With 2010 only a week over, it already feels like best-of and top-ten lists have been pouring in for months, and we’re already tired of them: the ranking, the exclusions (and inclusions), the rules and the qualifiers. Some people got to see films at festivals, others only catch movies on video; and the ability for us, or any publication, to come up with a system to fairly determine who saw what when and what they thought was the best seems an impossible feat. That doesn’t stop most people from doing it, but we liked the fantasy double features we did last year and for our 3rd Writers Poll we thought we'd do it again.
I asked our contributors to pick a single new film they saw in 2010—in theaters or at a festival—and creatively pair it with an old film they saw in 2010 to create a unique double feature. Most contributors chose their favorites of 2010, some chose 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 2010 fantasy double feature. What's more, each writer was given the option to list more pairings, without explanation (though many still gave them), 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 2010's most interesting films into double features with movies of the past?
WHY: The best thing about Everyone Else, a European last-legs of a relationship drama, is that it's funny. It occupies the prologue, the foyer, of the space that Stanley Cavell's "Comedies of Remarriage" live in. It is the moment when two companions realize they cannot live together, and before they realize they cannot live apart. It fills in what happened before Cary Grant returns to his wife from a trip from "Florida" with an orange stamped "made in California." I was delighted that this connection to that McCarey film (that I saw in 2010, as I see it every year) was my first reaction to this Maren Ade film so praised that I went in ready to puncture all that overrating. I soon found out, though, that this was an unoriginal thought; my own film godfather, Kent Jones, had already made that link. But what he didn't comment on was that, like all the classic screwballs, Everyone Else deals not only with the flux of power in gender role relations but also in class differences, and not in a Depression-era retro way. While those films about heiresses, gallivanters and parvenus dealt simply with opposites attracting or, sometimes, about disentangling class from money, there is new math here: figuring how long her club "cool" trumps his square bourgeois inheritance as the couple transitions from their classless twenties towards their invested forties. Also unexpected were the lovingly rendered shots of a young man's bald spot and his soft and bony, sloping frame. Ah yes, this was a film made by a woman. A film of a couple laughing together and watching each other move from behind, from a few paces back.
The Ferroni Brigade
NEW: Inwentaryzacja [Inventory] (Paweł Łoziński, Poland)
OLD: Mir kumen on [We Are on Our Way] (Aleksandr Ford, 1936)
WHY: Sometimes the answer to a question or a query simply materialises right in front of your eyes; which is to say that we didn't need to think about the Double Feature of the Year for even a second as we had seen it only a few days before we got Danny's invitation. Well, we didn't really see it as a double feature but we saw both films on the same icy, wind-swept Warsaw day albeit in two different programs.
Mir kumen on is a Yiddish-spoken Polish documentary about a children's sanatorium financed by a Jewish workers organisation; the film's director, Aleksander Ford, was himself Jewish. In its days, Mir kumen on was censored and remained officially unseen for quite some time, at least back home (the surviving print has Danish sub- and inter-titles…); reasons for these measures were never clearly stated but it seems that authorities felt threatened by the work's implicit call for civil disobedience: if Poland didn't care properly for its weaker subjects, their well-being, then international proletarian solidarity had to take charge. It's difficult to see the film today without thinking about these children's fate—most of them were probably murdered some five, six, seven years later.
Which in a roundabout way gets us to Inwentaryzacja, another perfectly realised documentary miniature by Łoziński fils: People are shown trying to “read” the weathered tombstones of an ancient cemetery over-grown with weeds, wines and mosses. Turns out that it's Warsaw's Jewish cemetery, and that these youngsters are trying to re-construct the city's Jewish register, which was destroyed during the German occupation. A strangely moving act, this: at least their names shall be accounted for—these people once lived in this city, many of their families for decades or even centuries, and here are the files to prove it.
Aleksander Ford fled Poland for the USSR and thus escaped the German hordes and their willing local collaborators; he returned home with the Red Army; in mid-'45 he became something of a stern founding father for the cinema of People's Poland—only to be chased out of the country in 1968 as part of Gomułka/Moczar's anti-Semitic campaigns/purges/pogroms; after a decade+ of feeling lost between solely so-so welcoming hosts (Israel, FRG, Denmark, USA...) and seemingly incapable of finding funding for his projects, Ford committed suicide on April 4th 1980 in a hotel room in Naples, Florida (so, yes, this is also a commemoration of the 30th anniversary of his death). For us, Aleksander Ford is one of those very few whose life deserves being called tragic; let's also mention that he is a master who decidedly merits serious re-evaluation.
WHY: I saw Meek’s Cutoff at the New York Film Festival in October. I saw Northern Lights at Anthology Film Archives in January. Both are quiet, slow historical films shot in flat, empty landscapes west of the Mississippi. Their differences, though, epitomize a significant change in American independent cinema over the last few decades.Northern Lights tells the story of the Non-Partisan League in North Dakota in the 1910s. The party’s main goals were to empower farmers by wresting control of mills and grain elevators from bankers in Minneapolis and turning them over to the state. The film follows some political organizers who travel across the state trying to drum up support for their cause. Reichardt’s film follows a few families traveling by covered wagon through Oregon in 1845. The plot is minimal and the dialogue is sparse. Her remarkably sudden and ambiguous ending makes the preceding hundred minutes seem like less of a movie about actual events in American history and more of a Modernist meditation on the meaninglessness of human existence. In the 1970s, independent cinema tended to be political in the way it portrayed outsiders or disenfranchised groups (think of Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street or Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep). Most independent films today seem to be about young people who have awkward sexual relationships because of their fucked up families. The best independent filmmakers today, like Reichardt, tend to make films that are more overtly “artistic” and about “universal” themes. I loved both of these movies, but I’d love to see Reichardt make a political film. An overtly political subject matter would make a mysteriously ambiguous ending all the more poignant, I think.
