We were lucky. The cold front that had swept through most of the US in January receded on time, so we could enjoy the relatively mild weather, and even sunshine glittering on the snow, while waiting in line to be admitted into theatres. There were no highlights like last year’s Beast of the Southern Wild (that, launched at Sundance has continued a triumphant career from Un Certain Regard to Oscar nominations), but a high proportion of female directors and first-time directors. Last year, for the first time, an African American woman, Ava DuVernay, had won the Best Director Award for Middle of Nowhere, and this year the Grand Jury Prize: US Dramatic (as well as the Audience Award) went to a 26 year-old African American director, Ryan Coogler, for Fruitvale. It is difficult to be critical of a film with such a cathartic impact: many black spectators were in tears. On New Year’s Day in 2009, in the Bay Area’s Fruitvale subway station, a white policeman shot a 22 year-old black man, Oscar Grant. The film goes to great lengths to present Oscar as a sympathetic, lovely man, first by casting charismatic Michael B. Jordan (of The Wire and All My Children fame), as the protagonist. Oscar tries to get his life back together after a stint in jail (probably for drug dealing); even though he loses his job due to lateness, he is a good family man, caring for his Latina girlfriend (Melonie Diaz), doting on his little daughter and being a good son to his mother (Academy Award and Golden Globe Award winner Octavia Spencer, who is also executive producer of the film). Oscar has enough family ties, enough good friends, and enough drive to overcome his flaws to be immensely relatable. So when he’s shot for no reason, just for being a young black man in a public space, we care, we are angry, we are sad.
Competently pulling all the stops for sympathy, outrage and identification, Fruitvale addresses the American mainstream, and will probably fare very well at the box office. I do not doubt the sincerity of the project, but it fits too snugly within what often passes for political discourse in the United States: sentimentalism, embracing the cause of “good people”, defining policies on emotional terms rather than analysing of the socio-political forces at play. Interestingly, while Coogler rightly affirms that “the case changed the Bay area forever”, the film stops with a brief mention of the demonstrations that followed the murder. Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), while crafting an endearing portrait of the protagonist that every gay man could rout for and cry with, was careful to present his murder as part and parcel of a larger social phenomenon, to delve into the background and possible motives of the killer, and to show how the community organised itself to protest the murder. Born and raised in Oakland, and a counsellor for at-risk-kids in a juvenile hall in San Francisco, Coogler lovingly describes a community he knows well – African American people on both sides of the BART in the Bay Area – as well as the streets, apartments, shopping areas, and spectacular seaside landscapes they inhabit. It make me regret even more that the community’s vibrancy is only represented by a few likeable individuals, and not by the activists and protesters who took to the streets after Oscar’s death.
Coogler is not to blame, he is in the wake of a national trend that requires us to have sympathy for the victims of injustice because they are good people, which is problematic. The life of a thief, a pimp or a drug addict has the same value than that of an “innocent man”. Rodney King was no saint, and yet the reaction to his beating started one of the most important socio-political events of the 1990s. The death penalty is not wrong because innocent people could be put to death, it is wrong even if applied against a murderer. A white policeman does not have the right to shoot a young man black, even if the latter turned to be an asshole. The problem is systemic, societal and political, not personal.
Brooklyn, New York
At a time when CGI invades the cinematic image, the best gift that truly independent cinema can still offer us is an inspired tour of actual locations. Mother of George introduces us to little-documented quarters of the African diaspora, the Yoruba community living in Brooklyn. Spending his life between Lagos, Nigeria (the country of his birth) and New York City, Andrew Dosunmu started his career in fashion design before demonstrating a knack for filming black bodies in American cities through Hot Irons (1999), a documentary about African American hair salons in Detroit preparing for a major hair styling competition. With Restless City (2011), shown at Sundance two years ago, and whose allure owes a lot to cinematographer Bradford Young, he followed a young musician from Senegal eking a living in the mean city-on-the-Hudson, an African James Dean called Djibril on the boulevard of broken dreams. If there is a parallel between Dennis Stock’s famous portrait of the “rebel without a cause” on Times Square and the aesthetics of Dosunmu/Young, it is, beyond the clarity of the composition, the interplay between the urban landscape and the mood of the character, and it is such an interplay that Dosunmu’s second collaboration with Young revisits in Mother of George.
Originally from Upper Volta, the Yoruba spread mostly to Nigeria, but also Benin and Togo, and built the rich and powerful Oyo Empire in the 17th and 18th centuries, that dissolved under the double assault of intercine wars and arrogant colonialism. Modern immigration started in the 1980s, when the socio-political unrest pushed Nigerians to leave their country en masse, to the point that the US now has the second largest Nigerian community in the world. A hard-working small restaurant owner, Ayodele Balogun has finally made enough money to get married. Casting Isaach de Bankole in the part was an inspired and accurate move: the actor we have enjoyed in the films of Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch and Pedro Costa (1) was born in Ivory Coast, but his family comes from Benin, and before this, Nigeria, which means he’s probably a Yoruba himself. There is more. Isaach de Bankole haunts contemporary cinema like an unassimilable body. With all his talent and charisma, commercial recognition has often eluded him; like the African community in the US, he has often been reduced to states of invisibility, and his powerful and subtle performance in Mother of George expresses this tension. Ayodele is bigger than his surroundings, bigger than his destiny, but, with a grace echoing that of the dying Boxer in White Material, accepts to yield centre stage. Not without a fight. The title summarises his position, while sealing the tragedy: the film is not about him, it’s about the woman he marries, Adenike (Zimbabwean American actress/playwright Danai Gurira), (2) who becomes the main protagonist; and it’s about George, the yet-unborn son she is supposed to carry for him. By celebrating a marriage according to Yoruba rites, Ayodele reconnects with his traditions, with his cultural pride, with the past glory of the empire. He and his bride, sumptuously dressed, become king and queen. Their wedding night is an enchantment, their love is sweet and warm. It was worth saving for years. And now a son will crown their happiness.
Yet the son does not come; Adenike can’t get pregnant. She is a young black woman living in Brooklyn, wearing African dresses and finding joy in cooking for her husband. Around her, though, modern life unfolds, subways are running, her best girlfriend wears western clothes. Like the layers of the shimmering fabrics that covered the bodies of the newlywed, the plot of Mother of George is alluring and complex, taking a turn, and then another. It segues into the rift that separates husband and wife, proud tradition versus timid modernity, then, through the formidable intervention of the matriarch, Ma Ayo (Nollywood veteran actress Bukky Ajayi), (3) morphs into a family melodrama, with the gravitas of an ancient Yoruba tale. Once there was a young bride, very much in love, but barren. Or so it seemed. Maybe her husband was the one who couldn’t conceive. Then, forces stronger than the frail destiny of an individual are invoked by the matriarch. This is New York City in the 21st century, when people have as much claim for individual happiness as for the welfare of the family/clan, when a woman struggles with language and a new desire of “telling the truth”, US style. In Africa, the “truth” would have been more mythological, safeguarding the harmony of the family romance. Instead of making him a happy father, the solution imposed by Ma Ayo turns Ayodele into an angry, violent man, refusing his mother’s decision (which a good Yoruba son never does). The cultural clash is brutal; none of the characters know in which space they belong anymore, a dilemma symbolised by Adenike running heavily pregnant in the streets or Ayodele brutally lowering the iron gate of his restaurant, separating himself from his surroundings. As the protagonists are acutely experiencing their uprooting, is there any room for little George to come to the world?
Bradford Young shoots the protagonists tightly – generally with a small aperture and longer focal length – capturing details, the reflection of light on black skin, the texture of fabrics; Brooklyn in a subject in the film, but ever so slightly remote, a little blurry in the background, an urban setting that is as much dreamt, feared and misunderstood as it is inhabited. An African American DP, Young made ripples two years ago at Sundance for his work on Dee Rees’s Pariah and Restless City. (4) Last year he was DP for Middle of Nowhere. (5) This year he received the Cinematography Award for his work on both Mother of George and David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
In Sundance’s catalogue, Lowery simply defines himself, as “a filmmaker from Texas”. Texas has indeed been the setting for the five shorts and the award-winning feature St. Nick (2009) he has written, directed and edited (and, in some cases, shot himself) since 2000. Lowery’s name also appears in credit lists in a variety of capacities, but mostly as an editor or co-editor (including this, he has edited 27 titles) for recent films that have significantly changed the US indie landscape, most notably Amy Seimetz’s Sun Don’t Shine (see my AFM/AFI report in this issue), Kris Swanberg’s Empire Builder (2012, for which he was also the DP), as well as two Sundance entries, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Yen Tan’s Pit Stop (see below).
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints starts on the close-up of a woman, Ruth Guthrie (Rooney Mara), walking away from a house, walking away from a man, Bob Muldoon (Casey Affleck), in an empty rural stretch. The man runs after her, violently pleading, and manages to bring her back home. You understand that these two people are terribly in love but keep fighting, hurting each other, and then making up. They are on the margins of society, dirt poor, and so the idea to stage a robbery comes naturally, especially since they need money, as Ruth is pregnant. Lowery and Young combine efforts to craft a moody impressionist tone; expository or transition scenes, as well as major dramatic turns, are elided; a sophisticated elliptic strategy mostly presents the small moments that come after or before action or melodrama. The botched robbery is not shown, we cut to Ruth and Rob holed in their house, their accomplice killed by police bullets. Ruth shoots at a deputy and wounds him. When they are finally arrested, Rob, in a Hitchcockian turn, takes the blame. He is sentenced to a long prison term. Ruth, acquitted, gives birth to a daughter, Sylvie, and keeps waiting for her man to come back.
