Here at the Vienna International Film Festival there are no multiplexes devoted to the festival. Every cinema is a single screen—all quite beautiful and some, like the Urania, Metro, Künstlerhaus, and Austrian Film Museum, very special indeed—and, scattered at a bit of a distance from one another, they trace a lopsided kind of ellipsis, a loop of cinema if you plan your itinerary right.
I came anticipating this particular suggestion of cinematic infinity, not just because of my memories of the last two years of repeatedly treading this touring path around the constrained city center of Vienna, but because of the promise of a much desired (by Jonathan Rosenbaum since 1996, and thereafter by an untold multitude of tantalized cinephiles) festival pairing of Jacques Rivette and Suzanne Schiffman's improvised serial intended for television, Out 1, noli me tangere (1971), and Louis Feuillade's continuously elaborated adventure serial made for the cinema, Tih Minh (1918). Despite their separation of over a half century of time, both films carry a distinctively 20th century fascination with cinema’s potential to suggest and attempt to embody the infinite. For Feuillade, this is a promise of modernity seem in the collapse of spaces through adventuresome technology (not the least being the cinema and the serial format themselves) and social movement, and for Rivette, a modernist explosion of form and formlessness, promises of artistic and thereby social freedom—and the anxieties and paranoia which could accompany it. Both epics contain a proposition of the infinite in their sprawling constructs and by turns caustic and supple stories elaborating episode after episode on proximate social concerns.
The serial format popular in the cinema at Feuillade’s time that eventually migrated to television by Rivette’s—and how has achieved a dominant and superior position at least in American culture discourse on moving images—itself flirts in both its ambitions and weaknesses with suggestions of never-ending stories. With the “death of cinema” and “death of film” now a constant theme in the film world and at film festivals specifically, it was sorely tempting to anticipate the Feuillade-Rivette combination of serials on a meta-level as a cinematic utopia: great cinema which is somehow able to self-propagate due to its form and story interests.
Alas, my personal gambit of attending the Viennale's first week rather than the second has eliminated my probably once in a lifetime chance of seeing these two serials—on film, I might add—nearly back to back, with Out 1 shown subtitled in German only (as was, incidentally, the touchingly conceived new video by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Dialogue d'ombres), and Tih Minh shown after I left. Yet arriving at the festival with anticipations of infinity—encouraged seeing one of Yves Klein's vistaless evocations of endlessness, 1956’s Untitled (IKB 100), right before leaving New York, and then seeing his 1962 Blue Monochrome at the mumok in Vienna—unexpectedly seemed to invade, infect, and otherwise inform that which I ended up seeing.
The 21st century, still so young, has easily and fluidly moved beyond Feuillade-Rivette's propositions of the infinite. Now, with the mere existence of YouTube as concrete proof, we take it as established, if illusive and illusory, fact. The endless exists at our fingertips. Cinema, a 19th century construct formalized in the 20th century, being made of closed works which start and stop, can only suggest the infinite, as Feuillade’s chain-linked adventures and Rivette’s amplifying conspiracies do so well. Which is why films like theirs exist as “what if” propositions, ones that, because they are films, after admirable pursuit and exemplification of their ideas, must inevitably end.
THE 20TH CENTURY INFINITE
An unexpected stand-in for my thwarted Tih Minh - Out 1 viewing manifested itself in the Viennale’s essential retrospective on Jerry Lewis, programmed and hosted by the Austrian Film Museum in 35mm with introductions to screenings by Chris Fujiwara, Adrian Martin, and Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Tih Minh’s adventure-for-the-sake-of-adventure (in which the protagonist is recommended to call the police after a kidnapping is discovered, prompting him to decline, saying he’s having too much fun!) seemed re-introduced back into theaters when Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis took their stage-radio-television vaudeville act to popular cinema. The duo embodied the television's sitcom ideal of sustaining an anxiety (and in their case, high anxiety) throughout each episode—an anxiety of friendship, of the stability of the story world—yet always returning from this threat of collapse and chaos to the reassuring conclusion that the world would end up as it began, thus inviting another episode, a continuation of this threatened-but-never-unsafe environment. The startlingly specific environment that Martin and Lewis played in was their rich and highly nuanced human relationship hybridizing brotherhood/family, lovers, co-workers, and friends. Films such as the Navy hijinks picture Sailor Beware (1952) and non-parody Western Pardners (1956) show the duo shedding and exchanging costumes, plots and genres with a surreal ease, momentarily running amok before righting the film’s list by solving romantic entanglements and reasserting the unbreakable connection between the two men.