NEW: Ne change rien (Pedro Costa, Portugal/France)
OLD: A Summer’s Tale (Eric Rohmer, 1996)
WHY: About 15 minutes go by in A Tale of Summer as a boy walks, watches, strums his guitar, hums (sings?), before he has a conversation: the question of who he is, suggested by dialogue and dialect even in silent films and (seemingly) Rohmer’s in particular, hold through the film as he struggles for (or struggles against) any sort of self-expression apart from the convenience of his present situation. If we have any idea who he is, it’s physically, and even there in his voice as a more faithful physical toll than intellectual one: the movie is given to the way he touches girls and they touch him in Murnau-like open spaces framed into arenas by Rohmer’s hovering compositions. And to his diversions as a singer. Where A Tale of Winter, with its miracle in front of a toilet, and The Lady and the Duke seem like pretty good evidence that Rohmer believed no more in Catholic epiphanies than the luck of historical wagers, A Tale of Summer brings back the supposed Catholicism of Bazin ¨realism¨: the transubstantiation of the soul, interior materializing as exterior, thought/soul only made manifest physically in voice/song. The question of the boy’s identity has everything to do with what he will say well before the plot kicks in. And the question goes just as unresolved in Ne change rien, as Jeanne Balibar expresses herself—or, maybe better, searches for self-expression in guises of show tunes and opera and rock in an endless dress rehearsal—for what? Both films set up spaces for performances but seem to document these fiddlings, self-evasions, retrials—rehearsals—instead.
With Rohmer dead, Ne change rien is also more evidence that Costa is one of the very few post-New Wave/Derrida/Straub filmmakers, along with Jean-Claude Rousseau, still obsessed with the potential of speech to breathe documentary life into staid texts: a loose concern running through a lot of the year’s best director’s retros, from Monteiro to Achternbusch to Duras to Rohmer to Syberberg. With the right concatenation of viewings, an invisible line emerges from Nathalie Granger (Duras) to De son appartement (Rousseau) to Corneille-Brecht(Straub-Geiser). Or, reabsorbed in and out of character-based narrative, A Tale of Summer and Ne change rien.
O: De son Appartement (Rousseau) + N: Corneille-Brecht (Straub-Geiser). W: Rousseau rereading Racine in his apartment; Geiser (in a Rousseau-assisted movie) reading Corneille and Brecht in hers (hers?); both digital, and most and least flat when overtaken by light.
O: Our Lady of the Turks (Bene) + N: Wild Grass (Resnais). W: Digressive lines of thought as lines in architecture; dream comedies of swapped signs and signal/genre interference; the cinema as the black hole of memory, an imitation and ideal lived and relived; Quixotic quests in which the men can hardly cook dinner; an imitation of heaven on prosthetic wings; opening shots that could be reliving Marienbad.
O: The Dead Ones (Markopoulos) + N: Film Socialisme (Godard). W: In montage, characters are put in shot-reverse-shots with the entire world, as if their visions (and their directors’) were nexus for the whole universe—Deren’s or Vertov’s heritage? Alternately, Film Socialisme and Rousseau’s La vallée close: the circulation, economy of signs, each metaphorizing the other into an abstracted musical chairs—Godard and Rousseau are maybe the whole directors to hold with cupped palms both the lineage of neorealism and a structuralist avant-garde, to attempt a montage of both sound and image as inflections on each other.
N: Cry When It Happens (Lertxundi) + O: Agatha et les lectures illimitées (Duras). W: Do the characters watch the sky, or does the sky watch them?
N: Bellamy (Chabrol) / O: Le beau serge (Chabrol). W: Same story, 50 years later.
O: L´insaissable pickpocket (Chomon) + N: The Strange Case of Angelica (Oliveira). W: Silent films.
O: Medea (Pasolini) + N: Vincere (Bellocchio). W: Silent films with sound.
WHY: I'd like to see a double-bill of The Legend of Pale Male (2009) with The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2003) because—when it comes to watching documentaries about humans watching birds—these two films have the most heart, hearts beat the same on both coasts, and the ancient human fascination with birding is poignantly contrasted against modern urbanscapes. Alternately, the shadow side of this double-bill would be Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2008) and Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).
WHY: “Popcorn double feature / Whole world's a funny-farm / Black man is your teacher / There's no need to be alarmed / Not much..."