Rob manages to escape (a feat kept off-screen), and starts roaming the Texan landscape, with the hope of being reunited with Ruth. We see him in front of a passing freight train, and then, after a jump cut, inside the wagon. It soon becomes clear that should he try to contact Ruth, the police, on the lookout, will locate him easily. The entire state of Texas becomes a metaphor for the tantalising distance that separates the lovers. Rob finds shelter with a black friend, Sweetie (Nate Parker), but eventually has to move on. When parting, the two men know they will never see each other again.
The film defines two temporalities, two forms of longing, like musical variations. Rob gets deeper and deeper into the gritty solitude of the badlands, in derelict hiding places that still bear the mark of the Old West, getting further from civilised life and closer to a showdown with mysterious bounty hunters. Meanwhile, Ruth is living in a house provided by an equally mysterious older man, Skerritt (a nice turn by Keith Carradine), in the tender, feminine world of her interaction with Sylvie, and Patrick (Ben Foster – who also plays a dry-as-parched land William Burroughs in John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings – see below), the deputy she once wounded (but is unaware that she is the one who shot him) is sweet on her. Only at night, do the musical lines of the protagonists’ fantasy go across the vast expanse of land, dreaming of an impossible reunion – giving a lyrical expression to the exquisite, lingering pain of romantic longing.
Lowery has co-editing credits on Upstream Color, the much-anticipated second film of his fellow Texan Shane Carruth, (6) shot in and around Dallas, that garnered The U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Sound Design, before receiving its international premiere in Berlin’s Panorama section and being shown in New Directors/New Films in New York. Acted by a superb Amy Seimetz and Carruth himself, it is another story of longing between a man and a woman treading over an improbable space. Here the obstacles are unspecified – one is given fragments of a plot designed to modify the environment. Kris (Seimetz) is drugged, kidnapped, her body tampered with, her life taken over, and she is lost until she meets a man, Jeff (Carruth) who seems to be victim of the same obscure forces.
While the unravelling of the plot is cryptic, what makes Upstream Color special is that, in every twist and turn, we find the imprint of an original vision: Carruth wrote, co-produced, directed, shot and co-edited the film, and composed the music as well. The labyrinthine mode of storytelling conjures the cinema of Raúl Ruiz or David Lynch: vistas are open, but then blocked; space is identifiable, and then shifts under your feet; past and present mingle, with large spans of amnesia obfuscating the past and repetitive patterns redefining the notion of what “the present” is. A woman walks toward her husband as he is about to reach the door. She says she’s sorry that they can’t talk, she’ll try to do better. The same exchange is reproduced, with various camera angles/framing, about a dozen times, encapsulating the absurd, sad story of a marriage. At the other end of the spectrum, Kris and Jeff twice witness bevies of birds flying above a deserted country path; the birds are the same, but are the moments the same, or, by virtue of being inserted into different points of the narrative chain, do they denote a progression in the plot, a novel way of looking? Upstream Color’s reference to Henri David Thoreau’s Walden adds another layer: what is the relevance of American transcendentalism in a world of genetic manipulations, massive pollution and destruction of the environment by transnational corporations? Thoreau played and continued to play a role in the US cinematic avant-garde: Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney quote him, while, more recently, James Benning reconstructed Walden’s cabin in the Sierra Nevada.
So, while being precisely structured (Carruth has a background as a mathematician and software engineer), Upstream Color does not accept a fixed meaning. It is an experiential film, which each spectator is invited to (de)construct in his/her mind, a puzzle whose pieces won’t fit, but create an alluring design every time you try. It is also a multi-faceted experiment reformulating questions posed by cinema at its origins: What can a body do? What does filming a body mean? How can we create fiction by filming real bodies in real space? Carruth lends his own body to the experiment, not out of narcissism, but more like how Gregory Markopoulos would appear in his own “trance films”. On the other hand, Seimetz’s body is the vector through which a sense of vertigo permeates the picture: her mixture of poise and vulnerability, the tampering she may have been subjected to, her incapability to recall, her wandering in a space that has become alien. Upstream Color does not answer the questions it poses, but spells them in a lyrical tone, like an intoxicating poem.
All the Real Texas
Co-written with David Lowery, Pit Stop is as much about longing as Bodies Saints, with the Texan landscape functioning as that which keeps desiring bodies apart – but Yen Tan does not romanticise vast expanses of land: he shot the film in a 30 mile radius around Austin, in small towns (Bastrop, Dripping Springs, Lockhart) that register between 1,500 and 12,000 inhabitants each, imbued with a solid blue-collar culture tinged with homophobia. To the uninitiated, pit stop suggests a place where you get stuck, and this is indeed the impression one gets by watching the main protagonists, as well as the people around them. Gaby (Bill Heck), is recovering from a break-up while trying to be present in the life of his ex-wife, Shannon (Amy Seimetz) so they can raise their young daughter, Cindy, together; Shannon is supportive, but sometimes loneliness gets the best of her. Affection and physical tenderness are lingering between the two, and that still hurts. Ernesto (Marcus DeAnda) is disentangling himself from a non-working cohabitation with a confused, younger man, Luis (Alfredo Maduro), and makes regular visits to the bedside of a former lover in a coma for months, reading him articles from Cosmopolitan as he liked to do. Both Gaby and Ernesto have to watch their backs, to make sure their double life is safe from co-workers, clients, neighbours or waitresses. When Gaby suspects that Shannon may have discussed his homosexuality with their daughter’s schoolteacher, Chase (Richard C. Jones), he is furious; in fact, Chase’s “gaydar” had just spotted him, and he wanted a bit of human connection, somebody to talk to about his own recent break-up.
In car racing competitions, a pit stop is a place to refuel, check the engine, change tires or switch driver if necessary. In everyday slang, to make a pit stop means to take a bathroom break in the middle of an alcoholised party, or conversely, to take an alcohol break during a trip. Gay slang adds a level of double entendre: to make a pit stop denotes stopping in front of a glory hole (pierced through the pane separating two stalls in the men’s room) for an anonymous quickie. Ten Yan got the idea for the film while driving back and forth between Dallas and Houston, stopping in gas stations in-between, and wandering what the lives of people, especially gay men, could be there.
A Malaysian Chinese, Yen emigrated to Texas when he was 19, and has lived there for the last 19 years. The four shorts and two features (Happy Birthday ; and Ciao ) he has directed since 2001 have been mostly shown in LGBT film festivals, and Pit Stop will probably play very well in such events; but, programmed in the non-competitive Next section of Sundance (smaller, edgy films), it was well received and could prove to be a cross-over. Yen casts a sympathetic anthropological gaze to capture the small gestures, the short but regular encounters that make life in a small town. The perfunctory friendliness of these parts is a cloak thrown over countless stories of mis-connections, for gay and straight people alike, such as the awkward evening spent by a drunken Shannon in the company of a painfully shy colleague, Weston (John Merriman). The worse thing, when you are gay, is to not be able to get affectionate in daylight: after spending a very good night and a pleasant breakfast together, two men say goodbye in the street. “You can call me any time…” A kiss here would be in the order of things, and they’re aching for one. It cannot happen. Yet, in the hours preceding their parting, they may have found the strength for a new beginning (new fuel, new driver?).
Before segueing into mainstream “stoner” comedy with Pineapple Express (2008) and Your Highness (2011), David Gordon Green had delighted us with George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003) and Snow Angels (2004); it is also around Bastrop that he shot Prince Avalanche, a return to his independent roots. In 2011, wildfires devastated the area, and the scorched remnants of pine trees and houses function as an echo of the similar catastrophe of 1988, the year the story is supposed to take place. (7)
What we love in Gordon Green is his sympathetic depiction of the confusion, sexual or otherwise, of characters moored in the ambiguous confines of a small town in mid-America. Here he refines and tightens his style, creating a no-exit situation outdoors, with a minimalist interchange between two men, Alvin (an excellent Paul Rudd) and the younger Lance (Emile Hirsch). They have been hired to repaint yellow lines on the roads in the midst of the pine forest; they bring their painting equipment and gear in small trucks, and camp out in the wild; “the city” is a distant off-screen space not even visible on the horizon, only brought into the diegesis through language: the letters Alvin is writing to his girlfriend Madison, Lance’s sister, and later the phone conversation he has with her. Hilariously, it is represented in the account Lance gives of his weekend back home, trying to get laid, messing up things, being a bore and finally startled by an unexpected turn of events.
The ebb and flow of the relationship between the two men, who get on each other’s nerves from the beginning (Alvin endorsing the role of reluctant mentor, Lance wilfully immature and sex-obsessed, chafing under the control of his elder), is only slightly interrupted by the intervention of two other characters: a truck driver (veteran character actor Lance LeGault, 1935-2012) who boisterously bursts into their work shift with offerings of strong booze and tales of past amorous woes; and a pleasantly mild-mannered older woman (Joyce Payne) Alvin encounters in the ruins of her former home; she is searching for her pilot’s license, the only proof she has that in her youth she flew planes. Then she disappears.
