Erik Morse

Pure war


YEAR IN FILM As the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq nears its second decade, the question of its influence on modern American cinema has been redoubled by this year’s sampling of seminal combat films. Not only were Quentin Tarantino’s epical Inglourious Basterds and Kathryn Bigelow’s anti-epic The Hurt Locker two of the best releases of 2009, they represented a startling mutation in the zeitgeist’s popular narratives of geopolitics, absenting the requisite leitmotifs of nationalism, ethic, and archive. The disappearance of a moral imperative in Inglourious‘ Holocaust revenge parable and Locker‘s chronicle of an adrenaline junkie flummoxed numerous critics who admonished them for a dangerous aestheticization of war. Having accentuated the alternative fantasies and ecstasies of military violence, Tarantino and Bigelow committed the cardinal sin of privileging the inner experience of war over its ancillary politics, or, rather, made them one in the same.

Most of the putatively titled “war on terror” pictures, solidified as a genre in the aftermath of 9/11, fulfilled one of several bog-standard paradigms: the preening, ideological propaganda of Michael Moore (2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11) and Errol Morris (2003’s The Fog of War and 2008’s Standard Operating Procedure), with its leftist moralizing thinly camouflaged as real “documents” of war; the quasi-jingoist paeans to American imperialism in Black Hawk Down (2001) and We Were Soldiers (2002); and the grid-skipping, pan-global tourist thrillers Syriana (2005), The Kingdom (2007), and Body of Lies (2008). Regardless of their ideological positions, all of these war on terror films linked cinematic politics with moral engagement and the need for historicizing the truth of combat.

But Inglourious and Locker fail to follow any of the necessary formulae and are thereby excluded from the generic privilege of the modern war film. In its attempt at a sui generis retributive fantasy, Inglourious details a vicious gang of Jews who collect Nazi scalps and immolate Hitler in a third-act ejaculation as cartoonish as it is intertextual. Treading in a Pynchonian zone of alternative history, the film not only lampoons but seeks to rewrite the archive of the 20th century.

But Tarantino’s violence is not ballasted by any of the ruminative “what ifs” (what if the Holocaust could have been prevented? What if you could kill Hitler?) that have become the ethicist’s fundamental paradox. He obviates such moral concerns in favor of bloody spectacle and, in so doing, risks erasing the last, sacred vestiges of the Holocaust — namely, that it occurred. In Tarantino’s comic-book universe, fiction-making refuses to be caught in the crossfire between truth and engagement. The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek alludes to as much in his recent treatise on violence when he claims “the threat today is not passivity, but the pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active,’ to ‘participate.’ Those in power often prefer even a ‘critical’ participation, a dialogue, to silence. Sometimes, doing nothing is the most violent thing to do.” Such valuations are a disturbing reproach to the oft-repeated Holocaust maxim, “Never again.”

Similarly, Bigelow’s film pivots on the saga of American IED fatalities in Iraq, but celebrates as heroes morally dubious outlaws playing in the postmodern desert of the real. Locker‘s insidious epigram, “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug” — lifted from Chris Hedges’ War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning — sums up a picture that is as much about the sensory pleasures of combat as its horrific ugliness. While Bigelow turns to the hard-boiled Americana of Samuel Fuller and Howard Hawks for her inspiration, she has translated them through what French cultural theorist Paul Virilio might term “dromocratic” consciousness, where traditional cinematic politics have disappeared and been replaced with a hyperreal “logistics of perception.”

The result is an apolitical pleasure dome of sensory overload; guns become canons, explosions appear as living sculpture, urban war zones are makeshift playgrounds. Like Inglourious Basterds, The Hurt Locker delights in its own ethical and political vacuum, generating fantasies of immolation without sourcing it as either a psychological grotesque (e.g. PTSD) or an ideological other (i.e. Nazis or Iraqis). When the IED experts finally reach the end of their tour, the tedious suburban lives that await them are a pathetic denouement. Is it possible, Bigelow seems to muse, that the real American dream lies on the battlefield and not the home front?


Peeping Tomás


Pedro Almodóvar has always dabbled in the Hitchcockian tropes of uxoricide, betrayal, and double-identity, but with Broken Embraces he has attained a polyglot, if slightly mimicking, fluency with the language of Hollywood noir. A story within a story and a movie within a movie, Embraces begins in the present day with middle-aged Catalan Harry Caine (Lluís Homar), a blind screenwriter who takes time between his successful writing career to seduce and bed young women sympathetic to his disability. “Everything’s already happened to me,” he explains to his manager, Judit (Blanca Portillo). “All that’s left is to enjoy life.” But this life of empty pleasures is brought to a sudden halt when Judit reports that a local business magnate Ernesto Martel (José Luis Gómez) has died; soon after, Ernesto Jr. (Rubén Ochandiano), who has renamed himself Ray X, visits Caine with an unusual request. Judit’s son, Diego (Tamar Novas), who is also Caine’s secretary, is a witness to these strange circumstances and inquires into the mysterious past of Caine.

To wit, the action retreats 14 years when Caine was a young (and visually abled) director named Mateo Blanco. In the classic noir set-up, Blanco encounters a breathtaking femme fatale, Lena (Penelope Cruz) — an actress-turned-prostitute named Severine, turned secretary-turned-trophy wife of Ernesto Martel — when she appears to audition for his latest movie, Girls and Suitcases. As Lena’s marriage with the aging Martel is one of convenience, she quickly engages in a torrid off-camera affair with Mateo. But their tryst is compromised by the constant presence of Ernesto Jr., who has been tapped by his father to shoot a behind-the-scenes “documentary” of Lena and Mateo for his own private consumption. When the secret is exposed with the help of a freelance lip-reader (in a classic Almodóvarian scene), the fates of Mateo, Lena, Ernesto, and Judit collide with tragic consequences.

If all of the narrative intricacies and multiplicitous identities in Broken Embraces appear a bit intimidating at first glance, it is because this is the cinema of Almodóvar taken to a kind of generic extreme. As with all of the director’s post-’00 films — All About My Mother (1999), Talk to Her (2002), Bad Education (2004), and Volver (2006) — which are often referred to as Almodóvar’s “mature” pictures, there is a microscopic attention to narrative development combined with a frenzied sub-plotting of nearly soap-operatic proportions. But, in Embraces, formalism attains such prominence that one might speculate the director is simply going through the motions. The effect is a purposely loquacious and overly-dramatized performance that pleasures itself as much by setting up the plot as unraveling it. So, throughout the overlong 127 minute film, two distinct types of scenes become readily apparent: those which are Almodóvar at his best — arriving with a striking visual and musical style and leaving one nearly breathless; and Almodóvar at his worst — those which are purely convention, lumber about far too long and veer into dialogic minutiae. If the audience can withstand these long-winded asides, the cinematic prize is great indeed.

For a obsessive appropriationist, Almodóvar has never been so blatantly referential as he is in Broken Embraces. Apart from the most obvious nods to Hitchcock, the director has included scenic love-letters to Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954), and Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Those fans of Almodóvar’s 80s comedies will even recognize the director’s send-up of his own oeuvre in Girls and Suitcases, a potpourri of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) and What Have I Done to Deserve This? (1984) Whether or not this confirms that the young iconoclast Almodóvar has, in his old age, become an unashamed nostalgic merits some debate. But, regardless of the verdict, Broken Embraces proves itself to be an impressive lexicon.

Broken Embraces opens Fri/18 in San Francisco.

Clean freak


Chilean writer-director Sebastián Silva’s newest "house" film, The Maid, swaps customary debates of bedroom politics for the upstairs/downstairs relations of domestic labor. In an upper-middle class subdivision of Santiago, 40-year-old maid Raquel (Catalina Saavedra), perpetually stony and indignant, operates a rigorous dawn-to-dusk routine for the Valdez family, her employers for 20 years. Although Raquel rarely behaves as an intimate of her longtime hosts, she remains convinced that love, not labor, bonds them. Whether the family shares Raquel’s feelings of devotion is highly dubious: father Mundo (Alejandro Goic) often ignores or avoids her except when giving orders; daughter Camila (Andrea García-Huidobro) actively despises her and lobbies for her dismissal from mother Pilar (Claudia Celedón), whose sense of noblesse oblige is a patronage bound by a mix of affection and pity.

When a rotating cast of interlopers is hired to assist Raquel, the paranoid domestic stoops to machinations most vile to scare them away. She dispatches young Peruvian maid Mercedes (Mercedes Villanueva) by cruelly disposing of her adopted kitten and forces the gruff and hot-tempered Sonia (Anita Reeves) into a violent confrontation before she resigns in disgust. But third comer Lucy (Mariana Loyola) is an altogether different challenge. Her unpredictable influence over Raquel sets the narrative of The Maid on a very different psychological trajectory — from moody chamber piece to eccentric slice-of-life.

