Max Goldberg

Fruits of labor


FILM One of the first things cinema learned to say was “you are there.” The Lumières sent their lightweight cameras around the world and were soon able to transport their Parisian audience to remote settings — a fine flexing of industrial capitalism. If Werner Herzog used to have the market on art-cinema primitivism cornered, the recent films making up the “First Person Rural” series at the Pacific Film Archive take a different tack, disavowing outlandish narratives of madness and expedition for reality-hungry visions of work and rough beauty. As a group, they privilege phenomenal experience to exposition; affective texture to intelligibility; nonverbal utterance to patent explication. They often seem more in line with epic poetry than documentary realism.

Argentine director Lisandro Alonso’s stoic debut La Libertad (2001) led the way to many of the decade’s shorn agricultural narratives. To begin, we watch a young man work a tree into lumber and eat and nap in a lean-to a few shades rougher than Thoreau’s Walden. In the film’s second half, the man turns his labor into capital, transporting, selling, and spending before returning to camp to eat a freshly caught armadillo as lightning flashes in the distance. The slow time of the man’s routines defines the temporality of the film, and Alonso’s bold compositions in turn monumentalize the man’s tasks. What to make of this aesthetic surplus of the man’s labor remains an open question.

The issue of poetic license is even more pressing in Agrarian Utopia (2009), a work of social (hyper) realism focused on a family of Thai subsistence farmers. In contrast to their crushing penury is the rich HD cinematography: every grain of rice and droplet of water makes its stunning mark. Hitching scripted social drama to a loose documentary style joining scenes, director Urophong Raksasad proposes three possible utopic frameworks for the farming family: urban demonstrations calling for political reform, a hippie neighbor’s sustainable farming practices, and the ecstatic vision of the camera itself. The limitations of the first two should give us pause over the third; this is the rare film about poverty that doesn’t imagine its lyricism as a redemptive force.

There’s no question of any kind of utopia in Eugenio Polgovsky’s Tropic of Cancer (2004), a video report from the Mexican desert that’s bruising and cunning in equal measure. Polgovsky shows us the hard lives of peasants who scour the arid landscape for (unfriendly) critters they can sell alongside a godforsaken highway. Their middle-class customers seem primarily concerned with animals’ living conditions — one of many bitter ironies registered in Polgovsky’s sharply assertive montage.

Strong as it is, Tropic of Cancer doesn’t cry out for repeat viewings — not the case with Sweetgrass (2010) and Alamar (2009), both among the finest films of recent years. With Sweetgrass especially, it’s only after you’ve surrendered to its sensory richness as a recording (the multichannel sound mix combines with the physical camerawork for a nearly Whitmanesque extension of perception) that you can begin to digest its cross-purposed contemplation of the final sheep drive across a mountainous western-mythic landscape.

Writing about Jean-François Millet’s peasant subjects, the critic John Berger observed that the French painter’s personal nostalgia extended to history: “Most of what he knew about peasants was that they were reduced to a brutal existence, especially the men. He sensed, it seems to me, two things which, at the time, few others foresaw: that the poverty of the city and its suburbs; and that the market created by industrialization, to which the peasantry was being sacrificed, might one day entail the loss of all sense of history.” The “First Person Rural” films mark this loss with immersion, and in so doing leave us with the lingering sense that it is we and not the films’ subjects who are “out of time.”


March 26–April 27, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

Looking glass love


FILM Abbas Kiarostami’s beguiling new feature signals “relationship movie” with every cobblestone step, but it’s manifestly a film of ideas — one in which disillusionment is as much a formal concern as a dramatic one. Typical of Kiarostami’s dialogic narratives, Certified Copy is both the name of the film and an entity within the film: a book written against the ideal of originality in art by James Miller (William Shimell), an English pedant fond of dissembling. After a lecture in Tuscany, he meets an apparent admirer (Juliette Binoche) in her antique shop. She remains nameless (and is referred to in the credits as “She”) even as she steers them toward their day in the country, though he doesn’t seem to notice.

Their dialogues really begin in the car (a prominent setting in many of Kiarostami’s films). We watch them talk for several minutes in an unbroken two-shot, amiably distracted by the windshield’s scrolling reflection of the street. They gauge each other’s values using her sister as a test case — a woman who, according to the Binoche character, is the living embodiment of James’ book. Do their relative opinions of this off-screen cipher constitute characterization? Or are they themselves ciphers of the film’s recursive structure? Kiarostami makes us wonder.

They begin to act as if they were married midway through the film, though the switch is not so out of the blue: Kiarostami’s narrative has already turned a few figure-eights, and the role-playing initially comes of a café matron’s unremarkable misunderstanding. What’s strange — and pointedly wearying — is how little this shift alters their quarrelsome dynamic. Experience bears this much out: in intimate conversation, hypothetical premises are no safeguard from genuine emotions; to the contrary, we often invent them precisely to uncap recrimination. If Certified Copy‘s game resembles an acting exercise, that makes sense too given that actors like Binoche are garlanded for channeling authentic-seeming emotions in contrived scenarios. The mismatched casting of Shimell (an opera singer, blocky as an actor) and Binoche (overreaching) underlines this reflective aspect of the film, as does Kiarostami’s deliberate compositional strategies (marked especially by recessional staging and doublings within the frame).

We’re not exempt from the character’s misconceptions, starting with the fact that Kiarostami plainly wants us to mistake Certified Copy for another kind of movie. Tellingly, two rare POV shots in the film turn on misperception and illusion. In the first, James watches a couple in a piazza. The husband appears to be shouting at his wife, but when he turns the cell phone is revealed. (After a brief introduction, the stranger, played by Buñuel regular Jean-Claude Carrière, tells James in confidence he thinks that all She really needs is a tender gesture — succinctly expressing our own desires as an audience). Later, She looks out the window of an empty trattoria on an idyllic wedding scene. Kiarostami cuts back to her brightened face, giving a little object lesson in romantic projection. (Earlier the café matron warns her, “It’d be stupid of us to ruin our lives for an ideal.”)

Taking Kiarostami’s bait, several critics have already deemed Certified Copy derivative of many other elliptical romances. The strongest case for an “original” comes of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1954). Rossellini also makes use of his leads’ contrasting nationalities and acting styles; the car enclosure is similarly emphasized in both films; and Kiarostami cleverly plays on Ingrid Bergman’s emotionally resonant walks through museums and ruins throughout Certified Copy. Of course Voyage to Italy‘s premise is reversed — a married couple acts as if strangers — but the real difference is that while Rossellini’s masterpiece realizes first-person feelings in a third-person approach, Kiarostami stays in the shadow of doubt to the end.

CERTIFIED COPY opens Fri/18 in Bay Area theaters.


Something wild


FILM There are few contemporary filmmakers who grasp narrative as an expressive instrument in itself, and even among them Apichatpong Weerasethakul seems special. Like other influential artists from the provinces — he grew up in the rural northeast of Thailand — Apichatpong has developed a sui generis style by rethinking the shape of the container. When the transitional cinema of 2000-10 is recalled, his shorts, gallery installations, and five primary features (let us now praise them: 2000’s Mysterious Object at Noon, 2002’s Blissfully Yours, 2004’s Tropical Malady, 2007’s Syndromes and a Century, and now 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) will appear uniquely evolved.

For those yet unconvinced, it’s important to note that while Apichatpong is sometimes pegged as a critic’s darling, he’s also highly esteemed by other filmmakers. I think this is because he entrusts the immersive qualities of sound and image and the intuitive processes of narrative. Like animals, his films change form as they move. Their regenerative story structures and sensuous beauty betray a motivating curiosity about the nature of perception as filtered through memory, desire, landscape, spirituality, and social ties. All of Apichatpong’s films have a science-fiction flavor — the imaginative leap made to invent parallel worlds that resemble our reality but don’t quite behave — but Uncle Boonmee is the first to dress the part.

It goes like this: Jen and her son Tong visit her brother-in-law Boonmee at his rural farm. Every evening, his attendant Rai, a migrant worker from Laos, drains Boonmee’s failing kidney. Spirits gather for the dying uncle; in a wonderfully framed and acted long scene around the dinner table, he is met by the ghost of his wife Huay and his son Boonsong, who since disappearing into the jungle with his camera has taken the form of an ape creature with electro-red eyes. Back in daylight, Boonmee tours Jen around the farm. They taste honey together, and he tells her that he thinks his illness is karmic retribution for killing too many Communists in the forest.

Before Boonmee finally commits himself to the cradle of a cave, there are excursions to the past; to unnamed alternate realities (a fantastic interlude in which, you may have heard, a princess finds love with a catfish); and to dreams of the future. Back in the city, Jen and her daughter tally donations for Boonmee’s funeral. Tong comes to the door, only now he’s a monk. He wants a shower and something to eat — earthly things.

This is the gist, but not the grain. For that, you need the enveloping sound field of the jungle; the sly style of cutting that configures the jumps between worlds as if they were reaction shots; the day-for-night jungle saturating every inch of the frame; the many unenclosed shelters from porch to cave. These formal features are porous, as should be the film’s appeal. That the film won the Palme d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival was instantly claimed as a triumph for film culture (which it was), but Uncle Boonmee has something to say to those interested in Buddhism, installation art, Jung, astrophysics, experimental music, animism … I could go on. If that list makes it sound a very San Francisco-appropriate movie, that’s not wrong either.

Within the film itself, the central themes of transmigration and reincarnation are widened every step of the way. The supernatural visitations clearly echo the presence of illegal “aliens,” for instance, just as the monkey-spirits and omnipresent insects evoke the lingering memory of those massacred Communists troubling Boonmee’s final hours. And yet Boonmee feels nothing like a dutiful allegory, in part because its unordered clusters of association ensure many prisms through which to apprehend its compounded light.

Another is cinema. Apichatpong has explained that he conceived of Uncle Boonmee‘s stylistic shifts as a panorama of film history. Distinct passages recoup Thai costume drama, idyllic French verité, TV family drama, and Apichatpong’s own long take style. The transformations call attention to yet another medium, and work to crystallize two resonant aspects of cinema’s temps perdus: its disembodied nature and vicarious consummation of the past. Film has itself entered a Boonmee-like twilight, so when Apichatpong refers to Uncle Boonmee‘s spirit of lamentation in interviews, he’s talking as much about the vessel as the story.