Her vanishing, occurring during Lance’s escapade in “the city”, is the first sign that Gordon Green is aiming at something larger than the realistic description of two oddly matched guys in the wild. As gradually, reluctantly, inadvertently, Alvin and Lance reveal a little more about themselves, the splendid and desolate space they inhabit becomes almost magical, as an enchanted circle with its own laws of time and space. Their work is always the same, it seems not to advance, they are getting nowhere; time itself turns out to be cyclical. The truck driver returns, with more booze. There seems to be a woman in the cockpit. No, there was never any woman there. We catch a glimpse of her on the road before she disappears again: she was “the lady” Alvin met earlier. A ghost? Since the 2011 wildfires are a stand-in for the 1988 catastrophe, could this mirroring effect be the structure of the diegesis rather than a convenient mise en scène device?
There is nothing in the men’s clothing or their equipment that indicates a specific period. Maybe they have been painting the same road since 1988, having the same conversations, the same hang-ups, the same altercations. Maybe Madison does not exist, maybe Lance never went to the city. And so, what is the film about? Masculinity. And what is masculinity about? First, how you relate to other men – and we see plenty of this in Prince Avalanche. Second, how you relate to women – Madison, Lance’s occasional girlfriends or the trucker’s ex-wife are the vanishing point of every conversation, every silent musing, every effort. Alvin works so hard, puts up with Lance and keeps “improving himself” to be worthy of Madison’s love and to support her and her kid. Third, masculinity is about “doing your job” as a man – which, from Howard Hawks to Italian neorealism to the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman, has been one of cinema’s preferred way to show the lengths that men can go to prove themselves.
Filming work well is often what separates the wheat from the chaff, and, apart from an excursion into drunken goofiness (during which our protagonists misuse work equipment and paint supply), Gordon Green passes the test. Whether a sassy variation on the “buddy movie” or a surreal tale, Prince Avalanche is first and foremost about two men at work, which effortlessly manages an elegant balance: staging an abstract situation (some have even compared it to Waiting for Godot) while realistically filming (thanks to a superb cinematography by Tim Orr, Gordon Green’s regular DP) an actual stripe of the Texan landscape and the physicality of labour. The psychological accuracy of these male portraits comes from the way they move into the space, rather than being dependent on dialogue – as a result, we care for them deeply.
Space Lost and Regained
Prince Avalanche was shown out of competition, in the Premieres section, in order to be eligible for an Award at the Berlinale – where it deservedly received the Silver Bear for Best Directing. Park Chan-wook’s Stoker was a Premiere as well, as it had been scheduled as the Closing Night in Rotterdam. Produced by Fox Searchlight (Scott Free Productions, the late Tony Scott and Ridley Scott share producing credits), this was the first US film of the Korean director mostly known for his “vengeance trilogy”: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (Boksuneun naui geot, 2002), Oldboy (Oldeuboi, Grand Jury Prize at Cannes 2003) and Sympathy for Lady Vengeance (Chinjeolhan geumjassi, 2005). Park brought the DP Chung-hoon Chung, his regular cinematographer since Oldboy, but the rest of the talent was provided by the producers, from the stars to ace production designer Thérèse DePrez (wooed by hardcore indies as well as studio executives), including the actor Wentworth Miller, who signs here his first screenplay (and gets a production credit). Park’s mise en scène is brilliant, and Nicole Kidman is simply remarkable in the difficult part of a frivolous widow, an emotionally immature mother, who goes from extremes of charm and superficiality to dark levels of anger and vulnerability. In one of her best moments, she confronts her teenage daughter India (Mia Wasikowska) by hurling harsh words about why people have children.
For all the talent involved, Stoker does not transcend the limitations of a well-financed studio project. While endowed with the right amount of suspense, hidden skeletons, double crossing and murderous psychosis, Miller’s screenplay exemplifies what’s wrong in so many contemporary American films: the conceit that everything takes place in a middle-class or upper-middle family house – a stand-in for the American dream, I suppose – disconnected from social and historical reality. The plot echoes that of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943): a bored teenage girl falls in love with her mysterious uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who charms the pants out of everyone around him but conceals a dark secret. The similitude stops here. Crafted by Thornton Wilder (the playwright of Our Town), Sally Benson and Hitchcock’s wife, Alma Reville, Shadow’s family dynamics was engulfed in the pre-war atmosphere of the small town of Santa Rosa, California. Miller structures Stoker’s plot around a simple mirroring effect (India becoming Charlie), while Hitchcock created complex correspondences – from teenage Charlie’s identifying with her uncle to the way murderous tendencies can morph into the trivial hang-ups of a seemingly debonair town. There is no town in Stoker; the family mansion stands in splendid isolation; even the high school India attends is shown only from the outside, as a pack of pubescent boorish boys.
When shooting in Korea, Park usually contributes to the screenplay of his films, that, in turn, show some engagement with the real world, albeit at in a dazzlingly abstract form. In Oldboy, for example, the protagonist is originally kidnapped in the 1980s; at the time, South Korea was under a harsh military dictatorship, during which people indeed disappeared in jail for 15 years or more – and then were completely lost when they came out. Such metaphorical grounding is absent from Stoker, which, despite its claim of belonging to the American gothic genre, cannot hide the fact that all its brilliance is running on empty.
There are very few moments of brilliance in another Premiere-saved-for-a-major-European-festival screening, another commissioned project, Lovelace. Co-directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are no strangers to Sundance (or to Berlin for this matter, as both festivals are known to be gay-friendly); Epstein first got noticed with The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), then started to collaborate with Friedman on a string of documentaries that shaped the media history of the LGBT community: Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt (1989), The Celluloid Closet (1996) and Paragraph 175 (2000). They did a credible, if sometimes flawed, job on their first dramatic feature, Howl (2010), a biopic of Allen Ginsberg, casting James Franco in the part: their documentary background allowed them to retain the flavour of the beat era. Lovelace, on the other hand, is the uncritical adaptation of Ordeal (1980), the third autobiography written (in collaboration with Newsday journalist Mike McGrady) by the former star of Deep Throat at the time she was starting a new career as an anti-pornography activist.
Born Linda Susan Boreman (1949-2002), she received the moniker Lovelace when she entered the porn industry, under extreme pressure, she later contended, from her abusive then-husband, Chuck Traynor. Even though her total output as an actress amounts to about five hours of screen time, she was the most popular porn star of the 1970s, due to the phenomenal success of Deep Throat (1972), the first US porn film to be reviewed by mainstream critics, play in regular theatres and be praised by the intelligentsia. There was more than a succés de scandale, boosted by an obscenity trial; the US was in the midst of a sexual revolution, and Deep Throat, while objectifying the female body, was addressing issues of female desire. In her first two autobiographies, Inside Linda Lovelace (1974) and The Intimate Diary of Linda Lovelace (1974, co-written with Carl Wallin), Boreman writes that being a porn star was a liberating experience; however, in Ordeal she asserts that the first book was in fact written by Traynor; she does not mention the second. (8)
It would be difficult, with such an enticing premise, to make a borderline boring movie: this is, alas, what happens with Lovelace in spite of the talent of its cast: an excellent Peter Sarsgaard as the charming monster who violently pimps his wife into pornography and forced prostitution; in the title role, a pleasant Amanda Seyfried, who seesaws between perkiness and outraged melancholia; a remarkable bit by James Franco as a lascivious Hugh Hefner (Playboy’s publisher). It is, however, impossible to ignore how Lovelace follows a disturbing trend, in which the sexual, cultural and societal radicalism of the 1960s and 1970s is now subjected to scrutiny and criticised as phoney, erroneous or even frankly evil. The reversal is particularly acute when it concerns the rights of women: (9) Norma McCorvey, who was the real “Jane Roe” behind the historical 1973 “Roe v. Wade” Supreme Court decision to legalise abortion, is now an anti-abortion activist. (10) The issue is further complicated by the puritanical component of mainstream American feminism (which originated not only in the suffragette movement, but also in the temperance leagues). When Boreman came out with stories of violent abuse, beatings, threats at gun point, and gang rape, she found supporters in Gloria Steinem (who, played by Sarah Jessica Parker, ended up in the cutting room), Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon (whose radical feminism does not appear in the film, even though MacKinnon is credited as an adviser). Epstein and Friedman are not interested in reproducing the public discourse and the mass movement around Boreman’s allegations; they turn her into a victimised angel, a heroine of self-redemption, missing what made the Lovelace case so compelling.
Deep Throat was fun and cool because it allowed you to have your cake while, err, eating it. It gratified men’s desires for skilful, prolonged fellatio, while acknowledging women’s right to clitoral orgasm (since the heroine’s clitoris is conveniently located deep in her throat). It also boosted the US porn film industry, populated with colourful characters such as Gerard Damiano (Deep Throat director, played by Hank Azaria), yet the porn milieu feels strangely remote in Lovelace. The film remains at the surface, showing the tip of the iceberg, the sexual misfortunes of a pretty girl we are supposed to feel sorry for. Like a non-musical version of Les Misérables (in which, appropriately, Seyfried plays the waif Cosette), Lovelace is a sob story in search of a real space to get grounded.
