The lost, final Maysles film appeared online for a week during the Great Quarantine, was recommended by True/False enthusiast Alissa Wilkinson, so we watched. Filmed on eastbound and westbound legs of the Empire Builder railway route, so I had that Aesop Rock song in my head (“hi-ho silver, high-pass filter, live from an empire builder”). The movie picks up stories from several regular characters, with one-off scenes of riders in between, gradually building several cross-cut/cross-country journies – a woman going home to give birth, a woman returning to her family after years away, a couple of young men fleeing North Dakota to be with their loves, an aged photographer seeing the country for the last time… somehow all these people and more opened up to a camera crew on their train ride.
Perkins > Bacall > Gielgud > Connery > Cassel > Balsam > Roberts > Bisset >
Widmark > Hiller > Quilley > York > Bergman > Finney
Richard Widmark wakes up dead on a train, after asking detective Poirot to protect him the day before. Widmark was the mastermind of a heinous kidnapping in prologue, also a huge asshole, and it turns out all of the suspects had motives, each of them affected by his crime, and conspired to kill him together.
Languorously paced, and centered around Finney’s Mike Myers-like appearance and accent, it’s a near-disaster of a movie kept sporadically afloat by a few good scenes and performances, and a touching ending. Anthony Perkins was Widmark’s assistant – nervous, of course… Bergman is a timid religious fanatic who says “little brown babies” pretty often… Vanessa Redgrave is cute and smiley, having an affair with Sean Connery… Wendy Hiller in weird makeup and weird accent plays a princess.
Lumet made a lotta movies, more than forty and this was about the midpoint. The only other of his movies I’ve written about are his very first and his very last. Obviously a weird year for the oscars – Finney was nominated, Bergman won, and the whole list looks like New Hollywood and Old Hollywood in an ugly clash, trading awards between The Godfather II and The Towering Inferno.
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)
Opens with exciting abstractions, sunrise and shapes seen through blinds, then we catch a
train into Berlin and it chills out for a while, the depopulated city reminding me creepily of In My Room before people start to wake up and head to work (more trains), then the movie amps up again, the mass production lines looking very much like the ones I see on the Machine Pix twitter feed 100 years later. This movie probably works better as a city-story than Man with the Movie Camera does, though I love the fanciful effects and meta-scenes of the latter.
German Harold Lloyd:
In act II, telephone users and operators are compared to chattering monkeys and fighting dogs. I’d noticed a brief animal comparison in act I and shrugged it off, since a “symphony of a great city” wouldn’t do that to its people? Lunch, siesta, play – then hurry back to work, with a focus on newspapers. Motion of the day is exaggerated by strapping a camera to a rollercoaster.
Ruttmann died in WWII. He worked with Lotte Reiniger and Leni Riefenstahl, apparently knew Oskar Fischinger, and made a dream sequence in Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen. Music by Eisenstein collaborator Edmund Meisel, cinematography by Murnau’s DP Karl Freund, conceived by Caligari writer Carl Mayer – everyone in silent cinema knew each other.
I also watched Ruttmann’s earlier Opus series…
Opus I (1921)
Ghostly motion blobs against a dirty dark background
About four different motions, mirrored, colored and repeated
A third of the way through, new shapes and variations, and more at a time
Next part adds dyed searchlights and sun pendulums and tumblecubes
The shapes never quite interacting, just almost
Opus II (1921)
The same shapes on more charcoaly textures, and with more interaction between shapes
Black and white with some soft blue and a shock of red towards the end
Opus III (1924)
Some new cube overlays and color pulsations look almost 3D
Factory-machinery rectangles then a blue field with 3D blob rotation in the center
The same Red ending as II
Opus IV (1925)
Pulsing horizontal blinds with walking verticals mixed in later – faster and faster till pale purple blobs take over, then the traditional red ending. More advanced music on this one, by Helga Pogatschar – I hadn’t noticed that each film has a different musician. Rewatching the opening of Berlin, there are the blinds and the blobs, like a mini Opus V.