But one need not decipher symbols to enjoy Apichatpong’s films — it’s a matter, rather, of sharing in his sensibility. Like all his work, Uncle Boonmee has a strong basis in Apichatpong’s own idiosyncratic personal history. But the film has the same relationship to autobiography as Mysterious Object at Noon did to ethnography. That film used the surrealist game of exquisite corpse as a model to interact with documentary subjects. Apichatpong traveled from city to country on narrative threads invented, elaborated on, and acted out by those appearing on camera. The premise is that the kernels of individual experience and insight can be followed to something like collective knowledge — that we might locate the self, in other words, between selves. None of the secondary readings are remarkable in themselves; it’s the connectedness that counts.

UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES opens Fri/4 at the Sundance Kabuki.

Bye bye blackbird


FILM During the course of writing this review, I will at some point be ensnared by a sentence, reworking its syntax and flow across many notebook pages. For some of us, this is what writing is. When we praise commanding literary performances as great writing, we’re actually talking about reading. It’s not surprising that film portraits of artists usually only give us a mime of their craft; biography and circumscribed performance are shields from the crooked time of the creative process.

Pedro Costa made a rare “painters painting” movie of the French filmmakers Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, and now he has done another with Jeanne Balibar. The two films trail distinct voices: Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? (2001) had the voluble Straub, whereas in Ne change rien Balibar speaks an obscure language of process (“Bring out the silences.” “This is fragile.”) that is outside the paltry domain of the conventional music documentary.

Costa forgoes exposition, and his stationary long takes require patience. Early on in Ne change rien, we watch Balibar work through a compact melodic phrase for more than 10 minutes. Stretched out of shape in this way, singing comes to seem distinctly of the body — equal parts athletic and spiritual exercise. Warhol’s unstinting camera is an obvious reference point for Costa’s staring-down-the-void, but while it’s true the Portuguese director doesn’t fear boredom, neither does he court it. He forgets the audience but gives us a greater taste of being for it. His tendency to black out vast portions of the frame makes a special kind of sense in Balibar’s recording studio; herein, both sound and vision register as isolated degrees of a larger frame.

Balibar’s appearance seems to change from one song to the next, and Costa’s signature shadows accentuate this disappearing act — we might call it seduction. Though the film shows us Balibar live onstage and training for opera — a different person almost — the heart of Ne change rien is in the studio, where we get to know a handful of songs as we would people (i.e., not all at once). A recording studio is not conducive to spectators; indeed, it can be difficult to remain engaged even as a participant. It is where musicians break their songs apart for the discrete elements can be recombined as a dynamic illusion of a single performance. Similarly to the Straub-Huillet portrait, Costa situates Ne change rien in an enclosed chamber of creative production while withholding the composite product assembled there.

We are left clinging to fragments, and yet the offhanded threads between shots (a repeated quip about movie sets, a cat) underscore the more resonant elucidations of the songs in construction. As Balibar circles a melody, so the tunes coil the sequences — no wonder they’ve been haunting my sleep. Late in the game of “Cinéma,” Costa cuts between guitarist Rodolphe Burger and the recording engineer listening to the full playback of the song and Balibar in a different room recording its vocal track (she hears what they do on headphones, but we hear her voice alone). This is the only time we see a piece of the outside world, and you will have to take my word that the window and her voice are one. At the end of Ne change rien, Costa cuts to the musicians in a backstage room flooded with artificial light. Graphically, the shot is the opposite of all that’s come before. The group runs through a lovely song we haven’t yet heard (“Rose”). The effortlessly unfolding time-frame of rehearsal is something new too. It looks a lot like grace. 


Thurs/20, 7:30 p.m.; Sun/23, 2 p.m., $6–$8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

Past imperfect


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.

Fight club


FILM Late in Boxing Gym, a pungent documentary even for Frederick Wiseman, an old-timer says something wise to his friend while lacing up. The friend doesn’t see the point of analogies. Our man admits that some only work on an intellectual level, but insists that others make intuitive sense of abstraction — the right metaphor can make all the difference in getting a particular movement. It’s hard to imagine that Wiseman would still be making his films if he didn’t think the same held true for a motion picture sequence.

Good thing, since boxing has been made to shoulder an awful lot of Hollywood hooey. Not much has changed since Manny Farber, writing in 1949, decried fight pictures for being “tightly humorless and supersaturated with worn-out morality … pure fantasy in so far as capturing the pulse of the beak-busting trade.” Wiseman isn’t interested in the trade so much as the discipline — though the big time’s spectacular images are plastered around the old-school Texas club. And yet even if Boxing Gym shrugs at the competitive elements of the sport, Wiseman’s squat compositions tune in the unglamorous business of keeping your dukes up when tired — the kind of matter-of-fact physical truth professional actors howl for.

By releasing Boxing Gym immediately after La Danse (2009), Wiseman ensures his own comparisons. The choreographer-dancer and trainer-boxer tandems are aligned not only in fancy footwork (Wiseman’s too), but also in their mirror-stretched studios. There are differences, of course — one can’t help but think of the Paris Ballet’s fundraising efforts when Richard Lord, the dexterous trainer-manager of the gym, explains membership dues. Perhaps because Wiseman is not beholden to an institutional cycle of rehearsals and performances in Boxing Gym, it’s the purer distillation of a kinetic education.

Watch Wiseman’s films together, and you’ll realize that different spaces register silence differently. The filmmaker’s musical ear is richly apparent in Boxing Gym‘s gloved rhythms and concrete echoes, to say nothing of the entrancing pendulum swings of side-by-side workouts. As in La Danse, Wiseman emulates the concentration of his subjects, but here he also picks up on their loose camaraderie in conversations about joblessness, the joy of getting hit and, closest to the bone, the Virginia Tech killings. The gym is still a masculine space, but one in which women (and children) are a significant presence. For more on the evolution of gender and “training,” one might well consult the filmmaker’s own catalog: Basic Training (1971), Manoeuvre (1979), and Missile (1987). Wiseman’s gym is finally a gathering place, one with atmosphere and history (and hardly any headphones) — all the more reason to see it in a movie theater.

BOXING GYM opens Wed/22 at the Roxie.


Darkest heart


FILM Claire Denis was raised in colonial Africa, and White Material is her third feature set in its wake (the first two were 1988’s Chocolat and 1999’s breathtaking Beau Travail). This new film is very much about Africa, compositing elements of several different “troubles” (child soldiers, a strong man’s militia, radio broadcasts fomenting violence) into an abstract of conflict. Between the dead-eyed rebels in the bush and the brutally efficient forces in town stands Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert), a colonial holdout. She continues to work her family’s coffee plantation after the European men have retreated indoors, after a French military helicopter has dropped survival kits on her land (she curses “these whites”), and finally after the African workers have fled. “Coffee’s coffee. Not worth dying for,” one tells her before speeding off.

As the troubles mount, Maria buries the signs of encroaching threats — literally when a cow’s head rolls out of a basket of coffee berries. Her refusal to be terrorized is a trait we typically ascribe to male action heroes (the film would make an interesting double-feature with 2008’s Gran Torino), though Maria’s resolute blindness is its own kind of privilege in the African context. Her restless movements are starkly contrasted by the wounded still lives of three men: her slothful son Manuel, a nihilist nitwit; a shadowy colonial patriarch who doesn’t walk beyond the threshold of his house; and an equally mysterious figurehead of the rebel movement ailing in a plantation dugout (played to some distraction by Isaach de Bankolé). A woman’s tragic strength, a weak grown child, a downward spiral knotted by a complex flashback structure: White Material seems a bit like a postcolonial Mildred Pierce.

Unusually for Denis, the film is both a literary adaptation (cowritten with author Marie NDiaye and based on Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing) and a star vehicle for Huppert, whose stringy musculature is a nice match for Yves Cape’s lithe camerawork. The idea of Maria’s character already tends toward the parabolic, though, and all these different inputs can result in too much dramatic underlining. When Maria’s flashback first lands us in the liberating rush of a motorcycle ride, Denis’ handheld cinematography generates an ample rush — but then Huppert lets her hair down with a flourish, and we feel we’re being pressed too hard. The same is true whenever the child soldiers march to Tindersticks’ funereal score, or when the mention of white material (Maria’s cigarette lighter, for instance) ends a scene on an overly foreboding note. Far more effective are those dizzying moments when a freshly vulnerable Maria notices rebel girls wearing her clothes.

For all White Material‘s novelistic concessions, Denis’ subtle command of composition and rhythm as elements of narration is beyond doubt. Her use of the handheld camera remains preternaturally attuned to her characters’ pleasures and anxieties, and she is still quite capable of finding the most telling framing of a given power dynamic. To that effect, there’s a brilliant shot early in Maria’s flashback when her regular workers leave the plantation. She implores them to stay, but they ride off one by one in an indistinct line, remaining out of focus while her darting head weaves the bulk of the widescreen frame. The vacuum of authority is vividly realized in seconds of screen time.

White Material begins at the end, with unattached subjective images of someone searching the plantation house with a flashlight. The beam settles on certain talismanic objects (a photograph of a young woman, an African mask, an oxygen tank) before sliding across more of the obscure space. The tantalizing vision of scenes like these makes me wish White Material wasn’t so dutifully attached to its (admittedly fierce) star. But watching the film a second time, I found that the embers of repression came into better focus between the broad strokes of plotting. Intimations and symbols flash through a dusky storm that doesn’t need a name to rumble.

WHITE MATERIAL opens Fri/26 in Bay Area theaters.

Side of the road


FILM Kelly Reichardt wrote and directed a pair of arresting short features in the 1990s — River of Grass (1993) and Ode (1999) — but it was the two poignant recalibrations of the road movie she made during the George W. Bush years that put her on the map. With so much American independent cinema gone upwardly mobile, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008) were films that dug back in to that minor place that gives the 1970s cinema of Monte Hellman (1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop), Bob Rafelson (1970’s Five Easy Pieces), Barbara Loden (1970’s Wanda), and Eagle Pennell (1978’s The Whole Shootin’ Match) its plaintive appeal. Reichardt’s characters (the recent ones all developed with the help of Portland, Ore., author Jon Raymond) are side-winding, shipwrecked, or otherwise in limbo. The films do not engineer uplift, but instead reserve empathy for melancholy souls who, for one reason or another, feel themselves cut off.

