on the nature of the digital image, and its relation to reality, memory, loss and mourning, against a backdrop of flagrant social inequality. In From Time to Time, I Burn, he continues this interrogation into the ontology of images and the way they fundamentally alter reality. But this time, he approaches them from the other end of photographic history. The quantum physicist of Slits studying high-definition digital images makes way for an experimental photographer, Louise (Rubia Bernasci), who works with the most rudimentary of photographic devices: a pinhole camera that she exposes to orchestrated movement of human bodies for several minutes. Standing naked before the device, she enacts a pseudo-ritual of seduction with another model. With its aperture always open, the camera ‘combines’ these bodies in a process of chemical communion into an organic composite in which racial and gender distinctions don’t hold anymore. Louise, an Afro-Brazilian who takes care of her pious, ailing mother, experiences a kind of religious epiphany when one of her models whispers something into her ear. Like Slits, From Time to Time is an enigmatic film about a subjective experience with images, and its narrative feels like an abstracted version of a longer treatment. In a short introduction, in which he also expresses solidarity with artists resisting the current “political virus” in Brazil, Segundo cites the Holy Trinity as an inspiration for both works. The claim is as baffling as the new film, but one gets the sense that, for Segundo, there’s something fundamentally religious about image-making, particularly in the kind of transubstantiation it effects between reality and representation. It may be that Segundo is shrouding very concrete political ideas in quasi-religious mystery, which seems to be a foundational value in his films. His subsequent work will, no doubt, throw more light.

Marriage Story (Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli)

In its pared-down quality, Marriage Story seems to take off from the audiovisual abstraction that So Pretty (2019) ended with. This new short film does away with many of the narrative layers of the latter feature—community life, literary adaptation, political action. Even the carefully panning camera and exceptionally dense sound design of So Pretty give way to simpler formal elements. In fact, there are only three shots in the film, which may narratively be described as a rudimentary sketch of an afternoon session of sex between Rovinelli and her girlfriend Anika Kash. In the first, the filmmaker prepares coffee on a stove. In the second, she and Kash make love on the living room couch while, in the third, Kash sits on a chair reading out a text detailing a passionate sexual encounter with another woman. Bright red frames punctuate the film, and they constitute the entry and exit images as well. In every shot, a quotidian middle-class décor is subverted with elements that don’t typically belong there. The kitchen of the first scene is a picture of conventional piety and domesticity, complete with a religious painting on the wall. But Rovinelli has a slow stream of red light wash over the muted colours of the kitchen as though from a discotheque or a police siren. Combined with the sight of Rovinelli’s unconventional, naked body with its tattoos, breasts and dense armpit hair, the setting becomes something else. Similarly, in the third shot, we only see Kash’s ‘topless’, bare body on a chair, while a television set next to it projects the image of her head speaking the lines. Drawn from disparate sources, including the Song of Songs and writings by St. Theresa of Avila, the text conflates sacred and profane ecstasy in a manner that recalls Bernini’s St. Theresa. With all this, Rovinelli appears to be reintegrating what bourgeois religiosity keeps apart, i.e. the experiences of the spirit and the flesh.

Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds (Werner Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer)

Thank heavens for Werner Herzog, for he is one of the few remaining auteurs who still believe in the capacity of film for cosmic reflection, in whose work man is more than a moral-political creature. The visitors in Fireball are meteorites, i.e. rocks and dust formed millions of years ago in the far reaches of the universe that grace the earth. Herzog and British geologist Clive Oppenheimer go across the world in search of stories about these interstellar travellers—myths, legends, rituals, scientific accounts—even accompanying an Antarctic expedition for space rocks. They position these meteorites as objects alternatively of scientific research and around which the film’s human subjects create meaning: the rocks are rare minerals, but also existential tokens, like cave paintings, whose transhistorical origin relativizes our own lives. This bivalence could produce two different responses to the film. A viewer looking for a scientific investigation could be frustrated by the mystification Herzog’s methods bring, just as a viewer seeking philosophical edification could find the geological explanations wanting. While the film’s scientific orientation could arguably be ascribed to the influence of Oppenheimer, the manner in which it juxtaposes the absurd and the sublime is vintage Herzog. It’s the mark of the filmmaker’s strength and sophistication that he is able to identify both these potentials in his material without undercutting the value of either. Under his camera, the eccentric takes on a heroic aura just as the erudite acquires a touch of the ridiculous. Herzog shies away neither from Malick-like preciousness nor from Hollywood cynicism; he can break a solemn philosophical mood by joking that Bavarians like him are not made of stardust, but he can also provoke a tear or two with a cut from an aboriginal painting to a telescopic view of a meteorite crater. A borrowed shot of an explorer breaking down at a momentous discovery while the rear end of a busy team member occupies the background of the frame sums up the film’s all-accommodating generosity. Apt, considering the film’s theme is the twin role of meteorites as a destructive as well as a life-creating force.