If Silva’s film taunts the viewer with the possibility of a horrific climax, either as a result of its titular counterpart — Jean Genet’s 1946 stage drama The Maids, about two servants’ homicidal revenge — or from the unnerving "mugshot" of Saavedra on the movie poster, it is neither self-destructive nor Grand Guignol. Rather, it it is much more prosaic in execution. Filmed almost exclusively in the narrow hallways, bathrooms, and parlors of a Santiago McMansion, Sergio Armstrong’s fidgety hand-held camera captures Raquel’s claustrophobic routine. It also accentuates her Sisyphean conundrum: although she completely rules the inner workings of the house, she remains forever a guest. The more she makes the house into a home, the more it becomes a prison she refuses to escape from.

But while Saavedra’s title role is an interesting case study in the political and emotional complexities of the Latin American domestic, her character’s motivations often evoke as much confusion as wonder. In the absence of some much needed exposition, The Maid’s heavy-handed silences, plaintive gazes, and inexplicable eruptions of laughter feel oddly sterile, and a contrived preciousness begins to creep over the film like an effluvial whitewash. Its abundance makes you aware there is a shabbiness hiding beneath the dramatic facade — the various stains and holes of an unrealized third act.

THE MAID opens Fri/13 in Bay Area theaters.

Domestic disturbances


FILM "Some of our most exquisite murders have been domestic, performed with tenderness in simple, homey places like the kitchen table," Alfred Hitchcock observed.

While Hitch was the doyen of everyday suspense — capturing the foreboding whistle of a boiling kettle or the pendulous noose formed by a necktie — his vision of the violent-domestic was hardly singular. This year’s Mill Valley Film Festival showcases two very different films dedicated to exploring the tenuous relationship between crime and the domestic front, in all its various incarnations.

In Noah Buschel’s traveling noir homage The Missing Person, a case of domestic subterfuge becomes a laconic meditation on loneliness and absolution in the post-9/11 New York City. Starring Michael Shannon (2008’s Revolutionary Road) as gin-soaked private investigator John Rosow, The Missing Person begins with the classic tropes of the Philip Marlowe feuilleton — a mysterious caller, aided by an attractive secretary (Amy Ryan), offers the down-and-out PI a sum of money to follow a unnamed man on a LA-bound express train from Chicago. The surly and self-deprecating Rosow immediately takes the case, though it appears his decision is motivated as much by boredom and a nasty hangover than by lucre. From a nearby compartment, Rosow surveils the very innocuous-looking mark who travels with a young, Hispanic child. Presuming the worst, the PI puts two and two together and speculates that he’s been hired to tail a serial pedophile. However, the story is much more complicated than it initially appears: a family has indeed been torn apart but it is not the one Rosow suspects.

While the meticulous narrative of Buschel’s film takes the de rigeur twists and turns of classic noir, The Missing Person‘s plot is, by and large, immaterial to its penetrating meditation on person and place. Despite his chronic dipsomania, Rosow is charming and witty, spinning slangy argot, gruff one-liners and double entendres around every chance encounter, as if he were some hybrid of Mike Hammer and Noël Coward. "I’m in the hide and seek business," he responds to a potential female conquest when asked of his profession. "That’s a game that kids play," she continues. "Well, if you add some money to it, it’s for adults," he shoots back. "Well, what are you doing – hiding or seeking?" she asks. "I’m drinking," Rosow concludes, finishing off his highball.

But Buschel is careful not to inundate his audience with a wisecracking "talkie;" rather he seduces them with long, silky strands of West Coast jazz — all saxophones and tinkling piano — as Rosow crisscrosses the parched sands outlying Los Angeles, lurches into an anonymous motel room in a drunken stupor, or fantasizes (in the rich cobalt shades of a Blue Note album cover) of a wife and life he left long ago. In other moments, Shannon’s ungainly frame and wall-eyed gaze dominates the frame, reacting and reflecting upon the sadness that appears to pervade his postlapsarian, cloak and dagger world.

If one is tempted to pronounce The Missing Person a unique and innovative form of filmmaking, it is because such deliberate care taken in the details: its soundtrack, cinematography and mise-en-scene are rarities in the slick, post-80s crime drama. Filmed on 16mm and bleached of the sharp hues common to contemporary cinema, the colors and textures of Ryan Samul’s cinematography have the odd, anachronistic feel of mid-70s neo-noir. The Conversation (1974), Chinatown (1974), and The Long Goodbye (1973) come to mind. All the more remarkable is The Missing Person‘s pastiche of cinematic influences in that they mingle seamlessly with images and stories of Manhattan, post-9/11, as the secret of Rosow’s mark is unearthed. When the hallowed spotlights of the WTC memorial appear at the film’s conclusion, they have the painterly senescence of a dog-eared comic book.

If Raymond Chandler bestows the focal literary references for Buschel’s opus, then Agatha Christie is the materfamilias of Larry Blamire’s "old dark house" spoof, Dark and Stormy Night. As Christie once quipped of her metier to a Life reporter, "I specialize in murders of quiet, domestic interest," and that is precisely what screwball director Blamire has in mind in this country-estate, will-reading-ensemble gone amok. Comprised of Bantam Street Film’s stock company, most of whom starred in Blamire’s previous Hollywood send-ups (including 2001’s The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and 2007’s Trail of the Screaming Forehead), Dark and Stormy Night recreates every riff, trope, and motif of the late 30s genre — from the exterior miniatures to the canned special effects — all situated in a lavishly decorated and seemingly haunted house, replete with winding floor plan and secret passages.

A disparate crew of hopefuls have assembled at said estate to hear the pecuniary bequests of the late Sinas Cavinder during a particularly ominous evening, as the title promises. Among the crowd are competing reporters Eight O’Clock Farraday (Daniel Roebuck) and Billy Tuesday (Jennifer Blaire) hoping to land a hot scoop; demure ingenue Sabasha Fanmoore (Fay Masterson); brooding nephew Burling Famish, Jr. (Brian Howe) and his unfaithful wife, Pristy (Christine Romeo); the very Yiddish psychic Mrs. Cupcupboard (Alison Martin); the epigramming dandy Lord Partfine (Andrew Parks); and the hilariously-christened butler, Jeens (Bruce French).

As might be expected, a serious hitch in the evening arises when the secret addendum to Cavinder’s will is stolen and bodies begin piling up following the requisite "lights out" interlude. Unfortunately, a centuries-old phantom, the ghost of a dead witch, and an escaped maniac are all on the loose and vying for blood … and the only bridge off the estate has been washed away by the storm. So, whodunnit? The answer is not nearly as entertaining as the long night of sight gags, double-takes, screwball repartee, and an inexplicable, wandering gorilla Kogar (played by legendary prop master and gorilla-suit regular Bob Burns). Shot in HD with enough digital plug-ins to simulate RKO-era film stock, Dark and Stormy Night is as much a loving homage as parody. Late-night B-movie fans and nostalgics will enjoy just how light this "dark" comedy can be.

Mill Valley Film Festival

Oct 8-18, most shows $12.50

Various North Bay venues

Next-door horror


CULT DVD As the first, and likely most underrated, film in Roman Polanski’s so-called apartment trilogy, Repulsion (1965) has often been judged by critics as a nascent work of distaff psychodrama that would achieve greater heights in the satanic majesty of Rosemary’s Baby (1968). But with this month’s deluxe DVD re-release of Repulsion by Criterion, another, more modern, evaluation might elevate Polanski’s gothic "prequel" into the archetype of an unrecognized genre — cellular guignol.

Released after Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) — two other lynchpins of 1960s Anglo horror — Polanski’s document of Belgian agoraphobe Carol (Catherine Deneuve) and the emotional decay of swinging London signified a certain migration in the horror setting from the bucolic to the urban. Utilizing the confinement of the apartment — a setting indicative of the encroachment of the urban into the haunted estates and vast laboratories of earlier Grand Guignol — Polanski’s new type of horror responded to the rapid industrialization and segmentation of the postwar metropolis. Conceivably about a young woman’s breakdown amid the overwhelming urban expansion of London, Repulsion could certainly have mirrored Polanski’s own prickly feelings toward Western Europe after having grown up in the vast graveyards of Nazi-controlled Krakow.