Some of the elements of Reichardt’s “naturalism” include her subtle direction of actors (an emphasis on gesture and rhythm); her deceptively unhurried pacing which, as in the best short stories, reveals the continuity of life in its interruptions; her sensitivity to the emotional registry of politics; and the strong regional accents of all her films. If you’ve seen the two earlier movies, you know that Reichardt has a strong feeling for the southeast’s glades, but she’s since come to be associated with Oregon’s overcast skies (her new film, Meek’s Cutoff, was shot upon the state’s hardscrabble plains). Reichardt could probably make a good picture in any out-of-the-way place — a lot of America, actually.

Reichardt’s films unfold as ballads: a cast of two, with occasional walk-ons, observed from a near distance. The incremental addition of events anticipates heartbreak or worse, with context and emphasis left between the lines. Always, we find ourselves in an America where it’s hard to escape and easy to get lost. However the meaning of “escape” and “getting lost” might vary, the characters emerge similarly bruised: walking the strip, stuck in traffic, riding a freight train, or back at home without consolation. Many of Reichardt’s memorable scenes — and there are already many — might have been torn from Robert Frank’s The Americans.

Like all good ballads, the stories strike us as being emblematic. In interviews, Reichardt has made it clear that she intends her films to remind us of the times, whether evoking the left’s ineffectual ties in Old Joy or the lack of a public sphere in Wendy and Lucy. As with her ’70s forerunners, the films invite a pastoral daydream (renewal in the wilderness or out on the road) only to have it dissipate in responsibility or a dead end. Something Cozy (Lisa Bowman) says in River of Grass hangs over all Reichardt’s movies: “It’s funny how a person can leave everything she knew behind and still wind up in such a familiar place.”

Even before learning that Meek’s Cutoff (which premiered at the 2010 Venice Film Festival; no local release date has been announced) was to be set in 1845, it seemed reasonable to assume that we wouldn’t soon see a computer or text message in one of Reichardt’s films. Her characters all have difficulty communicating — this can be vexing, especially in Wendy and Lucy — but the films finally turn on the repressed energies and vulnerabilities that only surface in the midst of a genuine encounter. In Reichardt’s early work, intimate productions provided the right scale for these fragile relationships. That began to change in Wendy and Lucy by virtue of Michelle Williams, and now Meek’s Cutoff represents another enlargement of cast and budget. Reichardt will be in conversation with film scholar B. Ruby Rich following the Pacific Film Archive’s screenings of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, and it will be interesting to hear whether the extra attention has made it any more difficult for her to keep to the byways. 


Nov. 11–13, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

Wall Street hold ’em


FILM Inside Job is director Charles Ferguson’s second investigative documentary after his 2007 analysis of the Iraq War, No End in Sight, but it feels more like the follow-up to Alex Gibney’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005). Keeping with the law of sequels, more shit blows up the second time around. As with No End in Sight, Ferguson adeptly packages a broad overview of complex events in two hours, respecting the audience’s intelligence while making sure to explain securities exchanges, derivatives, and leveraging laws in clear English (doubly important when so many Wall Street executives hide behind the intricacy of markets).

The revolving door between banks, government, and academia is the key to Inside Job‘s account of financial deregulation. At times borrowing heist-film conventions (it is called Inside Job, after all), Ferguson keeps the primary players in view throughout his history so that the eventual meltdown seems anything but an accident. Even apparent detours prove narrowly targeted. The subject of Wall Street’s venal appetites for drugs and prostitutes, for instance, is introduced first as farce and second as potential traction for broader criminal investigations. Presumably a junior partner might give up valuable information so as not to be made into another Eliot Spitzer, who, incidentally, comes off quite well in Inside Man.

While the fat cats only show up thanks to the CSPAN archive, several free market economists do sit for interviews with Ferguson. They probably regret doing so now — he reserves special scorn for the academic class of boosters. Frederic Mishkin is a typical case. Formerly a member of the Board of Governors at the Federal Reserve, he quickly becomes a muttering mess under Ferguson’s questioning. Mishkin quit the Treasury in August 2008, at the height of the crisis, to return to Columbia University to finish more pressing work: a textbook. In 2006, Mishkin coauthored a rosy report on Iceland’s doomed markets, pocketing a nice commission from the country’s Chamber of Commerce. Mysteriously, the title of the report changed from “Financial Stability in Iceland” to “Financial Instability in Iceland” on Mishkin’s CV — confronted with the discrepancy, he croaks something about a typo.

Ferguson’s relentless focus on the insiders isn’t foolproof. Tarring Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson, and Timothy Geithner as “made” guys, for example, isn’t a substitute for evaluating their varied performances over the last two years. Inside Job makes it seem that the entire crisis was caused by the financial sector’s bad behavior, and this too is reductive. To take just one example, China figures into the film only as laborers losing their jobs due to market volatility — part of the story, certainly, but so is that government’s devaluation of its currency.

Furthermore, Ferguson does not come to terms with the politicized nature of the economic fallout. In Inside Job, there are only two kinds of people: those who get it and those who refuse to. The political reality is considerably more contentious. Americans on the right and left may well share disgust at the bailouts, but they’re drawing very different conclusions from the government’s cash infusions. Ferguson builds something of a false consensus between his talking heads, never asking them, for example, whether they think Fannie Mae or Countrywide was a bigger boogeyman (politically, the answer says a lot). In this regard, a general assessment in a recent article by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells holds for Inside Job: “Books on the Great Recession are still pouring off the presses … but they don’t offer much guidance on the most pressing problem at hand, which is how to deal with the continuing consequences of the last [bubble].” 

INSIDE JOB opens Fri/22 in Bay Area theaters.

From here, cinema


I saw my first movie when I was four or five: it was a revival of 101 Dalmations (1961), and I liked it enough to ask my mother if we could sit through it a second time (we did). I saw my second first movie when I was 19: it was a nine-minute short by Bruce Baillie titled Valentin de las Sierras (1967), and after seeing it I knew film history must be full of secrets. It was only after moving to Berkeley a few years later that I began to contextualize Baillie’s tactile daydream of a Mexican village — a singular vision, to be sure, but one emblematic of a regional avant-garde as difficult to survey as San Francisco itself.

Here’s to trying: “Radical Light”‘s ambitious ecology of alternative film and video in the Bay Area encompasses an invaluable anthology of firsthand accounts, secondhand appreciations, and historical overviews; a film series with many artists-in-attendance and restored prints (through the winter at the Pacific Film Archive and various SF Cinematheque affiliates); and a gallery show of ephemera at the Berkeley Art Museum.

To first address the question underlying the whole series: why here? Some of the book’s contributors offer fanciful conjectures: it must be the ghost of Muybridge, an island ecology, a city that won’t hold a straight line, the quality of light, or, more realistically, the influence of the Beats’ vow of poverty. While I’m attracted to environmental speculations like these, it seems important not to let them overshadow the essential evidence of hard work without promise of financial compensation or art world status. This is clearest in the Bay Area’s rich tradition of artist-run, self-reliant screenings: museum takeovers, backyard hoedowns, and basement salons.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Frank Stauffacher’s post-World War II “Art in Cinema” series at the San Francisco Museum of Art (before it became “modern”) in establishing this climate of creative investment. Handsome as hell and himself a fine filmmaker, Stauffacher audaciously placed cinema in an art context, colliding European avant-gardes, Hollywood outliers, and homegrown talent in a museum setting a few decades ahead of schedule. In essence, he prepared the audience for what became known as independent filmmaking (before that term was commoditized). Which is more remarkable: that Stauffacher showed Christopher Maclaine’s still incendiary The End (1953), precipitating a chair-clearing uproar, or that he fronted Maclaine (a bagpipe-playing speed freak known as North Beach’s Antonin Artaud when there was plenty of competition) the funds to make this unsellable thing? Most of “Art in Cinema”‘s audience wasn’t ready for The End, but one young spectator found it a revelation: his name was Stan Brakhage.

Less than 10 years later, after Stauffacher’s tragic death in 1955, Baillie and his Canyon Cinema collaborators (notably, Chick Strand and Ernest Callenbach) came down from the hills over Oakland and expanded their bohemian screenings to include public production equipment, a journal, and the distribution co-op that is today run by filmmaker Dominic Angerame. The early Canyon group’s ambitions were local, but nonetheless represented an alternative cinema practice as profoundly liberating as that of their Nouvelle Vague contemporaries — one taken up by the dozen or so major series (e.g. No Nothing Cinema, Total Mobile Home, Other Cinema) and college film departments (especially San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State University) detailed in “Radical Light.”

Though wildly eclectic in form and content, the “Radical Light” films cohere around a widespread distrust of moral authority, whether political or aesthetic, as well as an abiding interest in the bending truths of portraiture, documentary, ethnography, and found footage. The anarchic and mystical are preferred modes, though not mutually exclusive ones. There is a long tradition of collaboration between filmmakers and, perhaps more strikingly, with poets, painters, and musicians. To cite but a few examples: Larry Jordan’s Visions of a City (1979, begun 1957) is drawn from material shot to accompany readings by Michael McClure and Philip Lamantia; Bruce Conner did lightshows at the old Avalon Ballroom before making music videos for Devo and documenting the Mabuhay Gardens punk scene; and Brakhage made In Between (1955) while living with Robert Duncan and Jess (and set the film to a John Cage composition). Early “Art in Cinema” habitués like Jordan Belson, Harry Smith, and James Broughton all approached film from different mediums, and later artists like Nathaniel Dorsky, Warren Sonbert, and Konrad Steiner explored the poetic or musical resonances of moving images. It runs the other way too — unsurprisingly, it takes someone like poet Bill Berkson to get Dorsky’s films in a (parenthetical) nutshell: “(Without being stupid about it, Dorsky really seems to put every conscious instant up against the growth chart of Eternity.)”

Indeed, all these films burn brightly as you watch. Witness all the different ways in which the makers seek to alter the cinematic experience, turning it into a Zen monastery (Dorsky), paranoid classroom (Craig Baldwin), troubled innerspace (Gunvor Nelson), innocent grindhouse (George and Mike Kuchar), confessional (Lynn Hershman Leeson), firing squad (Maclaine), astral plain (Belson), cross-examination (Trinh T. Minh-ha), beat street (Dion Vigne), all-night roadhouse (Conner), “unguided playground” (how Ernie Gehr described the images in his 1991 film, Side/Walk/Shuttle, two weeks ago), and on and on. If “Radical Light”‘s chronologically-based film programs serve an informative purpose similar to the well-labeled sectioning of a botanical garden, the thematic programs come off more as a noisy farmers market where the full variety of produce jams a narrow aisle. As always, the fruit tastes best when you know where it came from.


