All films from U.S.A. unless otherwise specified.
([v] video piece; [s] short, under 30 minutes; [m] medium length, 30-69 min; * grade changed upon repeat viewing)
Antichrist (Lars Von Trier, Denmark / Germany / France / Sweden / Italy / Poland) 
TIFF Previews 09. See review here.
The Diamond (Descartes' Daughter) (Emily Wardill, U.K.) [s]
Images 09. See review here.
Holy Woods (Cécile Fontaine, France) [s]
Feb 2009. See review here.
In Comparison (Harun Farocki, Germany / Austria) [m]
TIFF 09. See review here.
TIFF 09. See review here.
Lumphini 2552 (Tomonari Nishikawa, U.S. / Thailand / Japan) [s]
TIFF 09. See review here.
O'er the Land (Deborah Stratman) [m]
Images 09. See review here.
Puccini Conservato (Michael Snow, Italy / Canada) [v/s]
TIFF 09. See review here.
Trypps #6 (Malobi) (Ben Russell, U.S. / Suriname) [s]
Discussed in Cinema Scope article.
Vincere (Marco Bellocchio, Italy) 
September 2009. See review here.
La Rabbia di Pasolini (Pier Paolo Pasolini & Giuseppe Bertolucci, Italy)
As yet unavailable.
It's not entirely inaccurate to say that McInnis's video is "deceptively simple," but simplicity is in the eye (and in the assumption) of the beholder and deception is a two-way street. Horizon Line begins in one way and ends in a very different way, in the course of a jarringly terse one-minute running time. But this shift from beginning to end is circumscribed within a more fundamental sameness. McInnis never really varies her approach (although there are brief flashes which depart from the dominant aesthetic plan), but the time we spend with that approach allows anomalies to present themselves. Those anomalies are, curiously enough, both tactile and sociological, and this confluence (!!! What a lovely sounding word, almost aquatic....we might do better to borrow Adorno's phrase "reconciliation under duress") represents the startlingly bald facts of penal irony McInnis displays. As we are given fast, rapid-dissolve views along the interior of a wall, McInnis's camera is moving us from right to left, assembling panels through blended montage. What we see are thick chunks of peeling plaster, light blue and sea green along the top, pale earthy brown along the bottom, separated by a reasonably clean horizontal line. At first the images are completely abstract, the colored curls of separating surface registering like gold leaf or the cracking impasto of an unpreserved mural. As we move along, the manner of decay varies, crude representational markers of landscape appear on the surface of the images, and we begin to notice graffiti.
This is a penitentiary wall, painted to resemble the sky and earth hypothetically visible if the wall were not there, of if the inmates were free men on the other side of the barrier. McInnis has located a space of beauty and banal cruelty, the half-assed headgames the beleaguered state plays upon those in its charge. No one even bothers to touch up this Wall-of-What-a-Shame, indicating that this "punishment" is but a remnant of some long-gone bureaucrat's theory of incarceration. For her part, McInnis discovers something deeply ambivalent in this state-commissioned mural, the decay of a failed (but still quite powerful and effective) institution whose petty punishments have aged into relative aesthetic autonomy and systematic self-indictment. After all, apart from safety concerns, the landscape outside the prison walls is of no real consequence to the prison or the society that bolsters it. That space is pressed into service only inasmuch as it satisfies Power, and here it becomes a kind of negative theology, the Thing You Cannot Have. And, ironically, this elusive, ever-receding landscape makes its distance from that which it signifies the marker of its very worth. In Horizon Line, McInnis has gone into the prison yard and discovered flatness and cruel despair. Franz Kafka and Clement Greenberg were both modernists, but it seems it took the State to finally think about them in tandem.
Kaul's Scene 32 manages to be both enigmatic and precise, consistently clear in its purpose but still able to evoke a sense of unease, what we could perhaps call the "geological uncanny." In its simplest terms, the film is a landscape study of the Central Kutch salt fields in western India. The salt marsh is an area characterized by stark, fractured terrain, seemingly inhospitable to life but in fact replete with native fauna, and also home to various indigenous peoples of the region. Paradoxically ravishing as a play of surfaces and textures, a bare, bracketed swath of earth revealing itself as such and nothing but, Kaul is in fact presenting a very particular, formally organized view of the area. That is, we are not watching a neutral work of visual anthropology. Rather, Kaul has isolated certain elements of the Kutch salt fields in order to dramatize certain textural effects. Two things are at work in Scene 32 right off the bat. First, Kaul provides us with wide, expansive views of a particular area of the fields, which she then follows with a much closer look at the same space (either an extreme close-up of the cracked ground, or in some later cases, a deeper portion of the receding landscape). Kaul's editing operates on the basis of a kind of dialectical toggling, giving us the A shot for a brief period, then interrupted by the B shot for a flash, then again for a longer flash, and then again until the B image replaces the A shot. This shifting back and forth between the macro- and micro-visual levels produces an extremely interesting effect with respect to spatial orientation, and the representation of filmic time. Kaul replaces our stabilized gaze (we could even call it an "ownership gaze") of the landscape with something mechanical, scientific, and a bit jarring. These maneuvers disrupt the initial image's sense of the ground's solidity, breaking it, and its image, into component parts, particles accommodating substantial amounts of negative space. Compositionally, this also allows for a play of lights and darks. But eventually, Kaul's A/B switching is not simply predicated upon near and far. At the 2:30 mark, her close-ups of snowlike salt banks alternate on the basis of shape rather than size. In both instances, Kaul is altering our sense of temporality within the landscape film. These spaces do not "roll out" before us like panoramas. Rather, they are zones of relative compression and dispersion. What's more, this process is not linear. Kaul's "movement" between shots implies a simultaneity, a vertical time wherein both views are, at any given moment, equally available. If the close-ups perhaps seem more "scientific," or the long shots more "aesthetic" (my own supposition, nothing directly implied in Kaul's film), then Scene 32's organization makes it absolutely clear that these are merely attitudes with which to address the same, basically inert saltscape.
Kaul's second significant aesthetic operation in Scene 32 also deals directly with materialism, the physical status of what we're seeing. In the midst of the crisp HD photography of the back-and-forth views, she interweaves black-and-white, hand-processed 16mm film footage of the salt fields. These images are fascinating because they only resemble their digital counterparts in the most superficial of ways. We see a salt patch here or a small hill there, but the film itself communicates the direct texture of individual crystals, of wavering intensities of available light, of the rough textures that pocked the celluloid in the filming, the developing, and in the projection. Unlike the digital images, where the A/B switching turned editing into a vertical or paradigmatic form, the images of Kutch that register on the filmstrips are matched, if not exceeded, by the record of celluloid's own material process. The result is vaguely syntagmatic or horizontal, since as we watch the strip run through the gate (in, admittedly, a digital final edition), we see different elements of the image -- the landscape, the texture of the film, and the light that illuminates both -- assert themselves and recede over the course of the brief passage. Kaul has taken relationships that we are, to say the least, accustomed to thinking about in experimental film (time vs. space, celluloid vs. digital), and found a way to invest them with a remarkable beauty and elegance, and to stage these "conflicts" (sounds far too confrontational for such a graceful piece of cinema) in genuinely unique ways. The final three shots sum the film up quite nicely: the digital long shot is a tilted, high-angle look at a flat expanse of white land heading out to the distant horizon. It looks like an irregularly frosted cake. The second digital shot is a low, ground-level image of the salt, spiking and curling up into the frame. The slight irregularities in the first shot are mountainous here. The final shot, a 16mm b&w reversal take, bears the same texture as the others, but is looking down at the ground from a standing position, the (reversed white) shadow of a flag undulating as it bisects the frame diagonally. Every one of these views is distinct. And this returns us to the Central Kutch, where Scene 32 finds its absolute specificity. Like film, this land is defined by its changes, the evolution of its chemical make-up / breakdown. What Kaul has done is to allow a wide swath of granulated earth to inscribe itself (to paraphrase Martha Rosler) "in two inadequate descriptive systems," allowing each to fill the other's gaps with pooling, light-flecked verse.