—The Searchers, Popcorn Double Feature (1967)
I can't think of many films which fit the phrase "black man is your teacher" better than Larry Cohen's Bone (1972), five-star highlight of the Viennale's terrific Cohen-retrospektiv in October/November. The "black man" in question being Yaphet Kotto as swaggering, priapic, garrulously articulate ex-con 'Bone', who turns up unannounced, unexpected and undaunted at the BH mansion of a "respectable" middle-aged couple. All manner of social, sexual, racial and tensions are given a thorough working over in the picture's 95 hilarious, transgressive minutes—almost exactly the same duration, indeed, as Hitoshi Matsumoto's Symbol, by some margin the best new film I saw in 2010. The picture was shrouded in mystery before its 2009 release in Japan, one baffled commentator speculating that "apparently it involves a guy who breaks out of a prison of some sort and meets a lot of foreigners." Uh, not quite—instead Matsumoto presents an audaciously bifurcate narrative structure involving a moptop bozo experiencing bizarre phenomena in a large white room, and an over-the-hill lucha libre wrestler preparing for his latest bout. And if Bone is the blackest of comedies, Symbol is the most cosmic—and comic—of killing jokes: laughter in the dark, seldom more appropriate or necessary.
WHY: In the cinema between land and sea, tranquility and madness are similarly conceived as the dissolution of solid ground. Alamar's minor narrative of a young boy's idyll with his fisherman father near Mexico's majestic Bancho Chinchurro reef works as all fables must—by locating a moral story in its most resonant setting. What better picture of security than the little hut resting upon the sea? Some have complained that Pedro González-Rubio's affirmative vision of patrimony and ecology intertwined needed more traction even at 70 minutes. Follow it with Curtis Harrington's Night Tide, its inky cinematography restored by UCLA, and you’re still well under three hours. Harrington's feature debut also enters fantasy through boyish innocence—strangely, Dennis Hopper in a sailor outfit. Here the feminine is embodied not as an egret but a possible mermaid, who, with a few loving swipes from Val Lewton animism, awakens a melancholy strain of the occult. Seagulls do not dip sweetly for scraps of food in this world. They hover in menace, black eyes fastened on the whole meal (and two years before The Birds). Our sensitivities heightened by the presence of the nonprofessional actor and the soon-to-be star, beauty becomes a peculiar kind of watchfulness in these two films. Alamar’s unadorned images allow more space for daydreaming, while Harrington’s resourceful treatment of Venice Beach’s moldering dream-life gives Night Tide the hardened stare of street photography even as the plot twists away from phenomenal reality.
WHY: 2010 was a good year for rolling metaphors: both Tony Scott's hilariously delirious Unstoppable (about a runaway locomotive) and Quentin Dupieux's deliriously hilarious Rubber (the "killer tire" movie of Cannes/Locarno lore) drew their momentum from their inanimate but forever encroaching antagonists. I'd love to watch either film—or, preferably, both—on a bill with Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971), which, as I discovered during a late-night viewing earlier this year, still holds up. Not only for its then-25-year old director's effortless command of backroads spatial dynamics, anticipating both the comic automotive ballet of The Sugarland Express (1974) and the looming negative-space compositions of Jaws (1975), but also for the darkly suggestive qualities of the evil 18-wheeler pursuing poor Dennis Weaver. Massive yet agile, utterly implacable in its pursuit of the outsider, it's a stark, faceless evocation of violent American territoriality—the automotive equivalent of Leatherface swinging away at the end of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
WHY: It’s true that my guilty conscious had some effect on picking Copie conforme, though it was an outstanding film itself, needless of any guilty conscious to be the criteria of a choice. I had some rough, and probably unfair, judgments on Kiarostami’s films, after The Wind Will Carry Us, and in the shadow of post-June-2009 happenings in Iran these judgments became harsher. But now, I can read the filmmaker’s thoughts more clearly, because I know if he had made any film the way that people of his country wanted he would now have his own share of 26 years. Of course, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance has considered Copie unscreenable in Iran. But that doesn’t affect Kiarostami’s reputation, in or out of his homeland. Inside, the usual bunch of opponents call him a coward and a fake, and on the other side, many more find him one of the few who can give them back a part of the lost honor of a nation. He has his followers and protégés; not so strangely, none of them working in Iran anymore, and of course some of them, like Jafar Panahi, do not and will not work at all. But Kiarostami continues his cinematic journey, this time in Italy, and makes organic films like they are part of a change of the weather or any other natural occurrence. He is coming from a country full of frustration, a country facing its biggest troubles ever, but he is still focused on details (a kid’s notebook, a hobo’s marriage proposition after a demolishing earthquake, drivers driving Tehran street without showing any real life on those streets), details that are not related clearly and directly to the problems. Does he have any message for his own people? The answer is hardly a yes, but maybe his continuity is the message. Wouldn’t he be forgotten, like many filmmakers with clear telegram-like messages before and after the 1979 revolution, if he had stopped being Kiarostami?
To fill the gap, to have another perspective rather than pleasant landscape of Tuscany, to remember people are losing jobs, and to not forget that not very far from now, after recent political/economical changes in Kiarostami’s homeland, a new wave of poverty will sweep up the nation, let’s watch Lewis Milestone’s masterpiece of the American left, Hallelujah I'm a Bum, about central park hobos and their hopes and dreams during the big depression; a Milestone that shows us (and Kiarostami) how can fantasy explain bitter reality. Juliette Binoche is much like Al Jolson. In the end, they both are left alone with undying hopes in hand, and tears in their eyes. Binoche and Jolson are the integral of people in Iran, today.
