Past imperfect

Pub date December 28, 2010
WriterMax Goldberg
SectionFilm Features

YEAR IN FILM We’re all media scavengers now, but archival sounds and images remain a tantalizing lure for both the documentary profile and its surrealistic double, the found footage film. The first repackages capsules of the past while the second hijacks them — different economies of exchange, to be sure, though perhaps less starkly contrasted to those accustomed to hyperlinking their way through the dustbin.

The use of obscure footage as leverage is exceedingly clear in Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a film structured around director Tamra Davis’ intimate camcorder interview with the artist in 1985. The close-up portrait gives us Basquiat’s sly intelligence, spacey charisma, and tragic oversensitivity to judgment — all to the good, but Davis’ inability to reckon with the exchange value of her insider access is disappointing. Selling and chronicling are inextricably linked with the celebrity artist, but Basquiat’s early graffiti partner Al Diaz is the only interviewee who addresses the issue of the golden goose frankly.

The Rolling Stones have always excelled at selling themselves, so it’s no surprise to see Mick and Keith’s executive producer credits on Stones in Exile. Fortunately for us, director Stephen Kijack (2006’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man) recognizes 1972’s Exile on Main Street as a masterpiece of vibe and accordingly focuses great attention on the zonked record’s mise-en-scène. But the strictly MOR slate of interviewees — alas, no Pussy Galore here — makes the scraps of Robert Frank’s long suppressed Cocksucker Blues (1972) feel all the more bowdlerized.

The bankable aura of the rarely seen supplants Frank’s prickly immediacy, and the dream of a rock ‘n’ roll cinema is the poorer for it. If it’s easier to accept the brief stream of Jonas Mekas’ New York City film-diaries borrowed in LennonNYC, that’s because the footage serves a narrow expositional purpose in establishing the bohemian milieu that John Lennon and Yoko Ono embraced — and also because Mekas is himself interviewed. The PBS-produced doc’s failings are the conventional ones, but its archival trove does illuminate Lennon and Ono’s creative collaborations, especially insofar as their art hinged upon probing self-consciousness and the redemptive potential of intimacy.

On the other side of the archival aisle, the mad detectives and film theorists who whisper hidden truths in our ears have become increasingly ambitious storytellers. Johan Grimonprez’s inventive Double Take slips into the realms of the unreal by characterizing the Cold War as a literally Hitchcockian play of ciphers, while Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished submits an oft-cited, little-understood Nazi propaganda film to ontological deliberation. Adam Curtis introduces his most recent raid of the archive, It Felt Like a Kiss, with print titles that speak for all these projects: “When a nation is powerful it tells the world confident stories about the future/ The stories can be enchanting or frightening/ But they make sense of the world/ But when that power begins to ebb the stories fall apart/ And all that is left are fragments which haunt you like half-forgotten dreams.”

As with Curtis’ earlier multipart films, It Felt Like a Kiss registers history as a shifting series of simultaneities and unforeseen consequences. The only slightly tongue-in-cheek cast includes Doris Day, Rock Hudson, Saddam Hussein, Enos the cosmonaut chimp, and everyone above level seven in the CIA. Initially conceived as a multichannel promenade, the film is named for the singularly disturbing pop song Carole King penned for Phil Spector and his Crystals. It’s one of four ’60s sides Curtis builds out as deeply personal, but emblematic chronicles of anguish and dread (the others are “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “River Deep, Mountain High” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?”). In each case, Curtis surveys the decade’s interlocking horror shows with something like poignancy — a new feature of his work.

Atop all the uncanny déjà vus and dream-life convergences, It Felt Like a Kiss also serves up one of the greatest WTF endings in recent memory. After revealing a bunker’s worth of government computers (repurposed from Cold War fighting to credit card debt), Curtis cuts to Pillow Talk (1959). Doris Day is a vision of contentment going to bed, but then something disturbs her — on the soundtrack, a soaring engine noise is followed by a hard cut to black silence. Amazed at how economically Curtis suggests the coming impact, we cue the sequence up again and let our jaws drop when we see Day’s room number: 2001.

To be sure, there’s no rule that found footage films must generate conspiratorial heat. Jay Rosenblatt’s The Darkness of Day materializes a reserved contemplation of suicide using industrial discards — the forgotten nature of these older films itself becoming a token of loss in an elegiac context. Oblique images float upon fragmented suicide stories narrated from many different vantages: near and far, first-person and third, male and female, young and old, anonymous and notable. We hear excerpts drawn from 10 years of a diary of depression, read of an ancient Egyptian’s dispute with his own soul, and learn about the first man to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.

This last story surfaces with a montage of the bridge’s construction — a monument, but to what? — and might be read as a critique of The Bridge (2006), which unaccountably turned us into voyeurs of suicide. The Darkness of Day travels the path of Night and Fog (1955), regarding trauma indirectly, as traces and shadows. Industrial footage is not the most obvious resource to make darkness visible, but Rosenblatt’s use of mass-produced materials subtly underscore the film’s suggestion that while suicide is always discrete and thus unknowable, it is also a social phenomenon.

For a more concrete cultural history glazed with Debordian wit, Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu is matchless. After opening with a thoroughly demystified, inquisitorial video of Ceausescu and his wife Elena in 1989 — previously seen in Ujica’s 1992 collaboration with Harun Farocki, Videograms of a Revolution — we double back to the spectacular public funeral for the Romanian leader’s predecessor, Gheorghiu-Dej, in 1965. From here, Ujica proceeds more or less chronologically (and without voice-over) through Ceausescu’s decades in power, collecting speeches, press conferences, soft debates, home movies, inspections of factories and construction sites, and trips abroad to Communist countries and Hollywood (a letdown after the stupefying parades in China and North Korea).

One of the director’s most cunning insights is that since the totalitarian state stages reality to furnish proof of its own dominion — the problem with measuring Triumph of the Will (1933) as documentary — the resulting footage might be considered as if dictated by the leader. But by letting these “autobiographical” materials run at length, Ujica also opens a space for the accidents and lacunae that surely would have been excised from the official record. The fact that it’s so easy to imagine the propaganda version of this footage is part of the point: we calculate where the cuts would have been to “correct” Ceausescu’s diminutive posture and speechmaking, and in that gap lies much of 20th century history. The closest Ujica comes to giving the game away is when he cuts from one of Ceausescu’s baroque rhetorical performance (filmed in black-and-white, as with everything else we’ve seen up to this point) to his cheating at volleyball in a color home movie. It’s a wonderfully rude swipe at rulers everywhere and likely the single most smashing edit of the year.