Earlier films by Meyers have marked her as a filmmaker to watch, primarily because her camera captures moments of ephemeral beauty and visual grace with an apparent ease and lack of ostentatiousness. However those same films also struck me as the work of an artist still trying to find her own voice. A warm quotidian poem such as 2001's night light and leaping, for example, bore far too many stylistic affinities with masters from the previous generation -- Leighton Pierce and Nathaniel Dorsky most obviously -- to fully shake the anxiety of influence. night side marks a broad stride toward independent vision, without abandoning those elements of framing and construction that gave the previous films their overall shape. The film begins with still-frame close-ups of undersea rock formations and coral, whose branches and pea-green hues give way to an out-of-the-window shot of a distinctly Northern winter in shot 4. This shot, with a skein of leafless tree branches and power lines in the foreground, brownstones behind, and an icy blue tint throughout, offers what I can only describe as a slant-rhyme to the thickets of the previous shots. Following Dorsky's mode of predominantly anti-associational montage, Meyers joins shots whose connections are only hinted at, so subtle as to pop like a short-lived bubble in the spectatorial unconscious before the arrival of the next shot.
In this case, that image is a reverse-shot of sorts, the wintry tree reflected on the vertical left third of the window / picture plane, the rest occupied by a warm, wavering image through the glass, of a late 60s / early 70s table lamp bathed in amber and beige. Cool and warm have been nimbly assigned momentary positions in a visual dialectic which, in the next shot, will (d)evolve into something else entirely -- quivering drops of white light reflected on black water in the darkest possible night. Although Meyers's imagery retains the deft fixation on the "now" that characterizes the best work of this sort (in addition to the aforementioned Pierce and Dorsky, we could also mention Warren Sonbert), these basic shot-motifs form the building blocks of night side. Meyers returns us to verdant organisms, contrasted with the various wood-webs formed by the branches of barren trees, themselves offset by the architecture that frames them. In turn, drawings of birds flutter through the film, and cracking daylight ice and snow becomes somewhat more prominent (comprising around half of the final ten shots). The last frame of night side is pure white, and while I suppose we could read it in conventional terms (in 4.5 minutes Meyers has taken us from night to day or some such), it seems more useful to consider these "whiteout conditions" as the obliteration of differences, the point at which things can no longer be meaningfully seen. There are many different ways to see the night, but snow is pure projector light, the end of vision from which we must dig ourselves out.
A brief minimalist work that (to my eyes) forms a kind of unofficial diptych with Barber's the inversion, transcription, etc..., dwarfs the sea is another videowork that "performs" an annotated photography exhibition. And like Barber's other video, this one inserts images into an almost blinding, video-generated equivalent of the white cube of the gallery space, which in the context of Barber's time-based presentation takes on an unexpectedly disquieting character the longer we spend in its field. We're not in a gallery, after all; we're being exposed to "video" at its least disguised intensity, one end of the spectrum at which HD technology still doesn't much mitigate the discomfort. (One the other end, with deep blacks, video still mostly just fails.) In contrast to the inversion, where the very limits of photographic vision are tested (and are the fundamental subject), dwarfs the sea finds Barber exploring the possibility of narrative and subjectivity, how we attach stories and identities to single images in order to meaningfully link them. After fading in on one picture of a middle-aged man who appears to be African-American, a barely visible hand drops a series of similar photos into the frame, one after the other, each replacing the last in an upright stack. The images are portraits of men, all middle-aged or slightly older, mostly black or Arab. Each is photographed from the chest up, in front of a neutral white background, and each print (until the very end of the series) is cut to identical 5 x 5 cm dimensions. Although these portraits are frequently expressive, the men obviously not professional models but allowing the lens to capture something of their unguarded visage in a kind of declarative, Richard Avedon style. The photos seem to vaguely partake of the vernacular style of ID pictures, although we don't know if they're from visas, work permits, or some other official documents, and several, such as the first photo (the subject smiling, wearing a do-rag and gazing off into the distance) bear an excess that excludes them from absolutely official bureaucratic provenance.
As the first image fades in completely, Barber's computerized narrating voice kicks in, and it becomes apparent that "she" will be telling us a little something about each man. The reminiscences are personal, and all are proffered in a past tense tinged with recent tragedy. "This man was a friendly man," the Voice says of Picture #1. "He was a gifted conversationalist, and many of the men enjoyed his company." The second image: "Oh yes, him. He had a great difficulty sleeping." And so on. Barber's approach accomplishes several things at once. First, she meets the mechanical aspect of photography with an equally mechanical explanatory voice. We have been so inured to the reality-effect of photography that its translation of images through its own impersonal, mechanized processes has become second nature to us. There is no reason why the Voice, with its tender recollections and halting, pensive consideration of the photographs before it, should strike us as somehow more robotic or anti-emotive than the pictures themselves. Both the visual and the audio track are processing realities through mechanically reproducible media. Second, Barber literalizes the fact that photographs, however much they may "prick" us (in Roland Barthes's way of describing the punctum), are always anterior to their subject. These "men" are all just shadows of the past, and Barber's narration underscores their past-ness. These individual photos are metonyms, standing in for that person in the past who the narrator (or the disembodied Voice) is describing as, for some reason, gone. "Many of these men are dead. Also, many of them had hopes. I imagine those who stay on land do as well." The film implies that, if photography always instantly sends its subject into the past, we have a bad habit of retrieving those images and subjecting them to a narrative impulse, to a kind of putting-in-order that may in fact be inadequate to the interpretation at hand.
Since the Voice goes on to explain how much more powerful the sea is than any human, and we know that it has taken many of these men's lives, we must interrogate the imperative to generate a linear story out of this procession of men, these singular images. "It is difficult to live and work in something that continually tells you how defenseless you are, and how insignificant too" the Voice intones, and she continues by explaining that these men experienced "a lonely so huge it dwarfs the sea." It is impossible to watch Barber's video and not think of other works of critical photography, such as Martha Rosler's "The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems," or Christian Boltanski's ambiguously funereal installations. Dwarfs the sea either generates a kind of meditative poem from the loss and image-remains of these sad men, or it invents the tale whole-cloth, weaving unrelated "evidence" together through the power of story. In either case, Barber mobilizes the nostalgic, desire-laden coaching that characterizes our relationship to portraiture to push humanist sympathies to a kind of limit. The washed-out ambiance of the white cube, the serial presentation of the photographs, and above all the computerized narrator voice, work against conventional empathy, challenging it with the medium's impersonal qualities. Story (or, perhaps, "legend") keeps these images from drowning, from fading away.