NEW: Unstoppable (Tony Scott, USA)
OLD: The Cup and the Lip (Warren Sonbert, 1986)
WHY: Caught these two within a few weeks of each other, and they seem like each other's inversions. Every time I watch a Tony Scott film, I feel as if I should be seeing more Hollywood entertainment; and every time I watch a Warren Sonbert film, I feel like plunging into the avant-garde. In both cases, the filmmaker seems to hit all the chalk marks of his respective film culture, and yet in some subtle way is a carpetbagger from a different cinematic realm. Scott's trademark is a multi-pronged attack on the integrity of the individual shot, within a culture where the cinematographer and the editor generally suggest conductors competing for the same orchestra. Contrariwise, Sonbert coaxes out the shot's tendency toward narrativity: the dominating editing rhythms of influences like Vertov and Brakhage are subtly adjusted to mark the duration of an event within the shot.
WHY: I seem to be in a minority that considers I'm Still Here to be a serious work and not some kind of multi-media stunt (though Roger Ebert, in a thoughtful interview with Casey Affleck, did a good job of discussing its formal qualities). For me, the film is a provocative update of Peter Watkins' investigations of how mass media affects our perception of the world—a worthy endeavor when so much current media creates the illusion that everyone is a cynical insider. Just as Watkins demonstrated that the tropes of vérité documentaries could be used to make a viewer accept falsehood as truth, so does Affleck demonstrate the distorting structures of reality television, webcasts, and entertainment "journalism." (He was aided greatly in this end by Joaquin Phoenix's hilarious, and ultimately pathetic, impersonation of an egomaniacal celebrity.) The methods of I'm Still Here become more obvious when the film is seen alongside Watkins' Privilege, another fake documentary about celebrity culture run amok, complete with messianic overtones and deliberately overwrought songs. Affleck may not share Watkins' radical politics, but he may be even more righteous about exposing the credulity of his audience, which may explain why so many people came out of I'm Still Here either dismissive or indignant.
WHY: Just when you thought it was safe to have eyes and ears, Enter the Void does for embodying consciousness what Psycho did for taking showers. Framed entirely through a single POV (complete with blinks), this daunting 2.5 hours of dizzying formal innovations yields groundbreaking intimacy-by-proxy ironically lavished upon a protagonist pitifully detached from his self; first figuratively, then literally. On the particularly unlucky day depicted, his emotional inertia devolves from a restless existence of chronic drug use into the worst bad trip ever put on screen, in the process transforming his world and our cinematic universe into the scopophilic's consummate fantasy: a life (and afterlife) in which everything can be observed but nothing can be touched. It soon becomes Hell on Earth for this doomed soul as we claustrophobically observe, with no control, the consequences of his actions unfold upon those who loved him…I don’t think I’ve ever been so cathartically grateful to exit a cinema back into the constantly running film-loop of my own real life. Since Noe’s film is such an extreme crash course in how entrapping it can feel to experience only sound and vision, it pairs nicely with Werner Herzog's 1971 documentary about what it might be like to live entirely without those two culturally prioritized senses. Land of Silence and Darkness follows a group of blind-deaf-mutes who communicate solely through tactile language and experience the world in a way I can only close my eyes and imagine...alone...just like everybody else. Solidarity in solitude. Land of Silence and Darkness is streamable through Netflix again thanks to the re-institution of New Yorker Films this year.
WHY: In 2010 Christopher Koch, a neuroscientist at CalTech, was prompted to claim in the science journal Nature that Inception (Nolan, 2010) was: “a visionary science-fiction film that does for dreaming what The Matrix did for virtual reality in 1999.” Did it? Inception might have integrated the latest studies in dream science, but if there is one thing beyond doubt about the basic features of a dreaming it is that sense of self is severely enhanced (“You never dream you are somebody else,” said Allan Hobson in a 2009 interview). Distinct from formal qualities, the plot, the most singular phenomenon, can hardly be shared. It would have to be out-sourced from the author’s perspective, such as the lab paradigm of a detachment between subject and observer suggests. Also for literature studies the problem of representation of dreams however, has not been a main concern of progressive technology or scientific achievements, but this condition. "Hide not your wounds to thine eyes and others, hence they will rot... and death will follow. Expose them to sunlight and health will ensue...," say the opening titles of Un uomo a metà (de Seta, 1966). Romantically, I answer to Inception with an autobiographical film. On a journey through his incubations and nightmares documentarist Vittorio de Seta (not Sica!) in 1966 took the camera himself and leads, with ethnographic interest, through his own inner world. Images on deportation and repression, fragmented, disorienting and utterly real—that is what a handful of actors achieved at a remote château. The main protagonist is a then “diagnosed neurotic,” a half (Italian post-war) man, who has been cast in analogy to the director’s psychic condition. In an interview de Seta tells me, that this film marked his life. And I suppose also that of others. Pier Paolo Pasolini defended it from Italian critics in Cannes, who had called the style self-absorbed and calligraphic. A year later he finished his autobiographical Oedipus Rex (Pasolini, 1967). How could dreaming be defined without introspection? It still is the role of authors to explore singular experience within the motion (logic and idiosyncrasies) of the medium they use. For 2011 I wished that a boat full of scientists of consciousness would come reading these travelogues.
WHY: Two gazes into what is ahead. Jonathan Scott-Taylor's Damien who will not serve, and Michael Lonsdale transcendent Brother Luc, a free man. U.S. east coast forests, Algerian mountains, and faces as landscapes of determination.