Tenet (Christopher Nolan)

Christopher Nolan is a fanatic who has been increasingly willing to throw himself under the bus for the sake of his truth. Interstellar (2014) left behind his fanboys, Dunkirk (2017) thumbed its nose at sacred filmmaking tenets, while this new film ventures into even more untested terrains. That he has gaged a $250 million project for his personal desire to revive cinemagoing in the middle of a pandemic, moreover, cannot be ignored while evaluating the film. The world’s most popular poet of time has, once again, conceived of an ingenious, impenetrable syuzhet in which narratives in forward and reverse chronology are woven together within the framework of a spectacular if old-fashioned Euro-thriller: a CIA operative (John David Washington) must thwart the efforts of a future generation that seeks to annihilate all past in order to preserve itself. This chronological mesh makes for some unwittingly funny, but eye-popping reverse motion sequences that descend directly from the Lumières’ self-constructing wall. What’s impressive about Tenet, and its predecessor, is the filmmaker’s unapologetic privileging of an abstract figure of style over grammatic or affective considerations: the ‘trans-temporal’ crosscutting in Dunkirk, reverse motion here. In a way, these are bold, formal experiments that, in their failure, throw light on the mechanisms of classical storytelling. Nolan, who has always taken care to place his characters’ emotional or moral predicament at the centre of his narrative contraptions, does away with it in Tenet, Washington’s unflappable protagonist being little more than a sexless, humourless cipher. Despite the overwhelming intensity of the exposition scenes, he has also seemingly let go of the need to tie up the logical loose ends of his hypothesis, letting the contradictions and loopholes remain as they are. While a more thoughtful story could’ve drawn out all the themes of the intriguing premise, it is notable that Nolan, who has been crusading to preserve and employ celluloid from within a media climate hostile to such backward-looking attitudes, chose to make Tenet the tale of a man who fights to preserve the past at the expense of the future.

Corporate Accountability (Jonathan Perel)

In Toponymy (2015), Perel pursued the traces of Argentina’s military dictatorship on its landscape, examining in essence the way governments inscribe preferred narratives onto geography. In the new film, he continues this exploration by looking at the role of large private corporations in enabling and carrying out state-sponsored pogroms against political dissidents of the junta. The structure is simple: in static shots from the dashboard of his car, Perel photographs the company facilities as they are today while a brisk voiceover lists out how each firm helped military and security forces detain, torture and get rid of problematic workers in exchange for financial perks. The text, read out from an official 2015 report, is numbingly repetitious, and drives home the pervasiveness of these military-industrial operations. Perel’s decision to frame the sites through his car’s windshield creates a sense of illicit access, even though there is visibly little stopping him from going nearer the facilities. Some of the companies continue to operate under their own name, while some others have changed, with at least one site carrying a memorial sign for the injustice perpetrated there. Perel is, in effect, photographing the ur-filmic image of factory entrances, but all we see is a handful of vehicles leaving the gates. This eerie absence of human figures evokes the disappeared workers who, at some companies, were picked up at the entrance, a site, as Farocki has demonstrated, of class dialectics. But Corporate Accountability also exhibits kinship to landscape films such as Too Early, Too Late (1981), Landscape Suicide (1986), and to the more recent Did Wolff von Amerongen Commit Bankruptcy Offenses? (2004) and Status and Terrain (2019). The question that Perel raises is this: how do you film criminal responsibility when you are removed in time and space from these acts, and when you can’t put a face on to the perpetrators? After all, corporations aren’t people and you can’t indict a logo. The filmmaker foregrounds this crisis of representation by emphasizing the primacy of the source report, which carries the burden not just of describing the crimes but of differentiating criminal accountability from mere complicity. Perel’s reading out of the report’s copyright page is thus bitterly ironic since adapting it is precisely what he cannot do.

