Are you burnt out on awards-season overhype? Does the thought of The Artist winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards make you see red (and we’re not talking carpets)?
Take refuge from the bright-lights borrr-ing in the dark recesses of Lincoln Center, where Film Comment magazine’s flasghip festival is still unspooling. With its annual roundup of orphaned, oddball and criminally underappreciated films both new and newly restored, Film Comment Selects has become a reliably ambitious and occasionally mystifying experiment in Oscar-month counterprogramming. With one week down and one week to go, we offer a mid-festival overview of the motley and cinephile-minded lineup.
(Full discolosure: quite a few of Alt Screen’s writers and editors are regular contributors to Film Comment, but don’t worry; the magazine doesn’t pay nearly enough for us to compromise our integrity. Any individual or institution who IS willing to pay enough for our compromised integrity should send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.) -Ed.
All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace (Adam Curtis, 2011) [Program & Tix]
BBC documentary maestro Adam Curtis (The Power of Nightmares) returns with another calmly appalled epic of historical horrors. Curtis’s latest three-hour exploration does not hyperventilate over our reliance on technology, but rather tracks a half-century of disastrous social engineering manifested, over and over again, as the ideology of brainiacs obsessed with cybernetics—the idea that mankind is, like a computer, self-organizing and structurally logical. The motivating force behind all of this monkeying around is, of course, corporate and state control. Ayn Randian ur-capitalism, Buckminster Fuller’s “omni-interaccommodative” idealism, the imperialist manipulations in Third World societies (how Belgian colonialists invented the Tutsi-Hutu imbalance in Rwanda, for example, contra the myth of “non-intervention”), the free-market “principles” behind the economic bubble-chaos that first exploded in late-80s East Asia and have since spread worldwide – all of it the work of minds lost in utopian organizational idea-clouds, resulting in a litany of follies, genocides and ruin. Curtis’s formal method – present-day interviews and archival assemblages strung together with his trademarked thoughtful-Brit narration – seems innocuous enough. But taking in his work in toto (starting with 1992’s Pandora’s Box) can be a scalding and nightmarish initiation into the secret history of the last century, a guided tour of the control rooms from which human culture has been profoundly devastated but which remain, nonetheless, almost unknown. Few other non-fiction films have as much at stake. -Michael Atkinson
Almayer’s Folly (Chantal Akerman, 2011) [Program & Tix]
White people problems, elegantly wrought. Rather too elegant. Transposing novelist Joseph Conrad’s eponymous 1895 debut to the present day, Chantal Akerman’s first narrative feature in seven years anxiously frets over colonialism, patriarchy, and the most exquisite way to sustain an ultra-formalist medium shot. The story opens with an oneiric nightclub confrontation that would feel right at home in a picture by Apichatpong or Claire Denis (indeed, the movie might have been called More White Material), then flashes back to Dutch merchant Gaspard Almayer (Stanislas Merhar) reclining in his rattan-chic Malaysian abode, brooding over the fate of a daughter (Aurora Marion) born to a local woman (Sakhna Oum). What follows is a slow-burning dirge of failure, estrangement and immaculate mise-en-scene. Akerman is at her best when working through extremely rigorous structures, but the more free-floating atmospherics of Folly never quite adhere to any sense of purpose or urgency. -Nathan Lee
Alps (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2011) [Program & Tix]
Greece’s enfant auteur Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth) follows up his redoubtable art-house hit with this fabulously rich and elusive meta-mystery, which re-invents the social pathology of his family-belljar debut on a much grander scale. The narrative content of Alps is so oblique that watching it unfold is like peeling an artichoke you’re not sure is an artichoke at all. A nurse, an EMT, a gymnast and her coach, all mysteriously code-named agents in a secret cell pursuing some sort of interpersonal espionage—but what? Knowing any more would destroy the film’s very peculiar slow-striptease structure, so suffice it to say that the symbology at its heart has untold layers. Among them is an emergent parable of moviemaking and moviewatching itself, as it speaks to our neediest dreams and collects the victims of its illusions. Lanthimos’s fractured ellipses and hyper-focused visuals are in full force, and the massive sense of human enigma he sustains may well be unique in its purity. Think of it as a Alan Resnais film that finally, irreovocably, lost its mind. -Michael Atkinson
Spotlight on Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret (2005/2011) [Program & Tix]
Believe the #teammargaret cultists: playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s epic sophomore feature Margaret is the real deal, a sprawling, demanding beast of a movie that comes as close as any American filmmaker ever has to the dread and theatrical ennui of Jacques Rivette. Lonergan’s first film, You Can Count on Me (2000), was a too neat portrait of a brother-sister relationship that felt like an acting class-exercise, but Margaret, a film that takes theater itself as one of many of its obsessions, marks an enormous leap forward. Anna Paquin’s Lisa Cohen is the daughter of an actress (Lonergan’s real-life wife J. Smith Cameron, in a toughly self-revelatory performance) who first makes a careless mistake that costs a woman her life, then compounds it with the even bigger mistake of lying to protect a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) involved in the accident. Lisa spends the rest of the film trying to make amends, and she does so with all the shrill and entitled intensity of a self-absorbed teenager who’s soaked up a lot of her mother’s professional instinct for drama, eventually befriending the dead woman’s best friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin, in the third major performance here).