In a recent Harvard lecture on his three volume work Sphären [Spheres], German critic Peter Sloterdijk explains the modern regime of apartment living this way: "Modern apartment construction rests on a celibate-based ontology … Everything is drawn into the inner sphere of the apartment. World and household blend. If a one-person existence can succeed at all, it is only because there is architectural support that turns the apartment itself into an entire world prosthetic." From Sloterdijk’s perspective, Carol’s mental deterioration in Repulsion was not so much the psychoanalytic signs of transference and sexual frigidity (as has been offered by most critics) but a physiological response to a new ecology — namely, the loss of a universal house for what Sloterdijk calls "the stacking of cells [into] an architectural foam, a multichambered system made of relatively stabilized personal worlds."

Such an interpretation would also reverse the contention that Carol’s deterioration stemmed from an apparent agoraphobia. Rather, her paranoia is an affective condition, precipitated by an "apartmental" way of living that locked the urbanite into a personalized cell (in both senses of the word — both biologically constitutive and punitive) not unlike the prisoner or medieval monk. So whatever critiques have immured Repulsion in traditional psychodrama fail to read the film as the paradigm of a new urban imperative.

Bare life



In one of the many oblique exchanges between potential suicide Nancy Stockwell (Maria Bello) and her killer-cum-suitor Louis Farley (Jason Patric), the sadist asks his victim how she imagines death. Staring at a nearby aquarium teeming with wandering fish, Stockwell gleefully responds that death is a release — like one of them, you can breathe underwater. Swedish music video director Johan Renck’s first feature, Downloading Nancy is largely a meditation on such metaphysical atmospheres — the suffocating air of tract homes, the cold showers of sexual dysfunction, the liquid plasma of the sickly blue computer screen — and one woman’s compulsion for escape.

After a childhood of cruel sexual abuse and 15 years of pitiless marriage to game developer Albert (Rufus Sewell), Nancy retreats from her life of desperation and sets upon a pernicious odyssey. Determined to slough off her physical body and all of its mundane accoutrements, she enlists Internet pal Louis, an S&M fetishist and videographer, to pleasure and then kill her in a cyber-sacrifice. As the unnerving danse macabre gets underway, Nancy and Louis tease death with self-mutilation and torture, using razor blades, mousetraps, and lit cigarettes to chilling, depraved effect. Nancy’s bare arms and legs contain an archive of scars and burn marks, as do other hidden cavities she will puncture before reaching orgasm. Louis, stoic and increasingly conflicted about their atrocious pact, often trades away the pleasure of his own sexual fantasy in order to question Nancy’s real motivations or persuade her back toward life. Trading roles of executioner and executed, these lost souls teeter on a threshold where the sovereignty of sacrifice fades imperceptibly into the debasement of living death. Does Nancy’s ultimatum to her new beau constitute the ultimate instance of a woman’s seduction — or the complete penetration of the digital world into a simulacrum of unsacrificable flesh?

Equally as unnerving are the scenes of Nancy’s former life with Albert, a vampirous clone of the business world. When Nancy vanishes — her depraved goal unbeknownst to Albert — he wanders through the sickly mauve interior of the house, putter in hand, desperately trying to understand where their life went astray, all the while sneaking glances at the computer that had consumed Nancy’s life.

Despite some scenes of lugubrious pretension (particularly the "therapy" sessions between Bello and Amy Brenneman as her savior-psychologist), Downloading Nancy achieves a dubious distinction: it presents a model of posthuman mortality that oscillates between the bare life of the mutilated body and the de-corporeal skin of the digital screen. Renck employed cinematographer extraordinaire Christopher Doyle to enhance the feeling of mise en abyme by coloring everything in etiolated blues and grays. The result is a dystopic recreation of the present (here there are obvious comparisons to Cronenberg’s 1996 Crash) where boredom has supplanted the titillation of apocalypse. When Louis finally agrees to participate in the penultimate encounter, what ensues is a numbing anticlimax beyond (or beneath) the meaningfulness of sacrifice.

DOWNLOADING NANCY opens July 10 in Bay Area theaters.



REVIEW In the sex industry of Vienna, small-time criminal Alex (Johannes Krisch) has dreams of escape for himself and his Ukrainian prostitute girlfriend, Tamara (Irina Potapenko). With a ski mask and an unloaded pistol, the miscreant schlemiel allows Tamara to accompany him during the commission of a robbery, and disastrous consequences ultimately transpire. After Alex and Tamara cross paths with young policeman Robert (Andreas Lust), his seemingly idyllic small-town life is also upended by the confrontation. Robert’s wife, Susanne (Ursula Strauss) fails to hearten her inconsolable husband. Instead, she finds her only comfort visiting a neighbor, Hausner (Johannes Thanheiser). But this tale of city-to-country anomie transforms into a gripping revenge play when Alex (who is, we learn, also Hausner’s grandson) suddenly appears in the town, seeking bloody satisfaction. Transforming from an urban neo-noir to a village morality play and a bedroom character study, Götz Spielmann’s Revanche (in French, the act of revenge) confronts the fundamental existential conundrum — fate’s random selection of its prey, or, as the film’s tag-line asks, "Whose Fault Is It When Life Doesn’t Go Your Way?"

REVANCHE opens Fri/5 in Bay Area theaters.


Pixel Vision blog: An extended version of this review.

The accidental tourist



Using dystopian prophet William Burroughs’ landmark essay The Limits of Control as his titular and narrative starting point, auteur Jim Jarmusch meditates on language and travel in his latest cinematic offering. While it’s undeniable that Jarmusch has always worn his Burroughsian influences on his black velvet sleeve, his own Limits of Control is less an explicit pastiche of Burroughs’ theories than a nod to his unique creative methodology.

"[Burroughs’] theories on language and the use of control are really fascinating," Jarmusch explained during a recent phone interview from his downtown New York City office. "But I would say more important for me from Burroughs were his notebooks and scrapbooks, in which he would cut up things from newspapers and magazines. That whole philosophy of the cut-up is very important to me in the construction of The Limits of Control."

Jarmusch’s Limits follows a laconic Lone Man (Isaach De Bankolé) as he travels through the extreme landscapes of Spain, seeking out unnamed contacts and cryptic ciphers that propel him toward some unforeseen climax. Lone Man wanders through the maze of clues with rarely a word spoken. This is not the garrulous Jarmusch of 2003’s Coffee and Cigarettes. Rather, language exists here through an intimate series of picaresque exchanges. Soliloquies are eschewed for images of De Bankolé’s contoured face and the striking architectonic wonders of Madrid and Seville; dialogue is equally parsimonious, with moments of wiry, philosophical meandering and hip, pop-culture musings bubbling up spontaneously between visitors before retreating into long swathes of silence and static.

In their repetitions of catchphrases and rituals, these vignettes — staged by actors Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Paz de la Huerta, among others — become increasingly oracular, Rivette-inspired performances communicated in English, French, Spanish, and Arabic. Are these inexplicable codices part of an elaborate conspiracy through which Lone Man will complete his mission, or are they simply coincidental cut-ups leading him toward the lost horizon of the Spanish desert?

With a typically austere, Jarmuschian cool, The Limits of Control cites numerous French and American gangster-outlaw films of the 1960s and ’70s in its hermeneutic, almost mystical, field-study of the nomad. Despite its lack of conventional narrative action, The Limits of Control is largely about the postmodern experience of traveling and experiencing "foreign" lands and languages, a theme recounted in Jarmusch films from Stranger than Paradise (1984) to Mystery Train (1989) to Broken Flowers (2005).

Jarmusch points to Claude Levi-Strauss’ Tristes Tropiques and Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel as two anthropological inspirations for his own recurring explorations of transition and translations. "[Traveling] used to be a bit more of an adventure," Jarmusch said. "When I was younger and traveled to Europe for the first time, at the airports people would dress up to travel. Now it’s just a frustrating exercise in getting from one place to the next, and the act of travel itself seems almost erasable." *

THE LIMITS OF CONTROL opens Fri/8 in San Francisco.


Pixel Vision: Erik Morse’s full interview with Jim Jarmusch.

The life aquatic


SEAWORTHY DVDS If France’s Georges Méliès is known as the first astronomer of cinema, then overlooked director Jean Painlevé might be considered its first aquanaut. The son of French prime minister and mathematician Paul Painlevé, Jean grew up amid the progressive decadence of the Parisian Belle Époque and sowed his anarchist seeds in the bloody aftermath of the Great War of 1914. Studying mathematics and biology at the Sorbonne, Painlevé made a vertiginous departure toward cinema after meeting surrealist artists Antonin Artaud, Jean Vigo, and Luis Buñuel.

Calling his work "neo-zoological drama", Painlevé began assembling hundreds of bizarre and unprecedented nature films, many of which were photographed entirely underwater, beginning in the late 1920s. Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painlevé, a three-DVD collection released this month by Criterion, presents an invaluable survey of the director’s most extraordinary aquacades. Carving a unique niche in cinema as a scientific fabulist, Painlevé’s creations explored the liminal boundaries of technology and fantasy through the evolving apparatus of the camera.