Also shown as a Premiere, Michael Polish’s Big Sur may suffer from the opposite problem, as its major selling point (thanks to his regular DP, M. David Mullen) is the splendid rendering of the Northern California landscapes and seaside where, still trying to make sense of the unexpected success of On the Road (1957), Jack Kerouac came to seek peace and inspiration in-between alcoholic binges. Often working in collaboration with his twin brother, Mark, Polish has imposed his original cinematic vision with his first film Twin Falls Idaho (1999), and since then has completed eight independently produced feature films, some more successful than others, but always with a distinctive touch. Beautifully acted by Lars von Trier’s fetish actor Jean-Marc Barr as Kerouac, Big Sur is one of his best films, and, if anything, is a bit too respectful of the original novel, with a voice-over carrying us along. Yet it grows on you, conveying a subtle melancholia born from the juxtaposition between the splendour of nature – a glimpse at eternity – and the toll taken by time on the youthful macho posturing of the beat generation.
Some twelve years after Kerouac coined the term, the angels of the fast life on the road have aged; played by Josh Lucas, Neal Cassady, the object of desire for men and women (who was to die at 42, six years after the completion of the novel), struggles with a blue-collar job to support his family, cheats on his wife Carolyn (Radha Mitchell) with a girl, Billie (Kate Bosworth), whom he cannot help introducing to his best friend, Kerouac. They all convene in the cabin lent to them by poet/publisher (and founder/owner of the legendary City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco) Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Anthony Edwards), where Kerouac endeavours to mess things up more than once: not being able to get off the booze, stealing Billie from Cassady, introducing her to Carolyn (increasing the already-existing rift in the Cassady marriage), and then breaking off with her, unable to respond to her love. Men are mortal, so are literary utopias.
Capsules of Space and Time
Yet they live on at Sundance, where the legacy of the beat generation has inspired several films through the years. An old dream come true for its director, John Krokidas, who spent years raising the money (the film was eventually produced by Killer Films, Christine Vachon’s production company), Kill Your Darlings returns to 1944, at the time of the meeting between Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe, shedding his Harry Potter virginity to embody an icon of sexual iconoclasm), Lucien Carr (an alluring Dane DeHan), William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston).
“Each Man Kills The Things He Loves” sings Jeanne Moreau in a key scene of Querelle (1982), Fassbinder’s last film; the song’s lyrics come from Oscar Wilde’s 1897 poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written after his two-year imprisonment for “homosexual offenses”, and Krokidas’ title seems to convey a similar melancholy, tinted with the mischievousness of the beat rebellion. The mythology of impossible homosexual love, the sexual fetishisation of sailors lives, the cult of artistes maudits, coexist with the desire to recreate the places and atmosphere of the time: America at the tail end of the war and on the verge of momentous cultural changes, with its jazz clubs in Greenwich villages and mixed-race parties in Harlem. As such, Kill Your Darlings is also a film about New York, as Krokidas shot some scenes in Columbia University’s Beaux Arts campus, the neo-classical style building of the Low Memorial Library, as well as the adjacent streets in the Morningside Heights area of Manhattan, where the architecture has not changed much and the old dorms still stand.
Kill Your Darlings does not necessary imply that 19 year-old Lucien Carr – the boy too handsome, too flamboyant, too talented for his own good – killed 33 year-old David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), out of love, but that Ginsberg had to kill his infatuation for Lucien – symbolised by the fact he gracefully accepted, at the latter’s request, to delete his name from the dedication of Howl (1956). (11) The full story could not be told until Carr’s death in 2005; he had married, had three children and for more than four decades was a respected editor at United Press International.
In 1944, in the dorms of Columbia University where he has just arrived from his native New Jersey, Allan Ginsberg, then 18, met Lucien Carr, who was brilliant, sardonic, identified with Rimbaud, but, unable to write himself, was paying fellow students or men such as Kerouac, to write his academic papers. One of his ghostwriters was David Kammerer, with whom he entertained complex and opportunistic relationships. Kammerer had been in love with Carr since the latter was 15 years old – and it is unclear whether it was a clear-cut case of stalking or if Carr was a confused young man uncomfortable with his own homosexual desires. After a failed attempt to join the Merchant Marine with Kerouac, he found himself facing Kammerer in Riverside Park at night, stabbed him and then threw his body into the Hudson River. Once in jail, he asked Ginsberg to write the narrative the judge had requested, to be used for his defence. Ginsberg found it ethically impossible to draft what was expected of him: making a case for “honour slaying” – a heterosexual man defending himself against the unwanted advances of a queer predator. It is in this painful refusal that Krokidas sees the birth of Allen Ginsberg, the poet and activist. Every man kills…
Winner of the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award (U.S. Dramatic) and actress/writer/director Lake Bell’s debut feature, In A World is the sassy portrait of the unsung community of voiceover artists and voice coaches, living on the fringe of the “industry”, never basked in Oscar glory, but with its own rules, hierarchy and Life Achievement ceremonies. Our heroine, Carol Solomon (played by Bell herself) does not drive, so we see aspects of life in Los Angeles rarely represented on film: no palm trees or freeways, but people walking in pedestrian friendly neighbourhoods such as Koreatown or negotiating cab rides or car sharing.
Thirty-something Carol is a bit of a goof; making a threadbare living out of her passion for voices and accents (she’s a language coach); she is taken by surprise when her domineering father, Sam (Fred Melamed), a legendary voiceover artist, asks her to move out for he has decided to shack with one of his young groupies (did you know voiceover artists have groupies? Only in Hollywood…) Forced to camp on the couch of her beloved married sister, Dani (Michaeli Watkins), she develops a plan: becoming a voiceover artist herself, against her father’s sarcasms and against the sexism of the industry. Sam, who, after publishing his Memoirs has decided to retire, appoints a worthy successor, the next boy wonder, Gustav Warner (Ken Marino), as egotistic as he is. The next big opportunity is recording the voiceover commentary for Amazon Games, a four-part epic featuring lightly clad female warriors in a post-Apocalyptic world. Gustav and Carol both audition. Meanwhile, not knowing who the other is, they meet at a party in Gustav’s house and end up having sex.
An accidental feminist, Carol goes through life without cashing on her good looks (she is quite surprised when Gustav hits on her) and, as a coach, wages a valiant fight against the “sexy baby talk” many women – especially in Hollywood – feel compelled to adopt. This in turn gives her an unlikely ally, the executive in charge of Amazon Games (Geena Davis) who thinks that such projects, under the guise of pop female empowerment, actually brain wash young girls into stupidity, but that it would make a difference if the voiceover was that of a smart, realistically pitched female.
Success may come, but at a price – male resistance, which is all the more difficult to take when the man who resents you the most is your own father. Lake, who tried to become a voiceover star before moving into acting, started to write an autobiographical script, and, even if she moved away from it, In a World is still informed by her experience in the industry. Both a dramatic actress and a comedienne, she has an engaging presence; as a director, she avoids the sexual farce or romantic comedy clichés by focusing on her heroine’s career plans – a woman needs a room of her own and a welcoming recording studio. Her reluctant romance with shy recording engineer Louis (Demetri Martin) starts as a professional connection, and is closer to mumblecore depictions of problematic pairings than to mainstream storybooks.
The most original representation of a specific time, space and profession was Computer Chess, by the man who directed the first mumblecore film, Funny Ha Ha (2002), Andrew Bujalski. Shown in the Next section, where it received a very positive critical response and was awarded the Alfred P. Sloan Screenwriting Prize, it was later featured in Berlin’s Forum. Unlike most other mumblecore directors (such as Joe Swanberg) who embraced digital formats as a way of cutting costs, Bujalski had so far insisted on shooting on 16mm stock – which may be why, compared to Swanberg’s prolific output, he had only directed two features since Funny Ha Ha: Mutual Appreciation (2005) and Beewax (2009). To each man his strategy. And to each film its way of investigating the texture of the moving image. Computer Chess is shot in black-and-white on a 1969 Sony AVC-3260; the grain of the image, the 4:3 aspect ratio, as well as the way period costumes, haircuts, décors and vintage computers were reconstructed, fooled me for a moment: I thought I was watching archival footage from the late 1970s, until I recognised film critic Gerald Peary in the role of the pompous-yet-insecure Professor and chess champion Pat Henderson, who makes a bet that no computer will beat him in a chess tournament. (12)
A construction en abyme, Computer Chess overlaps layers of representation: in the opening sequence, when the teams of computer researchers unload their huge and cumbersome equipment (MacBooks and PCs were not even a distant dream at the time) into the middlebrow hotel selected for the convention, a cameraman (Kevin Bewresdorf, who doubles as Bujalski’s sound recordist) is documenting the event, which, from the onset, casts a doubt on the ontological status of the image we see: Who is filming whom? Are we watching the film or the film within the film? Whose point of view is it?
