Looking back at 2011 on what films moved and impressed us it becomes more and more clear—to me at least—that watching old films is a crucial part of making new films meaningful. Thus, our end of year poll, now an annual tradition, which calls upon our writers to pick both a new and an old film: they were challenged to choose a new film they saw in 2011—in theaters or at a festival—and creatively pair it with an old film they also saw in 2011 to create a unique double feature. Many contributors chose their favorites of 2011, some picked out-of-the-way gems, others made some pretty strange connections—and some frankly just want to create a kerfuffle. All the contributors were asked to write a paragraph explaining their 2011 fantasy double feature. What's more, each writer was given the option to list more pairings, with or without explanation, as further imaginative film programming we'd be lucky to catch in that perfect world we know doesn't exist but can keep dreaming of every time we go to the movies.
How would you program some of 2011's most interesting films into double features with movies of the past?
Fernando F. Croce
The Ferroni Brigade
Ryland Walker Knight
R. Emmet Sweeney
WHY: Like Dreyer's late career film, Tarr's (self-described) final film crystallizes the director's recurring themes in their most spare and elemental form: the struggle of existence, God's silence, the performance of ritual in the absence of respite. The elements are an ever-present character, echoing the perpetual tension between the chaos of nature and the inertia of human frailty. And like Ordet, the rigorous, archetypal images of The Turin Horse distill the human condition to its essential moments of ennobling brutality, unexpected humor, and quotidian grace.
WHY: The temptation to let go promises so much comfort after the pain," is said (and demonstrated very violently and convulsively) in Żuławski's Possession from 1981, a cult l'amour fou film which was held over for a week and a half revival at Film Forum. While Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method, released this year, suggests that properly channelled, organized brutality—with awareness and reportage—can be a very civil affair. The two films share cameras that get uncomfortably intimate and also interesting feminist themes. (In Possession, for instance, the point is made that the ultimate love triangle involves no "other woman" but is instead about competition with a woman's need for a room of one's own to deal with private demons.) But while the framing, colors, sets, and comic fantasy-fulfillment of Possession are absolutely gripping, it is limited by its harrowing implosiveness. In 1982, Molly Haskell wrote about the trend in films at that time, what she described as the self-centered ravings of the New Brutes, the cult of feeling, versus "certain nuances, the shadings of tones, games" in more polite society (and in a different breed of film). Haskell ends this brilliant article describing her disappointment in a woman who declared, "I am not a feminist. I am not a woman. I am me." Haskell writes: "Hers was a poor, pathetic idea of independence. For we are put on this earth to receive and pass on, to make connections, to remember and refashion, and how much richer is the oceanic feeling that we are part of something larger than ourselves than the insular feeling that we have been invented but once for a special occasion." A point that also illuminates why the self-obsessed outbursts depicted in Possession are lesser than the intellectual far-reaching (even if not entirely successful) ambitions of A Dangerous Method.
OLD: The Exterminating Angel (Luis Buñuel, 1962)
WHY: Well, obviously the film of 2011 is that nameless indie where the Summer Palacers of the world went looking for a square to call their own and clamored to their fellow citizens for some sort of economic system with a human face, perhaps even that of the Warner Brothers “Guy Fawkes”. Why yes, it must be the final, fatal crisis of Capitalism, prophesied minutes after the first mills went online in Manchester. The sound was bad, but production values were surprisingly high. We’ll watch it again in the spring, but this time, it will be doubled with Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel. The plots are superficially identical—shipwrecked people (1) playing increasingly desperate roles trapped in a space they cannot (or will not) leave. This element of passivity is both sinister and mysterious. The celebrants try to maintain their dignity, along with their hygiene, even as a chilling civility alternates with outbursts of self-loathing surrealist rage. Drugs, madness, even a few corpses. The party is stalked by an insolent, symbolic bear. Outside, the police, the state, the mediatic bureaucracy and the working class, held fixed by a parallel lethargy that we might call “sympathetic”—they wonder what is going on inside. Some report miasmas of a rotting body politic emanating from within. Once or twice, I thought I even heard the drum-thunder of Calanda. Attempts to cross the invisible borderline are repeatedly frustrated by the wicked spirit of Don Luis. Suddenly, deliverance! Thanksgiving!! But then the whole thing begins again. More lambs to the slaughter. Shots fired in the street, wild stampedes, the malignant portending air of revolution and repression. So, then, try to remember, everyone, back to your places now, what were we all saying, what songs were we playing, just before we first learned the words “liquidity crisis” and “sovereign default”...