While his early films like Oeufs d’épinoche (The Stickleback Eggs, 1928) — a vivisection of fish eggs being fertilized — are essentially technical investigations into slow-motion and microscopy, his mid-1930s and postwar work finds the director at his most extravagant. Throughout films like Le Vampire (The Vampire, 1945) and Assassins d’eau douce (Freshwater Assassins, 1947), bats transform into Nazis, starfish become ballerinas, and crustaceans conduct sweeping symphonies. Painlevé’s use of "exotic" soundtracking, pseudoscientific narration and sudden, bewildering close-ups creates a singular, anthropomorphic vision of the animal world rather than a mere biological document of it.

Painlevé released one of his most popular films, L’hippocampe (The Sea Horse, 1934) shortly before the beginning of World War II. Though produced under extreme circumstances — the director claims he rigged an electric shocking device to his body to stay awake for days on end so he could film the creature giving birth — The Sea Horse was an overnight success with the French public. During this time, Painlevé also cofounded the world’s first diver’s club with SCUBA inventor Yves le Prieur. Reportedly convening meetings at a private swimming pool in Paris, the Club Des Sous-L’Eau (literally "underwater" but also a pun that, in French, means "drunk") staged aquatic spectacles like underwater ballets and bicycle races on the pool floor.

He continued making short films until the late 1970s and died in 1989. The Criterion DVD also features an eight-part television documentary, Jean Painlevé Through His Films, as well as a 90-minute musical tribute composed by rock band Yo La Tengo.

Everyday wisdom


Taking her cue from the oft-cited Socratic proscription that "the unexamined life is not worth living," Winnipeg-born director Astra Taylor returns from the success of her 2005 documentary Žižek! to offer a Lyceum of pontificating sophists. Examined Life finds the 20-something Taylor, a New School graduate turned New Waver, engaging in itinerant tête-à-têtes with some of the most venerated — and occasionally vilified — theorists of the last 40 years.

Interviewees, who appear in roughly 10-minute blocks, include civil rights advocate and cultural historian Cornell West, queer theorist and Gender Trouble provocateur Judith Butler, and Slovene Lacanian Slavoj Zizek, the so-called Elvis of cultural theory. Channeling the philosophic tradition of flânerie, Taylor purposely extracts her subjects from the academic setting in which they are usually immured and films them in mid-stride — at the street corner, boutique and even the garbage dump. The final product has a jet-setting, gonzo aesthetic, as the documentarian shuttles from London to New York to San Francisco to interrogate her subjects.

Butler, Zizek, and Michael Hardt (Duke professor and coauthor with Antonio Negri of several notable Autonomist tomes) are the most fascinating to inspect onscreen, likely because of the contentious aura that surrounds their collective work. Butler’s ambuutf8g meditation on the politics of disability has an introspective subtlety when paired with Zizek’s screed on the ecology movement, delivered amid piles of rubbish — while Hardt’s discussion of revolution is all the more odd set on Central Park’s limpid Turtle Pond. Throughout, Taylor is determined that motility (walking, rowing, driving) is a dominant leitmotif, whether it be languid and reflexive or brusque and pedantic. While the conversations self-consciously aim toward jargon-free transparency and inclusivity, the film’s attempt at hipster populism will probably fall on deaf ears outside of the university circuit.

Examined Life’s choice of celebrity theorists will, of course, provoke questions as to why certain icons were included and others were left out. So, obnoxious as it may sound, where was Paul Virilio or Giorgio Agamben or Michael Taussig? A sequel may be in order.

EXAMINED LIFE opens Fri/6 at the Sundance Kabuki.

To a pulp


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Last year marked the 40th anniversary of the death of author Cornell Woolrich, darkest of the noir genre’s lost souls. Like so many of the milquetoast protagonists who populated his novels, Woolrich died an anonymous and ignoble death in a New York City hotel room. Years of alcohol abuse and a gangrenous leg amputation had left him an amorphous wad of a man. Though often credited with establishing the American roman noir ("black book") and indirectly developing its cinematic correlate, film noir, his literary legacy has largely been siphoned by hard-boiled mavericks like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.

Inspired by Dostoyevsky and Victorian poets like F.W. Bourdillon, whose 1878 ode "Light" provided the title to one of Woolrich’s most popular novels (The night has a thousand eyes, / And the day but one). Woolrich’s occasionally hackneyed poetics of the dark became his literary obsession. Besides 1945’s The Night Has a Thousand Eyes, there was 1959’s Death Is My Dancing Partner, 1948’s I Married a Dead Man, and a 1939 short story, "Through a Dead Man’s Eye." Few American writers so accurately portrayed the crushing boredom and fantasies of violence that existed in the postwar American metropole during the very years when suburbanization and media-driven consumption lavished the middle-class with giddy excesses. Biographer Francis Nevins perspicaciously sums up Woolrich’s life and career with one of the late author’s most nihilistic offerings: "First you dream, then you die."

The Pacific Film Archive’s "One-Two Punch: Pulp Writers on Film" retrospective celebrates the onscreen contributions made by Woolrich and his brethren in pulp — Fredric Brown, Jim Thompson, and Charles Willeford — from the halcyon mysteries of the ’40s to the bloody climaxes of the ’80s and ’90s. While many noir authors established reputations primarily on the page and others failed to make the transition to Hollywood, these four writers have had a particularly enduring relationship with cinema, as their stylized and iconic prose lent itself to arch visual expression.

Along with the über-popular James M. Cain, Woolrich and Thompson were responsible for much of the genre’s early vogue and were able to cash in on the development of the mass paperback (the primary medium for roman noir) precisely because their onscreen popularity had made the format financially viable. Woolrich’s publications-turned-films like The Phantom Lady (1944) and The Black Angel (1946), along with Thompson’s The Kill-Off (1989), signified the breadth of noir’s settings and styles by effectively trading the former’s claustrophobic Gothams for the latter’s dusty, open roads and seaside towns.

Discovered in Europe in the ’60s and ’70s, Woolrich and Thompson were critically acclaimed by French nouvelle vague writers and directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Alain Corneau’s Série noire (1979), written by Oulipo poet Georges Perec and based on the 1954 Thompson novel A Hell of a Woman, is a conscientiously Francophone retelling of a most American narrative.

Fredric Brown, an eccentric innovator of the noir/sci-fi short story, had as much influence on the works of Philip K. Dick as those of Elmore Leonard. His 1949 novel, Screaming Mimi (Gerd Oswald’s film version, 1958), remains his most infamous contribution to the screen. Starring newcomer Anita Ekberg — later of La Dolce Vita (1960) fame — Mimi‘s lewd, serial killer-meets-stripper plot is a thinly veiled exercise in dime novel titillation.

Willeford, the most contemporary of the quartet, comes closest to representing the silver age of the genre, often referred to as neo-noir. Similar in style to Thompson, Willeford forgoes the moribund poetics of Woolrich and the whimsical perversities of Brown for more straightforward prose replete with crisp plotlines, raunchy interludes, and sociopathic villains. Willeford’s most popular novel turned film, 1984’s Miami Blues (George Armitage’s film version, 1990), demonstrated the crossover potential of crime fiction onto the screen at the beginning of the ’90s, anticipating the mega-popularity of Leonard and Quentin Tarantino.


Feb. 13–28, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2757 Bancroft, Berk.

Souther-fried nocturne


A drunkard’s lament. A bluesman’s wail. The mischievous grin of children. A carnival geek’s chicken act. Seething with images of the mundane and transmundane, photographer William Eggleston’s lost film Stranded in Canton is an extraordinary exegesis on the ordinary. After 35 years on the museum and midnight movie circuits, Stranded has finally been given a proper DVD release by art publisher Twin Palms. This version, distilled to a reasonable 76 minutes, originates from more than 30 hours of film shot by Eggleston between 1973 and 1974 on a hand-held Sony Porta-pak as he traveled within the Southern golden triangle of Memphis, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Delta.

In his quest to turn the home movie into an art form, Eggleston inventoried the people and places (both beautiful and ugly) that surrounded him. While the placid daylight moments are glorious, it is the sinister images that have guaranteed Stranded its nefarious legend. Armed with a newly developed infrared tube, the videographer was able to submerge into the half-lit netherworlds of juke joints, road houses, and pool halls — which grew like polyps on the plains of Dixie — and record impromptu epic flagellations of the poets and paupers therein.