Lonergan holds his camera on these people so intently that they keep revealing their own inconsistencies, in a way that feels much more like life than films generally do. This is a movie that needs the extra time it takes and more; there are moments when Margaret seems like it could be the basis for the best short-run television drama ever. It’s flawed, but Lonergan is not aiming for the perfection of his first film, and it’s worth sitting through the clunkier scenes to get to the breathtaking moment when a seething Emily punctures Lisa’s self-dramatization of the accident with all the deadpan, lethal humor of Berlin’s real-life mother, Elaine May. Lonergan doesn’t have the filmmaking chops to make his operatic ending fully work, and there are snippets of scenes involving Lisa’s teachers that have obviously been butchered, but Margaret stills winds up being a truly great film about how the concepts of right and wrong are shifting goalposts that briefly clarify but then drift away down the busy, wounded streets of 2005 Manhattan. -Dan Callahan
Altered States (Ken Russell, 1980) [Program & Tix]
The Power of Love trumps shitty Mexican drugs in this lugubrious bad-trip psychodrama. William Hurt stars as the nutty professor Dr. Edward Jessup, a Harvard psychologist whose experiments with sensory deprivation tanks, magic mushrooms, and desultory pseudo-science lead to the materialization of atavistic drives – aka, devolving into a gibbering man-monkey and running amok. Overwrought and underwritten (by Paddy Chayefsky, adapting his own novel), Altered States invests all of its energy into a series of outlandishly cosmic visions: dayglo primordial swamps, radioactive cloudscapes, psychedelic oceans of universal consciousness. Russel’s devotion to his lava-lamp fantasia is so out of proportion to the rest of the picture that it lacks much impact; each set piece feeds back into its own rhetorical excess rather than heightening the (nonexistent) narrative stakes. That said, the Satanic goat is totally fucking awesome. -Nathan Lee
Face to Face (Ingmar Bergman, 1975) [Program & Tix]
A mechanical tour-de-force for Liv Ullmann, playing a psychiatrist who treats the mentally ill and then goes bughouse herself. In his memoir The Magic Lantern, Ingmar Bergman admitted that on this film he was beginning to run out of inspiration, and so he gives us his standard motions of anguish and confession but festoons them with unaccountable touches of homophobia and sexism; an abortive rape of Ullmann’s character and its aftermath can either be seen as bold and disturbing or crassly insensitive. The film is at its best when it introduces moments of self-aware humor—as when Ullmann and Bergman have a little fun at the expense of her character’s self-absorption—but such moments are rare. The film was much-lauded in its time (it’s the film that Diane Keaton’s Annie is late for, much to the chagrin of Woody Allen’s Alvy, in Annie Hall ), but that had more to do with Bergman’s overall reputation in the mid-seventies and not the film’s particular merit. At this point, Face to Face is an often unpleasant and distasteful curiosity. In Bergman’s second memoir, Images, he even calls this film out as Oscar-bait, and I’m not going to argue with the Master of Self-Flagellation.-Dan Callahan
Spotlight on Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds [Program & Tix]
Inspired by the avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs and equipped with multiple projectors, Hoberman appeared in person at Lincoln Center to oversee an analogue mash-up of recent commercial blockbusters like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. Alt Screen’s Andy McCarthy emailed Jim to ask a few questions:
How do you approach the stunt projection format used in “Land Passion” as a way to convey ideas? Does it communicate in ways impossible in writing?
The format creates a juxtaposition where the films “talk” to each other and otherwise interface in not always expected ways. The coincidences are always powerful.
It seems to conjure up Jung: the talking cure, coincidences, “synchronicity rules, and consciousness gets crazy mixed-up.” Can you elaborate on this?