I had to open LNKarno with the Claire Simon film to tie it together with True/False, where she was last year’s True Vision Award winner. Cannes Month got interrupted by vacation this year, represented only by The Salesman and Bright Star, so I didn’t give LNKarno a time limit, just picked some selections and kept watching ’em until it felt over. Simon had two related films at the fest in 2013: the train station-set drama Gare du Nord in competition, and a documentary about people they met at the station, Human Geography, in the out-of-competition Fuori Concorso. It reminded me of the In the City of Sylvia double-feature, another doc/fiction pair set in the same spaces.
Gare du Nord stars Nicole Garcia, a filmmaker in competition four times at Cannes, also a star of Mon oncle d’Amérique and Duelle. Mathilde is taking trains to get treatment for an unspecified illness, and runs across the younger Ismael (Reda Kateb of A Prophet and the most recent Wim Wenders), who talks with people in the station for his sociology thesis. “When you’re here, you’re nowhere really, but at the same time it’s like a village square.” She’s a professor and shows some interest in his project, and he shows some interest in her (she’s married but we only see the husband once).
Meanwhile, a TV host (Francois Damiens of Les Cowboys, The Brand New Testament) has a missing daughter, hangs out at the station waving her photograph around and reluctantly taking photos with fans. A fellow student gets Ismael involved in a health services protest that aims to shut down train service. A giant unstable man wreaks havoc in a lingerie shop. Joan (Monia Chokri of a couple Xavier Dolan movies, this year’s Ravenous) is a harried realtor whose job is destroying her family, runs into each of the other characters. The movie ends abruptly with Mathilde’s offscreen death after some vaguely hippie plot contrivances lead the TV host to his missing daughter. Mostly it’s realistic, but sometimes there are ghosts.
Human Geography is a straightforward doc, the music and photography pretty basic, either the film or the DVD transfer turning black faces into smudges. Claire speaks with station workers and regulars, and also employs her friend Simon as an interviewer, meeting people from Tunisia and Mali and Brittany, Vietnam, Algeria, Cuba, USA, Mauritius, Iran, Congo. They talk with a couple of racist Belgians, and witness so much fare cheating at the turnstiles.
Simon, taking a breather after speaking with the Belgians:
The lingerie shop, the photomat, and at least one local (a diner worker with an economics degree who sells art online) appear in both movies. Gare du Nord didn’t come together for me, and the dialogue felt flat (maybe chalk that up to shady subtitles), and Human Geography is interesting enough – maybe if you’re a station regular who walks past the immigrant workers daily without considering their histories or inner lives it’d be extremely enlightening. Watching both movies in a row, though, is pretty great. Not to harp on the True/False connection, but the real stories in the doc suggest the sheer number of directions the feature could’ve taken – you could make a career’s worth of films in the station.
The opening scene sets up some teen school drama – girl who wants to fit in and act adult, lovestruck fool who obsesses over her, and his friends, the popular class president and their weirdo buddy Don. So it’s gonna be that kind of movie… except the lead girl (does she not have a name?) is gulping boozy drinks all at once, her throat bulging as they go down. The animation style keeps changing, and facial expressions extend off people’s heads when they get excited. It’s mentioned that the class president is famous for his cross-dressing and that Don hasn’t changed his underwear in six months. The lead dude lays out his scheme to follow the girl everywhere, bumping into her “by chance” until she thinks it’s fate that they should be together. Then she imagines she’s a train and cho-choos off into the night – this is all in the first four minutes. There’s singing and dancing, so I’m pretty sure it’s a sequel to Girl Walk: All Day.
Soon our girl is beating up a molester in another bar, meeting gamblers and gangsters and secret societies. She faces off against the droopy-eared elf leader of the criminal underworld, who she drinks under the table, the beginning of his rapid decline. There’s a nighttime book market with its own guardian spirit, a hallucinatory hot pot competition, the president using his panopticon to track down a guerrilla theater production rigged by Don Underwear to search for his missed-connection. I can’t tell if the movie believes in fate or is mocking its characters for believing in it. The night ends with everyone tired and sick, except our Girl, who delivers healing soup to everyone in town at once, Santa-like.