Through April 30, 2011, $5.50–$10

(Book launch Fri/15, 7:30 p.m.)

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

Berkeley Art Museum

2626 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-0808

False witness


FILM Documentaries that “tell” the Holocaust tend to employ archival footage generically as a kind of historical flavoring. It’s rare that we are asked to contemplate either the provenance of the images or the individual lives depicted. Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished simultaneously confronts both of these gaps with a taut historiography of several reels of Nazi propaganda footage. Even in the German film’s inchoate form, we easily apprehend the propagandistic moves to further manipulate an already constructed reality (the Warsaw Ghetto) for objective “proof” of the necessity of Hitler’s Final Solution. Yet here before us, flowing at the speed of life, are the faces and places that would be destroyed within months of the filming.

Hersonski attempts to extricate the documentary value of this footage using frame-speed manipulations and edits that call attention to telling movements. She also films elderly survivors watching the footage alone in a darkened theater. In their capacity for recognition and incredulousness, they unravel the German point of view. By weaving these live responses with diary entries of those consigned to the ghetto along with the deposition of a German cameraman, Hersonski draws a fragmentary, highly specific account of the Holocaust’s crisis of representation. We discussed the film during a recent e-mail exchange.

SFBG The question of how to use archival footage responsibly is one that haunts the great Holocaust-themed films — Night and Fog (1955), Shoah (1985), and the films of Péter Forgács all find very different solutions. Can you describe the way your own attitudes regarding the appropriation of this archive developed during the time you worked on A Film Unfinished?

Yael Hersonski During the last decade I became more and more preoccupied with the thought of the near future, when no Holocaust survivors will be left to remember — the time when the archives will be the only source of witness. I’ve tried to examine the possibilities of exploring the image like an archaeologist analyses a palimpsest and to excavate, by cinematic means, new layers of reality from beneath the known imagery. I admit that [at one] time I felt that Night and Fog and Shoah were all that a filmmaker could express facing such an inconceivable, unprecedented event. For [Shoah director Claude] Lanzmann, the Holocaust lies firmly outside the archive as the ultimate Other, a black hole that threatens to swallow every visual witness, and thus resists the film archive and its raptures.

Forgács faces the impossibility of bearing witness exactly by confronting the contemporary viewer (who knows how it all ended) with private documentation that was abruptly stopped when the photographer himself was no longer capable of documenting, nor his dear ones of being documented. Forgács’ films introduce me again and again to the immense capacity of footage to reveal, in the form of a private history, the traces of an inconceivable past. My aim in showing the Warsaw Ghetto footage (for the first time in its entire length) and confronting the images with many points of view about the filmmaking itself was not to tell “the true story” of the Warsaw Ghetto, nor to expose the evil of Nazi propaganda (which was obvious even to the German filmmaker who discovered the reels in 1954), but to make the viewers question the way they see these images, and through them, perceive the past.

A FILM UNFINISHED opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.

Practiced distance


FILM The first time I met Paul Clipson, we quickly discovered that we shared an intense regard for Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1952). I had just seen material that would become Clipson’s short film Union at a San Francisco Cinematheque screening a few days prior and found that its psychically charged shift from rural to urban spaces reminded me of the Ray movie (specifically, a single dissolve as Robert Ryan’s character drives back into the city). Union belongs to a different species of cinema, of course. It’s shot on Super 8 and 16mm, wordless, with a narrative situation (a girl running) refracted as pure kinesis. As became apparent talking with Clipson, however, his deep knowledge of film history is attuned to texture rather than taxonomy. The second time I watched Union, I realized that On Dangerous Ground was just a convenient name for the deeper, more elusive sense of recognition it stirred in me.

Since that first meeting, I have seen Clipson project films on a billowing screen under the stars; in the squat confines of the Café Du Nord for the On Land music festival, where his work expanded several performances; and on the sides of a dome structure atop Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. There have been more traditional screenings as well, though Clipson’s eclectic live projections are drawing attention — he’s fresh back from a brief European tour and will be featured in New York’s Views from the Avant-Garde this weekend. Before then, he’ll present a ranging survey of his recent efforts at SFMOMA, where he works as head projectionist.

The shifting context of live collaborations and crystallized short subjects is crucial to understanding Clipson’s work, and so "The Elements" will feature both: a suite of finished films sandwiched between projections with frequent collaborator Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and an ensemble, Portraits. An open frame of performance is a crucial catalyst for the searching lyricism of Clipson’s cinematography. He shoots frequently, building long reels to run with the music. Clipson refers to these unrehearsed dives as his research.

The camera style is at once impressionistic in its technique and boldly graphic in its compositions, haunted by familiar visual forms that, loosed from conventional perspective, are revealed to carry unexpected resonances and rhythms. What do we see? A million suns, made multiple by the surface of water and the curve of the camera lens; neon signs; flitting vertical obstructions; telephone wires; vegetation; intimate, handheld disclosures of vast distances; architectural surfaces. As with Joris Ivens’ early shorts, Clipson’s films register the city in its minor variations. Within the frame, a storm of vision emerges of superimpositions, dissolves, rack focus, zooms, and the interlacing of color and black-and-white stocks. It often seems that the objects he films are bringing the camera into focus and not the other way around.

When I ask about this, Clipson says, "I’ve found that the pulpy intensity of the Super 8 film decides the subject matter in a way. It’s like the film is in your brain telling you to shoot this or that — you can just imagine the luster." The intuitive nature of his in-camera montage meshes well with the aural landscapes of the live performances; a floating minimalism prevails. As a former member of Tarantel and co-steward of the Root Strata label, Cantu-Ledesme has been Clipson’s primary point of entry to this musical world. Speaking over the phone, he notes their easy camaraderie: "Once Paul is in the moment of filming, he’s just really responding to what is happening on the other side of the lens … and at least when I’m playing by myself, I try to have that same attitude."

In concert, the physical waves of sound and Clipson’s disembodied images are rich soil for a trance. It’s only in the concentrated shorts, however, that one finds the full extension of Clipson’s lyricism. The elliptical Sphinx on the Seine (2008) is still my favorite. Only eight minutes long, its shots seem to trace a voyage. We see the golden gleam of the sun as reflected by criss-crossing railways and snaking waterways, the shadow-world of a sidewalk, a phantasmal vision of Mount Fuji. Each of these lucid views slides away just as it ripens. Clipson’s collation of different cities is formally embedded in his composited images, which here appear as the fragile clues of some unknown existence. Like Sans Soleil (1983) and Mr. Arkadin (1955), two similarly itinerant films, Sphinx on the Seine evokes a tantalizing sense of placelessness.

One afternoon, both of us a little scatterbrained from a long week, Clipson and I get hung up on CinemaScope. He expresses admiration for the anamorphic framings of Ben Rivers’ I Know Where I’m Going (2009), and then draws a zigzag of appreciation between George Cukor’s 1954 A Star is Born ("The first 20 minutes"), Vincent Minnelli’s 1958 Some Came Running ("When you see it in the theater, it’s so much darker than on a television. You see shadows under people’s eyes"), and Otto Preminger’s general mastery of the form ("To me, those aren’t even compositions; they’re movements of thought"). It strikes me again and again that Clipson’s acute observations regarding film aesthetics are very much part of his creative force — yet his filmmaking doesn’t feel overcooked. Ben Rivers’ films work in a similar way: betraying a cinephile’s intimate knowledge of the medium, but out in the world all the same.

"Sometimes a few seconds of a film can live with you your whole life," Clipson tells me later that same afternoon, locating one such epiphany in the opening of Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948): "There are all these dissolves going through the witches’ cauldron. You see a smoke circle, a storm cloud, what maybe is the surface of clouds from above, the cauldron and hands … I could just make films entirely inspired by that for 10 years because it’s so intangible, with such a beautiful, dense logic of images that resists immediate understanding." Indeed, it sounds like a Paul Clipson film.


Thurs/30, 7 p.m., $5

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

(415) 357-4000

False witness: Yael Hersonski on “A Film Unfinished”


Documentaries that “tell” the Holocaust tend to employ archival footage generically as a kind of historical flavoring. It’s rare that we are asked to contemplate either the provenance of the images or the individual lives depicted. Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished simultaneously confronts both of these gaps with a taut historiography of several reels of Nazi propaganda footage. Even in the German film’s inchoate form, we easily apprehend the propagandistic moves to further manipulate an already constructed reality (the Warsaw Ghetto) for objective “proof” of the necessity of Hitler’s Final Solution. And yet here before us, flowing at the speed of life, are the faces and places that would be destroyed within months of the filming.

Hersonski attempts to extricate the documentary value of this footage using frame-speed manipulations and edits which call attention to telling movements. She also films elderly survivors watching the footage alone in a darkened theater. In their capacity for recognition and incredulousness, they unravel the German point-of-view. By weaving these live responses with diary entries of those consigned to the ghetto along with the deposition of a German cameraman, Hersonski draws a fragmentary, highly specific account of the Holocaust’s crisis of representation. We discussed the film in a recent email exchange.

San Francisco Bay Guardian: The question of how to use archival footage responsibly is one that haunts the great Holocaust-themed films — Night and Fog (1955), Shoah (1985), and the films of Péter Forgács all find very different solutions. Can you describe the way your own attitudes regarding the appropriation of this archive developed during the time you worked on A Film Unfinished?

Yael Hersonski: During the last decade I became more and more preoccupied with the thought of the near future, when no Holocaust survivors will be left to remember — the time when the archives will be the only source of witness. I’ve tried to examine the possibilities of exploring the image like an archaeologist analyses a palimpsest, and to excavate, by cinematic means, new layers of reality from beneath the known imagery. I admit that [at one] time I felt that Night and Fog and Shoah were all that a filmmaker could express facing such an inconceivable, unprecedented event. For [Shoah director Claude] Lanzmann, the Holocaust lies firmly outside the archive as the ultimately Other, a black hole which threatens to swallow every visual witness, and thus resists the film archive and its raptures.
Forgács faces the impossibility of bearing witness exactly by confronting the contemporary viewer (who knows how it all ended) with private documentation which was abruptly stopped when the photographer himself was no longer capable of documenting, nor his dear ones of being documented. Forgács’ films introduce me again and again to the immense capacity of footage to reveal, in the form of a private history, the traces of an inconceivable past.

My aim in showing the Warsaw Ghetto footage (for the first time in its entire length) and confronting the images with many points of view about the filmmaking itself was not to tell “the true story” of the Warsaw Ghetto, nor to expose the evil of Nazi propaganda (which was obvious even to the German filmmaker who discovered the reels in 1954), but to make the viewers question the way they see these images and through them perceive the past.