There’s definitely an aspect of applied synchronicity which is a Jungian concept. On the other hand, the idea that movies have latent content comes from Freud by way of the Surrealists’ notion of purposeful derangement.
The original formal inspiration for “Land Passion” came from an early ‘70s Ken Jacobs piece, A Good Night for the Movies (1972), which premiered in the Nixon era. Is there a further particular relevance in applying this style to the Bush years?
This particular piece arose from several courses in post 9/11 cinema—it’s relevant to that.
You have described “Land Passion” as a “pedagogical film performance,” (which sounds part academic, part shtick). What does the performance “teach?”
There’s a bit of irony to my use of the term ‘pedagogical.’ What I meant was that the piece came out of a class-room situation. In a general sense, I’m teaching that all commercial movies belong to a certain system, but in the Walter Reade context it’s more about creating an interesting cine object or experience.
As a performance piece, is there an intended audience participation? An element of underlying interaction rather than simply movie viewership?
No more participation than there would be at any other movie. Some people will walk out, others will be fascinated. It’s as much an installation as it is a presentation.
In your 2005 Film Comment essay on Arnold Schwarzenegger, “The Servant,” you note that “among the images from the vast 9/11 archive are those showing the Collateral Damage billboard on the West Side Highway, with the World Trade Center collapsing in the distance.” This sounds like real-world stunt projection. Does Land Passion provoke a certain life of its own beyond the intended meanings in the juxtapositions?
You’re right about that particular juxtaposition—it’s an amazing photograph. I did something with that at NYU in 2004: BLACKHAWK DOWN WITH COLLATERAL DAMAGE. That was a kind of aggressive program, as is this one.
Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2011) [Program & Tix]
Alexander Sokurov’s predictably wacky adaptation of Faust takes its scenario from Goethe, but the spirit is pure Rabelais: bawdy and garrulous, carnal and bizarre, packed with baffling personages and pungent ambiance. Doctor Faust (Johannes Zeiller), first seen mucking about the entrails of an autopsy while ruminating on the nature of the soul, is soon paired up with a pathetic and pear-shaped Mephistopheles (Anton Adasinsky). As in Russian Ark, the narrative takes the form of a tour, floating on gorgeously modulated camerawork through a rural carnivalesque of lust, greed, and random interludes with a rubber homunculus. It’s the earthiest of Sukorov’s films—all of the characters keep complaining about the stink—and one of the most purely pleasurable. Winning the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival and partly funded through the intervention of Vladimir Putin, Faust is, per Sukorov, the conclusion to his “Men of Power” tetralogy (joining Moloch, Taurus and The Sun). Sure, why not. There’s not a dull moment here and quite a few that make no sense, but the movie is powered by a singularly weird conviction and its sustained inventiveness is crystal clear. -Nathan Lee
The Forgiveness of Blood (Joshua Marston, 2012) [Program & Tix]
Like Marston’s breakthrough debut Maria Full of Grace, The Forgiveness of Blood is too thoughtful to dismiss as humanitarian tourism yet still feels faintly dutiful. The destination here is rural Albania, where ancient blood feuds still persist in a mountain valley newly integrated into the global landscape by encroaching cellphone and internet service. When the local patriarch Mark (Refet Abazi) is involved in the stabbing of a neighboring clansman during a dispute over his right-of-way on ancestral lands, his family, including high-schoolers Nik (Tristan Halilaj, looking like a taffy-pulled Andrew Garfield) and Rudina (Sindi Lacej), goes into lockdown. That this ancient codified macho bullshit actually proves emasculating, sidelining the targeted males of the family as Rudina takes on her father’s bread-cart route, is a fresh insight, as is the way Nik’s generational defiance originates as the impatience of a horny, entitled teenager whose crush is just a smartphone video message away. But Marston can’t or won’t allow his inexperienced young actors to be natural or spontaneous enough to transcend his textbook sociological research. -Mark Asch
Headhunters (Morten Tyldum, 2011) [Program & Tix]
Goodbye, Sweden—and hello, Norway, our latest hot to trot co-opter of everything pop and supercool in American movies. In the record-breaking domestic blockbuster Headhunters, director Morten Tyldum ventures deep into old Coen brothers’ country, packing an ironic bloodbath with swapped identities, funny-gross set-pieces, and cascading criminal complications. The story begins in the lap of a short, rather froggish executive recruiter (Aksel Hennie, every inch a mini-Christopher Walken) who makes a sideline career swiping private art collections from his applicants’ apartments, all to keep his Valkyrie of a wife living the high life. Enter what turns out to be the most ridiculous corporate-espionage MacGuffin ever as our hero is hunted down the rabbit hole by a reprehensibly handsome mercenary (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Credulity is stretched across the grill of a psychotic tractor-trailer and submerged in a bottomless shithouse pit. Norway itself, with its endless mountain-island wilderness, proves again to be an evocative genre-film character. Tyldum knows how to ramp up the unease, but spends too much time tying the story’s loose ends together when what the script really needs are a few more believable ideas. -Michael Atkinson
Spotlight on Jean-Pierre Gorin
The Criterion Collection’s new Eclipse boxset of Jean-Pierre Gorin documentaries is labeled “Three Popular Films,” with “popular” meant in the French sense of populaire, or “of the people,” fitting for a director who is still best known as Jean-Luc Godard’s collaborator and co-director during Godard’s didactic post-68 Marxist period. When Gorin left France in 1975, he went out to California and found himself an even crabbier mentor in the painter and film critic Manny Farber, who encouraged Gorin to take a position teaching film studies at the University of California San Diego, a position Gorin still holds today.