WHY: I don't choose this double bill because I think both these films are great; in fact I think the Vinterberg is a failure. But seeing Hellman's latest when it got a commercial run, and catching up with the Europudding some weeks later, both struck me with how they imagine, or re-imagine, narrative conditions in the wake of new technologies. In It's All About Love, the threats and promises of eco-apocalypse and genetic bio-engineering incubate, and hatch, in a frame of global super-communication that isn't too far afield of what Paul Simon sung about in Graceland (so judge accordingly). Road to Nowhere riffs on digital video's reflexive capacities for closing a phenomenological gaps between this moment and another. In both movies, theme and technique play off each other and prompt us to revise, continually, how we might read any particular image, sequence, or plot thread. So in a lot of ways these are superb cases for discussion prompted by what Adrian Martin has recently written (in one of the crucial film criticism pieces of the year) about dispositif and mise-en-scène. Now, Monte Hellman has a strong feeling for an image's composition and its weight, and how it moves in time—traditional “mise-en-scène” qualities. But there is also a profound ambiguity here which is never distinctly located at the level of plot or theme or method but instead suffuses all elements of the film, the way it is organized: its apparatus. In light of “news” this year about the death of celluloid, in light of talk for a long time about the death of cinema in this form or that form, Road to Nowhere's communion of classical with decidedly post-cinematic symptoms is relevant for many a cinephile. But it is more than just relevant. Not unlike the romantic pessimism of Vinterberg's ambitious, ill-conceived effort, Hellman's film leaves viewers—or attempts to leave them—uneasy about any of the redemptive qualities that this classicism might be supposed to provide. The same could be said, let's grant, for any claims one could make for its vanguardism.
WHY: There’s nothing novel about depicting revenge as a sickness/compulsion/addiction, but in these two withering fantasies it’s a flesh-eating disease, stripping our two anti-heroes down to amazingly addled husks. Faced with the death of a close relative, street punk Tolly Devlin and policeman Soo-Hyun cope the same way, by throwing themselves fully into campaigns of brutally systemic score settling. The pursuit becomes an end in itself, one that grows more lurid as they plunge into noirish worlds full of crime lords and serial killers, eventually becoming indistinguishable from their prey. One film fulfills its contract with vicious exactitude, the other spirals off into increasingly baroque twists, but both end up with a similarly bleak, bereft conclusion. Two stories that aren’t as much about vengeance itself as the bottomless void of male insecurity and fear that drives it.
WHY: Michael Shannon’s blocky grimace and Monica Vitti’s vacant gaze yielding abruptly to dreadfully animated objects. Characters lost in a world where clouds and smoke turn dark and yellow. Fantasies can be nightmares, too.
WHY: A woman alone in a subway tunnel in a German city tears at her dress, wreaks beautiful havoc with a single prop (a mesh grocery bag containing bottles of milk) and gives one of the most uninhibited performances I have ever seen on film. A scene from Wim Wenders' Pina or the highlight of Andrzej Żuławski's Possession? Actually I had thought of pairing up Possession—the most jaw-popping, balls-to-the-wall film I saw all year—with A Dangerous Method: restrained, late period Cronenberg with the most Cronenbergian film Cronenberg never made, both centering on female hysteria. But Isabelle Adjani's harrowing subway freak-out reminded me of nothing less than a Pina Bausch dance: desperate, inspired, riveting, all strained sinews, swirling hair and jutting limbs. Bausch would have leashed Adjani in for sure, made the movements more controlled (and probably wittier), introduced structure and repetition. And she would have choreographed it to mournful, haunting music rather than the bare grunts and screams exploding from Adjani like Diamanda Galas in labor. But were it not for Wenders' film I might not have made the connection. Wenders repurposes Bausch's stage-bound pieces for the most dazzling array of Wuppertalian locations: deserted factories, empty warehouses, parks, quarries and futuristic overhead trams. All of which makes Adjani's subterranean St. Vitus Dance look even more Bauschian in retrospect.