Don Underwear and his Apple Girl:
This feels more mainstream than Kate Plays Christine or Actress without compromising Greene’s interest in blurring the lines of performance, and while bringing up tons of new and timely issues. The photography is very good (some epic travelling shots, most notably when introducing our young star Fernando) and Greene has graduated from filming lone actresses to an entire town. I came in with high expectations and couldn’t be happier – this was the standout hit of True/False.
In July 1917, striking workers in an Arizona mining town were rounded up and herded out of the town, told they’d be killed if they returned. For the hundredth anniversary, Greene films a town-wide re-enactment of the event, as portrayed by locals with hundred-year roots, by ex-miners and their families, businessmen and government officials, and town newcomers. Few had heard of the “Deportation” before the anniversary committee got underway, but as they research their roles it leads to much discussion and some uncomfortable parallels to still-current problems – deportation and communist agitation were rearing their ugly heads again right as filming began. Two brothers whose grandfather exiled their great uncle play opposite sides, a friendly young dude plays an ambivalent miner who gets swayed to become a flag-waving striker, and a descendant of a town leader insists the deportation was right and necessary until the moment when he finds himself rallying his neighbors onto desert-bound railcars at gunpoint. Minds don’t exactly get changed, but people soften their hardline positions. The whole ensemble piece is beautifully assembled and shot in widescreen, cutting between documentary behind-the-scenes footage and staged-reenactment scenes without radically changing the visuals, breaking down the boundaries between them in true Greene-T/F style.
After lunch we went to the Journalism Institute on campus because we heard there was a Strong Island exhibit. It must have been closed on Sunday, but we came across this instead:
There’s a whole subgenre of action thrillers in which Liam Neeson’s family members get taken, with different spinoffs and variations (like Keanu Reeves’ dog getting taken), all of which I’ve been skipping. I probably would’ve skipped this too, but I was fifteen minutes late for The Square, and I’m saving The Post for Katy, and the vulgar auteurists who prompted my fruitful journey through the Resident Evil movies last summer are saying The Commuter is pure cinema, so fine. And they’re wrong, obviously, though their articles are a blast to read – it’s just a pretty good suspenseful movie where Liam kicks some ass and we forgive the ludicrous situation because we’re having a good time.
Liam is a good family man, ex-cop with a kid entering college and major money problems, especially today when he lost his wallet and his insurance job, so when he’s offered $100k to finger a witness on his daily train, he goes along at first, then discovers the people he’s working with are murderers covering for corrupt cops including his ex-partner Patrick Wilson. Various groups claim to be holding Liam’s wife Lady Grantham, but this turns out maybe not to be true – either way, Liam runs up and down the train, making enemies and alliances, eventually gathering everyone in one car and yelling at them while carrying a gun until things get sorted. This is all what I imagine the recent remake of Murder on the Orient Express was like, but with funnier mustaches. The opening montage detailing Liam’s daily family routine is excellent, and a massive train derailment scene was exciting if you get past the conductor’s little Titanic-like self-sacrifice dialogue. The super-happy post-hostage-situation wrap scene was a bit of a stretch. People are dead, a train is destroyed and Liam is supposedly holding hostages. The cop sent in to negotiate is killed. Then a couple minutes after a thousand police storm the train car and grab everybody, Liam is just allowed to go free because the other passengers say he’s a hero. Call me cynical, but I’d expect him to be taken away, beaten half to death and held as a terrorist for at least a few months.
Vera Farmiga (Up in the Air) is Liam’s contact, Sam Neill a cop boss, and Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth herself) a passenger. The crossover casting between this movie and Atomic Blonde (more deserving of the “pure cinema” label) is tough-looking fellow commuter Roland Møller. This is Collet-Serra’s fourth film where Liam Neeson is holding a gun on the poster, and I’m glad it’s working out for both of them – he also made The Shallows, which I’ve been meaning to watch some SHOCKtober.