Watching Stranded in Canton, it becomes apparent there is a common thread binding it to its predecessors: Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey’s 1966 Chelsea Girls, and Joseph Cornell’s 1936 Rose Hobart. Whether in the speed-addled monologues of a New York "superstar" or the re-splicing of B-movie exotica, each shares with Stranded an emphasis on a vernacular of the ordinary. Under the focus of the "democratic camera," the colloquial — prattle, refuse, apocrypha — is recontextualized and transformed as fantasy. Critic Richard Woodward characterizes Eggleston’s vision as "a belief that by looking patiently at what others ignore or look away from, interesting things can be seen." Far from boring, everydayness in this sense gains the arch importance of situationism. Or as Henri Lefebvre defined it, "It is everyday life which measures and embodies the change which takes place ‘somewhere else,’ in the ‘higher realism.’"

Might we venture to say, then, that Stranded in Canton is the home-movie equivalent of Gone with the Wind? Probably not. But it is remarkable nonetheless.

Story of the eye


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In "Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible," SFMOMA associate curator of photography Corey Keller assembles an exciting encyclopedia of daguerreotypes, photographs, and X-rays to reconstruct and demonstrate the 19th century education of the eye. Separated into species of work (microscopy, telescopy, electricity and magnetism, motion studies, X-rays, and spiritualism) and sub-sectioned into various flora and fauna, "Brought to Light" has the distinct feel of a fin de siecle terrarium or medical amphitheatre — a suitable mise-en-scene for the subject matter.

By way of prologue, "Brought to Light" details the emergence of the improved optical technologies and positivist sciences — largely indebted to French theorist Auguste Comte — that set the stage for a "Copernican revolution" by the latter half of the 1800s. The resulting impact was first felt in the discipline of astronomy, when detailed images of the moon appeared to an astonished public courtesy of George Phillips Bond and Samuel Humphrey.

Though these lunar photographs proved unprecedented in capturing the collective imagination, the scientific community was quick to shift its classificatory gaze to the molecular universe. Early photomicrographers Alfred Donné and Auguste-Adolphe Bertsch experimented with new chemical exposures to produce startling images of diatoms, insects, and human cells. Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey ossified high-speed events through stop-action "chronotypes," thereby converting temporal mysteries — such as the arc of a cannonball, or the positioning of a racehorse’s legs in mid-stride — into a visual experience. By century’s end, Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen had successfully transmogrified the living human body into a ghostly apparition through his discovery of the X-ray.

So influential was technical culture upon the epistemological discourse of the period that the roving gaze of the scientist had insinuated itself into the collective perception of the laymen. As the astronomer Pierre Jules César Janssen prophetically pronounced in 1877, the photography plate had supplanted human vision to become the "true retina." Always intriguing, "Brought to Light" tells the story of a moment in history when the rational world suddenly plunged into its subterranean counterpart, redefining the story of the eye. *


Through Jan 4, 2009; $7-$12.50

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000

Bump(s) in the night


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In the new animated horror film Fear(s) of the Dark, artistic director Etienne Robial convened some of the most influential graphic artists of the modern era and dared them to respond to a simple question: "What scares you?" Working under minimum guidelines of time limit and color (monochrome was required), the selected comic and graphic novel artisans — including cartoonist Charles Burns, The New Yorker illustrator Blutch, British designer Richard McGuire, and others — produced highly personal vignettes that were woven into a Sigmund Freud-meets-William Gaines omnibus. But as with 2006’s celebrity smorgasbord Paris, je t’aime, the ambitious conceit of Robial’s film exceeds the individual contributions, which often drift into misguided forms of pop-psychology and self-conscious pleonasm. Never more terrifying than The Interpretation of Dreams, and never more enlightening than Tales from the Crypt, Fear(s) of the Dark is nonetheless an interesting exercise in atmosphere.

Structured as a frame story of sorts, the film begins with a pack of four voracious hounds, tethered to a sadist, who set out across the countryside in search of blood. Positioned along the backdrop of this chase are four vignettes of horror that center on popular phobias. The opener, created by Charles Burns, follows a social outcast whose childhood fascination with entomology comes to haunt him as a young man. When maladjusted student Eric finally meets the girl of his dreams, Laura, the creepy twitch of insects from his bed threatens to wreck his chances. Burns’ beautiful comic-book drawing style, a black and white relative to Lichtenstein’s panochrome creations, perfectly captures the frenzy of young lovers destined for doom.

The second tale, by far the most underdeveloped and least satisfying, centers on a young Japanese girl possessed by an Edo samurai. Drawn in the fast-paced anime style, Marie Caillou and Romain Slocombe’s use of proleptic slippages — although common in the anime genre — are often more confusing than frightening and gives the sequence the overall sense of an abridged sketch. In contrast, Lorenzo Mattotti’s contribution is much more mysterious and subtle in tonality, using a less op-art form of shading and pencil strokes. His story focuses on a young boy whose town is terrorized by a nocturnal beast, a literal bête noire. When a school chum claims to know the monster’s location, he suddenly disappears and the boy joins a search party to slay whoever or whatever is responsible.

The fourth vignette, contributed by Richard McGuire, deserves special attention for its innovative use of silence and darkness to instill a particularly effective kind of horror. A man stranded in the middle of a blizzard forces himself into a darkened house for shelter and finds a mysterious presence waiting for him. Forgoing the loquacious first person device used in other chapters of the film, McGuire explores the muted setting of the house itself, which may or may not have its own sinister character. The genius of McGuire’s piece rests in its celebration of the virtual and inanimate through mere suggestion — the creaking of the stairwell, the slamming of a door, the momentary pall of a silhouette. Inspired by the likes of James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932) and Roman Polanksi’s The Tenant (1976), McGuire seems keenly aware that the trope of the haunted house is as indebted to the semiotics of the domestic as it is to the novelty of the transmundane.

As the highlight of Fear(s) of the Dark, this final vignette actually challenges many of the oedipal motifs that imbue the bulk of the film. The recurring use of first person confessional lends the vignettes in question a trademark French patina of Godardian psychoanalysis à la King Lear without any real artistic consequence. In other words, Fear(s)‘s theoretical misstep lies in its linking phobia with strategies of therapy — declaration, repentance, and ultimately, resolution — the hallmarks of the "healthy" adult, not the fantasizing child. Its redeeming beauty only arises when the collection of haunted scenarios aims for the viewer’s callow spine rather than his existential brain.

Fear(s) of the Dark opens Fri/31 in Bay Area theaters.

Gore, no?


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Akashic Books’ initial 2002 publication of High Life was not much of a cause célèbre in the larger literary world. But the ultraviolent novel of sex, murder, and scatology in mid-1990s Los Angeles was a definitive moment in the development of the so-called "torture porn" subgenre. As the debut author for Dennis Cooper’s Little House on the Bowery imprint, Matthew Stokoe became both a disciple of glorious S-M writers like Cooper, Bret Easton Ellis, and Samuel R. Delany and a centurial groundbreaker. Now a reprint edition of High Life (Akashic Books, 330 pages, $15.95) is belatedly securing Stokoe’s rank as either a literary assassin or putrid gore hound.

Set in the seamy pasteboard backlots of Hollywood, High Life centers around doughnut worker Jack and his prostitute girlfriend, Karen, who goes missing after a sordid organ donation. When Jack discovers Karen’s mutilated body some days later, he sets out on a sociopathic journey through the city’s back alleys and fetish clubs. Along the way he meets a twisted vice cop, Ryan — a psychological foil who elicits unspeakable fantasies from Jack — and Bella, a femme fatale whose character seems to have sprung from the pen of Georges Bataille rather than the typewriter of James M. Cain. While most of High Life obsessively centers on themes that are requisite to the noir genre, the graphic detail and repetition with which scenes of necrophilia, rape, mutilation, and coprophagy are recounted seems mechanized, if not completely militarized.

Written on the cusp of 2001’s radical political, cultural, and social turn in the wake of 9/11, High Life is a strikingly prescient view of a celebrity death culture that teeters between antebellum fantasia and post-Lapsarian horror. Stokoe’s novel arrived at the very cusp of a post–9/11 glut of torture porn, or, as David Edelstein of New York magazine described it (in a portmanteau of gore and porno), "gorno."

As characterized by Edelstein, gorno is a cross-generic exploration of graphic violence and sex alongside themes of terrorism, collective anxiety, and xenophobia. Commercial films like the Hostel series (2005; 2007) and Saw series (2004-2007), as well as Wolf Creek (2005) and Grindhouse (2007) introduced the movement’s adrenalinized visual tropes to the largest audiences, but the art and literary worlds have their controversial contributors, such as the Chapman brothers and the writer known as J.T. LeRoy. When asked to defend their creations, most of these artists use a common refrain of confrontation — that they are out to challenge the last remaining taboos, the increasingly militarized capital of the West, and a society where fear has literally mutated the body.