WHY: New York critics swooned over The Artist, partly because the glossy perfection of even its most tragic moments excited us codgers to think that it might serve as a gateway drug for a younger generation, inspiring them to explore the more obscure reaches of silent cinema’s past. I enjoyed The Artist, but I discovered one of those obscure silent films at the Museum of Modern Art in January that I liked even better. I had never heard of Beyond the Streets or its director Leo Mittler. Thomas Elsaesser doesn’t refer to the film at all in Weimar Cinema and After and Lotte Eisner only mentions it in passing in The Haunted Screen. I can’t even remember why I decided to go see it. And yet this forgotten film—with its hyperbolic montages of spinning car wheels, careening handheld superimpositions of neon lights, and throngs of ankles that signified the economic exploitation of women on the street—captured the zeitgeist of Germany in 1929 in a way that made The Artist seem detached from any actual human concerns, even if it did get me choked up in the end. Its story was simple: There was an old man who begged for money on the street. His only friend was a young man looking for work on the docks. The young man fell for a prostitute who yearned to become a decent girl again. When the old man found a pearl necklace on the street, the inevitably tragic ending began to unfold. Part of the appeal of Mittler’s film is that it’s not as beautiful as Haznavicius’s. The Artist glows; Beyond the Streets is grainy and cheap. Mittler’s characters are mute and one-dimensional, but this is because the world that surrounds them—with its fog, its gusting winds, and its narrow teetering black alleyways—doesn’t give their personalities room to breathe. Mittler conveys their psychic frustrations with his constant junction of disparate visual elements: in a basement nightclub, the old man and the young man’s celebration culminates in a brawl that’s all one-second flashes of beer glasses, cymbals, overturned chairs, and leering faces. Just as contemporary neo-noirs exhibit more noirish traits than the typical crime film of the 1940s, The Artist distills too much. I’m afraid that rather than reviving the past, this kind of confection may only intensify the masses’ addiction to sweets, further obscuring tawdry little gems like Beyond the Streets that history has already worked so hard to forget.
WHY: Has anyone ever programmed Straub and Wiseman films together? I’d love to see the crowd that shows up for that. I was only able to see Un héritier twice this year and Welfare only once (the New York Public Library has an excellent 16mm print). These two films are so different and yet share such similar concerns (everyday people and what they do). These reality fictions are probably best seen together.
NEW: John's Gone (Josh Safdie & Ben Safdie, USA) + OLD: Good Night Nurse (Lupino Lane, 1929)
NEW: Qu'ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerres I) (Sylvain George, France)
OLD: Afrique 50 (René Vautier, 1950)
WHY: "One day Africa will become Europe, and Europe will become Africa...” By some margin, the most vital film I saw this year was Qu'ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerres I), Sylvain George’s ink-black/bleach-white study of the state of exception that is Calais between 2007 and 2010. George filmed Afghan and African migrants surviving time before and after the eviction of “the jungle” in September 2009, during which 278 migrants were detained (132 of them children) and the camp bulldozed. Its images are stark and stunning, a document of "bare life" unlike few films since Costa’s In Vanda’s Room. I saw it not long after René Vautier’s Afrique 50 (1950), a fearless work that invites solidarity and comparison, not least because George included it in his carte-blanche programme at Courtisane earlier this year. Afrique 50 was screened publicly for only the second time in London in November, and one sequence is particularly striking now: a devastating inventory of wage-labour exploitation and corporate profit extracted by France’s “reign of vultures” that heeds the Straubian dictum of political film: figures not statistics. There is little of that in George’s film however, which complicates a dynamic Nicole Brenez described at the London screening: Vautier’s refusal of “the destructive division between the combative function and the poetic function.” In Qu'ils reposent en révolte, migrant bodies and transient spaces are reclaimed from their status as symptoms, structural consequences of imperial capitalism, instead figured amidst shivering images of hot metal, quiet tides, plastic detritus. Stolen images, collective choirs—when George lets the poetic function take over, his film is easily the most beautiful of the year as well.
