The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s "Art of the Real" series, which recently unspooled its second season, has become New York’s annual showcase for the “hybrid” film, experimental works that, despite a more than tenuous relationship with the documentary tradition, oscillate between fiction and nonfiction. Now that documentary has become unmistakably fashionable (a banal subplot in Noah Baumbach’s dreary comedy, While We’re Young, is even spawned by cartoonish version of a debate over “documentary ethics”) the schism between films such as The Hunting Ground and Merchants of Doubt, which resemble feature-length 60 Minutes stories, and the sort of documentaries programmed at film festivals like Doclisboa and CPH: DOX has grown even wider. Art of the Real, laden with an amalgam of festival favorites and classic precursors of cinematic hybridity (this year’s Agnés Varda retrospective is a case in point) is certainly a cheerleader for art house (and occasionally art world) nonfiction. If the series, expertly curated by Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes, is inevitably somewhat uneven, it certainly covers the waterfront and offers a hefty selection of films that exemplify the trends currently dominating the world of alternative documentary cinema.
The “essay film,” which provides a convenient conduit for ruminations on the public and the private realms, the historical as well as the trivial, was well represented at this year’s edition. With filmmakers like Varda and Chris Marker among their ranks, cinematic essayists, who celebrate digressiveness and open-ended flights of fancy with a verve Montaigne would have admired, are prime representatives of the genre-blurring orientation feted at Art of the Real. Mark Rappaport’s two brief “video essays”—Becoming Anita Ekberg and The Vanity Tables of Douglas Sirk, which screened on a bill with Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, avoided many of the pitfalls (which include narcissism and long-windedness) of the essay film genre. Mini-versions of the half-bemused, half-reverent analyses of the film industry that Rappaport initiated in Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) and From the Journals of Jean Seberg (1995), these short films charm us with an idiosyncratic personal voice; the deployment of trenchant voice- over coupled with judicious selections of film clips is a winning formula. Becoming Anita Ekberg chronicles the agonies and ecstasies of performing the role of a “sex goddess.” A pithy lesson in the construction of star images, Rappaport details how Ekberg’s reputation as a voluptuous Scandinavian sex symbol was nurtured by Frank Tashlin at a time when she was merely a featured player, not a name above the title. The tongue-in cheek deification of Ekberg in Tashlin’s Hollywood or Bust leads inexorably to a more straightforward canonization of her ineffable sex appeal in Fellini’s La dolce vita. The more compressed Vanity Tables is a heartfelt, blessedly non-academic version of mise en scène criticism. By demonstrating, with clips from standbys such as Imitation of Life,All I Desire, and All That Heaven Allows, how vanity mirrors reflect, and amplify, the anguish evinced by disparate female protagonists, Rappaport wittily illustrates why Sirk’s aesthetic is inextricable from the sly political critique smuggled into his weepies.
On the other hand, Olson’s wan but well-intentioned film proves how the essay genre can become more than slightly ponderous in the wrong hands. The Royal Road, which possesses a reasonably interesting premise, is sunk by an overly schematic structure. Linking a potted history of the Camino Real, the 600-mile pathway connecting Northern and Southern California, with a surprisingly passionless account of Olson’s failed romantic conquests, is clunky at precisely the moments where essay films should be playful and irreverent. While Olson has a tin ear (and makes the mistake of delivering her own voiceover in flat, uninflected tones), she has a moderately good eye and the striking shots of the California landscape that accompany her peregrinations serve as partial antidotes to the general monotony.
Edgardo Coazrinsky’s Letter to a Father, another film essay that fuses personal musings with political reflections, is, for several reasons, much more successful. A more experienced essayist in both print and film, Cozarinksy’s voiceover is more lucid than Olson’s and his tight focus prevents him from becoming platitudinous. In addition, as the director of one One Man’s War (1982), one of film history’s most illustrious found-footage documentaries, Cozarinsky is able to masterfully synthesize archival materials and pungent historical analysis. The director’s own bewilderment with his late father’s sketchy past allows him to deploy autobiography to elucidate both his own evolution as an urban intellectual and the recent Argentine past. A Ukrainian immigrant who became a “Jewish gaucho” in the province of Entre Rios, Cozarinsky’s father was a distant figure whose sojourn in the Argentine Navy made him into a fervent patriot. With an inquisitive detachment, Cozarinsky wonders whether his father, who died when the filmmaker was only twenty, might have fallen prey, had he lived longer, to the authoritarian passions that fueled the Argentine dictatorship during the 1970s. Like the best essayists, Cozarinsky is not willing to placate his audience with facile explanations. His father’s essential unknowability is, paradoxically, the key to the film’s allure.
If Rappaport and Cozarinsky continue to refine the contours of the essay film, René Frölke’s 2011 Guided Tour (his audacious film on Norman Manea, Le beau danger, is another Art of the Real Selection) slyly reinvents Direct Cinema. A feast of inadvertently comic moments, Frölke documents the whirlwind visit of the former German President, Horst Köhler, to a leading German art college, the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design. Filmed in black and white, and imbued with a mock-solemnity that evokes early Direct Cinema classic such as Primary, the film is noteworthy for depicting the almost farcical collusion of intellectuals with the Christian Democrats’ neoliberal agenda. Whereas American politicians traffic in folksiness, it’s amusing to observe Köhler’s eagerness to engage with fawning intellectuals, especially the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, and breezily discuss the utilitarian virtues of New Media and postmodern theory. This spectacle of intellectuals embracing state power is an entertaining display of unbridled fatuousness.
Of course, the Art of the Real, true to its calling, is replete with genuine fiction/non-fiction hybrids. Among this year’s candidates, the Chinese-Canadian director Luo Li’s Li Wen at East Lake is the most impressive. In an informative article in Cinema Scope, Shelly Kraicer describes Luo Li’s films as emblems of a “liminal space enveloping fact and fiction, myth and politics…” / Like Tropical Malady, Jauja, and Mullholland Dr., Li Wen at East Lake is notable for a narrative rupture that upends audience expectations. The first forty minutes or so lull us into believing that we’re watching a rather earnest observational documentary. As functionaries discuss the need to build a major airport to coordinate an influx of tourists to East Lake, activists decry the potential environmental devastation this will create in a region where much of the lake has already been drained to build an amusement park. The appearance of Li Wen (played by an actor named Li Wen, whose off-screen persona is apparently far different from his role in Luo Li’s docu-narrative), a truculent man predisposed to defend the status quo enables the film to change gears. Eventually revealed as a policeman assigned to investigate a subversive madman convinced the lake is haunted by a Dragon King, the infusion of non-fiction with a fictional ruse leads to a free-wheeling exploration of generational anxieties (Li Wen is appalled by a student’s oral history project involving gays and lesbians) and the ghosts of the past, especially traumatic memories of the Cultural Revolution’s repression of dissent.
While the conventional documentaries screened on cable and in repertory cinemas are often predictably bland, experimental documentaries are occasionally vulnerable to passing fads and gimmicks. (Three films in this year’s Art of the Real—Snakeskin, Androids Dream, and White Out, Black In—couched political arguments in the guise of science fiction and achieve their goals with varying degrees of success.) The series’ most aesthetically satisfying films, which include Guided Tour, Letter to a Father, the Rappaport shorts, and Li Wen at East Lake,manage to be unpretentiously innovative and politically insightful.