Just a lovely, unassuming docu-film-poem. Zwier presents three news articles relating to the strange case of Sarah Ann Henley, a woman who, at the age of 22, jumped off the Clifton Suspension Bridge in1885. The first article describes the event itself; the second details the immediate aftermath, and what authorities had learned or surmised regarding why she survived; and the third recalled her story, a well-known area legend, on the occasion of her death. Zwier's film consists of three long takes of the bridge, one accompanying each of the article readings, each stationary and taken in long shot, framing the bridge itself in some way. Shots one and three are in extreme long shot, displaying the full expanse of the bridge as tiny cars creep by. (The film appears to move at silent speed, but I cannot be sure.) The middle shot looks down the bridge from a 45° angle, as if the cameraman were poised on the adjacent riverbank but level with the bridge traffic. The black & white cinematography, by filmmaker Ben Rivers, is crisp and contrasty, but maintains a substantial degree of swirling grain, all the better to provide an ambiance of late afternoon, pre-magic hour light and a set of relaxed traffic patterns which permit the bridge itself, and not its contents, to come forth as the "star" of the film. Zwier, following the exact tenor of the news articles relating to the Henley case, allows time for precise facts as they become known -- why she jumped, who saw her and who rescued her, as well as procedural matters such as the doctor and constables on the scene. But the most remarkable fact of the case, and what no doubt saved her life -- that, in jumping following a quarrel with her boyfriend, Henley was wearing a billowy Victorian dress that caught the downwind like a parachute, breaking her fall into the mud on the banks -- is delivered with the same warm but dispassionate documentary voiceover as the more mundane facts of the case. Zwier is clearly interested in "printing the legend," but also supplying a hard look at the bizarre, singular circumstances that coalesced to generate this "miracle." All facts are given relatively equal weight in the telling. If there is one single film that Sarah Ann reminds me of, it is James Benning's Deseret, his feature about the founding of Utah. Like Deseret, which is organized around articles from the New York Times, Sarah Ann gives us a glimpse of another age of journalism, when elevated language, complex sentence structure and mitigating nuance were allowed in the mass media. What's more, like Benning, Zwier juxtaposes the intense busy-ness of the voiceover texts with the placid fixed-frame gaze at the relevant landscape. This close attention to the bridge itself asks us to "see" the history that the structure has witnessed, to allow time for a landscape's accumulated secrets to emerge from the sediment. Of course, nothing actually comes up from the ground, but in listening so intently while our eyes study the bridge's every inch, its position in the sky, and its means of organizing space, we come to feel a very basic knowledge -- that the structure remains, long after its fleeting ensnarement in human folly.
Lertxundi's films that I've seen are extremely odd, straddling a thin line between the minimalistic procedures of certain avant-garde practitioners and an approach to timing, blocking and performance that has more in common with the wry end of international art cinema. Okay, wait . . . That was way too many generalizations. Let me back up a bit. My Tears Are Dry is a four minute film that at first alternates between two set-ups, the odd repetition of which is the gag. In the first, a woman lying on a bed has what looks like a tape recorder in her lap and plays a quick riff of a song, hitting stop just as a phoneme is lodged in the vocalist's throat. In the second, she is seen from behind, silhouetted against a blue sky, plucking out awkward, amateurish notes or note clusters on an acoustic guitar. The variation of the guitar sounds (one lone string plucked, an abortive Duane Eddy twang, a pick-scratch up the strings, etc.) playing against the lack of variance of the tape recording scenario provides the comedy. Eventually the recording continues and we're permitted to hear the entire song, "My Tears Are Dry" by Hoagy Lands. The song is delivered in three shots, one beginning at the bed and panning left over the performer, then a longer shot down a dusty street, houses on the right, palm trees on the left. The camera slowly tilts upward until the blue sky fills the frame, save a few errant palm fronds in the lower left corner. Then Lertxundi plays the song out over black leader. As my description may have communicated to you, My Tears Are Dry owes a great deal to Bruce Baillie's All My Life, and Baillie's sunbaked Californian / Mexican vibe in general. But tonally and performatively, Lertxundi is a close cousin to Aki Kaurismäki, as well as the "rigorous slackers" who've come along in his wake, such as Fernando Eimbcke. So, what's my point? I like Lertxundi's films. But watch out. She's a wild card.
Robinson's work continues to evolve at a rather shocking pace; this isn't a filmmaker content to replicate his considerable successes, nor is he afraid to tread into some convoluted zones of human psychology. Among Robinson's previous work, If There Be Thorns shares its most evident surface affinities with The General Returns From One Place to Another, both in its use of appropriated text in the form of subtitles and in its organization around human figures in some altered state of consciousness in a sylvan setting. But where The General provided its female subject pride of place, giving her a clearing within the surrounding landscape and a brighter, almost enchanted sense of personal power, the individuals lost amidst Thorns seem much more like faceless participants in some larger, preordained ritual. The opening images of the film consist of close-ups of slightly pitched, horizontally organized branches, the first of which feature the thorns of the title quite prominently. Robinson's lighting of these barrier-brambles is hieratic and preternatural, assigning a wavering glow that cuts through the dark forest deeper within the composition.(Anthony Dod Mantle's cinematography for Lars von Trier's Antichrist is the closest contemporary analog; the fact that Robinson achieved such luminosity on the handmade level is a wonder.) By the third shot, Robinson has effectively cancelled this holy effect since, in the background behind the trees, we see a person casually walking through the shot as if on his way to class. This interrupted enchantment will be a continual theme within If There Be Thorns, providing a sense that Robinson's commitment to the enclosed diegetic hypnosis of the classic trance-film (e.g. Maya Deren, some Kenneth Anger and Gregory Markopoulos) is, if not ironic, certainly incomplete. The next movement of the film consists of close-ups of tree trunks, each of which is marked by hand with a vertical red stripe, using a lipstick. This marking of the trees calls to mind several things, such as a clear-cutter's indication of which trees are to be cut down, or (in symbology that M. Night Shyamalan borrowed from the Nazis) markers designating that some person associated, physically or spiritually, with the tree is marked for death.
In an act of dense, ambiguous symbology akin to Deren's breadknives and Anger's roman candles, Robinson shows us a woman finding a marbled, peach-colored glass ball in the dirt. She shatters it to find it contains a collection of golden nails. It's at this point Robinson's camera zooms into the branch-barrier and we get a look at human beings, each standing still, each illuminated by a series of flashing colored lights, to the accompaniment of an instrumental synth version of (I think) Elton John's "Sacrifice." Up to this point, the onscreen text described people in hiding and "the burned rooms where we had shared our beds," where "the air smelled of smoke and ruin." After the "dark night" reaches its apotheosis in the human light show, we achieve daylight, a low angle shot upwards at sunny skies and palm trees. The narrative turns to one of provisional safety ("They found us at sunrise, asleep and tangled in a loving heap"), as we see still shots on a beach, palm fronds being dragged offscreen for some unexplained use. We can presume, however, that Robinson (Crusoe) is collapsing two forms of danger / rescue narrative, the desert island maroon and the abuse / life-in-hiding scenario, combining "open" and "closed" threats to the self. The narration elaborates on the fate of the group, whoever they may be -- they have been "escorted separately to the far reaches, and left for dead." The narrator continues, explaining that everything he/she has done in the name of survival has been in some sense an act of remembrance of those from whom she was forcibly separated. As Thorns continues, Robinson's imagery becomes more explicitly tropical: a male figure walking right to left with long fronds for raftmaking or building shelter; a pileup of fronds by a tree; and the swaying of seaweed under the waves. The most obvious symbols to emerge in this final passage of the film are what appear to be mangoes. One is retrieved from the water, then set in the grass alongside another. Both then disappear. Robinson trains his lens onto the sun, its glint blowing out the visual image, which the filmmaker then uses as a kind of neutral median range for a dense, almost epiphanic final montage. Using the lens flares and rack focus, Robinson combines images of the sun, of trees and foliage, and of the rushing tide, the entire spectrum of natural sensations within this ambiguous sphere of activity suddenly becoming one overwhelming texture.
The third act of this incredibly complicated film begins in deeply Derenesque territory. The golden nails slowly disappear, and we then see the three individuals wandering through a forest in what appears to be late afternoon / pre-dusk light, shadowed by the canopy of treetops. One man reaches a creek. The text describes an escape through caves and an eventual giving-oneself-over to a sensation of a state somewhere between life and death, an epiphanic or visionary state achieved through physical duress. Or, possibly, the narrator is simply describing his/her own death. "For all my lonely desires, the slow descent was an unmatched bliss. I only wished to be sharing my exquisite relief with them, leaving this world in unison, as we had always wanted to." Soon we see the nails glistening in the sun, laying shallow in the water. A hand begins to collect them. And we return, in the next three shots, to the lipstick-marked trees, which are then hammered with the golden spikes. Although reading too much into symbolism in trance-film logic tends to smother the text, one thing cannot be avoided. Earth First! and other anti-logging activists nail spikes into tress to protect them against power saws and other logging equipment. So if Thorns entails themes of jeopardy and transfiguration, the relationship between these hovering, silent figures and the woods they inhabit is becoming more mutualistic and absolute. They protect the woods that offer some degree of protection in return. The final images of Robinson's film are a return to the faces of the performers, showered with alternating colored lights. This time, the superimposition of receding tree trunks on the left and right of the frame is more prominent, implying a merge of consciousness or communion in bodily being. The flashes of color and faces are so rapid as to blend, and the tinny, chiming music (same music as before, to fadeout) gives a sense that a ritual of some sort is reaching its end. The multiple images fade away, replaced by the unified swaying of seaweed strands just beneath the surf.