Another “no exit” situation in which masculinity is tested and women perceived as unfathomable intruders, Computer Chess is confined to the perimeter of the hotel, with its uninviting corridors and sub-standard swimming pool. An Esalen-inspired Human Potential Development group, headed by a middle-aged school teacher and a secretary, is conducting a workshop at the same time, and the reservation clerk messed up, so one of the computer nerds, Papageorge (Myles Paige), is informed that no room has been booked under his name. While the young, eager scientists (played by an endearing ensemble of non-professionals actors) spend every minute of their waking hours tweaking their machines and punching cryptic codes into them, Papageorge is reduced to haunt the corridors, knock at his colleagues’ door to ask for their hospitality, or crash in the lobby. Real and surreal converge: Papageorge chances into a room inhabited only by cats; he glimpses a mysterious woman; the image switches to colour, showing him at home with his mother – a sequence that seems unrelated to the rest of the film and remains blissfully unexplained.
Bujalski pokes gentle and affectionate fun at the atmosphere of the conference: these computer geniuses spend too much time staring at their screens and are lacking in social skills. One of their hang-ups involves the presence of a shy young woman, Shelly (Robin Schwartz), who does her very best to eradicate all signs of femininity from her physical appearance, but is pointedly mentioned as “the lady” rather than by her name like the other participants – a drop-dead reminder of the sexism that plagued the technological industry in the 1970s and ‘80s. Papageorge asks her if he can share her room, and her reply is not that it would be inappropriate due to her gender, but because she is the custodian of her team’s computer and all its secrets. Working closely with an equally shy colleague, Peter Bishop (Patrick Riester) does not lead to romance, due to our protagonists’ inability to express themselves. Peter’s libido, though, is severely tested by the exercises the Human Potential Movement followers perform on the hotel grounds, and even more when the leaders invite him in their room for a threesome. Meanwhile, it seems that the mystery woman could be a hooker, which creates a vertiginous opening into another space, a temptation, the hint that desire is not limited to software algorithms. But then, who is she… what is she?
In 2007, eyebrows were raised when the Armory Building, a San Francisco landmark, was bought by kink.com, the largest production company in the world specialising in bondage, discipline and dominance/submission (BDSM). A brick castle in Moorish Revival style, the Armory, completed in 1914, occupies two blocks on Mission and, until 1976, housed the National Guard. Once disused it fell into disrepair, but when Peter Acworth, owner/founder of kink.com purchased it, he vowed to restore it to its original state rather than remodel it (apart from piercing a few glory holes in the restrooms), as the building’s original design (with its “dungeon” architecture and 70-foot ceilings) perfectly suited the company’s need for spectacular décors. The space had already been used as a set for mainstream movies, such as Star Wars, so Acworth continued the tradition by renting it to other production companies; James Franco discovered it during the shooting of Stephen Elliiot’s About Cherry (2012). This gave him the idea to produce a film about kink.com, directed and partially shot (she is one of three DPs on the project) by his long-time collaborator, director/cinematographer Christina Voros. (13)
Presented in the Midnight section, the resulting 79-minute documentary, Kink, starts with an actual tour of the facility (under Acworth’s benevolent guidance), as a way to penetrate the professional and erotic world of the people who inhabit it – directors (many of them being women), administrators, technicians (those minding the camera equipment and those minding the torture machines) and models, either occasional or seasoned. At first, one is struck by how ordinary this world is – a nine-to-five workplace for mostly anonymous people just doing their job, solving practical issues: the proper balance, the length of a rope, how to control the speed of a machine. Role playing involves a fluidity of sexual identifications, and, in BDSM ethics, gay sexuality is not pitted against heterosexual porn, dominatrices only inflict torture that they have experienced themselves and the directors make sure that the models are comfortable while exploring their own threshold of pain and discomfort. A model who had volunteered to take part in a gang-bang scene reacts badly to simulated rape; it is decided to change the script: the whole thing is now a Valentine day surprise from her boyfriend; thus modified, the shooting resumes without a hitch.
The most illuminating scenes involve a lone masochist (or “sub”), tied up or suspended in a contorted position, while being penetrated by a vibrating machine – Voros communicates a sense of the high experienced by the models, that propels them into a different level of consciousness, a state of heightened perception, a space floating above the quotidian. In these moments snatched from their mundane existence, the ecstasy of the pain they subjected themselves to has spiritual, even mystical overtones (echoing Georges Bataille’s explorations of the erotic); it is also chemical (the secretion of dopamine by the body); at any rate, it is addictive – which is why, despite the relatively low pay (“they could make much more money being sex workers”) the models keep coming back.
Capturing the exhilarating aspect of these plural, fluid, alternative sexualities, Voros does not eschew the nagging question of whether porn is exploitative of women. In fact, the sexual division of labour in BDSM is not between men and women, but between the “subs” of all genders and those whose job it is to dominate them. Spread-eagled, gagged or blindfolded, exposing their contorted/ecstatic faces to the camera, the “subs” are the ones controlling the show; their desire is manufacturing the script. So figuring out who is on top, who is exploiting whom, for whose benefit this is all happening or can ultimate freedom be found in a state of subjection and domination, does not admit easy answers. One of the interviewees, a smart, level headed dominatrix, talks about her strategy of survival in an industry where a tight little ass is your best currency and the expiration date comes too soon. By tying and whipping people up, she has extended her professional life. But is there anything she regrets? Not being able to tell any of her three children what she does for a living, dreading the day they might find out. Outside the confines of the Moorish Revival castle, mainstream life reasserts its rights, the sexual utopia is re-marginalised, and it becomes another product you can sell on the internet to enrich somebody else (not the enthusiastic model or the savvy performer). This is capitalism. Yet the frisson of what happens between these walls has reached and touched us.
Featured as a “premiere” (out of competition), Dave Grohl’s Sound City is the loving portrait of another self-enclosed, utopian space within California’s urban sprawl. No architectural landmark here. Operational from 1969 to 2011, the non-descript, semi-decrepit building housing Sound City Studios in the middle-brow Los Angeles suburb of Van Nuys was the stuff legends are made of. So much so that in 1991 a small Seattle-based band called Nirvana drove all the way there and camped for almost two months, to produce their ground-breaking album Nevermind. Fresh from the break-up of the hardcore punk band Scream, drummer Dave Grohl had just joined them – and Sound City prided itself on being particularly good for recording drum sound.
To the musicians that flocked to its doors the studio’s appeal lied in its ownership of one of the three 8078 Mixing Consoles designed and built by Rupert Neve (now in his 80s, but interviewed in the film), a sophisticated machine that took 2,500 hours to build. Studio City owners, Tom Skeeter and Joe Gottfried bought it in 1973 for USD 76,000 – twice as much as the price if a house in the San Fernando Valley at the time! The 24-track console sat in the centre of a huge studio space, whose carpet was never changed and whose walls never repainted for fear of altering its perfect acoustic properties. While lined with gold and platinum albums all over, the inside of the building was as shabby as its outside was ugly. Yet Neil Young, Pat Benatar, Tom Petty, Foreigner, Slaye and Johnny Cash recorded albums there, as well as Rick Springfield, Rage Against the Machine, Fleetwood Mac, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Nine Inch Nails, among a retinue of others. People met there, jammed together, collaborations were triggered. Joe Gottfried even managed Rick Springfield’s career in the 1980s, before the two had a falling out, which was not mended, to Springfield’s avowed regret, until Gottfried’s death. Interviews with the musical legends that recorded at Sound City comprise the bulk of the film – an entertaining oral history of the last forty years of rock’n’roll.
Grohl digs deeper, and talks to Tom Skeeter as well as Sound City’s employees, such as studio managers Paula Salvatore and Shivaun O’Brien, and a parallel narrative line emerges: “Sound City was the place where real men came to make records”, says O’Brien –an unconscious pun about the splendid one-inch reels on which the recordings took place. By the time she makes this statement, she is unemployed, without health insurance or benefit: unable to compete with Pro Tools that allows any high school student to do a sound mix on his home computer, Sound City went out of business in 2011, and the film turns into an elegy about what the music lost with analogue modes of recording. There was an urgency, an electrical form of communication, when a group of musicians recorded together with the Neve console; the sound was crisp, you could hear every beat of the drum, “each of Kurt Cobain’s vocal chords”, but mistakes couldn’t be fixed later. You had to do it right.
For Grohl and the partisans of analogue recordings, this is what made great music possible. So, now a musical legend himself (after Nirvana, he founded the Foo Fighters in 1994/95), he bought the Neve console for his own recording studio, Studio 606. (Images of the console being dismantled, then transported from one place to the next are the strongest cinematic moments of the film). Grohl, who signs his first feature with Sound City, is not enough of a filmmaker to have drawn the logical conclusions of his love for analogue: one could dream of a film that would have been shot in 16mm, the grain of the image matching the grain of the sound he is still pursuing. He is, however, enough of a showman to organise, and shoot, a jam session with Paul McCartney around the reconstructed Neve console. Some criticised the final sequence as self-serving. I confess that I find nothing more beautiful than a bunch of musicians attuned to each other’s ears, who improvise together. “It should always be that easy”, says McCartney. Yes, it should.