SFBG: Did you set out to interrogate the decontextualization of these images in more conventional visual histories of the Holocaust and Warsaw Ghetto? The logic of many Holocaust documentaries, wittingly or not, is that the content of these images can be separated from the context in which they were made — that what we see speaks for itself. Your film challenges this assumption in many ways.

YH: I’ve always felt that the images from the Holocaust were mainly used the same way: as illustrations for many different stories, as visual background between interviews. We see the same images over and over again, [both] because the quantity of footage is finite (only 10 percent from what the Nazis documented on film survived the war), [but also] because of sheer laziness of filmmakers who find it more comfortable to use what’s [familiar]. The superficial use of an image enables it to show almost nothing — or merely repeats the humiliation of the victims that were captured on film as an anonymous helpless crowd. I emphasize a moment [by slowing it down] in which a woman is protesting against the humiliation caused by filming merely by means of her gaze and her body language. When I know this woman was probably murdered a short time after her image was taken, and when I hear at the same time the cameraman who was filming her speaking about how he could not even imagine what was going on, I feel closer to the reality of that image than I did before.

SFBG: How did you come to the idea of having the survivors respond to the archival footage in place of a more traditional question-and-answer interview? As viewers separated from these events, we’re able to treat these archival images as content — whereas I imagine for the person who was there, it’s inescapable that the footage literally represents how they were seen by the Germans. Were you concerned that you might be putting your subjects through a kind of secondary trauma by having them view the footage in such a way that they didn’t have their hands on the controls?

YH: I was looking not only for survivors from the Warsaw Ghetto, but for those who could actually recall the event of the filming in May 1942. I was quite amazed to locate more than the five survivors I interviewed for the film, because obviously the filming was a negligible event compared with the unimaginable horrors that went on there. When speaking with the survivors, I explained to them in detail how the filming would be done — that they would watch the whole film, alone, on the big screen, that it contained atrocious scenes (I described these), and that obviously it would be a difficult experience. Some of the survivors indeed refused to watch it, and some hesitated. Only those who felt it was their personal obligation to [speak to] the silent images, those who told me that the worst horrors exist not in any footage but in their own memories, [those who thought] it important to add their own point of view to the Nazi perspective — only these people were invited to be filmed. Still, I stopped the screening every time a reel was over and asked if they wished to continue. All of them asked to watch to the very end and felt a great relief after doing so.

The decision to film [the survivors] inside a cinema hall and to show the footage in 35mm stemmed from three [priorities]. First of all, I wanted to intensify the experience of the screening as much as I could, for I knew I would not — not in any case — film these survivors again. After they had given me their approval, I knew I had only one chance. I was also aware that the time of interview would be short, since all of them are physically too fragile to sit for more than two hours in such an intense emotional state. If there was a chance someone could recognize a person in the film or add any other important historical information about the footage, the only way to help them remember was to isolate them from their domestic surroundings and show them the film on the big screen.

The second reason relates to the character of the survivors as witnesses. Roughly [speaking], we can say that there are those survivors who won’t talk about the past, who remain silent merely to be able to live…and there are those who ceaselessly tell their stories, who give lectures and interviews, write books, and so on. They find witnessing [to be] their very vocation and destiny. The survivors who were filmed belong to the group who speaks. They have told their stories many times, and because they can’t tell it all any one time, their memory [often narrows] to [a] single narrative. Other details have remained in a less accessible memory. By changing the traditional scenery of the interview and creating a new interactive space [in which] the survivors were not just storytellers but also viewers and witnesses who comment, I hoped to help them to release some of the memories which [remained unspoken] by them.

The third reason was aesthetic: it was important for me to maintain [every aspect] of the film in relation to the archival documents and documentation itself. My initial idea, even before watching the footage for the first time, was to think of these archives as if they were a brain, with memories and even a subconscious. The labyrinth of the archive, with its knowns and unknowns, the desire to restore and remember, which is simultaneously the impulse to destroy and forget, can be used as a metaphor for our own memories and forgetfulness.

SFBG: Given your film’s deliberate consideration of the way the Nazi footage represents a constructed, stage-managed view of the Jews in the ghetto, I think many viewers might be curious why you choose to visually recreate the interview with Willy Wist. Why is this transcript recreated visually, while the various diary entries are only read?

YH: First of all, the diaries were written, [whereas] the preliminary interrogation with the cameraman was recorded on audio reels (the audio reels were recycled for the next interrogation, and therefore only the paper protocols survived). I insisted on emphasizing the various manners of documentation. Until we found the interrogation’s protocol, the only fact we knew about the cameraman was his name. When I first read the protocols, I was amazed to [discover] what a rare witness I was faced with. These images that we were educated to see in bits and pieces, as if they were some kind of an “objective” anonymous documentation of past events — suddenly there was a specific gaze of a cameraman, with his own impressions, speculations, inner monologues and so on, and he describes himself shooting scenes we can actually see in the footage. [It] enabled me to see the footage not merely as a sequence of images but as a real trace of reality, and as the atrociously painful (for the viewer) medium between the perpetrators and their victims. I knew I’d have to create the cameraman’s witness with different tools to distinguish it from other kinds of testimony, to emphasize the presence of a single gaze behind a single camera.

There is another crucial reason for delivering the texts from the protocols visually. After watching the footage for the first time, I felt there was no way to show it all without having any visual breaks between the different reels. At a certain point, our psychological mechanism of self-defense [prevents us from] absorbing more images, and we find ourselves looking yet not seeing. My goal here was quite the opposite: I was trying to figure out a way to enable the viewer to keep his gaze constantly fresh and involved. My solution was to produce visual breaks which would allow the viewer to dive into these dark waters again and again. Delivering the cameraman’s protocols in a visual way was something that helped me do this. But I was very strict in not changing even a single word from the protocols, not dramatizing it in any way, not working with the actors to establish an imaginary character of a cameraman, not interpreting his words, and most of all, not judging him in any way.

A Film Unfinished opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters.

Dreams untrue


FILM Alternatively hailed as a sensitive cine-poet and derided as a brazenly ethnocentric pseudo-anthropologist cloaking shoddy fieldwork with mystification, Robert Gardner remains a controversial figure — when he is remembered at all. With a younger generation of filmmakers (Lisandro Alonso, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ben Russell, Claire Denis) rewiring the tropes of sensory ethnography to their own ends, the troubling beauty of Gardner’s work seems freshly relevant if no less problematic. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts opens this Pandora’s box the right way, with restored 35mm prints of three of Gardner’s best known works.

I first encountered Gardner’s work in the classroom, where it made an appealing target for students eager to sniff out colonialist discourses in documentary form. The argument against a film like Dead Birds (1964) is well rehearsed: Gardner depicts the Nuer people as a primitive culture untouched by history or politics; masks the participatory aspects of ethnographic filmmaking; allows himself a ranging voice-over while leaving all Nuer speech untranslated; and contrives two protagonists to act as convenient ciphers for Hollywood narrative conventions of simultaneity and suspense. Then there is the Harvard credit. Gardner led the university’s Film Study Center for 40 years, and the films say so: “Produced for the Film Study Center, Harvard University.” The charges of cultural paternalism come easily enough.

Even taking the charitable view that Gardner acted more on allegorical ambition than innate arrogance, he clearly avails himself of the least reputable power base of anthropology — I speak about them; they do not speak back to me. Moreover, he does so with a formal insouciance that would drive most anthropologists nuts. What burned me about the line taken on Gardner in my seminar was that it came of watching his films on projected VHS, a degraded medium that implicitly treats films as content rather than experience. And indeed, it’s on the level of content that Gardner’s failings are most manifest. But seen in 35mm, when the filmmaker’s attention to sensory detail (sound, color, texture) and psycho-kinetic cutting might at the very least provoke unexpected feelings, the argument against loses some of its inevitability.

The second film of the Yerba Buena program, Rivers of Sand (1974), is even thornier than Dead Birds. Whereas in the earlier work, Gardner considers the universal impulse to draw battle lines in the Nuer’s ritual warfare, here he lets the Hamar of Ethiopia stand for the common issue of sexism. Throughout the film, a Hamar woman tells the camera about the abusive treatment of women in her culture (“He’s beating you even when he’s not”). Alas, any dialogic potential of this thread is diluted by her being the only speaker and, more important, there being no context for her testimony. At the aural level, however, the film’s dense, impressionistic catalog of sounds makes for distinctly lyrical, at times surreal viewing. In certain passages, like when an afternoon downpour sends a sudden river across the hard land, it seems we’ve left empirical reality behind altogether.

Arresting fragments like these point the way to Forest of Bliss (1986), Gardner’s feature-length contemplation (sans voice-over) of life rhythms and funeral rites on the Ganges. The India quest is an orientalist standby, of course, and brings into focus the counterculture strain that’s always run through Gardner’s work (remember, Timothy Leary was a Harvard man too). But while the fluid camerawork may be touristic, it’s also more modest than in his previous work. More often than not we’re following a single person’s movements: at home, through the streets, to the river, relying more on intimacy than intimation. The striking glimpses of the sacred in view of the profane suggest a solitary traveler rather than a scientific observer. It is one thing to caution against ascribing knowledge to this passing view and quite another to claim it does not have any foothold in the imagination; the first is common sense, the second wishful thinking.


Sept. 23–30, $6–$-8

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF

(415) 978-2787

Strong Weekend


MUSIC: THE NEW SHOEGAZE Oh sure, I like to swoon and glide, and I stayed for all of “You Made Me Realize” when the reformed My Bloody Valentine played at the Concourse. But a million easy divers and slow Rides have stretched shoegaze out of shape, forgetting the loaming fury for déjà vu-ridden ecstasy. As with all pseudo-genres in the MySpace era, a premium is placed on affect: the shiny/skuzzy veneer that rewards your click. M83’s admittedly spectacular records (Before the Dawn Heals Us, Saturdays=Youth) were early harbingers of this tendency. Like big-budget fantasies of the early shoegaze sound, their effect is at once lush and deodorized.

That may be a circumspect way of introducing Weekend, but it helps me get a handle on my initial crush on the trio’s “All American”/”Youth Haunts” single (Mexican Summer). Both tracks hitch the familiar layers of ultraviolet feedback to a throbbing, post-punk core—the band approaches shoegaze as a means of attack. The songs are long, but only because they’re stalking another crescendo, like the blizzard of cymbals at the close of “Youth Haunts.”