The first three films Gorin made in San Diego are most concerned with the sound of language, and this interest is given its most thorough workout in the entrancing Poto and Cabengo (1980), a loving portrait of two twins, Grace and Virginia Kennedy, who were thought to have created their own language together. Reacting to the media coverage they were getting at the time, Gorin brought his camera to film them before their supposed new language got entirely lost. In watching these birdlike girls, born to an American father and a German mother, Gorin dramatizes the gap between purely utilitarian language for what needs to be said and ornamental language that can be enjoyed for its style and idiosyncrasies, and the ornamental language wins this contest; there’s a reason we’re not all speaking Esperanto.
These are girls who created sixteen different ways to say “potato,” and the beauty of their speech is in no way lessened when we learn that their language is mainly so-called “defective” or degraded German/English. Gorin takes the twins to a library where they delight in all the books merely as objects, and he delights in them and the purity of their faces, often freeze-framing them when they’re on some height of enthusiasm. It’s no feat to film these charming girls with affection, but Gorin also manages to film their parents with love, when their odd German mother, in particular, could be so easily mocked and caricatured. Gorin reserves his caveats for the American dreaming the parents suffer from, brought on by the media attention to the girls, and he keeps getting further and further into their mindset and their lives but still keeps a respectful distance from them.
Poto and Cabengo, the twins’ pet names for each other, is a model documentary, sweet, mysterious, even-handed. Gorin’s second “popular” film, Routine Pleasures, a look at a model train society mixed with views of Farber’s paintings and various wisecracks from Farber himself, delivered by Gorin on the soundtrack, is more difficult to enter into. As a narrator of his own film, Gorin is the anti-Werner Herzog in that his flat, accented voice refuses to or cannot dramatize anything. The narration as written is twisty and smart and often funny, but there’s an enormous disconnect between the words themselves and Gorin’s totally un-nuanced delivery of them, and this results more in outright alienation than alienation effect. He removes himself entirely from his third doc, My Crasy Life, a distended look at street gangs that relies on the sounds of the gang members and the laughter always bubbling up under all of their macho poses. Gorin moves deep inside this subculture but stumbles on repetitive interviews and a structure that feels too nebulous. -Dan Callahan
Mortem (2011, Eric Atlan) [Program & Tix]
The ideal viewer for Eric Atlan’s “metaphysical thriller” (read: pretentious ghost story) is the kind of precocious undergrad who still thinks that black-and-white photography, unmotivated tracking shots, and chicken-chested nymphs in long trenchcoats and heavy mascara represent the pinnacle of High Art. Debut director Altan clearly holds these truths to be self-evident, but refuses to confine his Cinema du Thesis Film to the empty atmospherics of mise-en-scene and contemplative studies of half-nude, girl-on-girl make-out sessions. The conceit here is that a solitary biker babe (Daria Panchenko) must hole up for the night in a stately-spooky mansion when the fog-shrouded landscapes get to be too much even for her. From the first time we see her, she is trailed by a similarly jacketed but more menacing doppelganger (Diana Rudychenko); shortly thereafter it’s revealed that this second cyclist is visible only to our heroine because (bum bum BUMMM) she is her soul. Dramatically, it’s as if The Sixth Sense were being played out in reverse—which is to say, undramatically. I should probably mention that our protagonist must make peace with her turbulent memories and personal choices to become more fully integrated, body and soul; but really it’s one woman snarling at herself in a bedroom for 90 minutes. The one major surprise is the conspciuous lack of gratuitous cigarette smoke. Film Studies professors everywhere should screen this film as a means of exorcising their students’ derivative demons. Soundtrack by GarageBand. -Michael Gottwald
Sleepwalk (Sara Driver, 1986) [Program & Tix]