As if anticipating the shield behind which they would slice and dice their work, in 2000 the postmodern theorist Paul Virilio wrote of artists out to break "the taboos of suffocating bourgeois culture … the unicity of mankind, through the impending explosion of a genetic bomb that will be to biology what the atomic bomb was to physics…. Without limits, there is no value; without value, there is no esteem, no respect, and especially no pity: death to the referee!"

Yet such analysis leaves gorno artists like Stokoe in a critical limbo. Are they heroes of a new kind of anatomical avant-culture emancipated from capital and the military strictures of biopolitics? Or are they fetishists whose claims of degeneracy-as-art are a camouflage for something far more sinister? High Life hardly solves the conundrum, as Stokoe’s professed role is not as satirist or philosopher but pugilist; he refuses to ponder the possibilities of answers, only the certainty of bloodletting.



"I like young women, as do most men, I think," Roman Polanski confesses in the opening sequence of Marina Zenovich’s fascinating new documentary, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. Few artists could recite such a controversial preamble as convincingly as this infamous auteur, loved and reviled with equal fervor after a 45-year career. While it focuses on the Hollywood rape scandal that enveloped Polanski in the spring of 1977, and his subsequent flight from the law, Wanted and Desired doesn’t portray the oft-demonized director as a villain or a victim. Instead, it renders him as an inscrutable outsider and poète maudit.

Through an excellent assortment of press footage and interviews, including talks with alleged rape victim Samantha Geimer, Zenovich reviews if not reopens California vs. Roman Raymond Polanski. She does so with a meticulous eye toward correcting inconsistencies and misconceptions. Polanski was no stranger to tragedy and controversy. As a young boy, he survived the Holocaust on the streets of Krakow after most of his family was shipped to Auschwitz. After a successful career in London and Hollywood in the 1960s, he was again devastated when his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson’s "family." By the ’70s, Polanski had a licentious reputation, abetted by his dark, often Faustian films.

Enter 13-year-old Geimer, a California innocent pushed by her ambitious mother into a nude photography shoot with Polanski. The events of the night that followed would haunt the director and his young victim for decades.

Some critics will probably deride Wanted and Desired as pure hagiography, or worse yet, a legitimization of Polanski’s crimes and subsequent fugitive status. But Zenovich’s intentions circumnavigate any idol worship, as her refusal to err toward his guilt or exoneration makes clear. Rather, Wanted and Desired‘s stinging invective of Hollywood justice places much of the blame on a starstruck media and judiciary. As if fulfilling Polanski’s dystopic vision, the film leaves us repeating some prophetic words from Chinatown (1974): "I see you like publicity … well, you’re going to get it." Polanski, ever the outsider, remains at large.


Opens Fri/25

Roxie Film Center

A rictal dysfunction


According to Peter Bogdanovich, 1928 remains unique in film history as Hollywood’s greatest year. The latter-day American director cites landmark silent film contributions such as King Vidor’s The Crowd, Victor Sjöström’s The Wind, and Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr. as evidence that synchronized sound — first used in 1927’s The Jazz Singer — initially limited rather than expanded the cinematic medium. Alongside those celebrated pictures, Bogdanovich also praises a 1928 German Expressionist classic produced in the United States: Paul Leni’s macabre mutilation drama The Man Who Laughs.

Based on an 1869 novel by Victor Hugo, The Man Who Laughs is a mordant and often morose satire about a deformed clown in the Stuart Court. It follows the sad character of Gwynplaine, the son of a British duke who is orphaned and forsaken to die at the command of the British sovereign.

Gwynplaine survives, but with a horribly butchered mouth permanently twisted into a smile, He grows up amid a wandering freak show, becoming its main attraction. His only pleasure comes in the form of his adopted family — carnival mountebank Ursus the Philosopher and the blind beauty Dea, who loves Gwynplaine and remains unaffected by his strange visage. But when word reaches Queen Anne that an heir to the dead duke remains alive, she commands that Gwynplaine be installed as a lord and made to marry the reigning duchess Josiana. Forced to leave Dea and Ursus for the royal court, Gwynplaine soon bears the brunt of a royal freak show whose insidious machinations are alien to the golden-hearted clown.

The Man Who Laughs was produced by Universal in the wake of its increasingly popular horror pictures, particularly the 1925 blockbuster The Phantom of the Opera. Budgeted at the then-unprecedented amount of $1 million, Leni’s film became a flamboyant melding of costume melodrama and Expressionist mise-en-scène. It stars Mary Philbin as the blind heroine Dea and Conrad Veidt — a German Jewish actor featured in Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1919) — as the mutilated clown. Without reliance on dialogue, and beneath a rictus held in place by prosthetic hooks, Veidt produces an extraordinary gamut of emotion through little more than a lachrymose stare. Often mantling his disfigurement with a cape and moving with the rigid gait of a trauma victim, his Gwynplaine becomes a kind of paralytic, living and communicating only from his goitered eyes. He is a casualty of what Hugo declares "an art/science of inverted orthopedics." The film’s image of Veidt influenced comic book writer Bob Kane when he created Batman’s arch-nemesis The Joker.

Leni’s film hasn’t enjoyed the immediate critical attention of Expressionist classics such as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) or F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). But its anticipation of the horror genre’s waves of mutilation — from Georges Franju through to David Cronenberg — is remarkable.


Sat/12, 7:45 p.m.

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120,

THE 13TH SAN FRANCISCO SILENT FILM FESTIVAL runs July 11–13 at the Castro, 429 Castro, SF. Advance tickets (most shows $12–$17) are available by calling 1-800-838-3006 or visiting

“Jim Campbell: Home Movies”


REVIEW The West Coast electronic artist Jim Campbell returns to the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum to reprise his popular 2006 installation "Home Movies," a screening of amateur, low-resolution family films projected through a tapestry of LED lights. Strung from ceiling to floor, the highly pixilated reflections of quotidian family life become nothing less than digital simulacra when magnified to such extremes. Building on the conceptual linkages of his Illuminated Averages (2001-03) and Ambiguous Icons (2000-03) series, the technophile artist has arrived at a startling depiction of memory and magic. Campbell’s explorations of communications apparatuses since the mid-1980s largely mirrors the hypermodernist theories of Jean Baudrillard — problematizing rather than simply fetishizing the digital domain — and rejects the scientific utopianism of Bergsonian temporality for the more radical slippages of personalized memories and nostalgia. For Campbell, the question surely remains whether digital perception has elevated or mutated our inscriptions of the past.

The answer, of course, is far from conclusive and further still from novel. In fact, "Home Movies" is reminiscent of cinema’s magical roots in the 18th century Fantasmagorie shows, which posed similar concerns in their embrace of new technologies. Spectral and hypnotic in their visual imperfections, these magical lantern exhibitions introduced the sublime moment when the still painting became animate, reaching out from its crypt of secrets to grab hold of the spectator in a living darkness. The Fantasmagorie often thrived on intimate family images, using projected portraits of recently deceased ancestors to unsettle or mesmerize the audience. In his brilliance, Campbell has recognized a similar power in manipuutf8g the iconography of America’s recent past, using the omnipresent home movie as a prop of sorts for his own digital legerdemain.

Historical and aesthetic precedents aside, "Home Movies" is a supreme cinematic delight, re-presenting the primal pleasures of film-going but refracting this nostalgic glow through a matrix of increasing digital deconfiguration.

JIM CAMPBELL: HOME MOVIES Through Aug. 1. Wed.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft, Berk. $4–$8 (free first Thurs.). (510) 642-0808,

Blondells have more fun?


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At the start of his 2007 biography Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes (University Press of Mississippi, 300 pages, $30), film historian Matthew Kennedy introduces the story of one of Hollywood’s forgotten actresses by posing a phenomenological question: what does it mean to always be gazed upon?

In describing Jack Warner’s golden girl of the 1930s, Kennedy looks to the lineaments of her face and body as the first sign of her success. "The architecture of [Blondell’s] mouth, simultaneously sharp and soft, suggested Cupid," he writes. "She had a radiant smile, straight white teeth, pillowy lips, and easy curls in her gamboge blonde hair…. Her figure was voluptuous, at one time measuring 37–21 1/2– 36." As for Blondell’s eyes, "they were spellbinding on screen, and apparently more so in person."

Kennedy’s paean to Blondell is reminiscent of Roland Barthes’ poetic 1957 short essay, "The Face of Garbo." But whereas Garbo’s face represents for Barthes an eternal, unforgettable synecdoche of Hollywood, Blondell’s mystique lies mostly in her erasure. What became of this celluloid icon whose image once defined an era but has since been lost in the canister?