Last Exit to Brooklyn
“I am a Flatbush girl”, first-time feature director Eliza Hittman said proudly at the world premiere of It Felt Like Love in the Next section (it later went to Competition in Rotterdam), and, while not entirely autobiographical, the film draws from her experience of growing up in this largely working-class neighbourhood of New York City’s most populous borough, of these endless summers where you have to escape to the sea with your friends for fear of melting like the asphalt under your feet. The heat, though, is not the worse thing you want to escape from. There is the boredom you sense in adult life around you, and most of all, if you’re a fourteen year-old girl, you want to shed the burden of your virginity. Such is Lila’s (Gina Piersanti) problem. Cute but not drop-dead gorgeous, sufficiently awkward to make boys uncomfortable, Lila plays third wheel in the outings of a her more experienced best girlfriend, Chiara (Giovanna Salimeni) and her beau; when they go to the beach together, she wears a one-piece suit rather than a bikini and puts too much sunscreen on her face like a Kabuki mask.
Among too many coming of age movies, It Felt Like Love is striking in the originality, the justness of its tone. Hittman may be a very young director, but she is already an obsessional one. This is the third time that, as a writer/director, Hittman hammers the themes that are close to her heart. In Second Cousins Once Removed (2010) two young girls were left alone in a motel during a family vacation and experienced, with a thrill, the nascent dangers of being female, as well as the comforts of shared girlhood. Shown at Sundance in 2011, Forever Gonna Start Tonight was shot in Brooklyn’s Russian community, and focused on the friendship of two girls, Sveta and Sonya, who partied together and found themselves in compromising situations with boys. Hittman lifted one of the best dialogues of Forever (- Did you sleep with him? – I don’t know…) and reproduces it verbatim in It Felt Like Love. She is not being cute. In the context of drunken parties, heavy petting and various forms of flirtation, what exactly does “sleep with” mean?
What is at stake, beyond the question of “knowing”, is the issue of female desire. What does she want? Sexual pleasure, penetration, a warm body to fall asleep next to, the feeling of being desired, of being important? In both films, the question is posed by a young woman to her girlfriend who has just woken up at a boy’s side. In Forever, she may have been too drunk to remember. In It Felt Like Love, the situation is manufactured, staged with cunningness by Lila. As Sammy (Ronen Rubinstein), the older boy she covets, crashes snoring on his bed after a rowdy revelry, she unfastens the bodice of her party dress, sets the alarm clock, and then lies down by his side. When Sammy wakes up – on time to go to work, thanks to the alarm clock – and sees her thus asleep, he is the one who is confused, who does not know what happened. When he questions her, she plays coy. So, why does she tell Chiara she “does not know”? Could it be that, in spite of all her bravura speeches about planning to become a porn star or wanting to give blowjobs, she does not really know what “sleeping with” means? How much intimate contact with a boy must you have so it “feels like love”: Touching? Kissing? Mild penetration? Sleeping at his side?
Hittman’s film finely suggests the mixture of confusion and lust that composes the internal landscape of a young girl. Neither a victim nor a temptress, yet putting herself at risk or being an unconscious tease, Lila is forced to devise original ways to decipher the unchartered territory of human relationships. Around her, there are not too many raw models: Chiara can be a dope, and her mother is dead. The sky’s the limit, but the sky can feel strangely empty when you are standing, alone, in your one-piece bathing suit, facing the sea.
Another part of Brooklyn, DUMBO, constitutes the spectacular setting of Zachary Heinzerling’s independent feature debut, Cutie and the Boxer, which may be Sundance’s best film. (It received the Directing Award: US Documentary). In 1969, Ushio Shinohara (AKA “Guy-chan”), a Japanese avant-garde rebel famous in the Tokyo art world for his “Boxing Painting”, junk-art-assemblages and “Imitation Art”, moved to Soho. Three years later, Noriko, a 19 year-old young woman enrolled in New York Arts Students League, chanced upon his studio. “I had never seen any art which looked like this,” she remembers. Things moved very fast: the eccentric and overpowering Guy-chan, 21 years her senior, invited her to work in his studio, slept with her, then married her (causing a break-up with her family). While continuing to be an artist, Noriko gave birth to their son, did the cleaning and the cooking, and basically became Guy-chan’s assistant. Commercial success eluded them and in 1986 they left Soho to move to DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). Portrayed in the last scenes of Stanley Kubrick’s Killer’s Kiss (1955), this was a manufacturing area, whose workshops and warehouses went out of business throughout the ‘70s, during which artists moved into cheap and large studio spaces.
Like most of the Brooklyn waterfront, the area is currently undergoing gentrification, but the Shinohara loft has retained its funkiness. In the post-credit sequence, we first see the close-up of a ceiling fan (no air conditioning here), then an ebullient mess of art artefacts, books and cleaning supplies; husband and wife go upstairs to mind a leak in their bedroom, carrying a plastic pail to empty the water through the window; downstairs in the kitchen, over black coffee, they discuss the fact they have to pay the rent and the utilities this month… In the words of a commentator, Guy-chan is “the most famous of the poor and struggling artists in New York”. His work does not sell, which is daunting for somebody who has just turned 80, has such a large and consistent output, and is a recovering alcoholic as well as a domestic tyrant. Noriko mentions her guilt at having raised her son, Alex – now himself a painter, himself an alcoholic – in conditions that made him ashamed of his father when he was a kid.
Heinzerling spent five years of his life, sometimes camping in the loft, to document the moments of this unusual marriage. He also had access to archival material, such as a film on Guy-chan that was never finished, but includes video footage of the couple when they were younger, in drunken dinner parties with artist friends, walking through the ruined blocks of DUMBO in the 1980s, taking a lovers stroll on the bridge or in the park etc. We get to know Guy-chan’s work, and his idiosyncratic methods. He continues his “Boxing Painting”, attaching gloves to his hands, dipping them in paint and hitting on the canvas as hard as he can – a macho heroic feat remarkable for somebody his age. His expressionist sculptures/collages are made of recycled material – such as cardboard picked up in the street.
Heinzerling weaves the film as the intersection of two narrative lines, so intertwined within a complex history of mutual dependency that it’s often difficult to tell them apart. Noriko casually offers a birthday cake to her husband, complaining, with a smile, that he “never listen[s] to” her. As the film progresses, she shows different facets; she relaxes and enjoys a quiet time when Ushio travels to Japan in the hope of selling sculptures cramped into his suitcase; she takes dance lessons; she quotes Virginia Woolf; when Ushio returns, she argues with him about her role as a “free secretary, free cook, free assistant”. The narrative arc crystallises around a studio visit paid by Shuhei, the curator of a Chelsea-based Japanese gallery, HPRGP. “I want to remind him there is another artist in this house,” says Noriko.
She had been involved in a huge autobiographical project, that exists as both a series of small drawings (sometimes animated for the purpose of the film) and large wall paintings, called Cutie and Bullie, that depicts her relationship to Ushio. “Cutie is naked because she is very poor”, says Noriko. Shuhei is seduced – as we are – and decides organise a show of the two artists, called “Love is a Roarrr” (the phrase is coined by Noriko: “I found out by experience”, she says, while Ushio objects to the word “love” being put in the title of his exhibition); Ushio’s work will be shown in the gallery’s main room and Noriko’s in the back space. Even though she still takes second billing, Noriko is the one who provides meaning to the relationship: from Ushio’s need to be loved, his alcoholism and his need to control, to a star-eyed young art student’s glimpse at the internal world of a stubborn male artist, her fear, her attraction, her despondency, the internal strength, gentle humour and genuine anger she had to gather to survive the experience; and, finally, beyond sexism, beyond rage, beyond the snatched youth, beyond the regrets for what never happened, the nature of love itself. “Cutie hates Bullie?” ask Ushio, faced with Noriko’s new assertiveness. “No, Cutie loves Bullie so much”, she replies.
As the Shinoharas walk or take public transportation, whether in the archival footage or the contemporary vérité shots, Heinzerling snaps an intimate portrayal of DUMBO as it has evolved in the last 25 years; in addition, he punctuates his edit with “pillow shots” à la Ozu of the skyline, views of the waterfront, bridges overpasses, street corners or waste grounds. A quintessential New York film, Cutie and the Boxer explores the art world as it is experienced by working artists eking a living out of the spotlight. Thousands of hopeful flock to New York to become famous – and whether or not they succeed, whether or not they hurt the people around them, they stay. “Art is a demon,” says Ushio. “It drags you along. It’s not something you can stop. You throw yourself away to be an artist”. In his case, there was somebody to catch him: Noriko.
From Colombia to Senegal: Failed Crossings
Ten days later, the PanAfrican Film & Arts Festival (PAFF) opened its 21st edition in what will hopefully remain its permanent home: the RAVE Theatre in the black middle class enclave of Crenshaw/Leimert Park in Los Angeles. Premiered at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, Juan Andrès Arango Garcia’s La Playa D.C. was the best film I saw. La Playa is a neighbourhood of Bogota, thus named because most of his inhabitants have fled the civil war raging on the Pacific coast – an Afro-Colombian enclave in a mostly white city, where racism is pervasive. Tomas’ father was killed by a military squad back home in Buenaventura. His mother’s new boyfriend, a white security guard, kicks the three brothers out one after the other. Chaco, the older one, goes “North”, but is eventually deported from Canada, dressed to the T, talking the talk and walking the walk. Jairo, the younger brother, becomes a crack addict and a drug dealer. While drifting through “La Playa” stealing spare parts from parked cars with Chaco, or trying to bail Jairo, Tomas (Luis Carlos Guevera) chances upon a barber shop and discovers what he is good at: shaving heads into the intricate Afrocentrist patterns that are fashionable to the young men around him.