R. Emmett Sweeney
WHY: Two films that spin fictions out of reality, creating scaled-down city symphonies, or intimate ballads, of Berlin and the village of Arganil in Portugal, respectively. People on Sunday, directed by the German super-group of Curt and Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinneman and Edgar Ulmer, and scripted by Billy Wilder, takes four non-professional actors and has them gallivant around Berlin on a summer's day. A relaxed, bittersweet portrait of inter-war Berlin emerges that pays as close attention to the faces of beach-goers and street-sweepers as to the ostensible love story. Miguel Gomes' Our Beloved Month of August starts as documentary and splits off into narrative. When the funding fell through for his feature, Gomes simply began filming the people of Arganil, who sing furtive pop songs, jaunty folk tunes, and tell stories of the local drunk, Paulo. Then the already-performing villagers turn into full-blown actors, for a melodramatic tale of forbidden love that reconfigures the spaces and faces of the first half. The imagined and the real both get their due in these exemplaryrepresentatives of the "cinema of in-betweenness", as coined by Robert Koehler in Cinema Scope. (People on Sunday is available on R2 DVD from the BFI, and Our Beloved Month of August is streaming at MUBI.)
NEW: The Social Network (David Fincher, USA)
OLD: The Night Cleaners (Part 1) (Marc Karlin & James Scott, 1975)
WHY: Two films that use the act of giving depositions as a means to explore the interactions of individual emotions and history: David Fincher's The Social Network (2010) uses deposition-based set pieces to showcase the personal grievances that help drive the creation of a new form of social interaction, a sort of computer-powered social efficiency engine. In The Nightcleaners (Part 1) (1975), the Berwick Street Film Collective uses interviews to show the human cost of daily underpaid drudgery and unfairness—the personal grievances that result from participation in an engine of grand economic efficiency.
WHY: Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, tender and beautiful, begs to be considered alongside Jacques Tati's films, but it's worth remembering that Tati never intended to play the lead role himself: he had in mind his friend, Pierre Étaix, who would have brought a more seductive quality to the story. And the story would have been somewhat more sordid as a result. Ironically, Etaix's movies, unseen for years, became available again this year, allowing us to make direct comparisons. Étaix is very much his own man, not some kind of Tati understudy, and Yoyo (1965) is an incredibly inventive, striking and strange comedy. Shot (and largely designed) in gleaming black and white, almost completely wordless until the end, it tells the tale of a rich man who joins a circus out of love, and is almost The Illusionist in reverse. Watch them back to back or front to front.
If there's a quibble to be had with the Chomet, it's that the gags themselves are not up to Tati's best standard, nor can Chomet build one on top of the other with the logic, finesse and boggling inventiveness of the man whose story he's inherited. Nobody could, of course. What Étaix brings to the table is a more fantastical sensibility, making use of the medium not only as a medium for presenting jokes, which Tati did better than anybody since Keaton, but as a subject for jokes. A lot of the gags are about storytelling, and about seeing images, and sometimes that's all they're about. When we see a footman, elegantly dressed, bearing a candelabra, and he steps out of shot and the arm with the candles remains in position, because its affixed to the wall like a left-over prop from Cocteau's La belle et la bête, the realism Keaton and Tati insisted on is violated, and the joke isn't about anything except the trompe l'oeil trick and the beauty of the staging.
NEW: Film socialisme (Jean-Luc Godard, Switzerland)
OLD: An Injury to One (Travis Wilkerson, 2002)
WHY: Nicole Brenez once described René Vautier’s films as being like missiles designed to destroy the enemy. Though it is clearly a greater overall good to combat corruption and exploitation, say, than it is to see a really good flick, this “missile” problem nevertheless poses a long-vexing question for the potential of political art. In his very helpful rundown of Film Socialisme, Michael Sicinski’s proposed it was best understood “an intra-European discussion.” Permit me, then, to pair Godard’s controversial work with a documentary about things that have happened on the other side of the Atlantic. I recently caught up with Wilkerson’s 51-minute investigation of Montana labor history and the 1917 assassination of union organizer Frank Little. Both films have a profound sense of variety or fragmentation—of sources, quotations, history, story, images (and image types). Yet in neither case does this impede the sense of coherent, purposeful direction. Or to put it another way, political commitment. On the contrary, I think these films come off as very expansive, layered, even mysterious. Nobody is in the dark as to Godard’s stance on HADOPI, or Wilkerson’s views on labor struggles. Slogans and epigrams explicitly, visibly pare down larger and more complex questions. Where Film Socialisme and An Injury to One succeed, to me, as serious political films is that their utility is not simply shed with the communication of some message. The films themselves work through—in their form and content—the living, breathing context in which these slogans are embedded. Here’s hoping that they’ll endure, and bear perennial fruit.