The striving momentum of those two tracks made even more sense when I saw Weekend perform. Mission of Burma came to mind watching the band make Dionysian waves while remaining buttoned-up and steady. There was much unifying pounding, but at such a volume that the instruments seemed to be discordantly ripping at a beautiful cloud. When I ask bassist and singer Shaun Durkan why their forthcoming album is called Sports (Slumberland), he replies, “Because the record is about episodes of conflict and opposition.” That insight extends to the album’s minimalist cover art, designed by friend and fellow CCA grad Jeff Brush, and redolent of post-punk’s class of ’79.

Weekend plays loud enough to conjure little sonic hallucinations that compliment the band’s subtle, New Order-ish melodies. “We all come from punk and hardcore backgrounds where it’s really not a big deal to have a cranked half-stack,” guitarist Kevin Johnson explains when I meet up with him, Durkan, and drummer Abe Pedroza one sunny afternoon. And yet, the blown-out passages always channel back to the hook that was there all along. “I think that’s been an idea in our band for a long time,” Johnson adds, “having stuff that sounds really abrasive on the surface but that the listener can’t help but find the melody.”

This careful calibration surely owes something to Weekend’s long gestation. Durkan and Johnson first met as sixth graders in Novato, and though Johnson moved to Reno before a band could form, the two remained in close touch, scheming a band. They started Weekend in 2009 with drummer Taylor Valentino, who was replaced by Pedroza when he moved to Boston. Aside from the first single and a split 7-inch with Young Prisms, the band quietly logged weekend sessions toward Sports with local producer Monte Vallier, who played with Durkan’s father in Half Church, one of San Francisco’s early post-punk groups.

The finished album, set for a Nov. 9 release, recalls Sonic Youth’s mid-1980s records in its plateau-hopping sequencing and cohesive instrumental passages. Opener “Coma Summer”‘s wilting chord progression and slashes of noise suggest that while the band still probably sounds best in a basement (“We’ll play your Sweet 16,” Pedroza jokes), they grasp the dramatics required of a larger room. “Monongah, WV” would kill either — it’s one of those charmed post-punk tracks that simultaneously lilts and thrashes, overflowing a tightly wound three minutes. The more self-conscious stabs at transcendence, like slow-churning “Monday Morning” and epic “Veil,” can seem a little ponderous, though the kaleidoscopic fusillade climaxing the latter is worth the wait. Throughout Sports, the rhythm section works a full-court press, a nice counterpoint to the shambling side of the San Francisco sound.

Sports comes out the same day the band opens for the Pains of Being Pure at Heart at the Independent, and the guys are clearly basking in the company of the Slumberland revival. While several of the new additions to Mike Schulman’s label play at fey, Weekend steers back to the edgier sounds of groups like Whorl, the Lilys, the Ropers, and Schulman’s own Powderburns. “It’s a crazy legacy that we’re learning more and more about,” Johnson says. Like all the Slumberland acts, Weekend wears its ’80s and ’90s influences on its sleeves, but I’m struck by Durkan’s answer when I ask about the group’s touchstone albums.

“Most of the records that inspired us are pretty obvious: Loveless, Unknown Pleasures, Disintegration, Psychocandy,” he writes. These records were made painstakingly, and we were inspired by that thoughtful process of creation…. That process of discovering love for a record, having to work at it, always leaves me with more of an appreciation than when I’m instantly won over.” Rearticulating the slow victory of great records is a welcome gesture indeed from a still young Weekend.


with Tamaryn; DJ sets by oOoOOO, and Nako and Omar

Sept. 15, 9pm, $8

Elbo Room

647 Valencia, SF

(415) 552-7788

Bringing out the dead


SAN FRANCISCO JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL The question of how to represent the Holocaust is one that rightly haunts film history — rightly, because it was the Nazis themselves who most rigorously documented their destruction of Europe’s Jews, and thus it is to the Nazis that any filmmaker incorporating archival evidence owes a dubious debt. Certainly, documentary contemplations of the Holocaust have been instrumental not only to our philosophical understanding of the history, but also to the development of documentary form itself (I’m thinking of 1955’s Night and Fog, 1985’s Shoah, 1969’s The Sorrow and the Pity, and, less readily available, the works of Abraham Ravett and Péter Forgács). But given the relative invisibility of more recent genocides and the political inflection of what Norman Finkelstein uncharitably calls the "Holocaust Industry," it seems clear that a contemporary work needs a more dimensional rationale than "never forget."

The 30th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival includes several documentaries that at least peripherally touch on the Holocaust, but two are particularly ambitious: Einsatzgruppen: The Death Brigades and A Film Unfinished. The former is an exhaustive cataloging of the Nazi execution squads’ brutal charge to render the Eastern front: Judenfrei, incorporating textbook history, eyewitness accounts (adhering to Shoah‘s trifurcated structure of Jewish survivors, local collaborators and onlookers, and former Nazis on hidden camera), and an unrelenting case of archive fever. The same color footage of starving Jewish children we see in Einsatzgruppen washes up in Yael Hersonski’s A Film Unfinished, but here it’s the provenance of these images, filmed by Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto, that’s being scrutinized.

Director Michael Prazan is primarily interested in how the Einsatzgruppen’s killing was done. This leaves plenty to sort out during the film’s three hours, especially given the still contentious issue of local collaboration — a Ukrainian woman he interviews movingly conveys the shattering realization that the murderers who spoke her language so well were indeed her people. But in Einsatzgruppen, eyewitness accounts like these are tangential to the grand historical perspective glued together by voice-over and traumatic archival images (Claude Lanzmann assiduously avoided both in Shoah). The voice-over speaks from nowhere, while the images of bloody pogroms and fresh corpses viewed from the vantage point of their killers are merely speechless.

Reappropriating Nazi propaganda is an old story — Frank Capra grabbed some of Triumph of the Will (1935) for Why We Fight (1943-1945), as does director John Keith Wasson at the beginning of his fine SFJFF film, Surviving Hitler: A Love Story. Contrary though the meanings may be, it’s difficult to sidestep the totalizing operation of propaganda. Keenly aware of this epistemological trouble, A Film Unfinished‘s Hersonski does everything she can to address Nazi footage in its specificity. Her coordination of primary documents is breathtaking, aligning the Nazi reels with the descriptive (and at times deconstructive) diaries of ghetto inhabitants and the court testimony of one of the cameramen. The invocatory effect acknowledges the gaps of the visible history as it articulates its layers. Hersonski is similarly clever in staging her interviews: she films survivors watching the reels in darkened theaters, alone, offering comments and startling yelps of recognition ("Oy, I knew that woman!")

Before a contemporary filmmaker leans on horrific archival images as self-evident documents, he or she really ought to see the clip in A Film Unfinished of Jewish prisoners being rounded up for a film shoot, terrified that they were being led to slaughter — which they were, of course. The filming was a rehearsal for the murders, and, as Einsatzgruppen shows us ad nauseam, the camera was occasionally present for the final moments as well. The death brigade’s supervisorial role in the Eastern European killings afforded them their "objective" camera positions — a fact that should give any well-meaning documentarian pause.


July 14–Aug. 9, most shows $11

Castro, 429 Castro, SF; Roda Theatre, 2025 Addison, Berk; CineArts@Palo Alto Square, 3000 El Camino Real Bldg Six, Palo Alto; Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center, 118 Fourth St., San Rafael

(415) 256-TIXX

Sicily unbound


FILM Francesco Rosi once remarked to an interviewer, “A film is always a testimony of the age in which it lives.” It’s one thing to recognize this as an incipient truth and quite another to enact it as a code of filmmaking. Rosi’s films from the 1960s and ’70s evince the common roots of aesthetic and ethic, exhibiting what can only be called an ardor for the analysis of social conditions — both their mechanisms and mentalities. Though still relatively unsung among the major Italian auteurs, of which he is certainly one, a career-spanning retrospective at the Pacific Film Archive makes the case for the writer-director’s staying power.

Rosi studied law at school and film with the Italian directors of the 1940s and ’50s. In his own early features, he placed additional demands upon the conventions of neorealism. Putting aside the tempting notion that the camera will discover a transcendent truth if only stripped of the artifices of professional actors and sets, Rosi’s films are concerned with inventing a public sphere for argument and questioning — this before the age of the Internet and 24-hour news.

Take Salvatore Giuliano (1961), his sophisticated dissembling of the tangled (and at that time recent) history of the eponymous gangster, a Robin Hood figure in the postwar Sicilian imagination who aided the area’s separatist movement. “He took from the rich and gave to the poor,” a local tells a bored reporter. When he finds out the newsman is from Rome, he adds, “What can you understand about Sicily?”

Rosi’s out-of-joint narration of events from before and after Giuliano’s death in 1950 takes at least a couple of viewings to puzzle together, and even then, much remains pointedly obscure. The film recalls Borges’ description of Citizen Kane (1941) as “a labyrinth without a center,” and, as such, contains an implicit disavowal of neorealist orthodoxy (if such a thing ever existed). If “reality” is transparent, why the confusing jumps in time? Why go to such lengths to keep Giuliano himself in the shadows? Why leave so much basic plot material unclear, from major events (the motivation behind Giuliano’s orchestration of a massacre of communists at Portella della Ginestro, for instance) to minor gestures (like when, at the end, one of Giuliano’s associates palms the bottle of medicine that has apparently just poisoned the bandit’s right-hand man)?

The answer has to do with Rosi’s desire to replace the “not knowing” of complacency with that of skepticism. The subject of the film is not Giuliano so much as the Sicilians who presume to know him. We begin with the bandit’s death, in Kane fashion, but even before the plot has insinuated a cover-up, Rosi visually undermines any easy sense of certitude. We watch the inspection of Giuliano’s prone corpse from several striking bird’s-eye-view shots, but soon discover these compositions are not as omniscient as we might first (complacently) assume. In fact, they represent the vantage point of the reporters hounding the carabinieri and citizens for a story quite separate from Rosi’s. Here the director insinuates how difficult it is to find your footing in the Sicilian situation. Taking aim at collusion, he formally imbricates us in its grip.

Rosi’s neorealism is one of provocation. He obsessively stages recent history in the actual locations in which it unfolded, employing eyewitnesses as themselves. Testimony is activated, not relegated to incidental afterthought. Even in later, more traditionally allegorical films like Three Brothers (1981), in which Rosi seems to move toward seeing political discourses as being channeled and contained by subjective experience, his visual and narrative designs mirror the macro controls at work in complex social systems. Watching Rosi’s work, we realize that the news lives inside us, whether we like it or not.