Robinson takes his title from the book by V.C. Andrews, which is the third in a series that began with Flowers in the Attic. In light of this, the three figures we witness wandering through the forest, or on the edges of the mysterious island, could be siblings, their isolation underpinned by complex and necessarily submerged networks of desire. As such, the para-Freudianism of the trance-film mode, which Robinson adopts in certain ways but, as I stipulate above, does not completely inhabit, seems an appropriate mode of cinematic discourse for the themes at hand. The question I find myself left with following two close viewings of If There Be Thorns is whether the elements Robinson chooses to assemble for this film actually hold their own when combined. Robinson's previous work has undoubtedly been about evoking moods (anxiety, melancholia, inchoate desire) through the mobilization of unexpectedly auratic elements -- the abandoned world's fair, the Hollies song, the outdated videogame graphic. With Thorns, however, we have a film that is certainly not a literary adaptation, but employs enough elements of narrative, adaptation and performance as to require us to consider it an oblique consideration on what adaptation is, in a Straub / Huillet kind of way. The General fully submerged Frank O'Hara's text into a collaged tone-poem. If There Be Thorns retains linear relationships with the source material, but deepens it with a fixation on images, "vertical" poetic relationships and a textural approach to film space. This is the first of Robinson's films (not counting the singular Carol Ann is Dead) to really foreground performance values, to a degree that the "collage" can stand or fall on their success. The performers (Robinson being one of them) are awkward, but not in an obviously composed, dance / movement fashion, making their status within the diegetic world a bit hard to read. (The halting lateral drag of a palm frond is worth a thousand words in Thorns. But what does it mean?) What Robinson does achieve with unparalleled success (and why Thorns, even with its undecidable parts, represents an exciting new direction for him) is treat physical and plastic textures with an attention and conviction equal to that assigned to human figures (who, at times, really are just light-catching props, a la Warhol's Chelsea Girls). In a longer film, Robinson's woods would have asserted themselves even more, as they do in von Trier's Antichrist, or in so many Apichatpong Weerasethakul films. Thorns is a film that is bursting with information, some of it specifically character-driven, some of it evocative of an all-pervasive ambiance. But given just a bit more running time, these elements might have gelled a tad more, allowing everything to achieve both equal weight and maximum density. So, the final analysis: If There Be Thorns is mysterious and dense. And I hope that Michael Robinson begins making longer films.
Jacobs's recent turn to digital video has resulted in an astonishing productivity, and part of that prodigious output has been a re-exploration of some of the material from earlier stages of his career. In some cases, as with Star Spangled to Death (a grand, sprawling work for which adjectives like "magisterial" were inserted into the critical lexicon in the first place), Jacobs has been able to complete projects whose scope and expense (or no doubt other reasons -- shifting priorities, political exigencies, etc.) left them in long-term unfinished state. In still other cases, Jacobs has employed his new "Eternalism" digital mode to achieve some of the 3D flicker and rotation he had primarily achieved with his Magic Lantern and Nervous System performance works. This means that many of Jacobs's most ephemeral masterworks are attaining an at least partial single-channel stability, for posterity and broader circulation. In still other cases, the relatively inexpensive process of working at the computer as an editing deck has allowed Jacobs to extend some of his primary preoccupations in myriad directions. His seminal work Tom, Tom the Piper's Son (1969-71) used film and re-photography from projection to "get inside" a piece of film, to zoom into the Z-axis or fondle the grain with the closest of eyes. Now, digital materials allow Jacobs unfettered freedom in this area. Although the results are considerably different, Jacobs is able to produce works that are in many senses more like preserved, live demonstrations of some of the analytic work on images for which Jacobs is rather legendary as a professor. (In terms of his examination of cinema history, and the specific intersections of aesthetics, politics, and the tactile properties of the filmed image, Jacobs's broad-ranging project has few parallels. I'd be tempted to liken Jacobs to Godard, but I recently read a Manohla Dargis profile of KJ where she reveals that Ken's no fan of Godard's, and I really don't want to start an argument...) So, while some recent Jacobs pieces have more directly followed the Tom, Tom template, taking small, bounded image-texts in order to explore and explode them -- recent examples include Nymph, Capitalism: Child Labor, and Hanky Panky January 1902 -- other works have been more like demonstrations of certain exploratory, plastic possibilities when celluloid images enter the realm of digital manipulation. Much like Star Spangled to Death, The Sky Socialist is one of Jacobs's great underseen epics, made on Super-8 in the mid-60s as a response to the Vietnam War. The brief clips we see in excerpt / stratified bears a strong stylistic resemblance to the funky, Baudelairian street-magic films of Jacobs's late 50 to mid 60s period.This puts The Sky Socialist at the end of the Jack Smith / Bob Fleischer association that gave us masterworks like Little Stabs at Happiness, Blonde Cobra, and the start of SSTD, and just after the beginning of Jacobs's turn toward his more formalist, painterly style of the 70s. (The Sky Socialist is bracketed on either side by two pivotal Jacobs films, Window  and Airshaft .) The Sky Socialist also represents one of Jacobs's most elaborate, before-the-camera collaborations with his wife, the great Flo Jacobs who, here and in Azazel Jacobs's Momma's Man, displays an effortless charisma, hinting at an alternate career that might've been, and still very well could be. (Flo appears here as "Anne Frank," the very definition of survivance testimony in the face of systematic obliteration. In a coincidence that sticks with me as I describe Jacobs's film, I happened to watch excerpt / stratified on January 11, the day that Miep Gies passed away. Documents are indeed harder to kill than people, which is why Civilization of some form or another continues, in the face of unimaginably depraved acts against humankind. Not much of a parenthetical, huh?) In translating The Sky Socialist into an analytical digital work, Jacobs "stratifies" the film by slicing it horizontally into discontinuous, staggered strips, vertically stacked and floating upward onscreen. The older 8mm images are turned into drifting clouds, or evaporating smoke. Jacobs is clearly playing on the idea of "returning" The Sky Socialist to the sky (the titular "socialist," by the way, is the Brooklyn Bridge). But, just as Jacobs's reworking / completion of SSTD continually inserted texts and footage from the present, to remind us of the distance between us and the images, excerpt / stratified places physical, plastic barriers between our eyes and the original material. (The sliding image-slits actually remind me of the name of a Jacques Derrida essay collection: "Between the Blinds.") We must peer through the vapor to see what's there, what's left, and where the Then can bring us relative to the Now. So, The Sky Socialist kind of looks like this:
....except of course that the julienned images are moving in an undulating upward pattern. As excerpt / stratified progresses, the novelty of Jacobs's technique wears off, and what we're left with is this barrier property. For many of us, for so long, The Sky Socialist has maintained an almost magical aura of unattainability, and here, in a way, Jacobs plays on this, sending the whole thing "up in smoke." Conceptually, excerpt / stratified is tight as a drum. However, if there is a flaw in the video's design, it's that over the 19-minute running time, development is hard to track, either in the original source material as re-presented here, or in the technical manipulations Jacobs introduces. The two tend to float atop one another instead of forging a deep molecular bond, and since the Sky Socialist images come through in such a mediated, screwed-and-chopped form, the organic relations between those original images is difficult to parse. Eventually they come to signify their own distance from us above all else. This wouldn't be such a problem if the majority of Jacobs's audience had a solid grasp on The Sky Socialist as a baseline text. Jacobs's remixes of Tom, Tom the Piper's Son in recent years -- Anaglyph Tom (Tom With Puffy Cheeks), A Tom Tom Chaser -- work in large part because of our substantial familiarity with the original Tom, Tom, and Jacobs issued SSTD as one, single integrated mega-film. And maybe I'm just, um, out of the loop. But I found it hard to read excerpt / stratified as an entire, self-contained video work because it seemed to be harking back to a larger effort with which I had no direct or even semi-direct experience. And while the video-stratification was an undeniably unique, frequently captivating analytic and textural effect, once Jacobs introduces the Eternalism flicker, I found myself outmatched. Simply trying to hold the piece together in my mind's eye (or eye's mind), much less glean specific information from it, became exhausting, even on repeat viewings. In the end, excerpt / stratified impressed me more as an object-lesson in an unexpected, literally dis-integrated way of approaching a set of moving images, a pedagogical gesture perhaps, or the instantiation of an aesthetic hypothesis. And that's enough, really: a Socialism both utopian and scientific.