"Joan Blondell: The Fizz on the Soda," playing at the Pacific Film Archive, collects some of the actress’ most memorable performances from a 50-year career. A vaudeville performer turned Warner Brothers ingenue lauded by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS) as the most promising performer of her time, Blondell was part of the first generation of talkie actors who blossomed against the moribund backdrop of the Great Depression. After a childhood spent at the mercy of a peripatetic acting family, her endurance and versatility were soon exploited by the Hollywood meat-grinder. Unencumbered by unions, censors, or truculent auteurs, moguls like Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer managed Hollywood like an industrial assembly line, churning out most films in four weeks. By the end of the 1930s, Blondell had completed more than 50 films.

Alongside contemporaries such as Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Judy Garland, Blondell was the face of the Hollywood studio system as it began its ascent to the so-called Golden Age. From the art nouveau musicals of Busby Berkeley (Gold Diggers of 1933) and pre-Code cheap thrills (1931’s Night Nurse and 1932’s Three on a Match) of the Depression to the classic melodramas (1945’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn) and noirs (1947’s Nightmare Alley) of the postwar era, Blondell’s putf8um performances regularly stole the spotlight. Her greatest onscreen collaboration came after a serendipitous meeting with promising stage performer Jimmy Cagney at a Broadway audition for playwright George Kelly. They would go on to star together in nearly a dozen Warner films, including The Public Enemy (1931), Blonde Crazy (1931), and Footlight Parade (1933).

Despite her constant, almost Puritan dedication to craft, Blondell’s equal devotion to a home life away from the screen might have contributed to her disappearance from the Hollywood A-list. She reportedly hated the spotlight and refused the preening lifestyle of industry players. Three disastrous marriages — to cinematographer George Barnes, actor Dick Powell, and producer Mike Todd — as well as work exhaustion and a predilection for domestic seclusion largely devalued her star status by the 1950s. It would not lessen the impact of her performances, however — 1951’s The Blue Veil, 1957’s Lizzie, and John Cassavetes’ 1978 dramedy Opening Night confirmed that maturity had not diminished her gift.

Blondell represented "the three-dimensional face on a two-dimensional screen," according to Kennedy, who describes her as "full of surprises, one moment as tough as Joan Crawford, the next as fragile as Margaret Sullivan, the next as saucy as Mae West." Her screen image represents a peak moment of Hollywood radiance. But that same radiant image contained a delicate talent yearning for the darkness of obscurity.


Fri/13 through June 29, $9.50 ($13.50 for double bills)

Pacific Film Archive Theater

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

Speed Reading




By David Hadju

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

448 pages


David Hajdu is an antidote to ersatz historiographers. He’s unearthed and analyzed formative but forgotten figures (such as Billy Strayhorn) and moments of 20th-century Americana. In The Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America, the Columbia University journalism professor turns his attention to Brooklyn and the Lower East Side of the 1940s and early ’50s, when a cadre of young outsiders engendered a new and controversial artistic medium: the comic book.

Hajdu surveys Famous Funnies pioneer Harry Wildenberg, eccentric militant Major Nicholson-Wheeler, Crime Does Not Pay impresario Charles Biro, psychological activist Frederic Wertham, and Superman creator Jerry Siegel. But milquetoast EC Comics owner Bill Gaines, partly responsible for the horror and sci-fi craze that accompanied the atomic age, is at the center of the book’s narrative.

The Ten Cent Plague thoroughly documents the censorship struggles and creative flourishes of a subculture and revolutionary art form, but it lacks the freewheeling energy of earlier histories. For all of his rhapsodizing about the authentic juvenile experience within comics, there is a dearth of playful and existential perspective. Instead, the writing takes on an insipid encyclopedic tone, forcing cohesion on a subject matter renowned for random creativity. Large portions of text come across as just the kind of parental lesson comic book enthusiasts might shun. Nonetheless, Hajdu provides a necessary investigation into the moment when America stepped from a black-and-white past into a Technicolor future. (Erik Morse)



By Gemma Solana and Antonio Boneu

Index Books

313 pages


Initially, Gemma Solana and Antonio Boneu’s survey of credit sequences in movies sported the title The Art of the Title Sequence. But now it is called Uncredited: Graphic Design and Opening Titles in the Movies, a gesture of solidarity toward the legion of graphic artists, particularly in Hollywood, who have designed credits for movies without being acknowledged for their efforts. Early sections of this hardcover slab of imagery and text — which weighs a good five pounds, in case you want to strengthen your biceps — explore the white-on-black and title-as-logo roots of studio movies from the first half of the 20th century. The creators of signature sequences such as the umbrella-twirling opening of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) are praised while remaining anonymous. Even when credits were credited, as with Pacific Title and Art Studio’s splendorous text for Gone with the Wind (1939), it was under a corporate blueprint.

Uncredited‘s latter chapters right those wrongs committed by the film industry by exploring the efforts of Otto Preminger’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s frequent partner-in-design Saul Bass (probably the only credit specialist to receive exhibition and monograph showcases) and his wife Elaine, as well as Jean Fouchet (an influence on Jacques Demy?), Pablo Nuñez (who created the credits for Victor Erice’s 1973 The Spirit of the Beehive), Dan Perri, and others. A climactic section about current trends displays work that uniformly pales in comparison to the work by Arcady, Fernand Léger, and especially Mary Ellen Bute and Jean-Luc Godard in a central chapter devoted to concepts. Uncredited is lavishly, gorgeously illustrated (complete with a DVD) and playfully designed. There are errors galore in the informative text though — a sharper editorial eye was needed. And who exactly is that mysterious “QT” who seems to have provided captions for a number of the illustrations? (Johnny Ray Huston)


Locus Solus


"Even a minor event in the life of a child is an event of that child’s world and thus a world event," declares Gaston Bachelard in his 1958 phenomenology of domesticity, The Poetics of Space. In its attempts to reconcile a science of atomic futurism with visions of quotidian psychology, to link the aberrations and fetishes of modern design with the traditions of hearth and home, Bachelard’s unique poetics are largely identical to the cinematic worlds of Guy Maddin. The Canadian director’s latest film, My Winnipeg, a so-called "docu-fantasia" of his birthplace, engages headfirst in a surrealist topoanalysis (to borrow from Bachelard’s ideas) of the city in which his own poetics of childhood dwell.

Speaking by the phone from his current Winnipeg home, the affectionately christened Atelier Tovar, Maddin waxes rhapsodically of a dream life bound by interiors and interiority. "After 30 years of dreaming about people I miss, I now dream almost exclusively of architecture," he confesses. "Sometimes my old house, sometimes other people’s — neighbors’ — houses, that I never went into. I think my dream self is trying to empathize with what those houses must have meant to someone else. But they’re always missing every second [floor] board, and are incredibly drafty and filled with this incredible longing and unspeakable joy. It always comes down to the house now, there are rarely any people in these dreams. Just houses."

In My Winnipeg, Maddin has taken his lexicon of family trauma and frigid Manitoban climates and deposits it on the doorstep of his childhood home. Raised in a storefront at Winnipeg’s 800 Ellis Street — which was divided into his aunt Lil’s beauty salon, an extended family wing, and an immediate family suite — Maddin was imprinted with the sights and sounds of multidimensional living. A television echoing around catalog furniture and muffled radio sounds droning through thin walls provided the soundtrack of a bee-hived gynecocracy. To this day, the 52-year-old still luxuriates in the simple pleasures the dreamy house afforded him — specifically orange Jell-O, his answer to Proust’s madeleine, and hairdryer slumbers. "I’ve taken many a nap under a hairdryer," he laughs. "I’ve still got a couple of old ones and you have to wear a hairnet or you get sucked up into the propellers. You wake up with a dehydrated head and a pounding headache, but it’s fantastic. My sister [does it], too. We’re like Beckett characters, sitting across from each other with these roaring domes on our heads."

As the youngest of four children, Maddin admits constructing a phenomenology of dreams from his first waking moments — culled mainly from wonder and boredom. "I spent a lot of time imprinting myself on the couch, listening and watching, not particularly attentively. I think I could have averted disaster if I had just been more attentive," he recalls, zeroing in on the instant when, at seven, he learned of his brother Cameron’s untimely death. "I remember when my brother died: he had gone missing and I was sitting on the couch reassuring my parents that he would come back. And that was the last time I ever felt confident about predicting anything. There was this comfortable rug underneath me, and I remember how it just fell away when I found out he wasn’t coming back.

"And that was the final, important piece of the universe for me," he laments. "There seemed to be these trap doors everywhere in my model of the universe — this place of great comfort, and more comfort, and more comfort, and great tracts of idle time. These secreted trap doors could open at anytime in your own home. And that made the place even more exquisite."