[The following is a translation of a program note that Godard wrote on Fritz Lang’s The Return of Frank James (1940). The note, originally written in 1956 on behalf of UFOLEIS (Union française des œuvres laïques pour l’éducation par l’image et le son) for film club screenings of the film, was republished in Godard par Godard (1985, Cahiers du Cinéma). 

A. Presentation

I. The Director: Fritz Lang

 The Return of Frank James is the third film Fritz Lang made in the United States. F. Lang was forced to flee Germany when Hitler came to power, and he had taken refuge in France (where he made Liliom) before leaving for Hollywood, where he settled down in 1934. Naturalized as an American citizen in 1939, Fritz Lang is today a veteran of Californian studios and, like his compatriot Otto Preminger, has adapted himself to them very well. He’s the last representative, along with Carl Dreyer, of that glorious era which saw the combined talents of Griffith, Eisenstein and Murnau (on this subject, refer to a volume of film history for F. Lang’s role during German expressionism).

Fascinated by the Far West since his youth, he worked from 1938 to 1940 on a film that would retrace the entire history of the American West, a sprawling fictionalized documentary like the one Eisenstein had attempted with Mexico and the one Orson Welles would dream of with Brazil. The project was shelved, but Lang’s penchant for the Far West and its legendary heroes encouraged the head of 20th Century Fox, Darryl Zanuck, to entrust him with the direction of a typical Western, The Return of Frank James, which marked Lang’s debut in colour film.

II. The Western

It would be incorrect to classify the Western as a separate genre. What sets a Western apart from other films is only the setting in which it unfolds. In fact, there are historical Westerns, crime Westerns, comic Westerns, and cowboy psychology can be as meticulously probed as those of Bernanos’ peasants or R.L. Stevenson’s adventurers. To be sure, characters in Westerns are among the most ‘stereotyped’ in the whole of cinema, but that’s because myths play a significant role in their existence. Jesse James [1], the ‘beloved bandit’, or ‘The Durango Kid’, are first of all heroes from legend; they are treated by screenwriters as such, in the same way as The Song of Roland or Chanson de Guillaume. That explains the frequent comparisons made between their reactions and those of Corneille’s characters: the same concern to act solely on the given word, the same respect for a homespun morality ruled by a sense of honour.

III. Practical Tips

As part of the projection, we could use the disc Rocky Mountains of Times Stompers (Vogue EPL 7201) in order to create an ‘ambiance’ that will put the viewer in a favourable mood. This disc includes famous tunes from the Far West such as Oh Susannah, Old Faithful, Down in the Valley etc.

 

B. Discussion

I. Dramatic Value

a) The Return of Frank James is the story of a revenge. After gaining notoriety in the West, the James brothers lead a peaceful life. Frank learns from one of his friends, Clem, that Jesse has been murdered by the Ford brothers, their old enemies, who have been acquitted after a trial. Frank, followed by Clem, vows to avenge his brother and sets out in search of the Fords. To get the money that they need, Frank and Clem hold up a cash desk at a small railway station, but a clumsy move by Clem ends in the death of an employee. Frank is wanted for murder. In order to mislead the Fords, Frank passes himself off as dead with the help of Clem and a young rookie reporter, Eleanor Stone, whose articles about the death of the famous Frank James create a nationwide sensation. This way, Frank manages to catch the Ford brothers off guard. One of the Fords plunges fatally during a fight, but the other, Bob, manages to escape. Wanting to save Clem [2], who is charged with the death of the railway employee, Frank James falls into the police’s hands. Bob Ford reappears during his trial and taunts his adversary. But Frank is acquitted thanks to a skilful defence by an old lawyer friend of his. Right away, Frank goes after Bob Ford, who flees after he hears the verdict. Young Clem tries to stop him, but he is shot in the fight and dies in Frank’s hands. Bob Ford is also hurt and dies in a nearby barn. Having had his revenge, Frank James marries Eleanor, the pretty journalist.