So somebody wrote this poem and bought space in the play for it. Whether Miranda Torn is a young JonBenet in training whose stage-parents bought her room in the performance, I cannot say, but she is asked to deliver lines that are "cognitively dissonant"given the innocence of her age (a nice way of saying that a kid younger than 10 is prompted to reminisce like a creepy, sub-Proustian lesbian). In most cases, I would think that learning more about the context in which this video was created and originally displayed would deepen my appreciation of it, at least in terms of understanding its borderline-offensive premise, its utter lack of anything resembling aesthetic properties, and its seemingly endless crumb-trail of "transgressive" purple prose. But what Dorsen and company offer as The Big Idea is a preposterously jejune, faux-naive commitment to "the marketplace of ideas" and the grand leveling power of money in a society hung up all too literally on "the cash value of ideas." This is absolute codswallop. The worst part of it all is that an ultimately conservative artwork like this, working the "edgy" intersection between youth and sexuality, makes the territory itself appear rancid, not the manner in which its mobilized. And by the way, if you ever care to see a genuinely intelligent, complicated and provocative piece of film art that engages (in part) with the distance between innocence and experience, I invite you to see Peggy Ahwesh's excellent Martina's Playhouse.
The second shot is a more conventional composition in depth, with two streams of the falls bisecting one another on the left side, the right side showing a drop and drift in the distance. But this is immediately followed by the third shot, a frame filled with upward floating mist. The pun of Faber's title is obvious, of course -- "Niagara Rises" instead of "Niagara Falls" -- but her compositions prove it to an extent. While the sheer volume of water funneling down is remarkable, the water vapor thrown upward is equally remarkable, especially in its ability to obscure a feature of the landscape as formidable as Niagara Falls. And Faber's interest in this counter-motion, as evidenced by her "Postcard," pertains to a sensation felt while visiting the falls, an experience of cinematic looking that, in its assertion of flatness, spatial ambiguity and multidirectionality, replaces the falls' forward motion in time with all-over modernist space. And this is a very unusual, very telling "postcard" for Faber to send, since this film frees the time element of viewing the falls from the typical narrativization with which we "make sense" of our travels and our memories. What Faber captures instead is a razor-thin dialectic between modernist stasis -- the big "I am" of the Greenbergian picture plane -- and drifting time.
It has taken me an inordinate amount of time to write something about Quartet, despite the fact that I've seen it four times (although, so far, only on a video screener). While this certainly speaks to the limitations of my puny brain, I think it also speaks very directly to the type of film Quartet is, and why it is a truly wonderful film, one whose pleasures magnify with every subsequent viewing. Hamlyn's film consists of four "trips" around a single room. Each iteration is composed of a series of static shots, and each shot leads to the next through a rather direct form of spatial mapping. In fact, Hamlyn's use of space, focus, camera placement and framing work to produce an odd visual analogue to the "sound bleed" so common in the editing of commercial films. One shot leads to the next with a baton-relay logic -- we start at a diagonally-pitched open window, then to the space directly adjacent to it, then up to the ceiling to examine a lonely lightbulb, with an edge of wall in the frame, which leads to spare, rectangular white cabinet doors and wire hangers, all the way back to the start. Hamlyn makes of this rather unspectacular environment a set of interlocking still lives, flattened against the outer walls of the shallow space of what looks to be an 8x8 rental property. (The only thing that makes the space uniquely suited to this aesthetic endeavor is the white, manager's-special latex paint. In the first go-round, we're zeroed in on the space as this tightly woven Mondrian world, with certain shadowed moments but an overall even finish, much like the unobtrusively matte walls themselves. By the second and third times, Hamlyn has not only shifted his focus slightly, but has decided to shoot the room under different atmospheric conditions. As the overcast haze (Britain? Canada?) cloaks the room in shadowy film grain, we soon notice something rather shocking. Hamlyn is shooting in time lapse. All of these brief, well-composed shots throughout the space, which imply a kind of etched permanence, are rendered as Hamlyn trains his camera on a "still life" over significant spans of time, the variations in light producing general ambiance rather than rapid shifts. If we didn't see Hamlyn and his camera wiggling in the lightbulb's reflection, we might never even notice the time lapse work. As the Quartet reaches its fourth and final movement, we are past looking at the well-composed elements of the room. Instead, we're gazing out at the clouds and raindrops further out from the window, the distant planes in the room that produce an indescribably different mood -- we could maybe call it a movement from figure to ground, or positive to negative space -- than when we started. I've mainly put off writing about Quartet because no amount of ekphrasis or procedural outline can communicate the way the film elicits a highly pleasurable, underutilized faculty in our vision. It isn't a puzzle, nor is it an unfolding structure. Rather, Hamlyn shows a space undergoing the controlled adjustment of attention, systematic but highly intuitive. The verbal part of us switches off in front of Quartet, and we're moved along by the progression of abstract forms. The musical title is apposite in a very fundamental way.
hand-tinted colors, so that the forms that burst through the wall of black murk are like energy-charged globules of pure light, glistening like stained glass, falling away like fireworks. It's impossible not to think of Brakhage's hand-painted films while viewing Trees of Syntax, but Saïto's use of color, shape and movement are exceedingly different. He chips away at these charmed particles specifically in order to keep them balanced on the edge of representational intelligibility.
and painting results in a picture plane that vibrates even when its denotative contents -- the same tree -- have not changed. That's because, of course, the negative space is fluctuating, generating a kind of artificial wind. What's more, Saïto's color scheme often shifts within single one-second passages, in ways either subtle (say, between lime and kelly green) or dramatic (green against lilac, for example). While Saïto's eye as a colorist does owe a debt to Brakhage (something I suspect he'd freely admit), his orchestration of these painterly gestures within the circumscribed bounds of rapidly shifting pictures -- trees and foliage -- produces an aesthetic that bears little of Brakhage's sweep of line and gesture, replacing it with the jittery vibration of blocks of color, interrupted mid-movement by "obstructions" which are, ironically, their very subject matter.
Digital intercourse: The argument could be made (and I don't think it would be entirely offbase) that just about everything Thorsten Fleisch does in Wound Footage "has been done before." It's a film primarily focused on the physical decay of a filmstrip, on the subsequent interplay (and in this case interpenetration) of the photographic image and its support, of surface and depth. What
This framework is vital, because it characterizes Oliveira's treatment of the source material, and his own film, throughout. Eccentricities is based on a short story by Eça de Queiroz, and Oliveira allows the author's work to look in two directions at once. Eccentricities emphasizes both the awkward nineteenth-century morality and filial codes of the original work, and Eça de Queiroz's basic modernity, his recognition of the impetuousness of youth and a self-destructive streak that Romanticism all too often valorized while taking inadequate account of the real world's material exigencies. Through his second-floor office window, young Macário, an accountant at his uncle's cloth shop, spies Luisa (Catarina Wallenstein), the fetching young girl of the title, across the street. We discover that she and her mother are of ambiguous, possibly dubious class provenance, although this is conveyed in subtle hints that the boy fails to observe. The boy's uncle (Diogo Doria) refuses to let his nephew marry the girl (or, it appears, anyone else -- not clear why), so he flees to Cape Verde to make money on an again-ambiguous work trip. (Oliveira hints at nefarious colonial goings-on, but the diegetic world allows them to stand unchallenged.) By the end, the girl is quite suddenly revealed to be much less than she at first appeared, and the young man casts her aside, heartbroken. He has, in short, thrown away his life and position for a low-class charlatan.