Spoiler: there are zombies on the train to Busan. But there are suddenly zombies everywhere, and the train survivors aren’t sure whether it’s more dangerous in the zombie-infested train, or out in the zombie-infested world. The heart of the story, which doesn’t work nearly as well as The Host, to take another Korean family/supernatural-disaster movie as an example, is that workaholic dad Gong Yoo (The Age of Shadows) is a professional asshole and a shitty father to his daughter. During the course of the invasion, not only does he step up and learn to help people and work together, but we get a real panicky villain who needlessly kills others trying to save himself, making dad look even better in comparison.
L-R: Baseballer, Tough Guy, Hero Dad
There’s also a big tough dude and his pregnant wife, a high school baseballer and his girl Jin-Hee, the bedraggled survivor from outside, two older sisters, and one extremely dedicated train conductor. Once you get bit, the zombification escalates very quickly, so it’s all panic and chaos. The action is kinda poor, but the tension is great – especially when the group pictured above fights their way through to a car with the other survivors, then Panicky Villain Guy convinces the others that the newcomers can’t be allowed to stay.
Zombies can see better than they can hear:
The two sisters:
One train crash later, our Hero Dad finally gets zombie’d fighting off the villain, and the daughter makes it to Busan with the Tough Guy’s pregnant wife. I didn’t love the director’s animated The Fake – he bridged the two films with an animated zombie train movie called Seoul Station. He’s joined here by the cowriter of Hwayi: A Monster Boy.
A Brief History of Princess X (2016, Gabriel Abrantes)
“Hey guys, my name is Gabriel Abrantes and I’m the director of this little six-minute film” – probably the first movie I’ve seen with director’s commentary as the main audio. It’s the story of Princess X, the sculpture and the subject, with playful voiceover: the characters’ mute dialogue in semi-sync with Abrantes, the director laughing at the actions and commenting on the filmmaking. “Here we changed his costume so it would seem like time was passing. He just ended up looking like Fidel Castro.”
Princess X is undoubtedly a smart little film, and Abrantes wears his erudition lightly, possibly a little too much so. But in such a small space, he accomplishes several feats — things too modest to call “impressive,” per se, so let’s label them nifty. The film brings out the neurosis and below-the-belt impulses of modernism without turning it into a punchline, making “modern art” some sort of con. Abrantes follows tangents like a champ, following through when, for instance, our Spin the Phallus game lands us on Freud. But above all, he generates an uncanny sense of Victorian human puppetry from his performers, especially Joana Barrios as Marie Bonaparte. We find ourselves inside a weird, high-speed hybrid film, equal parts Guy Maddin and Raoul Ruiz. It’s something special.
Princess X (the marble version?) premiered in 1917 in the same show as Duchamp’s urinal, which grabbed all the headlines, postponing Brancusi’s own controversy until 1920, when the bronze version was censored in Paris. The marble is on display 200 yards from my office, and I visit it some afternoons.
Checked out Festivalscope for the first time with these next couple of shorts… great site, going to have to keep an eye on its new releases.
As Without So Within (2016, Manuela de Laborde)
I think it’s closeups on planetary stone objects. Sometimes we go too close, and the film is overrun with low-framerate grain, and sometimes we pull back with minor Lemony light changes. Soft static on the soundtrack, annoying. Some double exposures toward the middle. I liked the lighting, at least.
Played ND/NF 2017 and Toronto before that. Knew I’d heard about this somewhere – turns out it got six whole pages in Cinema Scope.
Although I didn’t want to make a film that’s about outer space per se, I do like the metaphor, and also the relation that it suggests between cinema and the theatre. We go into this neutral non-space and we have to make sense of these self-contained universes, with their own balance and rules and life of their own, which works according to a language or order that was born from these materials, and yet they are also just these floating bodies in the middle of a dark, empty room.