b) The theme of vengeance is Lang’s favourite (we find it in all his works, in the second part of the Nibelungen films, in Man Hunt, in Rancho Notorious, in The Big Heat): a man leads his peaceful little life and refuses to poke his nose into other people’s affairs until he loses someone dear to him. He takes law into his own hands, not in the name of society, but on his own behalf.

All of Lang’s scripts are constructed the same way: chance forces a man to come out of his individualist shell and become a tragic hero insofar as he ‘forces the hand’ of the fate abruptly imposed upon him.

II. Cinematic Value

a) Fritz Lang’s mise en scène is of a precision that borders on abstraction. His découpage is a mixture in which intelligence trumps sensitivity. Fritz Lang is more interested in a scene as a whole than in an insert shot, like Hitchcock for example. The role of sets is primordial in each one of his films. Let’s recall that he was once a brilliant student of architecture. One image could singlehandedly define Fritz Lang’s aesthetic: a policeman takes aim at a fleeing robber and is about to kill him; in order to bring out the inexorable quality of the scene better, Lang has a viewfinder attached to the gun; the viewer immediately senses that the policeman cannot miss and that the fugitive must mathematically die. 

b) If The Return of Frank James has an happy ending, in contrast to so many of Lang’s other films, it shouldn’t be seen as a concession to the American censors. Going beyond the moral man, Fritz Lang arrives at the sinful man, which explains his bitterness. But more than the sinner, it’s the study of the regenerated man that attracts the most Germanic of American filmmakers. If the fierce individualist Frank James finally finds happiness, it’s only after he is rewarded morally for his troubles. “Why are you so happy today?”, asks his fiancée; “Because, from today, I can look at myself in the mirror without feeling ashamed”, replies the former outlaw.

III. Additional Reading

– The Western: Or the American Film Par Excellence, J.-L. Rieupeyrout and A, Bazin (Éditions du Cerf).

 

(UFOLEIS notes published in Image et Son, issue no. 95-96, Oct-Nov 1956)

 

Footnotes:

[1] Cf. Jesse James, a film made by Henry King in 1938, whose sequel is The Return of Frank James.

[2] [Translator’s note] It’s actually Pinky, Frank’s black ranch hand, who is charged with murder.

 

[From Luc Moullet’s Fritz Lang (1963/70, Seghers). See Table of Contents]

II. MATURITY (1951-1960)

 

Critique (1951-1955)

 

Having attained complete maturity, as much in expression, progressively simpler if we discount the recent tendency for aestheticism (1945-49), as in content, which glorifies man’s adaption to the world and rejects revolt, Fritz Lang now assumed a higher perspective, posing a judgmental eye on the world surrounding him, contemptuous and sarcastic, whose finesse went completely over critics’ heads. This severity was that of a wise, old man who was now more than sixty, but also that of an isolated and bitter man and especially that of a foreign observer who reacted violently to the social order imposed by the American way of life. This scepticism produced by the vision of contemporary reality found an echo in the evocation of times gone by. There was now, on one hand, a critical vision of this romanticism, of this spatial and temporal exoticism once so dear to Lang, in two “historical films”, the western Rancho Notorious (1951) and the adventure film Moonfleet (1954). On the other hand, there was a critique of contemporary mores in Clash by Night (1951), The Blue Gardenia (1952), While the City Sleeps (1955) and The Big Heat (1953).