Oliveira stages this anachronistic "moral fable" (I guess you'd call it) with an eye to maintaining its fundamental inscrutability. The uncle's behavior, or the strange, stilted gender dynamics that characterize the film's courtly codes of conduct, are never explained, even within the young man's narration to Silveira. However, Eccentricities is set in the present. We see a computer on the accountant's desk, but the anachronism runs deeper than this. When Macário gets an early positive sign from the girl that his attention may be returned, he goes back to his office and performs a giddy, arm-flailing dance, like Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil. He's breaking the placid Victorian-era frame of decorum that otherwise shrouds the story. What's more, Oliveira inserts the contemporary through semi-documentary material enfolded into the diegesis. Macário is taken by a friend into the salon of the Eça de Queiroz Society, the story's very author enshrined as a part of the historical past. And Eccentricities also makes space for the performance of Portuguese music and poetry, in a manner very clearly intended to honor and preserve their past. Therefore, Oliveira is implicitly asking his audience to lend a 21st century ear to works in a classical mode, to admire their beauty and present-day resonance, despite but perhaps in some ways even because of their temporal alterity to our world. And in a sense, the film itself is a component of the exact same project. Factually, the basic material that comprises the film's text is an historical artifact, a point made clear by the intrusion of literary history into the work itself. The determinism of Eça de Queiroz's tale might be best understood at a remove, behind the glass armor of canonical distance. But for Oliveira, this and every text is alive, pushing its way gawkily into the animate present so as to test its mettle, to learn whether or not it has any truths left to disclose. Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl might seem to belong in a box, but Oliveira chooses instead to send it off on its way, to see if its final destination still exists.
Cristi is given the charge of busting a teenager for smoking pot and passing it to his friends. Under current Romanian law, this kid faces hard time, and Cristi doesn't think this is right. Not only would he rather conduct a more thorough investigation and go for the dealer instead of the easy bust; as he keeps telling his superiors, including the district attorney and eventually his chief (Vlad Ivanov), "this law will change soon." Cristi just got back from the Czech Republic, where pot for personal use is not considered a criminal offense, or at least not something anyone bothers with. "I don't want to ruin this kid's life over nothing," Cristi pleads. This is the basic moral conundrum of Police, Adjective, as most readers know by now. But it has to be seen in a somewhat larger frame. We might ask, how did a man of basic progressive impulses like Cristi become a cop in the first place? Again, Porumboiu is asking us to step back and consider a kind of time warp within post-Communist Romania, more than just the "uneven development" that political scientists and economists tend to discuss. The nation isn't exactly divided, either, at least not as Police, Adjective represents it. Rather, there are people like Cristi and his wife Anca (Irina Saulescu) who seemed to perceive the fall of Ceausescu as the opening of new possibilities, the inauguration of free thinking or active engagement with their own society -- the experiment that "democracy" embodies, at least on paper. Cristi hardly seems constitutionally suited to being a police detective, apart from his capacity to cope with intense boredom. (His stakeout makes Barney Miller look like a coke-fueled rave.) His frank but nonchalant insubordination is rather shocking. However, if we think about the fall of totalitarianism as the removal of a shackle, a hypothetical return to zero (that which the Marxist revolutions were themselves supposed to supply before the Lenin / Stalin turn), then Cristi presumably has a tacit, inchoate understanding that, in this society-under-revision, "police" is a verb, and that its meaning is something to be enacted and redefined each day by those charged to perform that verb. That is, revolutionary policing entails the very acts of conscience Cristi attempts to invoke, and one would think that it could just as reasonably be here as anywhere else that the "bad law" Cristi abhors could start to crumble.
Of course, this is not the society Cristi lives in, and it is the Chief of Police who makes this explicit. In demanding that Cristi arrest the teen under the current drug laws, the Chief dresses his detective down by picking apart his language. This penultimate scene is quite justly the most celebrated in Police, Adjective, and the one that leads viewers and critics to conclude that Porumboiu's film is "all about language," even though even here we have a visual and performative dimension. The Chief dominates the white-beige office frame, his long, low desk bisecting the image. Cristi's fellow detective Nelu (Ion Stoica) sits fidgeting on the right, making chitchat and ingratiating himself to his dismissive superior. Cristi, on the left -- no accident there -- is frequently nudged out of the frame almost completely. The camera pans only when the Chief sends him to the blackboard, which itself will serve as the sole image in the film's final shot. At any rate, in a discussion about morality, free will, duty, and language, the Chief's only recourse is to the dictionary. Granted, this echoes the earlier discussion between Cristi and Anca about the Romanian Academy's decree that "not any" was now one word and not two. The "official" power of language clearly comes from on high. But the larger point, of course, is that the Chief's gesture is a literal, almost comical "policing" of meaning. In a debate about interpretation, who but a petty tyrant would choose the dictionary as the final arbiter of meaning? It is precisely intended to deify the general and abstract over the time-bound and situational, a blatant attempt to curtail either semiotic slippage or just a consideration of present-day history. Porumboiu's black humor in this sequence is scathing. As the Chief browbeats Cristi with canned definitions, he pedantically asks, "Do you know what we're doing? This is called dialectics." The joke, of course, is twofold (at least). One, the idea that "dialectics" means forcing predigested ideas down your interlocutor's throat, particularly ones designed to stem change rather than promote or explore it, is patently absurd. From Plato through Hegel and Marx and beyond, if that's dialectics, I'm Scooby Doo. But the sad part (two) is that, under totalitarian Marxism, this anti-intellectual might-makes-right horseshit was the way of the walk, and since everything was ostensibly steeped in Marx's philosophy, you just called it "dialectics" as official policy.
Part of what we see in this sequence, and throughout Police, Adjective, is that apart from anyone's sinister motives, the reformation of Romanian society failed, and is failing, largely for reasons pertaining to the stagnancy of bureaucracies. Old ways of doing business, honed under Ceausescu, are comfortable and at the ready, and most people are too harried to challenge them. Only someone like the Chief seems genuinely invested, and this is more about protecting his own power. But real dialectics has a way of sneaking in where you least expect it. When the Chief demands that Cristi look up "police" in the dictionary, telling him, "You have forgotten what you are," the findings are surprising. Cristi finds "police, adj.," which describes totalitarian situations, such as "police state," "police brutality," and the like, and mention "repressive methods" in the definition. "Nonsense!" cries the Chief. "All states rely on the police." But right there, in the Romanian dictionary, under the auspices of language's objectivity, we see the mark of History, the dialectic of change. Will this definition stand? Based on the ultimate success of the Chief's brand of policing, which dominates reality through language -- the law, backed by force -- it seems unlikely. But it's possible that Cristi -- he of the "vague" conscience; the mundane, empty descriptions (of a "crime" that is equally empty to him); and the slow, sympathetic observation of his environment (a culture and a country he does not yet seem ready to give up on) -- is speaking a language no one can understand, the basic decency that may yet characterize the future.