Arango Garcia’s inspired screenplay and his mise en scène choices transform what could have been a standard Third World melodrama (survival in the slums, conflicting allegiances) into a fascinating exhibition of hair culture in the Afro-Caribbean community. Espousing Tomas’ movements, as he ploughs his way through the crowded streets, the camera sympathetically frames him in a medium shot from the back, and we can admire first an abundance of finely braided tresses, then a variety of original haircuts. Drawing maps and patterns on children’s scalps was an old practice during slavery time, to help the men find their way home, and all over the African diaspora, hair is at the heart of vibrant cultural and social practices, a source of pride, a mark of distinction. The thoughtful, mild-mannered and exquisitely handsome Tomas walks the streets and the slums with the grace of a doe, a prince in exile who, modestly, may find his place in the world by cutting people’s hair at a street corner.
In La Playa D.C., emigration is a vanishing point, an unrealised dream, the door that Chaco cannot help trying to pry open, with mixed results – but Tomas never left Colombia. On the other hand, La Pirogue by Moussa Touré, a former collaborator of Ousmane Sembene (also shown in Un Certain Regard), tackles the subject directly. In a small fishing village in Senegal, a mixed group of local people and Guineans who have never seen the sea pay a smuggler to carry them on a pirogue to Spain. They are among the thousands who, driven by poverty, attempt the dangerous voyage every year. Fisherman Baye Laye (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) accepts the job as captain, equipped with two engines by his second-in-command, who is more of a mechanic than a sailor. As soon as the loaded pirogue is on the open sea, a female stowaway, Nafy (Mame Astou Diallo) is discovered, tensions erupt between the Guineans and the Senegalese, and one man, Yaya (Saikou Lô), going crazy, is tied up by the rest of the group. From afar, the passengers of another pirogue, stalled for two weeks after the break down of their engine, hail them, begging for food and water. Clinching his jaw, Baye sails on: there is just enough supply for his ward.
Punctuated with vignettes through which we get to know some of the passengers well, as well as with poetic flashback/dream shots of the majestic landscapes (baobabs, red earth) these men left behind, the narration progresses like a slow train wreck: one engine breaks down, a storm washes off most of the supplies as well as Baye’s GPS, the second engine breaks down, the pirogue drifts away under the relentless sun. Some men die, their bodies thrown into the sea. Some stay alive, catatonic, half-crazy or still hopeful – yet they will never make it to the promised land. As the survivors are deported back to Senegal with 200 euros and a sandwich, Baye goes to a street market to buy a T-shirt bearing “Barcelona” for his little boy.
Africa, Wounded Mother
Charlie Vundla’s How to Steal 2 Million (that received four awards at the 8th African Movie Academy Awards in Lagos, Nigeria) is a stylish thriller of suspenseful heist, double-crossing and misplaced love. While purposefully located in a nameless city, it’s also a dry commentary on the new urban modernity of South Africa, awash with cutthroat capitalism and persistent police corruption. Jack (Menzi Ngubane) is a professional robber, always has been. Caught during his last job, he respected the code of silence, and copped five years. His long-time friend/partner, Twala (Rapulana Seiphemo) has married his former fiancée Kim (Hlubi Mboya) but Jack has moved on, he’s no longer interested in the woman. The problem is that Twala is a gambler, and to cover debts he has incurred with the mob, needs to pull off a major robbery. Jack tries to go straight, but banks refuse him a loan to go into the construction business. One night in a bar, he spots a female hustler, Olive (South African star Terry Pheto) picking the pocket of a trick she was flirting with, corners her, forces her to return the money, takes her to his dingy apartment, then offers to train her in a more lucrative way of conning people until the two end up in bed – reluctantly it seems, for Olive, but which role does she really play?
Written and directed by a first-time director, How to Steal 2 Million seduces by its visual style, its desaturated palette of blue-grey, charcoal, black-brown and washed-out chalk, its indirect lighting: encased in an asphalt jungle of concrete, glass and freeways, Jack and Twala, mostly shot in medium close-ups, sport the same bald hair style, and similar dark business suits or stylish leather jackets. They may be, indeed, the same man, they even sleep with the same women; they are doppelgangers trapped in a senseless scheme and doomed to shoot at each other – an elegant metaphor for African-on-African killing.
Watching African movies is an exhilarating reminder that not all film industries follow the same model. Marginalised in international exchanges, Africa has a different approach to cinema, often outside the established networks of the international film market. Ousmane Sembene turned to cinema as the primary mode of communication in largely illiterate communities, which is why it can successfully be used as an educational tool – without sacrificing the pleasures of storytelling. Also from South Africa, and also awarded a Prize (for Achievement in Cinematography) in Lagos, Sara Blecher’s Otelo Burning, follows high school friends trying to better their lot and discover freedom by becoming surfing champions. Supposedly taking place in 1989, at the height of the unrest in the townships, the film comes out of a workshop with local kids, and takes a passionate stance against tribal and political hatred. A young boy, Ntwe (Tshepang Mohlomi) falls victim of the rivalry between Inkatha and the United Democratic Front; wrongly fingered as a police informer, he is burnt alive as his swimming instructor looks the other way, while his older brother, Otelo (Jafta Mamabolo), is winning a competition against white surfers on the beaches of Cape Town.
Less visually lush than Otelo Burning, but elegantly treading the line between entertainment and education, Rolie Nikiwe’s Inside Story stems from the same desire to use sport as a way to get out of your miserable circumstances and supporting your family. A young soccer star in the Kenyan town of Malindi, Kalu (Kevin Ndege Mamboleo) forfeits his dreams of playing for major clubs, and accept a paid gig in a second-tier team in Johannesburg to support his family after his father’s death. Unknowingly, he carries with him the HIV virus he has contracted from his girlfriend. Here Inside Story takes a bold turn, and wins an improbable bet: making an engrossing narrative out of a PSA. Kalu’s story – his difficulty in being accepted by his new teammates, his relationship with coach Valentine (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), his complicated crush on Valentine’s daughter, Ify (Kendra Etufunwa), and his conflict with the team’s owner, Goodwill (Fana Mokoena) – are interrupted by educational sequences showing how the virus is transmitted and, via animation, how it navigates the blood vessels and attacks the body. In his hospital bed after Goodwill’s thugs have broken his leg and halted his career, Kalu discovers his HIV status and lashes out at Ify, with whom he has spent a single, never-to-happen-again night, accusing her of infecting him. And yet, the film is neither a sob story, nor a didactic bore. Verbal and emotional exchanges between the young people are depicted with finesse, as is Kalu’s fight against adversity. More importantly, in the midst of the AIDS epidemics that strike Africa, Inside Story strives to demonstrate that you can live a normal life with HIV, if you take the necessary steps.
A more mainstream production (it was Kenya’s Oscar entry), David “Tosh” Gitonga’s Nairobi Half Life is sponsored by Tom Tykwer’s One Fine Day Film Workshop, which” provides training to first-time African directors. Hawking DVDs in his Kenyan village, Mwas (Joseph Wairimu), in love with genre cinema, dreams of becoming an actor, and decides to take the leap and move to Nairobi. Instead of spinning a typical tale – naïve country bumpkin gets robbed blind, falsely imprisoned and victimised by city slickers – the film takes a radical turn in a scene that could have been grotesque: bullied into cleaning disgusting latrines, Mwas suddenly erupts into a song and dance while mopping the floor, winning the respect of his jail mate Oti (Olwenya Maina), who, once out, takes him into his gang, in a neighbourhood called “Gaza”.
As in La Playa DC, the gang’s main activity is stealing car spare parts (hubcaps, tires), although they eventually graduate, at Mwas’s suggestion, into carjacking. Mwas doesn’t give up his dream, and keeps making a nuisance of himself until he is granted an audition at the National Theatre and is cast as a burglar in a Brechtian-style play about the inequities of class differences in Kenya. During a rehearsal Mwas tries to confide to a fellow actor that he leads a double life – triggering a comic moment that can be considered cutting-edge in an African context, as the man confesses that, being gay, he too leads a double life. Mwas’s emotional maturation depends much on his platonic friendship with Amina (Nancy Wanjiku Karanja), a very young prostitute who is Oti’s girlfriend. When fighting for their lives against a posse of murderous cops, the two men have a moment of truth that gracefully avoids the tropes of macho gangster rivalry: “I never slept with Amina,” says Mwas, “but I like her.” “That makes two of us”, replies Oti, being man enough to admit his feelings of love and friendship.
While portraying the harshness of slum living, the violence between gangs, the blatant corruption and sadism of the police, Nairobi Half Life, served by Wairimu’s luminous performance, never gives up what is important: the irreducibility of Mwas’s desire to become an actor. The film will be distributed in the US this spring through an original initiative designed by the Feature Film Project, (14) but most African films don’t get shown in the US or in the First World in general. Events like PAFF are precious, for they reveal the arrival of a new generation of first-time filmmakers and young talent that are changing the way the continent is representing itself… an African New Wave?