Critique of Romanticism

Made for the producer of House by the River, the Technicolor film Rancho Notorious (1951) follows Frank Haskell, who shoots the accomplice of his fiancée’s murderer and hears the man’s final words on his friend’s whereabouts: Chuck-a-Luck. Wandering the West seeking his vengeance, he learns that Chuck-a-Luck is a ranch in the wilderness offering a hideout for thieves in exchange for 10% of their loot. Frank gets deliberately imprisoned with Frenchy, the lover and the second-in-command of Altar, the lady boss and owner of the ranch. He manages to get to Chuck-a-Luck, suspects Frenchy, but discovers the real culprit and has him arrested. Suspecting Frenchy of a betrayal, the bandits shoot at him, but kill Altar who gets in the way.

The theme of vengeance isn’t treated here as dogmatically as before. There’s no evolution for the hero, who, at the most, stays back a little too long at Chuck-a-Luck, where everything is so nice and pleasant. Vengeance mostly represents a poetic and mythic force here. Rancho Notorious in fact showcases the myths of the Western, and views them with a critical and disabused eye. The real hero here is a woman, played by Marlene Dietrich, who rules the lair of bandits—as magnificently organized as Mabuse’s gang, with everything in proportion—with an iron fist. Frenchy the cowboy is little more than a prince consort. In the thoroughly moral universe of the Western, what dominates is robbery, rape, and murder, as Frank affirms at the end in a speech full of lyricism. In a brief flashback, Lang seems to lament the good old days of the traditional Far West. The whole film is drenched in a cold atmosphere that accentuates the desolate quality of the setting. The limitation of human power is underlined by the omnipresence of luck, roulette wheels, and games of chance. The ranch itself is called Chuck-a-Luck. These themes and critical observations are diluted in the very natural presentation, in the realist discretion of this apparently lazy chronicle, which doesn’t exclude the virtues of friendship between men from its framework. Honour and word aren’t empty terms here. This objectivity constitutes the film’s strength.

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Autofiction (Laida Lertxundi)

Autofiction, the first of Basque-origin artist Lertxundi’s films I’ve seen, opens with an establishment shot of a city skyline. A while later, we are on the sunlit roads of the metropolis, where a cavalcade of police motorbikes prepares for a rally. Cut to bodies of various unconscious women being dragged on concrete and loaded on to a truck. Before we can figure out what’s happening, we are presented with short testimonies of women talking about motherhood, abortion and loneliness, testimonies that are cut with vignettes from the MLK day parade in the city. The bright pastel colours that compose the studio the women are photographed in, combined with the big, yellow typeface of the title and the sunny outdoors, suggest a pastiche of cheerful Reaganite suburbia. At one point, a woman crawls out of her living room couch into her large, suburban backyard to settle into a foetal position under the sun. But what’s the connection? I presume that the crimes taking place in broad daylight, whose perpetrators we don’t see, tie metaphorically with the women’s accounts, in which post-maternal deracination, post-abortive disorientation and post-separation depression are all conceived in terms of personal choices and experiences, independent of structural forces conditioning them. By intercutting these testimonies with a civil rights rally, Lertxundi is restoring the political character to these personal experiences. At the end, a rectangular opening on a card frames parts of women’s bodies separately, hinting at the unity behind these fragments, just as Lertxundi evokes the socio-political unity shaping individual experiences. The title, moreover, implies that Lertxundi might be articulating details of her own life through these accounts, thereby scattering her subjectivity and rendering it interchangeable with those of the women she films.

Orphea (Alexander Kluge, Khavn)