July 8-Aug 28, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

Nobody but you


FILM The couple on holiday is one of modern cinema’s quintessential sites of anxiety: Voyage to Italy (1954), Bonjour Tristesse (1958), Weekend (1967), and L’avventura (1960) all chart its precipitous course. The merely inexorable ennui of the vacationing lovers is the existential flipside of the couple bound by oblivion, like so many Bonnie and Clydes. That may be heady company with which to introduce Maren Ade’s pairing in Everyone Else, her second feature, but in so laying bare the behavioral excesses of characters struggling for authentic expression, she’s made a distinctly modernist romantic comedy — one without air.

Gitti (Birgit Minichmayr) and Chris (Lars Eidinger) are failing miserably at basic communication. This happens on vacation. Without the steadying rails of vocation, moods and unintended remarks are pursued further than they would be otherwise. Everyone Else figures holiday as a stage, in which the principles grasp for their roles in relationship to the other. Acting is brought up early and often. After a dangerous conversation about Chris’s masculinity, Gitti laughs at his "bad acting" when he casually throws his arm around her. "I didn’t know I was acting," he mutters.

They are a young, bourgeoisie German couple staying at his parents’ villa in Sardinia. He is a disappointed architect, she a music publicist. Already, though, this capsule betrays the film’s methodical mode of exposition, whereby facts like "his parents’ villa" and "in Sardinia" are realized in conversation, later than we expect. Before then, we’re privy to inner jokes, private nonsense, and gestural rapport. Rather than using such minutiae to ingratiate us into Chris and Gitti’s quirks, Ade is embedding us in the relationship’s interior.

We realize how deeply during the course of two dinners with an architect acquaintance and his wife, the first at the new couple’s house and the second at the villa. The other pair stands in for the "everybody else" of the title, and, in their outsized performance as a couple, acts as a convenient cipher for Chris and Gitti’s bottomless insecurities. As an afternoon champagne toast for the other’s couple’s pregnancy (one of many reminders in the film that Chris and Gitti are not expecting — a baby or anything else) gives way to sour bickering, Chris and Gitti’s conventional appearance cracks under the stress of false pretenses; just sitting on the same side of the table seems like a lie.

Both characters trail inconstant emotions without having resolved their meaning beforehand, but there’s a far greater dynamic range in their body language. Ade’s staging of Minichmayr and Eidinger’s bodies forms a vividly choreographed counterpoint to the many doublings in her script. Twice, Chris roughly embraces Gitti after she’s told him that she loves him: a false show of decisiveness masking indifference. Gitti wraps herself around Chris’ body when she’s most insecure of his love: hardly subtle, and, tragically, with an effect precisely contrary to her desire for comfort.

In screwball comedies, a couple’s disliking each other is a sure sign of their chemistry — it looks like fun, especially when the plot throws obstacles in the way of the inevitable consummation. Chris and Gitti are not cold fish — their passion is intense, if swollen by doubt — but the fact that their relationship’s obstacles are self-imposed leads to a certain captive mentality, in which staying together means being marooned from the outside world.

EVERYONE ELSE opens Fri/2 in Bay Area theaters.

Bucharest calling


FILM In the five years since Cristi Puiu’s improbable epic, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a small group of philosophically-inclined filmmakers who were still young during the last days of Ceausescu have been disproportionately responsible for the minor masterpieces of world cinema. None of the Romanian films at Cannes (including Puiu’s follow-up, Aurora) nabbed a prize this year. But the three features in the Pacific Film Archive’s “Tales from the Golden Age: Recent Romanian Cinema” series — Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), and Police, Adjective (2009) — were all heavily garlanded. They gain power when seen in series, where their common syntax comes into focus.

All three films unfold as underground odysseys. A character is tested in a series of trials flowing, directly or indirectly, from the state. In Lazarescu, the eponymous figure is sent upon a Styx-like course of hospitals, accompanied first by reproachful neighbors and then a willful medic. By the time the doctors correctly diagnose his original complaint of the stomach and head, his neurological condition has deteriorated to the point that he can no longer form the words himself. In 4 Months, we trace a young woman’s movements through the city as she ensures a safe course for her friend’s illegal abortion (the film is set two years before Ceausescu’s fall). As more and more is asked of her promise, the film’s handheld style comes to seem charged by irreversibility. In Police, Adjective, we watch a quiet young detective trail a dead-end case: he’s been assigned to gather evidence for a uselessly punitive drug bust of a few teenaged hash-smokers. When he finally refuses to order a raid, he gets an unexpected linguistics lesson from his chief (played with appalling charisma by Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist in 4 Months; in both films he seems the very embodiment of the banality of evil) who dismantles the detective’s logic word by word.

With narratives like case histories, peeling back a social situation until its very marrow is exposed, these films take no shortcuts to empathy. Morality is specifically broached, and each centers on protracted, tangled negotiations carried off by wonderful acting. The apparent detachment of the long-take style is deceptive. In fact, the films’ scenarios are rigorously worked out to express moral quandaries with concern for those on the receiving end. The ostensible real time of the long take is easily distended by exigent circumstances; the decision not to cut gives a taste of the agony, powerlessness, and tension that meet the characters. Indeed, the observational camera is an insinuation, drawing us into the complex ethical mechanics at the level of action and plot. They induce the presence of mind required to dislodge a nasty splinter. It’s difficult to imagine an American documentary taking on health care with an unblinking intransigence on par with Lazarescu, and this, more than the formal style, accounts for critics using the language of ethics and truth to describe the film.

By positioning individual characters at the margins of a centralized bureaucracy, the Romanian films certainly do illuminate untruths. Several of the broad shorts in the new omnibus film, Tales from the Golden Age, threaten to turn the gnomic quality of the Romanian films into shtick, but in the context of the PFA series, these “urban legends from the Ceausescu era” put a gentle historical spin on some of the leitmotifs of the earlier features. The best by far is The Legend of the Air Sellers, a tender 4 Months-meets-John Hughes film in which a teenage girl joins up with a scruffy older guy for a decidedly low-tech scam: they take bottles from local residents under the premises of collecting water and air samples for the state and then redeem the glass for change. The con is revealing of a central paradox of the period: that citizens could be frustrated by the state of things while at the same time credulous that the state would fix them. The girl is a natural capitalist, farming out bottle collecting to unwitting landlords; the boy, for his part, only really wants to watch VHS tapes on a prized video player.

Harun Farocki and Andrei Ujica’s found footage essay-film, Videograms of a Revolution (1992), is the outlier of the series both in terms of age and form, but in its methodical analysis of the Romanian Revolution of 1989 as a paradigmatic modern event, the film draws very close to the social relevance of the recent Romanian films — much closer than the nostalgia-tinged episodes of Tales from the Golden Age. Two sequences in Videograms loom large for the Romanian films in the PFA series. In the first, Ujica’s voice-over identifies an initial spark for the revolution in a moment of intercessional static, when an official camera trained upon Ceausescu’s scripted reality pans to observe a disturbance in the crowd, “more out of curiosity than resolve.” Then there are those bundled shots depicting newly victorious revolutionaries dug in at the political headquarters and TV station (an important location for Police, Adjective director Corneliu Poumboiu’s 2006 film, 12:08 East of Bucharest). Attempting to forge their initial reforms, they flail at the deeply ingrained restraints of institutional language.

Toward the end of Videograms, we watch dramatic embedded footage of ragtag revolutionaries and other civilians taking cover from sniper fire coming from one of the oppressive high-rise buildings that play such a prominent part in the Romanian cinematic imagination. Ujica’s voice-over takes analytical measure of the scene: that the belief in an enemy is a binding legacy, a “recollected habit,” and that the unspoken fear so long deployed by Ceausescu’s regime as “internal tactic of deterrence” will not simply vanish. The new Romanian cinema was surely born in the shadows of this phantom fighting.


June 11–June 27, $5.50–$9.50

Pacific Film Archive

2757 Bancroft, Berk.

(510) 642-5249

Not fade away


SFIFF Returns are dangerous. The story of Lot’s wife tells us that looking back is enough to be compromised. In cinema, the figure of return can stretch the basic spatiotemporal properties like so much silly putty. Take the two San Francisco International Film Festival speculative nonfictions that allow archival footage to overflow its conventional containers: 14-18: The Noise and the Fury, an epic reexamination of World War I narrated by a fictional French soldier, and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Inferno, Serge Bromberg’s dogged excavation of the eponymous French director’s famously unrealized film. Then there’s Claire Denis’ return to Africa (White Material), a Chinese documentary portrait of a family’s fraught journey home (Last Train Home), and American filmmaker Tanya Hamilton’s Night Catches Us, a double return (the story of a Black Panther’s homecoming to his troubled neighborhood and a reconstruction of 1970s Philadelphia).

The cliché that “you can never go home again” is made freshly acute in Kamal Aljafari’s Port of Memory, a melancholic study of the Palestinian community of Jaffa where Aljafari is from. The film reminds me of The Exiles (1961) in its urban-fragmentary scenario, well-portioned running time, and lovingly quotidian portrait of a marginalized group. Port of Memory doesn’t announce that the fretful middle-aged woman who goes through the motions of housekeeping and caretaking is Aljafari’s mother and the man who wanders Jaffa’s crumbling streets his uncle — we’re left to piece together these intimate views on our own. As a narrator, Aljafari is discreet but hardly complacent: he intercuts establishing shots of his uncle’s promenades with footage from old Israeli and American films (for example, the 1986 Chuck Norris vehicle, Delta Force) that use the same streets for dubious spectacles of violence and nationalism. Doubling back on these inadvertent documents of occupation, Port of Memory‘s thin line of fiction has the now off-screen Israelis acting as a gentrifying force.

Like Aljafari’s film, Pedro González-Rubio’s gorgeous Alamar (“to the sea”) is set between landscapes (land and sea) and ways of telling (fiction and documentary). The bare frame of a plot places a young boy with his father and grandfather, Mayan fishermen working the Mexican Caribbean. The sweetness of this idyll is tempered by its provisional bounds: the boy will return to his mother in Rome at the end of his compressed experience of a father’s love. Every shot is earned: there are several in which the camera bucks with the boat, physically linked to the actors’ experience. The child is at an age of discovery, and González-Rubio channels this openness by fixing on the details of the fisher’s elegant way of life and the environmental contingencies of their home at sea.