Spiral Jetty (2017, Ricky D’Ambrose)
Male narrator gets job working for the daughter of recently deceased, celebrated psychologist Kurt Blumenthal, documenting his papers and tapes. Narrator is the last person to get to see the full collection before the daughter and her conductor husband (played by n+1’s film critic) suppress and destroy certain things (such as “the papers from the maoists”) before it’s all sold to a university. The short premiered just a week before I watched it online, does some things I like with editing and sound, and has an interesting focus on objects (news articles, handwritten notes, photographs). Dan Sallitt gets thanked in this film and Ben Rivers in the previous one, and both of these connections make sense to me.
In a Brooklyn Magazine interview, D’Ambrose reveals that his family’s own home movies substituted for Blumenthal’s. He’s working on a feature called Notes on an Appearance. “The shorts exist because the feature existed before them: each short was an attempt to solve certain aesthetic and conceptual problems that I’ve been thinking about ever since I started writing An Appearance.”
Arm, Flexion, Extension (2011, Bea Haut)
A white wall is painted black from a few tripod setups, while light shapes flicker across the “haphazardly hand processed 16mm film” over the sound of projector noise. On International Women’s Day, Michael Sicinski posted links to seventy female filmmakers’ Vimeo pages and I picked this one at random… the idea was to watch a bunch more, but I haven’t gotten to that yet, just cataloguing them for later.
Moxon’s Mechanick Exercises (1999, David Gatten)
Bible pages and words and letters flash and scroll past, with various levels of enlargement and exposure and opacity and speed, flickering by in different ways, maybe according to the Moxon quote before each section. I was annoyed when I realized it would be all silent text on screen, then I improved things by playing the Monotonprodukt album, against the Wishes and Intentions of the filmmaker. He probably also didn’t intend for me to watch a VHS transfer on an HDTV, or to pause the movie halfway through because my mom called, but that’s life in this 21st Century.
Sicinski in Cinema Scope:
Portions of the Biblical texts are affixed to the film, lifted from their source with cellophane tape after Gatten has boiled the books. We see the ink, hanging together in atomic word-forms like nervous constellations, mottled and wavering in thickness. The Word, indeed, is made flesh.
Secret History of the Dividing Line (2002, David Gatten)
The first five minutes were fun, flipping through a timeline of events, pausing on the biographical details of William Byrd and his expedition to determine the border between Virginia and North Carolina (very Lost City of Z), and this time I knew to start the Monotonprodukt album right away. But then a scroll of the two versions of the Dividing Line publication take over the screen, with a vertical-mask Dividing Line switching between them… this part was mostly unreadable in my SD copy. The text ends and the screen flickers and lights up with horizontal noise patterns, often weirdly in sync with my music.
If I’m reading a Wexner Center program correctly, this is part one and Moxon’s is part three of the same project (“the Byrd films”). Michael Sicinski’s article on Gatten in Cinema Scope 49 is the best, and makes me want to seek out more by Gatten, even though I’ve only found these subpar video copies so far.
A Train Arrives at the Station (2016, Thom Andersen)
Clips from train scenes in movies, using their own sound, including some of my favorite movies (Shanghai Express, Dead Man) and memorable scenes (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). Feels like this was meant to go with a speech or discussion of some sort, because otherwise I don’t see the point of it… I mean, I like trains in film as much as the next guy, so it’s enjoyable at least.
News From Home, perhaps? No source credits, so I can’t be sure.
From The Drain (1967, David Cronenberg)
A comedy sketch in a bathtub, scored with Renaissance acoustic guitar, Hat Guy doing his exasperated theater-guy voice while Glasses Guy mutely grins at him. References to “the war” and a veteran’s center, where the two either work or are patients, then Glasses guy warns of murderous tendrils coming from the drain, and is eventually strangled by them (or a stop-motion phone cord). It’s silly, and surprisingly not the only Cronenberg movie to be shot entirely in a bathroom, but he does an effectively strange thing, swapping positions of the two guys in the tub but acting like it’s normal continuity cutting.