Once Jerry went solo, without Dean’s presence as a friend and equal to help balance the intrinsic instability created in a film by Lewis’ presence, the resulting pictures move beyond the sitcom-style safety of Martin and Lewis and the regenerative adventuring of Feuillade. Especially in the films directed by Lewis but even in his solo outings directed by cinema’s great live action cartoonist Frank Tashlin we find comedy verging on chaotic uncontainability, of unmotivated mania, of the uncontrolled and uncontrollable; in short, closer not in tone but in overarching theme to the post- May ’68 touch points of bleakness, searching, schizophrenia, nihilism, and the need for reinvention that are to be found in Out 1. (1967's supreme masterpiece The Big Mouth, perhaps Jerry's greatest film, bares the closest similarity, also resembling the loose-limbed paranoia, wandering attention, zany, anchorless humor, and vague but severe threats of Pynchon's Inherent Vice.) Yet it bares pointing out that these very characteristics Lewis also channels into a profound sweetness, of an overly-human (superhuman, even) vulnerability, of the magic of innocent-childish thinking, and of a wondrous adulthood as instantaneous as snapping one’s fingers; in short, channeled into a profound humanism that exists simultaneously within the same body which expresses and inspires so much craziness.
Lewis’ solo films bristle with the loose freedom of gag-based cinema just barely held together by narrative conceits. Even sentimental mechanisms of control—control of story, of emotional focus—like the young Japanese child of Tashlin’s The Geisha Boy (1958) and the young girl in Lewis’ own pseudo-remake of that picture, The Family Jewels (1965) rather than balancing the films or somehow excusing or recontextualizing Lewis’ errant narratives and goofball comedy work principally as anomalies because they are not crazy in worlds where crazy is the most sublime characteristic. They are conventions to be subverted or, when taken earnestly, to be turned awkward, dissonant, out of wack, though it is notable that such conventional elements are as professionally considered as any of comedy. The films have a multiple personality disorder characteristically reflected in so many of Jerry’s plots featuring psychoanalysis, doubles and other characters played by him, including women and his mother. The surreal and disjunctive world of Jerry’s particular kind of improvisatory-seeming performance and filmmaking in fact necessitates the inclusion of radically divergent elements. When put together, the “endings” of the films only seem like the end of a gag sequence, with the world to be reinvented upon the (hypothetical) following sequence. No Dean Martin means a philosophically different cinema which is unable to complete a loop to control the infinite vaudevillian possibilities of sketch cinema.
The focus of these movies becomes more acute without the outside containment or direction of persona from the Dean Martin era. Here the center is Jerry (with his friends given touchingly notable attention on the sidelines). The actor's face is one of the most rare cinematic species, that which contain multitudes. Not in the kind of actorly malleability of Lon Chaney, Man of a Thousand Faces, but rather, like that of Judy Garland, Jerry has a face which constantly reveals an over-fluid, over-transparent, over-abundant existence as not only as an actor but as a human body and soul recorded on film. To watch Jerry's face (or that of Garland) is to watch a battle being fought between control and intuition, between fiction and documentary (Godard has penned a nice phrase on this aspect), the physical and the psychic, film and life—a battle never won on screen but whose skirmishes no matter how many times you watch them seem fought right there in front of you. This may be why, for me at least, watching movies with such actors as Garland and Lewis are exhausting, both physically and mentally. Lewis’ comedies and Garland’s resplendent run of masterpieces directed by Vincente Minnelli are as wringing as melodramas.