The same well of patrimony and nature has been poisoned in Vimukthi Jayasundara’s surreal fable of destruction, Between Two Worlds. In this mythopoetic work, Sri Lanka’s 30-year civil war ravages on in screaming city streets and darkened forest visions. We first see the film’s central figure — a nameless wanderer resembling many other “chosen ones” — in a death pose, splayed on the beach with crabs crawling over him. Two fishermen trade variations of the story of a prince destined to survive great bloodshed to kill his powerful uncles, and several forest dwellers seem to think our protagonist is the man. The slipperiness of Between Two Worlds‘ reality, in which visions are liable to be doubled or outright contradicted, evokes both the shifting ground of trauma and different rules of oral storytelling. In its best moments, the film put me in the mood of Jeff Wall and Raúl Ruiz; in its least, a slow-motion Lost. But Between Two Worlds amply demonstrates that returning is not always a matter of volition: such is fate and endless war.

City limits


FILM Looking at a map of Paris, the city’s rings resemble those of the giant Sequoia cross-section in Vertigo (1958), the one Kim Novak points to saying, “Somewhere in here I was born … and here I died.” It’s a touchstone scene for Chris Marker, one he recasts in both La Jetée (1962) and Sans Soleil (1983), though the Paris metaphor is prompted by his lesser known essay film, Le joli mai (“May the beautiful,” filmed with the venerable cinematographer Pierre Lhomme). The usual critical operations fail a filmmaker so fruitfully difficult to pin down, so:

C is for cat, Marker’s spirit animal from the beginning. Grinning or otherwise, “a cat is never on the side of power.” The feline kind presents respite and provocation in his films, and solidarity only glimpsed. To quote Montaigne, Marker’s ancestor in essay, “When I play with my cat, how do I know that she is not passing time with me rather than I with her?”

H is for happiness, the pop-survey platter on which Le joli mai turns. “Are you happy?” “Will you go on being happy?” The questions are pointedly pat, but Marker’s sync sound inquests press into speculative existentialism.

R is for Rouch, Jean, whose Chronicle of a Summer (1961, codirected with Edgar Morin) is Le joli mai‘s most obvious predecessor. In this film, ethnographer-poet Rouch turns the lightweight 16mm camera (a then-new invention) back on his own means of gathering information about “this strange tribe living in Paris.”

I is for interview: insistence and incredulity.

S is for statistics and the survey, the source of Le joli mai’s troubled lyricism. A concluding litany of figures (4,000 kilograms of butter, 600 tons of falling dust, 14 suicides) holds a strange mirror up to the urban organism. S is also for the spider crawling us across a dully pontificating Parisian’s shoulder—breaking decorum, the camera zooms in on the arthropod, delightfully bored. And also: Simone Signoret’s voice; scavenging the street’s interruptions and silences; the situationists, especially Guy Debord’s psychogeographic maps of Paris; and the speed of thought.

M is for May, the month of Le joli mai‘s game of hopscotch. It seems an auspicious choice given the famous Paris May still to come, but then again, as Marker argues in A Grin without a Cat (1977), 1968 came late. M is also for Michel Legrand’s drizzly score and Masculin féminin (1966) — Godard’s film owes a clear debt to Le joli mai‘s upended reportage.

A is for Algeria, Le joli mai‘s structuring absence. Filmed as military operations drew to a close, the shadow of occupation hangs over the stock market trading floor, a young couple’s difficulty talking about themselves, and, finally, the devastating testimony of a young Algerian man living in France. As for contemporary parallels of a civilian population’s repressing atrocities carried out in its name, let us simply say the complacency documented in Le joli mai still needs toppling.

R is for revolution, an endeavor in form and content. We love Marker for being the rare eyewitness not to reduce the 1960s to disavowal or twinkling hagiography, and for his willingness to draw different lines in the sand.

K is for Krasna, Sandor, one of Maker’s most reliable aliases, a migrant intellectual. Lately he has taking to posting elegant black-and-white stills of Paris street protestors, circa 2003, on his Flickr account. Five decades on, Marker still dissects the crowd, searching the “sum of solitudes” described in Le joli mai.

E is for essay, the quicksilver genre straddling verb and noun. The fact that La Jetée is still Marker’s best known film means he’s not well known (in the States, anyway), but how many consciousnesses has he burned?

R is for revision since “You never know what you may be filming.”


Thurs/1, 7 p.m., $5

Phyllis Wattis Theater

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

151 Third St., SF

Wild yonder


FILM Fortuitous bookings bring two remarkable American films standing at the crossroads of avant-garde cinema and sensory ethnography to the Bay Area this week: Sweetgrass and Let Each One Go Where He May. Both works adapt effective strategies to work against the slide toward unexamined realism endemic to their troubled genres (the wildlife film and standard anthropological ethnography). First and foremost among them is a coherent program of intense artfulness. One can immediately point to Ernst Karel’s sound design (Sweetgrass) and Chris Fawcett’s 16mm Steadicam cinematography (Let Each One) as virtuoso performances opening the films to beauty and doubt, an unlikely ethnographic tandem.

Short descriptions are bound to fail these films’ experiential stakes, but here are the basic outlines. Recorded between 2001-03 by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Ilisa Barbash, Sweetgrass immerses us in sheep farming before taking off after a pair of latter-day cowboys on a 150-mile drive through Montana’s Absaroka-Beartooth range — a journey with deep historical roots and no practical future. Let Each One Go Where He May‘s title refers to a Surinamese proverb in which the gods emancipate the native population from slavery. Ben Russell’s film unfolds as 13, 10-minute takes depicting two brothers (Benjen and Monie Pansa) retracing an ancestral slavery route toward a ritual site. As far as global capital is concerned, the nominal “remoteness” of both films’ locations (and the accompanying visual lexicon) is a mirage.

As Sweetgrass‘ rugged scenery beggars (but ultimately unseats) projections of the pastoral, so too do its mild sheep trigger myriad symbolic associations. But in the intensified apprehension of the animals themselves, which occasionally return the camera’s gaze and are heard like Zidane is seen in 2006’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, these abstractions are restored to the dualistic cradle John Berger pinpoints in his essay, “Why Look At Animals?”

Sweetgrass is finally about the relationship between farmhands and their flocks, and in this, it is notably unsentimental. During long takes of shearing and birthing, the correspondent displays of violence and tenderness, much of it erotic and seemingly reflexive, speaks to the human-animal encounter Berger eulogized in 1977. The lonesome cowboys whisper sweet nothings to the dogs and hurl fantastically mismatched streams of curses at the sheep (the absence of women being the common link). Through it all, Castaing-Taylor’s camera is an embodied presence, and hard work at that. Compared with Planet Earth‘s impossible views and spectacular displacements, Sweetgrass has its feet planted on the ground.

Russell also unwinds the notion of a comfortable vista of things as they were, though his long-take structure pushes the edge of hallucination. Russell’s history as a development worker in Suriname helps account for his film’s understanding of the way a sense of place is above all enactive, simultaneously engaging seemingly disparate stages of history, economy, and identity. Thus, Let Each One‘s modernist migration traverses a rural dwelling, country roads, urban bustle, an illegal goldmine, a mythic river, and a baffling reenactment of a clown-masked ritual dance — the ambiguity of whether it’s the brothers motivating the camera or vice versa is posed not as a riddle, but as a dance.

Let Each One‘s formal parameters make it a challenging viewing experience, especially given the paucity of explicatory titles or subtitled language. But then the fact that both filmmaking teams eschew exposition should be viewed in light of all those documentaries that are nothing but context. Even when necessary, these kinds of films tend to substantiate what we already know. Sweetgrass and Let Each One do something very different. In the hours after watching each, my own semi-urban environment seemed quite alien to me, but my feelings were more intact for it.

SWEETGRASS opens Fri/12 in Bay Area theaters


Fri/12, 7:30 p.m., $10

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

701 Mission, SF



FILM If America garlanded a filmmaker laureate, who would be better than James Benning? After helping thaw the structuralist/abstraction divide in the 1970s and ’80s, he’s since embarked on several adjoining 16mm contemplations of the American landscape, as marked by trains, lakes, paradises lost and alienation found — in the course, this son of Milwaukee has produced a matchless western oeuvre. In Ruhr (2009), his latest, Benning migrates to Europe and digital, but the bedrock is safe.

The constant of Benning’s films is a multilevel engagement with time. Within the structural demands of the audience (you will sit and watch these 10-minute takes), different measures of duration are overlaid — if you find yourself contemplating industry, geology, historical revisionism, prophecy, chaos theory and, indeed, the meaning of contemplation itself, you are following Benning’s path.

An earlier work screening this weekend, American Dreams (1983), is an intriguing bit of watch-making. The hour-long film tracks three chronologies, roughly aligning with image, sound, and text. Benning’s immaculate collection of cards and memorabilia plots Hank Aaron’s record-busting career (the home run king started as a Milwaukee Brave); the sound excerpts political speeches, newscasts, pop songs, and jingles concurrent with Hammerin’ Hank’s mounting statistics; and finally the text, in Benning’s own script, sources the 1972 diaries of Arthur Bremmer (also from Milwaukee), the man who shot George Wallace. On the one hand, we can’t take it all in; on the other, we never can. After RR (2007), it’s tempting to conceptualize the film’s historiography kit as a "if one train leaves the station at 2 p.m." problem, and indeed, the pleasure is not unrelated to that of an elegant math proof.

The question of whose story this is lingers, as does the trifurcated quicksand of history as progress (the home run chase), rupture (the news briefs) and maelstrom (the sociopath’s diary). At the root of American Dreams’ archaeology is the triangulation of Aaron, Bremmer, and Benning’s respective quests (the latter as artist and collector), all encoded as different figures of masculinity. If the subject of his artist’s talk Sunday afternoon is any indication, Benning continues to work through this enigmatic mode of portraiture. Two years ago, he built replicas of a pair of all-American cabins: those of Thoreau’s Walden and Ted Kaczynski’s own private Montana. It takes a lively mind to discern this hermetic dialectic — and a brave one to turn it back on his own practice.

Fri/26, 7 and 8:15 p.m., $10
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission, SF
Sat/27, 7:30 p.m., $10
Presentation Theater at USF
2350 Turk, SF
Sun/3, 3 p.m., $10
McBean Theater at Exploratorium
3601 Lyon, SF