Like Proust and Bachelard before him, Maddin’s artistic communion with spirits long gone originates in the everyday objects and machines that share space with the living and the dead. From within the protection of the house, or rather from within its cavernous isolation, he continues to dream his way backward into the perfect womb of the past.


Sat/3, 8:30 p.m., PFA

Listening deeply to future’s past


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With this month’s release of Quaristice (Warp), Manchester electro pioneers Autechre have proven once again why they remain the most vital experimental force of the Warp generation invoking, in their dance-floor songscapes, a considerable 50-year palimpsest of hermetic sounds, from classical avant-garde to fin de millénaire techno. Nearly two decades into their careers, musical partners Sean Booth and Rob Brown still generate, synthesize, and surpass cutting-edge diapasons, matched by a timeless — and dare I say archetypally English — craftsmanship. By turns baroque and warm, then granular and cold, Autechre’s sonic creations continue to defy and frustrate the ramifying narratives of critics and hipster musos, who often label the mysterious duo with vague descriptors like "architectonic."

"There’s plenty of bad grandiosity — like Jean Michel Jarre," Booth says, laughing on the phone from Manchester. "People used to say our music sounded Wagnerian, weirdly enough. Of course, there are other European composers I prefer."

While the sutured beats and acid loops of past classic recordings like 1995’s Tri Repetae (Warp) and 1999’s EP7 (Warp) are based in the futurist ’80s hip-hop of Mantronix and Afrika Bambaataa, Autechre’s dissonant tones and eerie melodies are also a product of the same decade’s underground cinema. "Soundtrack music was my sideways introduction to classical electronic music," recalls Booth. "I really love John Carpenter, more than I even like Kraftwerk, which is a lot." In the age of glammy mainstream new wave, during which Yamaha keyboards were built and played like guitars and Trevor Horne–style production was all brass and filigree, sci-fi and horror provided an inroad to the sounds of future’s past — and its composers. Booth goes on to praise Tod Dockstader and Roland Kayn, among others.

In Booth’s studied references to musical obscurants, whose accompanying concepts of cybernetics and generative synthesis are usually reserved for the Uni computer lab set, the self-taught Northerner is not engaging in the familiar game of highbrow name-checking that has pervaded certain pockets of electronic culture since the early ’90s — and that indirectly birthed the dubious title Intelligent Dance Music. Rather, he is trying to articulate his deep passion for a kind of music that is nearly indescribable in everyday language and always alludes and evades more than it expresses.

Call it deep listening, call it microtonal, but don’t call it IDM. "I kind of looked at the computer [when we began] as a means to an end," Booth explains. "Like how far could you take music using this machine and still create reasonably interesting music? [Karlheinz] Stockhausen was all over this. He was even blurring the line between what a tone is and what a succession of events is. And that’s a major turning point in 20th century music. I think by the time we got to those ideas, it was about reapplication."

Of course, for all of its new possibilities, techno culture has its obvious downside, Booth contends, mostly as a result of market saturation. "I think that if people are overequipped, they can find it harder to make decisions, because they’ve got more things to choose from," he explains, referring both to the music industry and cultural spheres. He points to the phenomena of MySpace as comparable to the glut of plug-ins and processors that have become the norm for music producers. "But it’s all fixation in a way, because it’s not like if you buy a synth, then everything is going to change."

The progression of drum ‘n’ bass and dub techno met such a fate, being outstripped from within by idle bandwagoners who capitalized on the mechanics but not the soul of the genres’ originators: Dillinja, Ed Rush, and Jeff Mills, or the highly influential Basic Channel label. "Unfortunately, there are loads of idiots waiting in the wings to capitalize on that originality," Booth laments. "I think the whole electronic scene is really conservative now, and safe. In the early days when Xenakis and Cage and Stockhausen were first discovering these sounds, it was absolutely terrifying."

Autechre has always tried to maintain a certain minimalist craftsmanship in response, according to Booth. And it is apparent in Quaristice that they have put as much emphasis on flow, narrative, and rhythm as bricolage, creating a sophisticated "live" feel throughout. While some punters might say Autechre has now returned to the safety of its roots after mining the difficult territory of computer processing and software algorithms, Booth is quick to point out that most of the gear they have used of late is identical to what they used before. "It’s just much more reactive," he says. "I’m making decisions based on what Rob just did and vice versa. In a way it’s more rewarding than spending six months programming something that’s very elaborate and complex in a different way."

And if there is one descriptor we might use to encapsulate Booth and Brown, it would never be "safe." In their tireless soundtracking of a subterranean past and underground future, Autechre continues along an innovative path of music with as much heart as hardware.


With Massonix and Rob Hall

Sat/5, 9 p.m. doors, $18


444 Jessie, SF

“Protest in Paris 1968: Photographs by Serge Hambourg”


REVIEW While most Americans equate 1968 as the ground zero of political tumult in Chicago, New York City, and throughout the South, the revolutions that spread across Europe that year were of equal historical importance. Largely a reaction to the political asphyxiation of post–World War II policy and a much larger rejection of the feudal monarchist, industrial-capitalist, and communist regimes that had subjugated the masses for many years, the continent was suddenly positioned at the precipice of deconstruction. To paraphrase a Nietzsche epigram that appeared in spray paint frequently that year, Europe was discovering "the chaos inside to give birth to a dancing star."

The University of California, Berkeley Art Museum’s "Protest in Paris 1968: Photographs by Serge Hambourg" relives and reveals this spirit through the incredible work of former Le nouvel observateur photographer Serge Hambourg. Capturing the protests that began in the suburbs of Paris in March of that year and quickly spread throughout the country by May, Hambourg’s lens centers on the students, artists, and anarchists who swept up and down the Left Bank.

Some of Hambourg’s photographs capture an air of comedy: one shows the very photogenic Nanterre student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit shouting down the superannuated Surrealist poet Louis Aragon before a delighted crowd. Other photos — such as the image of a gas grenade shown in close-up before being thrown into a crowd — convey how quickly the protests degenerated into violence. As with the Parisian nouvelle vague auteurs, Hambourg redefines the city’s streetscapes from the singular moments of Eugène Atget or Henri Cartier-Bresson as a kinetic intersection of bodies and machines — everything in the process of becoming. As the protests wound down and the Gaullists regained control, the photos depict a city picked clean of its history — a Pyrrhic victory for the government.

PROTEST IN PARIS 1968: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SERGE HAMBOURG Through June 1. Wed., Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thurs., 11 a.m.–7 p.m. UC Berkeley Art Museum, 2626 Bancroft, Berk. $4–$8 (free first Thurs). (510) 642-0808,



REVIEW Throughout Lee Friedlander’s 50-year oeuvre, much of which is now on display at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the photographer has been lauded for his liveliness, optimism, and mobility. Yet his paean to modern Americana often resembles monochrome memento mori. Taken as a whole, Friedlander’s work has always seemed driven to two poles: the ephemeral and the haunting.

Heavily impressed by the avant-naturalism of European photographers Eugène Atget and Henri Cartier-Bresson, as well as the post–World War II experimentalism of Robert Frank, Friedlander staked his claim at a moment in the 1950s when the photograph transcended the moribund category of journalistic tool and became its own art form. Modeling much of his working method around Cartier-Bresson’s so-called decisive moment, Friedlander’s timeless images still have a striking past tense about them. Now ossified on film, these thousand microcosmic moments, captured throughout the 1960s and ’70s, seem like lively obituaries.

While Friedlander first made a name for himself as a contractor for Atlantic Records — where he shot such musicians as Ornette Coleman — he was never a celebrity photographer. In fact, his most intriguing work resulted from a personal obsession with traveling and shooting the country, crisscrossing between New York and his home state of Washington. And so the images of nocturnal motel rooms, cycloptic TV sets, and storefront tessellations conjure the American dynamism and dread of Vladimir Nabokov or David Lynch. The plethora of windows and mirrors in his street photography admit countless apertures through which to see his subjects. But Friedlander’s playful sense of humor always appears just within the clutches of something inexplicably sinister — like the cartoonish shadows that often hover into his frame. Though his more recent work — in portraiture, nudes, and particularly in nature — may suffer slightly from the inevitable cooling of youth’s ambition, Friedlander’s baroque attention to detail and depth of field are unmatched. This is a definitive exhibition on one of America’s most ingenious, albeit conflicted, photographers. The photographer’s son Erik Friedlander will perform pieces from his album Block Ice and Propane (SkipStone, 2007) on April 24, 8 p.m., $12–$15, at Phyllis Wattis Theater.

"FRIEDLANDER" Through May 18. Mon.–Tues., Fri.–Sun., 11 a.m.–5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.–8:45 p.m.

$7–$12.50, free for members and 12 and under. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., SF. (415) 357-4000,