I could go on, but there's no point. I haven't even touched on the "mystery" surrounding the identity of Diego's father (yeah....), Ray X's newfound freedom to express his homosexuality, Harry and Diego's vampire script, or any number of non-starters. Harry's relationship with Judit is apparently important, but there's no indication of this in terms of how the characters actually interact. The return of Ray X strikes fear in the hearts of all and sundry, but the guy never does anything and eventually drops out of the film. Diego's near-death experience at the club where he DJs amounts to a speedbump on the convoluted road. And again, none of this would matter if the film, at any point, clarified exactly what Almodóvar cared about, and where we're supposed to invest our affective chips. Some of Broken Embraces's defenders have compared it to Sirk, indicating that Pedro is working in a melodramatic register here (nothing unusual in that) but signaling its artifice, either as a slight move in the direction of critical distance or just as another exercise in pastiche. But I ain't seein' it; Sirk could engage in some whiplash plotting, and throw some curveballs in there just because. But his films always communicated an almost operatic conviction with respect to the emotional wreckage his melodramas left in their wake. Douglas Sirk was like a cross between Sam Fuller and Freddie Mercury. Ironically, Almodóvar comes much closer to this degree of sincerity in the recent films which, on the face of it, are much more controlled and self-possessed. Volver had a silly husband-in-the-freezer subplot, but it was fundamentally about how women care for one another across age and even class divides. Talk To Her has a guy eaten alive by a giant vagina, but it's actually a sad treatise on misogyny as the basic social bond. And Bad Education, probably the most flawed and inconsistent of the recent films, was a virtual cri de coeur against both abuse and the culture of the closet that in many ways abets it. If Broken Embraces ultimately adds up to anything at all, that meaning arrives in the final twenty minutes, as a kind of Hail Mary pass. All secrets revealed (to no discernible impact), some threads tied up (but most left for dead), we get Harry attempting to save his butchered film. It's understood as a way to honor Lena after her death (a reversal of the multitude of ripped-up holiday snaps), but of course it's Harry's way of burnishing his own reputation too. Given that these final moments of Broken Embraces are set in this restorative editing deck, Almodóvar, after spinning a whole lot of nothing, hits us with the blandest, most unemphatic statement of the Transcendence of Art that I've yet seen the cinema produce. Watching Harry fix a film in which every edit was misjudged, each take used was the worst available, and almost every potential plotline is a road to nowhere, it was at that moment that I perceived my mind throwing up my own Hail Mary interpretive brick. "Maybe it's all a big in-joke."
The Art of the Steal (Don Argott) 
[The following is a longer draft of a review I wrote for The Nashville Scene. The Scene version, which I think is better due to Jim Ridley's judicious editing, can be found here. But for the sake of NYFFish completism, I've appended a cleaned-up version of the longer draft below.]
There are few concepts so persistently used, abused, and willfully misconstrued by American demagogues than “the public good.” Whichever side you came down on in the recent debate on health care reform, for example, there’s no denying that all involved blathered until they were blue in the face that they were doing the tough, unpopular but ultimately correct thing for “the American people” (whoever they are). Don Argott’s documentary The Art of the Steal could, by some lights, depict a public scandal worlds away from such matters, and so miniscule as to seem insignificant, even hopelessly elitist, to most. But in fact many of the very same players, and the exact same motives, are at play. What is the function of culture in America? Is there any safe haven for more enduring, humanistic values? Can art enrich lives, or can it now only live among the rich? Argott details the systematic dismantling of the Barnes Foundation, a private trust created by Albert C. Barnes in 1922. Barnes was a working-class kid from Philly who became a self-made millionaire. He discovered modern art well ahead of the curve through his own intellectual curiosity, amassed a private collection of post-Impressionist and pre-Cubist works that, when all is said and done (the documentary runs up to 2008) is valued at around $30 billion. (Yes, not million. Billion.) Barnes, an FDR liberal and early integrationist, despised the conservative Philadelphia establishment (especially publishing magnates / Nixon-Reagan BFFs the Annenberg family), who, although they had strong ties to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, were to Barnes little more than philistines using culture as a backdrop for their conspicuous elitist privilege. Anxious to protect his art from this group and others like them, Barnes stipulated that the works be housed in a small building in suburban Merion, PA (4.6 miles from Philly), that they couldn’t be removed or loaned, and that the facility did not have open museum hours. Appointments needed to be made, unless you were taking classes from the Barnes’s small but committed Education department.
Where things go from there is far too complicated and contentious to elaborate in this review. Besides, Argott goes to such great lengths to construct The Art of the Steal as a kind of legal procedural. What’s more, detailing too much would merely make a trivial mishmash of a chapter in American cultural history whose importance is argued quite convincingly by the film, whereas merely blurbing it can only help relegate it to a footnote. But it’s not unsportsmanlike, I think, to let you know why there is a controversy surrounding the Barnes Foundation. Essentially, the exact constellation of moneyed interests Barnes feared in his lifetime – self-serving philanthropists like the Annenbergs, newcomers such as the Pew Charitable Trust, the opposing aesthetes of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and some well-connected politicians and lawyers – systematically struck down each proviso in Barnes’s will, leading to the eventual guardianship / destruction (take your pick) of the Barnes Foundation and its art by its former enemies. They are now building a Barnes museum space to permanently house the collection in the heart of Philadelphia, on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway’s museum strip not far from the PMA. The Art of the Steal has itself proven controversial; many reviews decry Argott’s one-sidedness in favor of the Barnes legacy and against the Philly establishment’s takeover. While the film makes no bones about its partisanship, it must also be said that many key players on the Pew / Annenberg / PMA side declined interview requests. Others have argued that Steal, and the pro-Barnes contingent, is essentially making a fuss over “moving some paintings five miles down the road.”
But again, the real issue explored by The Art of the Steal comes down to competing and ultimately incompatible concepts of (that phrase again) “the public good.” Albert Barnes thought that keeping the art away from the powerful meant that it could be seen by individuals, singly or in small groups, who were interested enough to seek it out. It was always there, for intensive, concentrated looking. The major institutions which administer culture in our capitalist society – the museums and their well-connected friends – argue that the public good is served by making the art more accessible to as many people as possible, in big white tourist cathedrals, where the curious can wend through galleries in droves. Sending the art to other parts of the world is also part of this grander, global vision, enabled by a culture industry Barnes both feared and couldn’t fully foresee. Needless to say, there are valid arguments on both sides, but the most forceful and disturbing proposition in The Art of the Steal is the one that Argott and company stop just short of making. Once Barnes’s humanistic mission, for all its curmudgeonly intractability, is dismantled – the art leaves the building, the art travels the world, the art shows in corporate-funded museums – there is only one legal hurdle left: busting the billion-dollar collection when “the public good” dictates it’s for the best, sending it off to Sotheby’s to fulfill its “true” destiny as Commodity. Barnes, for his part, thought of modern art as something a bit different: an intrinsic component of our collective story.
Near the beginning of To Die Like a Man, Tonia (Fernando Santos), appears to be having a flashback, which we are witnessing in a kind of documentary first-person. It is a doctor patiently explaining male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, using what resembles an origami crane to demonstrate how a penis and scrotum with be enfolded into a vagina with the nerve-ending suggestion of a clitoris. Tonia, back in real-time, remarks that the doctor described the operation "as if he were filleting a steak," and vows never to get "the chop," in part because, as a devout Catholic, she's fairly sure God wouldn't approve. At this point, her no-count boyfriend berates her for being "in-between" and "neither one or the other." This is one of the key themes of To Die Like a Man, naturally. However, there's a sense in which the film's writer-director, João Pedro Rodrigues, may have fallen prey to this very fallacy. What is the ultimate goal of his film? And what does it want us to think about Tonia, over and above what she and those populating her fictional world might think about her? Make no mistake -- this isn't a question of "likeability" or even moral clarity. It's more a sense of whether a film engages in fragmentation in order to complexify its subject, to place its subject in a larger array of social relationships, or simply because the film has gotten lost along the way, and, being an "art film," no one necessarily noticed.