WHY: Sack Barrow and Wild River both linger in the shade of ruins-to-be. Both concern the heavy brunt of pending change. In the former, Ben Rivers goes digging in an old factory slated to close. He comes away with layers upon layers: steam, corrosion, long-eyeballed pinups, sidelong glimpses of the work and rests. Sack Burrow’s expanded present inches towards a future view of the past and maintains a studious reserve throughout. Elia Kazan’s melodrama is comparatively “hot” in its treatment of the human figure: set thirty years in the past but with an intensity of longing and regret that doesn’t know its place. Obsolescence is a common coin of today’s alternative cinemas, but Kazan’s masterpiece reminds us that the same thematic can flourish in a dramatic context. Riddled with compromise and confrontation on all sides, Wild River is sure that we all carry our particular cultural prejudices but that it’s never as simple as that. All of the film’s moral complexities flow through Montgomery Clift and Lee Remick’s undomesticated desire, a singular amour fou in a storytelling medium that’s full of them. The remote island at the heart of Wild River is a self-sufficient America with deep roots and dangerous gnarls, representative of freedom and its opposite. Rivers would surely take the raft over to contemplate the locals’ unspoken customs and might conceivably cut to the same questioning treetops, but Kazan mourns the tithe owed Progress from his own corner of history.
WHY: The pairing's almost too obvious, but it'd certainly make for an evening of intoxicating cinephilia. Setting aside all the horsing around with what's real and what's not, there are girls—the productions of both films-within hinge on the relationship between a male director and his female lead—and there are guns. And of course, there are roads. They traverse both wormhole-pocked worlds without ever leading out of them—only planes hint at points of arrival and departure.
WHY: My favorite new film on the festival circuit this year was Low Life, which borrows the central allegory of Tourneur's classic, anti-Communist-era horror film, Curse of the Demon, and makes it concrete. Tourneur's evil cult leader Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) has often been read as a McCarthy figure, with his cursed slips of paper standing in for loyalty oaths and congressional testimonies. In the gothic underworld of 21st-century Lyon, holding the wrong papers is, for immigrants, quite literally a matter of life and death. Tourneur and Klotz both generate remarkably complex emotions from the simplest of images—a strong wind blowing through trees, college students dancing, a long hallway of arches, a painted face in close-up. As a double feature, Curse of the Demon and Low Life would make for an uncanny and ecstatic viewing experience.
WHY: In an unusually strong retrospective year in New York (Vertov, Minnelli, pre-Codes, Resnais, Gardner, the Nikkatsu centennial) it is difficult to fantasize the double feature I'd most like to see. These two represent something uneven: my favorite, and most eye-opening, rep film I saw this year paired with a strong and very cinephiliac new film by Bonello that, alas, is by no means on the same level of the Vertov but which I nearly saw back to back, the latter in Cannes, the former a day after my return to New York. I was drawn, in both instances, and in imaginatively seeing them together, to tracing the movements and meanings of groups of women. In the Vertov, a magnificent quasi-documentary, clearly partially fictionalize and re-envisioned, of an all-female trans-Siberian plane flight that gets lost, a whole nation looks for the women using the latest telegraphic and aerial technology, finally finding the three and bringing them back on a whirlwind tour of popularity, movements of heroes and technology knitting together a sprawling geographic space. Real spaces of a real drama are traversed cinematically through Vertov's inventive sound and image collage, expanding the adventure, heroism and its meaning to a grand, national scale. The Bonello does the opposite with a group of women: pinning them, trapping them in spaces in a turn of the century brothel, drilling down to the micro-level of daily details, girl conversations, moments of banality, decor, splendor and pain. I like this contrast of scales, the mix of document and fiction, fantasy in both cases, black and white and color, and pictures of a time very much of the time (Vertov's imagined ideal of the world, and the world seen through cinema) and pictures of a time long gone (Bonello's nostalgic / retro / contemporizing of the brothel and its women).
NEW: Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs, USA) + OLD: Duel to the Death (Siu-Tung Ching, 1983) WHY: Action combat on a grandly, freely inventive plane, whirlwinds of flight, vectors and motion. One film fighting invaders from without; the Jacobs invaders from within.
NEW: Crystal Palace (Ernie Gehr, USA) + OLD: Sailor's Luck (Raoul Walsh, 1933) WHY: Pure filmic texture very much of their moments, Walsh's celluloid bustle and hubbub, Gehr's digital, snowy interlacing.
NEW: United Red Army (Kôji Wakamatsu, Japan) + OLD: Dead Birds (Robert Gardner, 1964) WHY: Two cycles of war, fighting and rituals—one a mixture of document and digital drama, the other experimental ethnographic cinema. The subjects: radical communist terrorism in Japan and two endlessly waring tribes in New Guinea.