From Chicago to Soledad
PAFF’s closing night events were the sold out screenings of Free Angela and All Political Prisoners, the second feature documentary by Shola Lynch (who, in 2004 made a portrait of a black congresswoman’s run for the presidency, Chisholm ’72, Unbought and Unbossed). The film chronicles the most spectacular years of Angela Davis’s life – from her hiring as a philosophy professor at UCLA in 1969, to her firing by the Board of Regents for her membership in the Communist Party and what they deemed her “inflammatory language”, and finally her arrest and trial. Davis generously granted new interviews to Lynch, but insisted that the film be not just about her, but involve the fate of all political prisoners in the US – hence the title.
Even if you know the case well, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners is suspenseful, and allows you to hear first-hand testimonies from people who played a role in Davis’s life and organised her defence: her sister attorney Fania Davis, her long-time friend, feminist author/activist Bettina Aptheker, the great civil right lawyer Leo Branton (now in his 90s) who headed her defence team. In August 1970, Jonathan Jackson, the brother of George Jackson imprisoned in Soledad, took control of a courtroom in Marin County, kidnapped and killed a judge before being shot by the police. Davis had befriended him as part of her work in support of the Soledad prisoners, and the guns he used were registered in her name. Davis went underground and became one of the 10 Most Wanted Fugitives on the FBI list. The film gives hitherto little known details about her life on the run, and the conditions of her arrest in New York in October. Then, rather than rehashing the details of her well-publicised trial, it refocuses instead on the campaigns organised all over the world for her liberation. As the charges against her carried the death penalty, she was not eligible for bail. Then California abolished the death penalty, and her defence team successfully argued for bail to be posted. It was a white farmer who came up with most of the money. In 1972, she was acquitted by an all-white jury. An icon for the Black Liberation Movement, Davis had also become a major contemporary intellectual whose influence extends beyond the African American community. “This trial shouldn’t have happened”, she said, but it made a huge momentum possible, whose consequences we are still experiencing. At PAFF, Davis was, unquestionably, a black icon, a source of pride, a reason for hope.
In 1969, when Davis started teaching continental philosophy at UCLA, a man who called himself Robert Beck published a book with a provocative title, Pimp, with Holloway House, a company specialised in pulp fiction, and with a reputation of stinginess for the distribution of royalties to it authors. Written in ghetto slang (to the point that the editor requested a glossary), this was a semi-autobiographical novel about Beck’s years pimping in Chicago, from the time he was 18 to his last prison stint, at 42, in 1960. As a pimp, Beck had been stylish, ruthless and cool, hence his moniker of Iceberg Slim. His prose makes him a worthy successor of Chester Himes and his Harlem detective novels; some compared his work to Genet’s Diary of a Thief, others said that it opened the door to the literary experiments of a James Ellroy. It was also perceived as “black revolutionary literature” as Beck was crystal clear about the root of poverty and abjection in the ghettos (which he called “the Hell”): racism, white domination, violence against black people. He never met Angela Davis, but approached some of the Black Panthers, such as Huey P. Newton; the latter, however, rejected all association with a former pimp. It is in black popular culture that he left his mark, becoming a best-selling author of “street lit” (he wrote seven books) and inspiring hip hop icons such as Ice-T and Ice Cube.
Presented in one of the galas, Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp is executive produced by Ice-T, and his long-term manager, Jorge Hinojosa signs here his first film as a director. While provocative, the film is strangely comforting: a vision of THE LIFE that made sense within the larger scheme of things. Slim was no fool, and neither is Hinojosa: glorifying pimphood may provide a temporary high for rebellious young men, but it does not make for good literature, or good cinema. When Slim found himself in solitary confinement in 1960, he took stock of his life and realised that he had let his rage (at white people, at women, at his mother) make the best of him and followed his desire to “buy into the white world” through expensive fineries and luxury cars paid for by his whores’ hard work; he was also a victim of circumstances, “poisoned”, as he says, by the streets.
In 1960, what interested Slim was to become a writer. Something had clicked. In jail, he wrote a letter to the warden giving arguments why he should be released. The strategy paid off, and, as one of the interviewees comments, it was incredibly rewarding for him to realise that his writing could have an impact. And what interests Hinojosa is Slim’s transformation into a writer. A labour of love, several years in the making, Iceberg Slim stitches an engrossing patchwork of heterogeneous material: archival footage of Slim giving interviews or talking with one of his former whores, interviews with his two ex-wives, with two of his three daughters (one, Misty, is associate producer of the film), with personalities such as rappers Snoop Dog and Ice-T, film director Bill Duke, musicians Quincy Jones and Red Holloway, or former pimp/fashion designer Bishop Don Magic Juan, who attended the screening in full regalia. Aware that the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit, that something about Slim’s transition to writing keeps eluding us, Hinojosa made a bold aesthetic decision, linking the different fragments with original art. An avid collector of pulp fiction covers, he asked experimental filmmaker Conor Keenan to animate these images, suggesting Slim’s gaudy inner world. And rather than reconstructing undocumented phases of the man’s life (Slim in jail for example), Carly Veronica White drew animated sequences that fill the gaps, as a form of self-conscious fiction. (15) What remains opaque is Slim himself, a gifted writer exploring black rage, apparently sincere when he said that his decision to become a pimp at 18 was “stupid” (he could have done something else with his life), a man who tried (and partially failed) to be a good husband and a good father before dying in 1992. What remains is the prose, the icon, the cool posturing, as well as, more disturbingly, what Sapphire (author of Precious), whose style was influenced by his books, describes as the perpetuation and maybe the glorification of “violent misogyny”. (16)
The film is open-ended, letting the spectators draw their own conclusions. I treasure a documentary in which I learn something new. I didn’t know Iceberg Slim. I used to think that pimps were the scum of the earth. Now I understand better what could have driven a young black man to becoming a pimp in 1940s America. I bought Slim’s books.
Sundance Film Festival
17-27 January 2013
Festival website: http://www.sundance.org/festival/
PanAfrican Film & Arts Festival
7-18 February 2013
Festival website: http://www.paff.org
- Isaach de Bankole acted in Claire Denis’s Chocolat (1988), S’en fout la mort (1990) and White Material (2010); Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), Ghost Dog: the Way of the Samourai (1999), Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and The Limits of Control (2009); and Pedro Costa’s Casa de Lava (1995). He has also appeared in several US television series, including The Sopranos, had a part in Lars van Trier’s Manderlay (2005), the 21st James Bond, Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale (2006), and Julian Schnabel’s Le Scaphandre et le Papillon (The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, 2007), etc.
- Danai Gurira already worked with Dosunmu on Restless City; she was also cast in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor (2008) and Eric Mendelsohn’s Three Backyards (2010), as well as the HBO television series Treme.
- Nollywood is the Nigerian film industry, which produces more than 2000 video-films a year.
- See my report on these two films in “Take the A Train and Don’t Look Back: The 30th Sundance Film Festival and the 19th Pan African Film and Arts Festival”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 59.
- See “Unlikely Heroes: The 31st Sundance Film Festival and the 20th Pan African Film and Arts Festival”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 62.
- Carruth moved to Texas as a high school student and recently relocated to New York City. His first feature, Primer, won the Grand Jury Prize, US Dramatic, at Sundance in 2004.
- Prince Avalanche is an unofficial remake of the Icelandic film Either Way (Á annan veg, 2011) by Gunnar Sigurðsson that also takes place in the 1980s.
- For more information on Lovelace/Boreman’s publishing history, see Ann Marlowe’s article, “Linda Lovelace’s Ordeal”, retrieved March 2, 2013
- Susan Faludi had spotted the beginning of this dangerous curve in her landmark book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Random House, New York, 1991.
- Joshua Prager, “The Accidental Activist”, Vanity Fair, February 2013, pp. 108-115 and p. 167.
- The real story is more complex, as it is Carr who introduced Ginsberg to Neal Cassady, with whom he remained obsessed for many years. Cassady does not appear in the film.
- Henderson’s character seems to have been patterned after Master David Levy, who made a similar bet, and won a tournament against the powerful Chess 4.7 in 1978; he eventually lost to the computer Deep Thought in 1989; in Bujalski’s film, one of the computer teams competing against Henderson is called “Deep Speed”.
- Voros was the DP for some of the films directed by Franco, Broken Tower (2011), Sal (2011), and his two films currently in post-production, Child of God and As I Lay Dying. As a DP, Voros has shot more than 30 titles. She also directed and shot the multiple award-winning documentary short, The Ladies (2007) as well as the short comedy Rosy (2008) and the short “making of”, 127 Hours: An Extraordinary View (2010).
- Disclaimer: Several people mentioned in this article graduated from the California Institute of the Arts: Michael Polish; M. David Mullen; Eliza Hittman; Conor Keenan and Carly Veronica White. I had, however, nothing to do with the production of the films in which they are involved, and some were students in the Institute before I started teaching there.
- Sapphire, “Afterword” in Iceberg Slim, Pimp – The Story of My Life, Canongate, Edinburgh, London, New York, Melbourne, 2009, p. 285.