Jerry's face rising and falling in expectation and disappointment, only to become self-conscious of the acting and appear abashed (itself probably an act), the deprecating, fiction-breaking laughter, often forced, at his own bad jokes, that moment when you sense he discovers, mid-take, a new joke to do, a new voice to tweak, a new line reading to fracture and babble, and he'll pursue it perhaps just for a moment or perhaps overlong, increasing our awkwardness along with his own, as if by watching we're in this thing together: this is infinity expressed by a single person. It can be found in almost all of Jerry’s work as an actor, but at a certain point this face is no longer the means to get to the ends of his films: once Jerry takes over, his body and face are the means and the ends. The ends of his pictures, are paradoxically, gloriously, that they are unending, a perpetual motion machine of expression unable to be stopped at the conclusion of a story, the end of a picture, or indeed, as the bountiful freshness and live wire energy of this retrospective illustrates, at retirement of a career.
THE 21ST CENTURY INFINITE
The Multiplicity of Images
The Viennale’s examples of cinema’s 21st century form no longer so feverishly ask if the infinite or endlessness can exist; rather, it takes the infinite as a given. In fact, even new films about the 20th century now do the same. Hélio Oiticica, an essay-documentary about the Brazilian artist by his nephew Cesar Oiticica Filho, uses audio interviews with Oiticica as its narration and narrative, yet its visual track ingests with a vibrant voraciousness film clips and music in a way that could only exist in an era of YouTube and the infinity-illusion that all-images-are-available at-the-touch-of-a-button. On a more intimate scale, in Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa's essay film self-portrait Jerry and Me, we see the 20th century moving images absorbed to express and fit through the subjectivity of a personal history. Chronology and the specifics of the montaged source material matter little when one now has the ability to transform any given material to make it one’s own; in a way, Jerry and Me suggests that all of the world’s images are available for each and every individual’s subjective filtration and equally valid interpretation: infinity as the pluralistic democracy of access to global mass media.
The most minute but to my mind the best example of this at the Viennale is Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller's short film Cut. A video record of material objects in films related to cinema’s fascination with real and illusory lacerations of the body, the film is a pseudo-cyclic free association narrative linking insert shots of actual “cuts”—arms, knifes, piercings, scars, stitches, surgery, flowing blood—the proximate sites and objects “located” nearby—dripping faucets, torn stockings, sink basins—and similar suggestive entities. The film sources range from the late 1940s to 2010s but are homogenized in aspect ratio cropping and palette choices to nearly unify them as coming from an imaginary mid-70s territory reigned over by Chabrol-Argento genre films. It reveals a trans-filmic obsession with, and secret narrative of, bodily destruction and the myth-like power of isolated objects rendered as talismans, fetishes, and oracles hinting at or revealing the dangers for the flesh that exist across cinema.
Cut connects to Christian Marclay’s The Clock as well as this year’s Mount Song by Shambhavi Kaul as essentially highly sophisticated cinephile YouTube mashup/mixes, and like that latter film and unlike Marclay’s project it benefits profoundly from a deep knowledge of its material and a very tight conception. The combination of its scalpel-sharp focus, its “topic” (and meta-cinematic allusion of cinema’s foundation in editing being mirrored in the art returning again and again on screen to analogies of “cutting”) and its poetic, staccato brevity is positively unnerving. The mooring of time and space has been broken loose in such pictures as these, which grants them a persistent, almost gleeful freedom to re-assemble or re-use the moving images of others as their own. (From the production side, one can find something related in Mark Peranson and Raya Martin’s La última película, which was shot on what was claimed as nine but is now being postulated as ten or eleven of different cameras, a part-considered, part-arbitrary extrapolation of productive means to create a perhaps unknowable number of kinds of images. The discussion over camera types caused me to wonder: what if we edited together 10 seconds of all the different video footage shot at the same precise time at a given moment in New York’s Times Square?)
Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder in their 2011 live projection work Aberration of Light: Dark Chamber Disclosure, performed live for the Viennale this year at the Film Museum, showcase an inversion of the supreme materiality enacted by Peranson-Martin, who make a specific point by printing and presenting their film in 35mm. Gibson and Recorder on the other hand seem to get rid of film material all together, casting on the cinema’s walls the shimmering colored lights of pre-camera/projector early cinema or the shadowplay of Plato’s cave. The light work resembles unfurling smoke and lapping waterfalls in a fluid, satiny effect that in no way seems filmic: no frame rate, no grain, no scratches or reels, and certainly (except for passing, mysterious glances of momentary figures in the waves) no representation. Nothing seems like film. And yet the work is entirely based in projection and films, with two 35mm projectors used and two films, one of clear leader and one of an actual film projected upside down and out of focus and refracted through crystals, lenses and gels and further manipulated with their hands. So much “cinema” and yet totally suggestive of something beyond cinema (beyond meaning both before and after), and while nominally narrativized and timed to a recorded musical piece of field recordings, the work's unrestrained movements (expanding beyond even the cinema screen into the theater space itself) seem to suppress the 20th century’s finite cinematic technology to evoke an ephemeral play of light unbounded by beginnings and ends.
Because all the possibilities in the world seem at the hands of these filmmakers and they no longer need to seek the infinite, it is no longer the focus of their works, but rather the attitude of a working method, where what was once the “end” (if unending) for a story to pursue has now become the means with which to pursue other stories.
The Act of Killing
Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin were in my mind while watching Christine Cynn, “Anonymous,” and Joshua Oppenheimer’s extraordinary, repulsive, flabbergasting, and completely engrossing work of quasi-documentary, The Act of Killing. This film too features a kind of costume-changing, shtick-based acting duo, except they are self-described "gangsters" and "killers" who actively if not famously participated in the mass torture and murder of "Communists" in Indonesia in 1965-66. The directors collaborate with them to discuss, stage and then discuss the re-staging of their crimes. (My non-viewing of Out 1 continues to haunt my portion of the festival, here repeated and analyzed, traumatized and therapeutic acting within a context of terror—Rivette’s inferred and hinted at, The Act of Killing’s all too real.) This central “act” is an incredibly conflicted (if not odious) and complex action in which it is unclear whether the film is visualizing and indicting what has previously been unseen publicly, or whether it is giving criminal maniacs a completely new way of writing or rewriting their personal and national history. The film prompts the question as to where its intervention is coming from, from what side of the camera, and to what purpose. The interplay of simultaneous naiveté and knowingness is as dense and untangleable as any Martin and Lewis sketch, a comparison which may seem inappropriate until one sees The Act of Killing's tawdry aesthetics, bizarro-campy ironic humor and supreme self-reflexivity—cinematic tactics usually aggressively used for humor for example in Borat or across Vienna in the festival's Will Farrell tribute, but here used to envision crimes against humanity.
The core fascination of the film, and its core confusion, lays in the fact that its angle of attack is not relegated to any one side of the camera, as the film absorbs the absurd, hammy and pageant-like process of supposed re-enactment into an image and costume/roleplay saturated world of cinema, modern Indonesian politics, current paramilitary iconography and general 21st century media culture. The surrealist antics of the killers, or the directors' surrealist requirements of them, look little different from the real life within which the cast and crew are filming such an ambitious project. The result is a terrible loop where the unremarkable if not ridiculous "movie" being created by the directors and their incredibly charismatic and bizarrely complicit killers does not stand as the revelations do in Claude Lanzmann’s The Last of the Unjust or Rithy Pahn’s The Missing Picture (both in the Viennale) as stoic, timeless, historically scholarly (even when personal) evocations of past crimes and atrocities, but rather they update history and integrate it into the flow of today’s image making. (This is a far cry from, say, Jean Rouch's particular kind of surrealist ethno-documentary collaborations with his subjects to create semi-fictions from their lives, histories and imaginations.) There is eliminated any sense of distance between the past and the present, past participants and a new era of images, guilt, victimization, and complicity.