In Orphea, 88-year-old Kluge and 47-year-old Khavn revive the Orpheus-Euridice myth as an avant garde punk musical. In this version, Orpheus becomes a woman named Orphea (Lilith Stangenberg) while Euridice is a man called Euridiko (Ian Madrigal) and the underworld itself is Manila at night time. The filmmakers treat the myth rather loosely, converting it into a string of ‘set pieces’, in which Orphea is either navigating one lair of degenerates after another or reading out lines of Ovid from a teleprompter, or belting out arias and folk tunes in half a dozen languages in front of a matte screen. Unlike Straub’s inconsolable one, Orpheus here seems to get along just fine without Euridice. The result resembles a blithe experimental video game produced by Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger. Through Orphea’s valiance but also her ultimate impotence, the filmmakers mount something of an elegy for the revolutionary potential of art. One of the suppositions is this: what if, despite Orpheus’ desires, Euridice didn’t want to be rescued? Orphea is regularly transported to wartime USSR, and mourns its countless dead, seeking, like the Soviet ‘biocosmists’, justice for the dead. Towards the end, the present also makes its way into the film in the form of border surveillance footage and refugee camps. The connections are often only suggestive, such as Orphea’s descent in the Lethe river invoking the sea route of contemporary migrants. Strangenberg appears in most every frame and is a hypnotic presence, and there is never a dull moment in the film. Kluge’s heterogenous style—on-screen texts, multiple sub-frames, stop-motion animation, declamatory text readings, archival photos and found footage—goes really well with the atmosphere of pure play. But it is literally a mixed bag where anything goes, so your mileage may vary.

Movie That Invites Pausing (Ken Jacobs)

Ken Jacobs’ film is dedicated to his teacher and abstract expressionist painter Hans Hofmann, whose legendary classes are part of almost every historical account of 20th century art. Hofmann’s painting and pedagogy emphasized the use of flat colour fields to generate the perception of depth, the impression of planes emerging or receding out of the canvas surface. Jacobs finds a filmic equivalent to this idea, producing the illusion of movement and dynamic colour without relying on pro-filmic reality. This is the setup: over the camera lens lies a fabric (or a translucent material) made of a hexagonal beehive pattern that gradually changes orientation over the course of the film. With what seems like a slightly mobile camera, Jacobs appears to photograph a liquid surface, first, and then some crystalline solids lit by stroboscopic light flashing at 120BPM (either that, or he has inserted these ‘black leaders’ artificially). At first, the result registers like the sight of a patterned gold foil slowly melting, but soon the hexagons vanish ‘underneath’ the liquid. Towards the end of the film, however, the fabric/material dominates the foreground, with the hexagons strongly asserting themselves with their dark borders. This receding and the emerging of the textured plane and the creation of new depths ties to what Hoffman called the ‘push and pull’ of the painting, the feeling of airiness that you get when you stare long enough at a Pollock, for instance. The strobing light also causes the hexagons to ripple like the liquid and ‘animates’ the surface into repetitive, gif-image like movements. More than pausing, which allows you to see various hues of gold and orange on the image, it’s speeding it up or slowing it down that the film tempts you to; playing it at 0.25x or 4x its speed illuminates its process better.

Inventing the Future (Isiah Medina)

Inventing the Future, Medina’s second feature, is adapted from a book of the same name by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. The text in question describes the limitations of the current ‘folk politics’ of the left and contrasts it with the long-term vision with which Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society conceived, disseminated and installed Neoliberalism into the ‘political common sense’ through universities and think tanks. An accelerationist outline for the future, it calls for a radical increase in automation that would result in fewer jobs, which, combined with a Universal Basic Income, could help reinvent newer forms of the self and the social. These rather weighty political ideas of the text are concentrated and tossed at us by the soundtrack—as read out by a girl who appears on screen from time to time—which Medina uses as a foundation for some extremely aggressive imagery. His blindingly rapid montage solders together what may be 25,000 shots in such a way that, in many stretches, we barely have time to register what we’re seeing. Even when a locus of anchoring images—crowds, people with phones, Lego blocks, the voiceover girl—constitute a set of identifiable visual motifs, the truculent editing forecloses any possible synthesis. Even the voiceover text, whose relative simplicity allows us to gather ourselves, is periodically chopped up and interrupted by an atonal piano melody or by another overlapping voiceover saying something else. Medina’s film appears to bear a mimetic relation to its source text in the sense that seeks cinematic correlatives to the ideas expressed. While the lightning-fast montage may be said to imitate the cognitive processes of the schizophrenic attention economy, the notion of UBI translates here to a universal access to image-making—thanks to ubiquitous cell phone cameras—which questions the need for new image production and shifts the burden of creative expression onto editing—a proto-Godardian idea. Conceptually strong though it may be, the punishing formal violence of Medina’s film makes it physically painful to watch.