Ryland Walker Knight
WHY: Start with a Kim Novak witch snaring book publisher Jimmy Stewart only to lose her powers; culminate with madman-enigma André Dussollier succumbing to the flight of his flame, embodied by Sabine Azéma’s dentist-aviatrix, in a zip-line on how love robs us of our vanity, then our dignity, in the most hilarious ways. (Sanity, it should be noted, was never there to begin.) Though Quine’s film is more Rivette than Resnais, here’s a couple of pun-filled films about love as a spell cast and as a delusion worn away, though we’re often left with more mania by the end/near the bone. The obvious difference comes from the periods’ expectations (of reality, of romance, of narrative), but it’s not so simple as happy versus sad; rather, tidy versus topsy-turvy. —Caveat: Vertigo’d be a more apt (obvious) spiritual pair for Wild Grass, but it’s not funny enough and it just plummets (and of course I’d seen it a bunch before 2010); Bell, Book and Candle doesn’t race at a finish line the way Wild Grass zooms past monuments to life (and zips through a left-field idea about mortality in its coda’s sprint), but, just the same, BB&C’s final reconciliation is acknowledging a charge in the world that our lovers create. So you’ll end that one believing in love, maybe, and its own special magic, ready for insanity to upend it all in Resnais’ paean to the sprawl of our brains, to imagination (as ever) ruling everything. Because it’s an object—Azéma’s stolen wallet—that twists Dussollier’s head around. Granted, Novak’s spell is precipitated by her cat, but that’s as good as a wand pointing; the wallet’s a totem, loaded with significance, that our man unpacks and imbues at the same time. Which is the crux of it: motivations always hold their opposite at heart. The best thing possible, or so you might interpret, may well be your downfall. But that downfall, as it happens, could simply be bottoming out in a hilarious, entertaining way. Or that witch could turn human and the world could open up. Take your pick. (However, electing the Resnais our second feature is an obvious claim about foibles.)
WHY: Honestly, I'd decided on these two films even before the symmetry of their titles occurred to me. I was thinking, instead, of their dances sequences. Delfine Bafort in high-contrast, low-angle black-and-white; Dorothy Malone in lush, sensual Technicolor. Seeing them back-to-back on a big screen with the volume turned way up loud would show you everything you'll ever need to know about cinematic ecstasy.
WHY: Coming nearly a century later, Disorder offers a smudged and grainy reflection of Manhatta's heroic "city of tall façades of marble and iron." Where Sheeler and Strand's ode heralds the machinic, modern synchrony of Whitman's "proud and passionate city," Huang Weikai's gritty digital collage punks the dysfunction of Guangzhou in shaky cameraphone fragments. Drawing on 1000 hours of footage from a dozen different videographers, Huang assembles a crowd-sourced, multi-angle view of the chaos of post-socialist China: pigs run wild on the highways and desperate con-men throw themselves under cars; water floods the streets and fires rage through buildings; a routine arrest devolves into a civilian riot and a raid on an illegal bearpaw and anteater dispensary; babies are found discarded in trash heaps, cockroaches in bowls of soup, and crocodiles in the Pearl River.
N: Trash Humpers (Harmony Korine, USA) + O: The Crazy Dave Tape
N: Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea) + N: Poetry (Lee Chang-don, South Korea)
N: Robinson in Ruins (Patrick Keiller, UK) + O: Dear Phone (Peter Greenaway, 1976)
Fernando F. Croce
WHY: One a dark-toned oil painting warped by heat and anguish, the other a procession of dioramas wrapped in satin and insouciance. Narratives fractured, interrupted, dilated. Disguises and reincarnations. Puppet masters, tranquil and antic. Watch them back to back, or, better yet, bring in Mariano Llinás’ still-shamefully undistributed Historias extraordinarias and make it a triple bill of elastic storytelling that could keep going and surprising forever.
N: White Material (Claire Denis, France-Cameroon) + O: So Red the Rose (King Vidor, 1935)
N: The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, France-Germany-United Kingdom) + O: Silver Lode (Allan Dwan, 1954)
N: Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea) + O: Mother (Mikio Naruse, 1952)
N: Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, USA) + O: What’s Opera, Doc? (Chuck Jones, 1957)
N: Babnik (Alejandro Adams, USA) + O: Gang of Four (Jacques Rivette, 1989)
N: Ne change rien (Pedro Costa, Portugal-France) + O: When Willie Comes Marching Home (John Ford, 1950)
N: Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio, Mexico) + O: Isle of Forgotten Sins (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1943)
N: Promises Written in Water (Vincent Gallo, USA) + O: Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933)
N: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, USA) + O: Three Resurrected Drunkards (Nagisa Oshima, 1968)
WHY: While I'd agree with David Bordwell that clumping movies together under the heading "Zeitgeist" can be dangerously reductive if not outright misguided, I can't help noting that 2010 was shot through with the sort of nostalgia that tends to flare up whenever the economy tanks. More than a few of my favorite films of the year are, deliberately or not, throwbacks in content and/or form to earlier cinematic eras: Thomas Arslan's In the Shadows, for example, which, in another fantasy double feature could be paired with one of any number of films from just about anywhere in which a small-time crook plans one last heist before retirement; or Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, which, while I admired it foremost for its own merits, also had me thinking of the sort of American independent regional filmmaking that gave us Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles (1961) or Eagle Penell's The Whole Shootin' Match (1978). Same goes for a few films that were not among my favorites, e.g., Shutter Island (which could obviously be paired with Sam Fuller's Shock Corridor (1963) among other films Scorsese vigorously nods to) and even Nolan's Inception, which, coupled with the marvelous new restoration of Lang's Metropolis (1927) would make for an evening of architectural reverie. But if I'm going to program a fantasy double feature, I figure I can be as tactical about it as I want to be, and what we've got here is a bit of counter-programming in the form of a double bill. Cold Weather gives the lie to the argument made by some that the filmmakers once corralled under the "mumblecore" umbrella have all shot their wads, were all one-trick ponies, etc. The film is genuinely fresh—a quality all too rare this year—and what's more, in a year in which a supposedly increasing number of films transgress the boundary between documentary and fiction, encroaching on the "real," Cold Weather moves in the opposite direction as its characters, literally taking a cue from Sherlock Holmes, segue themselves out of a milieu of vérité aimlessness into the thrust of a generic narrative—an investigation. I revisited Zodiac, surely among the greatest of investigation movies, after seeing The Social Network because I had to reconfirm that it was the masterpiece I'd remembered. Frankly, the Facebook movie, which I actually quite liked, had shaken my faith in Fincher. Following a re-viewing of Zodiac, whose every frame is more complex and engaging than any in TSN, whose screenplay (by James Vanderbilt) gives far more contoured depth to its obsessive character (Jake Gyllenhaal's Robert Graysmith) than TSN's (while, at the same time, offering more resolution than you might remember), I've decided—and yes, I know I'm not alone—that The Social Network is ultimately an Aaron Sorkin film with a Fincherian gloss. There's hope yet for Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
The Democratic organisations, on which he could still have leaned in the Autumn, were in ruins. The City had betrayed the little man according to all the rules of the art, except the one that prescribes that the victim shall not notice anything.