I've been following Rodrigues's work for years now, pretty much since the beginning, but unlike so many other critics and admirers (among whom I'd still count myself) I don't feel as though To Die Like a Man represents some kind of new maturity or a breakthrough in his ongoing project. I strongly prefer Rodrigues's darkly comic, discomfitingly funky debut film O Fantasma, with its leathery, butt-sweat saturated foulness and bathroom-crawl masochism yoked to a kind of tortuously impressionistic storytelling, as if the audience could only glean sense by fitfully jutting our heads about the surface of the too-high water of an isolation tank. The second film in the sort-of trilogy, Odete (aka Two Drifters) felt to me like a lurch toward coherence and even a patent gesture towards a kind of romantic humanism. But To Die Like a Man certainly moves more in the direction of coldness, operating within a kind of women's film register that treats suffering as both the hard fact of real life and as a sad tragedy to be mourned by those still capable of the slightest fellow-feeling. Rodrigues is working in the Sirk / Fassbinder register, all right, but also willing to delve into the unreconstructed pathos of maternal-suffering melodrama, your Mildred Pierces and Stella Dallases, the domains of broads too tough to let the need for love show through easily but always undone by fully comprehensible human frailties.
Tonia is a transgender drag queen past her prime, whose performing life coincides with a medical crisis she doesn't know how to face. Her breast implants are leaking, poisoning her, leaving her the only option to save her life by shedding her womanhood. In the midst of this secret suffering, she must also deal with her young, inattentive junkie boyfriend Rosário (Alexander David), whose casual cruelty is not unlike a Fassbinder or Almodóvar variation on Mildred Pierce's slimebucket playboy Monte Beragon. Fernando Santos embodies Tonia as self-possessed, dignified and frequently funny, but never lapses into bitchy caricature. But the trajectory of the film is Tonia's "being unto death," and there is a bizarre, uneven creepiness to Rodrigues's orchestration of this, particularly in all the seemingly unrelated sidetracks along the way to her final repose and trans/figuration. In his excellent Cinema Scope piece on Rodrigues, Dennis Lim articulated the contours of the loose trilogy of "loaded or negative archetype[s] -- with O Fantasma, the submissive slut; with Odete, the fag hag; and with To Die Like a Man, the tragic tranny." But the strange thing about Tonia's tragic demise is that, in addition to her selfless marginalization within her own diegetic realm (mothering a worthless lover, fighting to be seen as a star, wrecking friendships through paranoia borne of self-hatred), the film itself often insists on minimizing her story through digressions of narrative and tone. What of the awkward, Petra von Kant-like retreat in the woods in the film's final hour? Apart from lending the proceedings a claustrophobic atmosphere of the sort reminiscent of Monika Treut's films (the sort that makes me run away from Treut's films, actually), the new environs add little, and the gel-colored solo vocal in the trees seems like a failed avant-garde gamble that, again, literally wastes Tonia's time. Rodrigues seems to want to emphasize confinement. His use of the 1:33 Academy ratio certainly accomplishes this, as well as the larger eventual theme, that "Tonia" is an entity, a body, who must come to terms with feeling her own physical self as a trap. But To Die Like a Man is ultimately a frustrating muddle of provocative ideas that are thrown onto the screen like adhesive index cards. More than most films, this is irksome, because it's like Rodrigues is forcibly hooking us into the worldview that the film seemingly wants to challenge from the inside out -- the one that is incapable of seeing Tonia as someone.
It's strange that this hasn't occurred to me before now, but Breillat, a director whom I actually admire quite a lot, is not exactly a very "modern" director, for all her uber-theoretical concerns. In fact, underneath her frequently radical content, she's really something of a metteur en scène, which isn't exactly a strike against her. But it does make her body of work, taken as a whole, exceedingly odd. Whereas the overwhelming visual (and to a lesser extent sonic) formalist bias of our current film-critical regime gives pride of place to auteurs who primarily concern themselves with the plastics of cinema, someone like Breillat can seem rather slippery. After all, her philosophical and thematic preoccupations are about as consistent as you could possibly hope for, and at times they border on fanaticism, occluding certain other realms of human experience. Breillat is hardly the cinema's most rigorous or intellectual feminist, or even its most aggressive. But her films are firmly grounded within a post-Beauvoirian existentialist inquiry into the visceral crisis of being an embodied female subject. Since this problem (but of course, not necessarily our understanding of it) is transhistorical, Breillat has infinite amounts of leeway in terms of staging and restaging it, deciding the age of her protagonists, selecting their time period, orchestrating the relative simplicity or complexity of their milieu or mise en scène. Her style is flexible.
But strangely enough this flexibility, at least for me, helps me to finally recognize why I run so wildly hot and cold with Breillat, and almost never love her films outright. The exception is her early masterwork A Very Young Girl, a film so frank in its bald fascination with its pee pee parts that its achieves a kind of madcap comedy sorely missing from Breillat's mature efforts. This sexual-dawning treatise is like a crucible, burning away everything except Breillat's most animalistic, finger-licking curiosity about embodied existence. Other strong films in the Breillat corpus, such as Fat Girl, Anatomy of Hell and The Last Mistress, all find different ways to channel psychological extremity into tense battles of will, frequently organized as visual tableaux or theatrical events (the deflowering in Fat Girl; the sculptural insertions in Anatomy of Hell; pretty much everything Asia Argento does in Last Mistress). But sometimes Breillat gets bogged down in art-film mannerisms and/or logy literalism, and her films become nearly impossible to watch. The worst offender is Romance, which is "about" female masochism in about as complicated a manner as The Fast and the Furious is "about" cars. (Line 'em up, bang 'em out.) But by my lights, Breillat's attempts at conveying more recognizable human behavior always fall just as flat. Brief Crossing was a night-of-passion squib tripped up by its Durasian atmosphere. Sex is Comedy is cute but self-reflexively smug. Perfect Love I barely remember.
Which brings us at long last to Bluebeard. Although I personally place this latest Breillat effort alongside Brief Crossing and Sex is Comedy in the smallish, why-was-this-necessary category, there's no question that the source material seems tailor-made for this director. You have a frame story, wherein two sisters (Lola Giovannetti and Marilou Lopes-Benites) steal away to the attic to surreptitiously read Bluebeard, one sister frightening the other as a gesture of power. Since this act, in both its refrain and its final outcome, does not exactly happen along expected lines, the sisters' relationship to the story and its telling correspond fairly directly to the trajectory of Fat Girl. Sibling rivalry, the mean streak in little girls, and in particular the feminist issue of girls' socially-mandated inability to properly express feelings of anger and dispossession, are all very much in play here. Breillat, who has accepted the Freudian doctrine as rewoven through the spindles of Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva, clearly understands fairy tales, and all layered narrativity and allegory, to be a sublimated return of the repressed. And so, in the fictional world we meet Mary-Catherine (Lola Creton) and her older sister Anne (Daphné Baïwir) as they are summarily ejected from a convent school upon their father's death in an accident. (The Mother Superior tells them not to cry and coldly explains "we are not a charity.")
By chance Mary-Catherine meets the infamous Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), a massive man who lives in a mysterious castle, and has had numerous wives said to have met with untoward fates. He is remote, but eyes her with appetite. She, in classic Breillat style, finds him simultaneously repulsive and seductive, since she is in part thrilled by the horrid thought of accessing her own sexuality via this uncouth hulk. Mary-Catherine agrees to marry Bluebeard, moves into his castle (although insisting on separate bedrooms, initially), and is then faced with The Test, which of course is necessarily explicit in its allegorical aims. The "Bluebeard" story is almost like a gender-politics Rorschach test, pitting Eve-like faithlessness against savage patriarchal prerogative, seeing which one bothers you. But it's this transparency (and Breillat's unsurprising subversion of same) that makes Bluebeard both an object of admiration and a strangely extraneous gewgaw. With the exception of Creton's quite admirable waiflike tease, the performances are serviceable. Breillat's environments are dull brown and beige, "Masterpiece Theatre" meets Raul Ruiz on the cheap. The videography is flat. And so I find I'm left with a kind of nodding-approbation, "Yep, that was Bluebeard as done by Catherine Breillat" response, all I can muster for a decent film that, frankly, offered not a single surprise.