NEW: Go Go Tales (Abel Ferrara, USA) + OLD: Tange Sazen and the Pot Worth a Million Ryo (Sadao Yamanaka, 1935) WHY: Two movies scrambling for cash: one, like the Bonello, stuck and looking for a solution indoors and with female flesh, the other, mobile, roving. Both funny, but the Yamanaka should follow, as the Ferrara quickly grows bitter and depressed, whereas the Japanese film increasingly finds a delicate, playful humor in the desperate scenario.
NEW: Don't Go Breaking My Heart (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, Hong Kong/China) + OLD: Suzuki Paradise: Red Light District (Yuzo Kawashima, 1956) WHY: Two highly dynamic romances pivoting in and around workspaces; the To/Wai more clinical and playful, but, in the end, no less brutal (though not as human) in its image of romantic drama than Kawashima's masterpiece of an impoverished couple trying to find both a financial livelihood and domestic happiness. The Chinese film doesn't worry about the former and thus the latter is all the more dynamic.
NEW: Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal) + OLD: Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli, 1954) WHY: Lucky Ruiz had one of his movies made in the last two years released this year, as once I saw Minnelli's stage-bound Scottish musical I knew I had to pair it, in my mind, with a Ruiz. More than any other Minnelli, it strikes a tone of oneric fantasy, something told to someone who then dreamed up a variation: thus the ellipses, the strange cultures and accents of an alien world, contrived rules of romance and time-travel, endless, gorgeous stage-bound artificiality. The Ruiz is a Ruiz, as one should know, and needs no more elaboration than it itself provides. Most, if not all, films can be found in it, somewhere.
NEW: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, UK) + OLD: The Human Factor (Otto Preminger, 1979) WHY: My rule with these fantasies has always been to include my favorite films seen, new and old, thus taking the place of a top ten. I didn't care for this le Carré adaptation but the pairing was too obvious after I'd seen Preminger's magnificent mole-tale. The Alfredson is all decor and period design, a spy-hunt abstracted to atmosphere, with nothing at stake but the spaces (offices, homes) to fill with manufactured dread; the Preminger the opposite, bare, spare, poor, depressed spaces which accent heavily the personal, psychological and moral stakes of being a spy in the enemy camp.
WHY: Of something round half a mind to pair The Zone with Ashes of Time or The Tree of Life and Stan the Flasher, I settled on Copie conforme and Le Voyage du ballon rouge, two of the great children's movies for children ever in search of their Oedipal ideal. The actress Binoche bears all but gives not herself, living her life with haywire cheer, busy bee, overextending, codependent in denial, frozen in motion, stopped short by red lights; the bangles clanging, earrings arattle, she readjusts her perfect bosom and whoops merde at the nerve of it all. She is shook up across both films: Le Voyage du ballon rouge, Hou's tearaway snapshot of the mobile-harried more-than-moyenne (despite the title's at-a-glance indication, the balloon itself is but an incidental detail, a young-adult reduction of the previous films' feature-length grace in ensembles to a sign-post symbolic singularity; the real subject is Binoche and the secret translation is The Stop-Light's Voyage)—and Copie conforme, Kiarostami demonstrating that the placement of Just Such a Woman in the story of romance inevitably results in a Finnegans Wake thing: evening mutability of the All-Couple. Across both films Tradition is hers to endure and to extend herself beyond like raw new magic archetype: bazaar femme, high-slovenly Salammbô—among widows and divorcées adolescent boys get their sentimental education. Among movie stars, perhaps Binoche alone, then, is a working actor and it's really impossible to calculate a number for all those kids that'd give all their toys come Christmastide to take a draught from her armpits.