—the banker Mummlius Spicer, from Brecht’s The Business Affairs of Mr. Julius Caesar.
To show, above all. To show the possible. That's all.
Not so much a fantasy double bill as two films, and three filmmakers, that meant a lot to me this year. Looking back, it seems the year’s great films about the political and spatial decay of the present—Patrick Keiller’s Robinson in Ruins, Thom Andersen’s Get Out of the Car—could only be paired with films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. I’ve clung to these two for their clarity, their abstractions, and their hope.
WHY: "In the time of Galileo it was argued that the texts 'And the sun stood still ... and hasted not to go down about a whole day." (Joshua 10:13) and "He laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not move at any time" (Psalm 104:5) were an adequate refutation of the Copernican theory." — Alan Turing
NEW: Poetry (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)
OLD: “Grandma” (Stephen Roberts) from If I Had a Million…(1932)
WHY: Stephen Roberts had what’d you call “sensitivity,” which is really just a fancy way of saying that, in the process of filming a person’s face, he would linger, almost as if he was trying to draw out some facet of the subject’s being. While a reaction shot normally records an expression to be registered instantaneously (shock, surprise, fear, grief, etc., etc.), in his films, reaction shots always have duration, and expressions fade, transmute or bloom over the course of several seconds instead of being held like tableaux vivants. Lee Chang-dong, on the other hand, is all about activity and rippling movement; his leads sometimes verge on ciphers (especially in the case of Yun Jeong-hie in Poetry), but then unfold themselves through sudden, often furtive action. These two different approaches—patience (Roberts) vs. movement (Lee)—are further separated by the fact that Roberts made short and slow films, often lacking a “third act,” while Lee makes long-ass movies marked by elided, elliptical action. But nonetheless, the two should be united in a double feature, where two films—one long, one short—would show old ladies making difficult decisions involving money, because: 1) cinema, as if afraid that it might be dying, is obsessed with being for / about / by young people; 2) movies (not just these two movies) are moral quandaries set in motion by economic forces; 3) young people are all more or less the same, which is why it’s so easy to make movies for / about them, whereas the old are unpredictable; 4) both films deal, whether directly or indirectly, with treatment of the elderly, a subject which was dear to a few great filmmakers (Ozu, McCarey, S. Ray…) but which remains insufficiently explored in a medium that is itself aging and whose past is being treated with increasing condescension.
Just as easily:
N: Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea) + O: Romance in Manhattan (Stephen Roberts, 1935)
N: The 2010 World Cup + O: Jour de fete [color version] (Tati) W: A lot of activity builds to tiny victories.
N: The Portuguese Nun (Green) + O: Rue Fontaine (Garrel) W: Those lost in thought inevitably encounter spirits.
N: Film Socialisme [subtitled] (JLG) + O: Film Socialisme [unsubtitled] (JLG) W: No comment.
NEW: Tape (Li Ning, China)
OLD: Numéro zéro (Jean Eustache, 1971)
WHY: Among old and new top-tier films I saw in 2010, the strongest connections could be drawn between James Benning's Tulare Road(2010) and Heinz Emigholz' Schenectady series (1972-75), both already discussed in my contribution to MUBI's Berlinale coverage. That report also mentions Hiroshi Shimazu's Lights of Asakusa (1937), whose fascinating infusions of Europe within an Asian setting resonate strongly with Zhu Wen's hilariously superb Thomas Mao (2010). But I'm going to stretch a little in order to mention two works I felt extraordinarily lucky to have watched: Numéro zéro (1971) by Jean Eustache and Tape (2010) by Li Ning. Both are documentaries that challenge the limits of the genre in giving full testimony to the darker reaches of history (20th century French and 21st century Chinese, respectively). Both films align themselves radically alongside the first person (Eustache's grandmother and Li Ning himself) as a way of implicitly critiquing the steamrolling effect of national narratives of patriotism and economic progress on individual experience. They also lay bare the filmmaking apparatus (outtakes, stage directions and other seemingly extraneous artifacts are preserved throughout both) as vital to understanding the process of retrieving these histories. In these films, the act of filmmaking becomes an intrepid act of time travel imbued with both duty and disclosure.