IWOW: I Walk on Water (Khalik Allah)

While it continues and refines the street portraiture of Field Niggas (2015), Khalik “Danny” Allah’s IWOW also addresses the central moral-aesthetic issue weighing down on the earlier film, namely the filmmaker’s fraught relation to subjects whose consent in collaborating with him may not be wholly free and who, by dint of this power imbalance, run the risk of being commodified. As though in response to this problem posed by his obscured authorial position, Khalik places his self squarely at the centre of IWOW, where he claims to be nothing short of Jesus himself. This claim is, of course, tongue-in-cheek as Khalik confesses to having been inspired by the psychedelic mushrooms he keeps consuming. But it’s also a dramatic ruse that allows him to brashly interpret his work of ‘saving people’ in terms of Christian iconography and test it against the charity of his well-meaning family and friends, who are understandably concerned by his radical altruism. Khalik interrogates the limits of his own goodwill through his relation to Frenchie, an elderly Haitian street dweller with a speech impediment and a drug addiction, with whom he has worked over the past seven years. By his own admission, Khalik is a universalist who sees the same human essence binding everyone. To this end, his editing pattern disregards social hierarchies, cutting between extreme close-ups of outcasts and his friends and family in a manner that is often very provocative. Yet his focus is on the stories of those at the absolute bottom of the social ladder living on the streets of Harlem. The reason for this comes by way of an explosive monologue by one of his subjects, who describes the historical process behind the neighbourhood’s impoverishment and the real threat posed by gentrification; we then understand that the people Khalik films won’t be allowed to exist as they are once the district becomes ‘respectable’, i.e. the kind of place that will screen Khalik’s films and organize his exhibitions—a contradiction that the filmmaker reveals to be fully conscious of.

Sportin’ Life (Abel Ferrara)

Ferrara’s new documentary follows works by Daido Moriyama, Vanessa Beecroft, Bret Easton Ellis, Gaspar Noé and Wong Kar-wai as the sixth project commissioned by Saint Laurent as part of their project titled Self, which purportedly celebrates self-expression in the arts. Running for just over one hour, Sportin’ Life combines personal footage from Ferrara’s festival Q&As, media interviews, his concerts as a bass guitarist, television reports, internet videos, sessions from the US congress, Ferrara’s family photographs and clips from his own films. The interview excepts are quite direct and present Ferrara, invariably accompanied by his favourite lead man Willem Dafoe, talking about collaboration, making films with friends and family, and his approach to his craft. Interspersed with them are news reports about the Covid-19 crisis, Donald Trump’s feckless response to it and the mounting deaths in Italy and the US. It’s indeed striking how Ferrara is able to mould such pre-charged, disparate material into recognizable, personal imagery, with its references to Catholicism, its sense of being locked indoors, and the general end-of-days ambiance that pervades so much of his films. It’s as though the world has finally caught up with the dystopian fiction of 4:44 (2011), and so Dafoe gets to deliver his Dalai Lama-like monologue once again. On one level, Ferrara, holed up with his family in his apartment in Rome, is meditating on creation at the time of global destruction. The way he ironically superposes his concert music on low-fi footage of people dying drives home the idea of art’s impuissance in a more unequivocal manner than does Orphea. But the film is also Ferrara’s answer of sorts to public narratives about his oeuvre. In interviews and Q&As, we see journalists attach labels to his work—dark, radical, indie—that Ferrara doesn’t bother acknowledging. With this film, he appears to be simply ‘making his next move’ unmindful of the end game, i.e. responding to his immediate circumstances, remaining alert to the moment and, if we go by the equation ‘Pasolini=Dafoe=Ferrara’, making films as an existential coping mechanism. Towards the end of the film, however, Ferrara casts these sundry elements into a malevolent vision of the universe; the killing of George Floyd, the ensuing riots and violence are all stripped of their immediate, political meaning and shaped into a metaphysical picture of chaos. Maybe Ferrara is playing Nero more thoroughly than he imagines.

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