WHY: My dream is a two-night program. However, this desire is not to exhibit different films on successive nights. I'd rather aim to share one half of Fassbinder's two-parter each night, the first episode preceding Hochhäusler's plangent-to-the-hilt near-prophecy on night one and the second episode following an earlier screening of CH's film on night two. That way you can pick your poison w/r/t how you want Fassbinder's prism to reflect the sheen and angles of Hochhäusler's jog to nowhere. After all, World on a Wire is fun. It even has a happy ending. There are some scares along the way and the existential dread is pretty much normal (for any thinking person, and the film's all about thinking), but at base it's a thrill ride. All those mentions of The Matrix are apt not just because RWF's film predicts the Wachowskis' but in like kind because it's entertaining. I'd wager yet more entertaining, given all the formal hijinks on display without the aid of CGI but simply glass and reflections and screens and mirrors and, above all, a camera that seems bound by nothing. All these dollies surround the action and the walls multiply it, just as the cinema doubles the world. The City Below, on the other hand, seems to delimit the world, or at least presents it as a one-way street where there is but one outcome. It's almost like dominoes, which is both how rationalizing works and how good storytelling works, which are both crucial to the continued success of how banks seem to propagate money for some select few and curb it for everybody else. However, the film also tells a story of collapse, as befits my dominoes idea, and the end, though washed white, points at an alarming--nigh terrifying--new world free from such stories. (I'm no economist, nor a diehard Marxist, but I cannot stifle some excitement along with the fear that's come down the pike these last months amidst the latest crisis of debts and imbalances in Europe.) The order upends, the story evaporates, and two people face the future naked, cast out not from Eden nor the tower above but at least from the bondage the world's roped them into with every choice they made before meeting one another. It's not a love story. It's creation.
I. Outdoor Screening
WHY: A single 16mm color strip of “photography film” from Batangas, south of Manila, by a brewing collective of regionalistic myth-revisionists who like to flash publicly in our private proprieties. Physically attaching to a Japanese classic that prolongs their forgotten time. Accumulated extended families from past relationships come back to both haunt and comfort us, and we are reminded again of our mistakes and weaknesses. That our karmic lives both keep us stuck in our own lost islands, in this forsaken continent, at the same time hoping for an acceptance in our next lives by resigning to our dear memories.
II. Midnight Screening
WHY: In the fullness of the moon, inner darkness beckons. The age-old artist’s dilemma culminates in a dark night of the soul, revealing terrible and wonderful things. In Bohol of the Visayan islands, a dreamer is imprisoned by his loneliness in an overpopulated country of short-sighted marchers grappling possession of everything. Then there is a man from Brooklyn who could not sleep, so he travels far and wide, through places and time we’ll never own and become. They both whisper to their small cameras, since our souls’ histories are doomed to fall in the fullness of the moon.
WHY: A study in opposites, you might think on first glance, but there's much in common between Terrence Malick's recent vaunted opus and notorious poet-playwright-novelist-Alejandro Jodorowsky/Roland Topor cohort Fernando Arrabal's pummeling 1970 feature debut. Both are studies of anxious boyhood split between a troubling father and a most attentive mother. Both are speckled with moments of fantastic and uncanny imagery. Both defy notions of linearity in navigating the mental terrain of their troubled protagonists. But you'll want to save the Arrabal for second in your hypothetical double-shot, as something of a splashdown in human mess after the beachfront ascension of Malick's high mass. For a man with a surreal reputation, Arrabal is actually rather straightforward in apportioning color images of young Fando's troubled adolescence during the Spanish Civil War and tinted video feedback depicting his fantasies, impressions and fears, full of shitting and mutilation and unorthodox noodle preparation—such is to be expected when the distant father is incarcerated (and perhaps dead) for his political actions and the devout mother is the one that turned him in. For Arrabal, religion is inseparable from flesh and society, and theater is cruel indeed, so that the graceful, associative chains of legs and dresses and garden hoses built by Malick become grotty images of a boy throwing sand in his mother's face and licking it off. The potential for salvation remains, however, if only after the double sacrifice of a (real) slaughtered animal and (real) emergency surgery, real Biblical stuff smashing into contemporaneity; if the image of a woman wet kissing a man sewn up into a cow's carcass doesn't wake you up after Malick's symphonic meditation, it'll be the realization that some audiences hypothetically required more to chase them out of a theater than CG dinosaurs and the threat of digression.
Let's get to the bottom of what really happened.
A woman intrudes on ground that her man has already claimed.
(If that's what really happened)
Twists and complicates it
(tries to plant her flag there)
A truce is not a victory -- a commitment.
When is a history real enough that it supersedes the present?
When can two people understand each other enough that they agree to not be understood?
Two masterpieces that tackle communication (and shared histories) between men and women:
OLD: Adam's Rib (George Cukor, 1949)
The battle for the sexes, perfectly staged as a fight between ideals of solidarity and truth. Constantly jockeying for position across courtrooms and house rooms, winkingly pushing buttons and just-as-winkingly watching your own buttons pushed.