WHY: The second Sino-Japanese war loomed large at the beginning and the end of my film viewing in 2010, startling images of long distance military quagmires in which civilians visibly suffer made especially fresh in a mirrored era (last century's '30s and this one's '10) of low value (and indeed suppression) of such valuable audio-visual currency. I admit this would be a bite-down-on-something-hard, tough as nails program to watch, but then again so were all the programs in which I saw the older films, all selected and shown by Olaf Möller at Rotterdam early last year. Wakamatsu's spare Caterpillar is a home front tragicomedy of a limbless Japanese hero returning to his village, obligating his wife as a wife, a Japanese, and a relation to a "war god" to care for him in entirely physical ways (eat, sleep, f*ck). The director, along with his magnificent actress Shinobu Terajima, plays all the wife's emotions and actions, and indeed the movie itself, in an ambiguous zone of respect-masking-horror, satiric subversiveness, honest-to-goodness for-the-greater-good, and so on—all focused on the tatami chamber drama between a wife and the statuesque surreal object she is wedded to, the belligerent, mute husband of no arms and legs. So if you can gird yourself for that discomfort and still keep your eyes open, watch that short feature with a from-the-era cavalcade of complete and semi-complete docs, fictions, and lyrical-real in-betweens, terrible and terribly beautiful: Civilian Victims of Military Brutality, horrible, unseen images in a Nanjing hospital of the results of Japanese attacks and occupation; Fighting Soliders, a true (documentary) fever predicting Merrill's Marauders/ The Thin Red Line's reveries of the downtime, boredom and endless marches and miseries of war, but not combat; and Protect My Country—finally images from the Chinese—fiction propaganda of What The Japanese Do, but whose power lays in the incomplete, glowing footage of the countryside and village life, a beauty, naturally, meant to be ravaged by the occupiers and beheld in bucolic not to mention patriotic rapture by audiences.
More (because I can):
Start with Unstoppable (Tony Scott, USA), continual mechanical propulsion attempted to be caught and communicated by Scott's camera as much as the media and corporate railway control room, and finish it with the romance of Godard's commissioned telecommunications short Pussance de la parole (Jean Luc, 1988), where, like the opening of A Matter of Life and Death, errant lovers try to communicate spirit and romance and action over the talkbox.
Two dances to follow: the airy, amorphous doleful romance of Around a Small Mountain (Jacques Rivette, France) and the utterly weighted, relentless and unforgiving separation in 2/Duo (Nobuhiro Suwa, 1997).
Three westerns, as I can't decide which to narrow it down to, so let's sandwich the docu-pean-elegy-frontier Sweetgrass (Ilisa Barbash, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA) between the equally "moving" Wagon Master (John Ford, 1950) and the abrupt and no-nonsense Gun Fury (Raoul Walsh, 1953), whose banally beautiful use of 3D would punch well out of the sheep film's grainy digital swim.
Two documentaries of obstinate personal, talkative focus constructing entirely different characters and worlds absolutely of their time: Karamay (Xu Xin, China) and Jean Eustache's Numéro zéro (1971).
(Woops how'd that get in here: two new films, True Grit (Coens, USA) and Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff (USA), post-post classical old Western buzzards drag the innocent so far into the wilderness their bearded authority gets questioned, each to each film's very pointed purpose.)
Genre inspired from that diversion, we meet and greet two solid instances of attack squad war filmmaking, the character-actor (not to be confused with "character actor") beauty of The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, USA) and the beauty in the pretense (and oft-successful capturing) of realism of La 317ème section (Pierre Schoendoerffer, 1965).
And finally get bogged down in a the flow of truly surrealist films: from fluid familial history in Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal/France/Brazil) through the concrete, direct unreality of Georges Franju's Nuits rouges (1974), which moves blockily to the relative security of storyboarded Hollywood (and similar professionalism) of Robert Zemecki's What Lies Beneath (2000) with a similar stately assurance of horror, Hollywood moving naturally to video games, namely the dream eulogy of Rehearsals for Retirement (Phil Solomon, 2007), which drifts out into the water to the freeform island drama-farce of The Castaways of Turtle Island (Jacques Rozier, 1976) and naturally to Rozier's brother in diversion, Luc Moullet with the, uh, rally car mountain comedy Shipwrecked on Route D 17 (2002), which is such an end of the line film, not to mention end of the (film) world that we can only fatally follow its inanity to the only truly insane film of the bunch, Our Lady of the Turks (Carmelo Bene, 1968), whose aspect is so strange I can't even begin to characterize or describe it.
N: The Ditch (Wang Bing, China) + O: Dangerous Encounters: 1st Kind (Tsui Hark, 1980)
(One more cheat: Ruhr [James Benning, Germany] + Unstoppable [Tony Scott, USA])
N: The Father of My Children (Mia Hansen-Løve, France) + O: Sincerity (Mikio Naruse, 1939) / Spring Awakening (Mikio Naruse, 1947)
N: HaHaHa (Hong Sang-so, South Korea) + O: A Tale of Summer (Eric Rohmer, 1996)
N: 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, Japan) + O: Souls in the Moonlight (Tomu Uchida, 1957)
N: Corneille-Brecht (Jean-Marie Straub, Cornelia Geiser, France) + O: Catherine de Heilbronn (Eric Rohmer, 1980)