Yet never for a minute can we forget the horrible crimes these men are guilty of, and which they revel in, which re-invests the hackneyed-blasé attempts at “staging” an unclarified muddle of memories/history/revisonism/critique/fantasy with the most sinister implications. Much like with Martin and Lewis, it is never quite clear the level of reality and irreality—or indeed consciousness and unconsciousness, intention and intuition—being dramatized before us, a comparison that continues to be vivid throughout the film, with its numerous near-Borat-like activities, as if the directors and their two killers are a traveling sketch troop, improvising historical horror-schtick as and where they conceive it. Like Rouch and Morin in Chronicle of a Summer (1961), the filmmakers here show their subject-actors material shot during the project and record their reactions, and how comically engaged and unassuming (and later, possibly moved) the men are to the idea of turning their tortures into cinematic fantasies only points further down The Act of Killing's rabbit hole of intertwined impossibilities. Werner Herzog's semi-fictionalization of documentary material seems downright clear cut compared to the prickly, contradictory nest of strategies, ideas and records made in this film, which can contain such wildly divergent material as near-drag musical imitations featuring semi-nude beauties along with the killers, visualized in a clear satiric mode (but they why are they even in the scenes?), and a stripped-bare sequence of bodily record, where Anwar Congo, the lead killer, retches horribly, unexpectedly, at memories of murder on a rooftop patio, his body violently rejecting something deep inside him. That such scenes are ultimately unreconcilable terrifyingly points to a present—and a future—where the images of, and our relationship through them to, genocide, terrorism, complicity and guilt take over as the subject of those very images, rather than the facts they may or may not testify to. Suddenly, The Last of the Unjust and The Missing Picture both seem anachronistically direct and lucid.
A New Product
A film by Harun Farocki in a short film program at the Viennale inadvertently poses a similar cinematic quandary. A New Product is a corporate documentary, or, that is, a document of corporate qualities; specifically about what seems to be a small company whose purpose is to consult and design working spaces for larger corporations, exemplified by Vodafone and Unilever. Visually resembling boardroom and administrative discussions frequent in the recent cinema of Frederick Wiseman—interrupted in a typical fashion by Farocki with splendidly arid computer generated fly-throughs of imaginary offices spaces—the film is immediately and irrevocably bogged down in the technical jargon and bullshit nomenclature not of the work environment itself but of its high-minded minders who discuss, debate, and otherwise discourse on it with wanton abandon totally abstracted from any sense of work or space itself.
The comparison to The Act of Killing comes from Farocki's decision to stay within the world created and idealistically defined and contained by these "work" and "design" advisers. We see their offices, full of borderline-nonsense iconographic scribblings complete with faux-humanist PR aphorisms on whiteboards and easels, the plastic and CGI constructions of possible spaces, hints at the real space of a Unilever building, and even a public announcement there pointing out Farocki's cameras to employees, explaining that a film is being made about corporate culture. But never does A New Product pull back for a distant view. Instead, like The Act of Killing, the images and playacting—as indeed the hammy suits proclaiming their latest ingenious solution to the apathy a new generation of employees have for their workplace seems a facade of overacting—becomes so embroiled into the texture of the film that A New Product is practically indistinguishable from an ostensibly sympathetic, commissioned film revealing the brilliant newfound techniques to assuage alienation and integrate contemporary non-work environments (the gym, Starbucks) directly into the corporate workplace.
The ouroboros nature of the film is such that its final sequence is of its subject firm no longer advising some other corporation but rather turning onto itself, saying due to past failures it must put its theories into practice on itself first before application to the outside world. And so as in the terrifying The Act of Killing, we see images turn inward, with ambition to begin not referring to the real world but to refer only to themselves. Indeed, in the context of Farocki's fascination with the sterile imagescapes of military and corporate worlds, it can only be entirely just that to expose the gesticulating, moneyed hollowness of contemporary "corporate culture," as it is called in the film, his own work must take on the qualities of which he is critical. And so what better way to reach infinity then by turning cinema's images upon themselves, and reveal a mirror reflecting a mirror?