NEW: Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Italy/Belgium)
As an author, he theorizes about the space between the original and the copy. She takes a relationship that appears to be a copy and breaks down this artifice to reveal that we've been looking at the original all along. Or perhaps, it's the other way 'round.
(Perhaps, as a separate bill at the same fantasy cinema, I could sneak in to a screening of Alex Ross Perry's brilliant The Color Wheel, for a vicious, misanthropic, alienated inversion of the terms of the above truce.)
WHY: Finally to write about friends—
The long-take, single-shot-scene principle protracting narrative elements into portraiture, now a staple every contemporary art filmmaker from Costa to Côté, might come from Jeanne Dielman: this idea that when narrative is no longer narrated, but left to play out, it’s overthrown by longueurs even as it’s doubled, arising both within the shot and in their assembly side by side—like the characters, viewers will always seek out a progression even within these suspended times. Capellani in 1915 seemed to understand the principle perfectly: Germinal, filmed in a year of strikes as a theater newsreel for its audience, contains one montage sequence, a simple shot-reverse-shot of strikers gunned down from the perspective of the camera, and otherwise the long takes follow the pattern of the film itself, starting as documentary of a half-populated locale and the individual gestures of its denizens, waiting as an event breaks out in back, and waiting as the denizens start to react, slowly galvanized by this nexus point of story somewhere off in the corner. Eventually these scenes, a few minutes in, and the movie, by hour three, turn from documentary to melodrama thanks to its players’ insistence. But the gradual shift in time and tone, perceived in concrete blocks of duration, come mostly, simply as a product of the image’s light, of the quadrilles of glances on-screen. GT’s Traveling Light, also a type of found object, taking off from the rhythms of a day-long train ride, has a similar kind of movement: what starts off as plain-air documentary comes quietly to seem like a closed movie set in which the inhabitants are subjected to shifting red flares and matted Midwest, magic lantern backdrops. Instead of pinning down space, the long takes can defy it—the constants, determining the movie’s own space and screen, are unseen windows—in the train’s endless trackback. But the more abstract, the more precise: even the growing haze of a darkening sky and latticed station lights, in the movie’s basic respect for unfolding chronology and space, can signal out to the simplest narrative: nightfall and an approaching blizzard, as if out of a silent film, that determine the movie’s direction before they come. As in Capellani, every moment becomes exact as a record and abstract in a larger movement.
Others: Gremlins 2 + Seeking the Monkey King; Smoking No Smoking + The Ward; Story of a Cheat + Vertigo Variations; The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse + Film Socialisme; The Shanghai Drama + Film Socialisme; Bachelor Flat + 4:44 Last Day on Earth; Caravan + The Turin Horse, A Day in the Life of the Consumer + Transformers: Dark of the Moon; Mud and Soldiers + Essential Killing; Man’s Castle + Un Héritier
WHY: I stupidly passed on Chabrol's mixed-reputation fantasia at Los Angeles's Filmex 1977, and never again had a chance to see it in 35mm. Like other Chabrol films that confused or alienated his followers, Alice would probably play better in today's more postmodern critical climate. One wouldn't want to overemphasize its similarities to Breillat's fairy-tale-inspired masterpiece, but both films throw their resourceful heroines into an ever-changing dreamlike landscape that is in some way a materialization of their turbulent waking experiences. And both films cannot be understood until their endings give the viewer the keys—though Chabrol reveals the game with a sharp shock, and Breillat with a soft modulation.
WHY: A young man and a young woman navigate a culturally dead landscape in which everyone else is stupid. Absurdity ensues.
WHY: Two movies about families and the threat of their dissolution, evoked through uses of light. Stylistically divergent as they are, Tarr’s funereal B&W and Minnelli’s lush Technicolor both illuminate ideas of impermanence and mortality. This point of contact is seen most clearly in their mutual scenes of dimming lamps. The Turin Horse ends with the daughter unable to re-light a wick, their monotonous daily routine dissolving into an apocalyptic blackness. In Meet Me In St. Louis, the occasion is slightly less dire. Judy Garland invites the desired boy next door to help her turn off the gas lights, and as she rises the stairs and dims them, the two are cocooned in a vibrant dusky red, their attraction electrifying the room. Just as quickly, the boy makes a callow comment and the moment is over, with Garland turning up the gas to their full glare. As this moment of intimacy passes, flushed into the light, it anticipates how everything will pass, from the World's Fair in St. Louis to the childhood which the movie’s family clings to so fervently.