An emanation of the mystifyingly hip, secret-password Downtown toured the year before by Martin Scorsese and Griffin Dunne (After Hours). On a graffiti’ed block that is now, if you’ll trust my eye, home to the Housing Works Bookstore Café, we find a print shop whose blinking, whirring, and largely autonomous machinery frames a vivid gallery of zonked-out proto-hipsters, among them a young and finicky Steven Buscemi (who has an unforgettably precise bit of slapstick when he tries to pick up the indeterminately accented Ann Magnuson) and a dancer-thin, boxer-nosed Suzanne Fletcher (whose character happens to be fluent in Mandarin). Forget the cheap rents, this is a movie to make you nostalgic for what was surely Manhattan’s last great era of low-demand day jobs. Fletcher’s character takes a translation job from an obviously sinister Asian man (whose unctuous sidekick is played by future Candyman Tony Todd). The fairy-tale she’s paid to adapt begins to echo her own life with increasing freakiness, giving a paranoid unity to her after-hours encounters with off-kilter flaneurs and frequently unsupervised minors). The No Wave neo-noir score is by avant-garde composer Phil Kline; the photography, in which low-key lighting of deserted streets inflects Hopper-esque loneliness with might-get-mugged creepiness, is by Driver’s NYU film-school collaborator and long-term romantic partner Jim Jarmusch. Lower East Side trainspotters will also thrill to Bill Rice’s morose cameo as a thwarted passenger on the building’s creaky freight elevator, and the closing credits’ Special-Thanks-To “Vince Gallo.” -Mark Asch
Spotlight on David Wain
As the creator of MTV’s mid-90s sketch show The State—whose alumni have variously gone on to become snarking-head commentators of VH1 nostalgia-porn (Michael Ian Black), semiotics-evangelists teaching in NYU’s screenwriting department (Michael Showalter), and the screenwriting duo criminally responsible for Hollywood’s favorite tyrannosauric wrecks Night at the Museum and Herbie: Fully Loaded (Thomas Lennon and Ben Garant)—David Wain’s career could serve as shorthand for how this revered clique and comedic generation has charted as a whole. Though the members of Wain’s troupe have certainly gone their separate ways (he siding with the Stella faction, not the Viva Variety one), Wain has functioned as the self-effacing, fuzzy-haired node that keeps them connected. Many showed up in his first and much loved feature, Wet Hot American Summer (2001), a cult-favorite comedy about a Jewish summer camp in 1981. Though it was barely a blip at the box office, Wet Hot successfully translated the absurdism of The State into densely off-kilter dialogue, thus rewarding the repeat viewings of its enthusiastic and ever expanding fanbase.
The film also discovered a perfect leading man in Paul Rudd, who went on to narrate Wain’s next feature effort, The Ten (2007), an amalgam of high-concept comic sketches mapped onto the Ten Commandments. There, with the help of his regulars ensemble, The State‘s disassociative satire and derailed train-of-thought comedy was given free rein, pushing into a broader and relatively dumbed down brand of comedy (laughs about prison rape are seldom honestly earned) that was something of a mixed success. The post-Apatow market for feature comedies starring man-child protagonists gave Wain enough traction to make Role Models (2008), in which Rudd and Seann William Scott behave badly in front of children who, in turn, also behave badly. The result is funnier than most of its ilk because Wain and co-writer Ken Marino (another State grad) use the liberty of an R rating to allow Scott’s liege to actually talk and act like a bad 11 year-old kid would (call it Kids Say the Most Fucked Up Shit). Rudd is an apt enough performer to bring some heart to the film without undercutting the laughs with dishonest sentiment (Funny People) or weirdly overserious bro-mance (I Love You Man). Now, into the seasonal dead zone of early 2012, comes Wanderlust, wherein Paul Rudd is paired with Jennifer Aniston, his former co-star from the no-homo, chick-flick dramedy The Object of My Affection. Yes, Wain’s star has risen into the echelon of Aniston, the reigning queen of mediocre romcoms (whose box-office crown could be swiped only by Katherine Heigl, czar of the wedding industrial complex). Here’s hoping Wain maintains his penchant for the bizarrely off-rocker humor that got him here. -Michael Gottwald
Film Comment Selects is playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through Thursday, March 02.