NEW: The Ward (John Carpenter, USA)
OLD: The Box Theory (Owen Land, 1984)
WHY: The above still is not actually from Owen Land’s 1984 video The Box Theory. As far as I can tell there is no visual record or reference of the piece online. But, hopefully, my representational recreation gives a sense of what’s at play in Land’s rhythmic journey into deep space. The theory in question involves the never-ending image of a woman on a box of butter holding that same box of butter (Land O’Land, of course). For fifteen and a half hilarious and eventually hypnotic minutes Land pushes you further and further into the infinite sea of women holding boxes. It’s a never-ending (until it does) joke that eventually transforms itself into the purest of moving images. Meanwhile, John Carpenter ever so slowly pushes in, pulls out and collapses down on the hallways and rooms of an insane asylum populated with a handful of immaculately-coiffed women with one-dimensional personalities in his 2011 release. It would be easy to write The Ward off as a well-worn genre story filled with mostly no-name actors and cheap horror clichés, except that Carpenter lets his story and actors do what’s expected so he can go further than ever before with his signature camera moves and 2.35 frame. Hallways, doorways and windows create symmetrical, closed-off spaces for the crazy ladies to travel down as they’re chased by and run towards the moving camera. Each push, pull and cut is part of a well choreographed dance that takes you deeper into the space of the movie and the minds of the characters inhabiting it. The Box Theory and The Ward: A double feature best explained by the the song the ladies dance to towards the beginning of The Ward ("Run, Baby, Run") and the advice Jared Harris’ psychologist later gives one of his patients: “listen to the rhythm.”.
NEW: Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, China)
OLD: Reckless Kelly (Yahoo Serious, 1993)
WHY: A true post-modern naïf, Yahoo Serious, in his writing / directing / starring work, blended intentionally stoopid conceptual comedy (plot of Young Einstein: Albert Einstein invents rock & roll, surfing and the bubbles in beer, meets Marie Curie and Charles Darwin) with the seemingly un-self-conscious earnestness of Jerry Lewis (minus, of course, Lewis’ darkness and discomfort). It’s dumb, weird, sincere—and, I’m afraid to say, often pretty funny. Serious’ Young Einstein follow-up, Reckless Kelly, concerns a descendant of Australia’s inexplicably-beloved bandit / folk hero Ned Kelly as he journeys to Hollywood to star in a bunch of action cheapies (as the head of the studio tells him, “Our movies are so good, they bypass the theaters and go straight to video!”) so that he can save his land from the slimy clutches of Hugo Weaving. Reckless Kelly’s America—a place lit almost entirely by neon lights, where everybody uses video phones and banks have to order cash from the main office to hand over to a would-be robber—is a bright, fakey place where everything has been cartooned out of proportion—not unlike the Tang Dynasty China of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (or, for that matter, the world of Michael Bay, who shares with Serious an obsession with his nation’s iconography and with Tsui a love for blowing CGI shit up). A goofy sense of humor, a gift for marrying a narrative / kinetic sensibility to a visual / chromatic one, an unerring belief that the unlikely is the best form of entertainment—Tsui and Serious have more in common than you’d think (Tsui’s underrated Jean-Claude Van Damme / Dennis Rodman vehicle Double Team definitely has its—to coin a really dumb-sound word—Seriousian moments, most of them given to Rodman). Fun with colors and shapes in doodle country.
NEW: Slow Action (Ben Rivers, UK) + OLD: Thunder Bay (Anthony Mann, 1953) WHY: Mythopoeia in ‘scope. Two films about waterways, industrial sites, Utopias and the traces left by human activity on a landscape.
NEW: “Niece” episode of Louie (Louis C.K., USA) + OLD: Below (David Twohy, 2002). WHY: Two fellas who understand the nuts and bolts of filmmaking.
WHY: "But the individual atom is free: it pulsates as it wants, in low or high gear; it decides itself when to absorb and when to radiate energy." —Vladimir Nabokov, Bend Sinister (1947)