Monday, August 31, 2015

Show me a Hero (parts one and two)

At the end of Part 2 of the HBO miniseries Show me a Hero, one of the characters berates the Mayor of Yonkers.  The constituent is angry about the prospect of low-income housing being built in her neighborhood and, when she calls City Hall to protest, no one is around and so the Mayor himself answers.  When the Mayor, a 28-year old hustler called Nick Wasicsko, tells her that he must implement the housing to comply with the desegregation order of a federal judge, the woman responds angrily:  "Well you can, at least, say that you think it is wrong."  The Mayor doesn't respond, because, perhaps, he's not sure that desegregating the city is wrong.  Instead, he promises that he won't have the woman thrown out of the next council meeting -- when she previously insulted him using the name of his father, also a local politician but recently dead, Mayor Wasciko had the police evict her from the hall.  This is exchange is remarkable for what it reveals about the radical structure of Show me a Hero and the series' extreme and rigorous commitment to its in media res narrative.  Although the series is about desegregation and the lack of decent housing for people of color in 1987 in a New York city, no one in the film talks about the morality of the situation nor does anyone raise issues as to whether court-ordered desegregation is just or unjust.  The legacy of racial discrimination that has compelled the Court to order desegregation is not shown or discussed -- there is no rhetoric about civil rights or oppression.  Rather, the show is radical in that it simply assumes these things.  Indeed, the assumption is so prevalent that the program doesn't have to dramatize issues of injustice.  Similarly, the mobs of white middle-class people screaming bloody murder at the Court's desegregation order -- which consists of establishing 200 units of low-income housing in white flight portions of the city of 200,000 -- never mention race, don't use racial epithets, and simply refer to the denizens of low income housing as "those people."  The ire of the mob is reserved, it seems, for the Jewish lawyers representing the Justice Department and the NAACP who have brought the suit from which the order mandating desegregation arises.  The curious thing about Show me a Hero is that, like its characters, it seems completely unwilling to talk about race and injustice -- the show is about procedural maneuvering, politics, Court hearings in which the Judge, played with steely authority by Bob Balaban, ratchets up the pressure on the entirely white city council members, ultimately threatening them with personal fines and imprisonment unless they implement desegregation.  The effect is a bit like the forensic films of the great Francesco Rosi -- particularly Salvatore Giuliano.  In Salvatore Giuliano, we almost never see the title character when he is alive -- he is a shadowy emblem, but not really a character and the film employs the radical narrative stance of excluding from its central focus the figure for whom the movie is named.  Similarly, the entire issue of race, oppression, and discrimination is concealed by the turbulent procedural events dramatized in Show me a Hero -- this context is implied as a fait accompli. For the first two hours, at least, no one mentions race at all and so the actual context of the clash between the citizens of Yonkers and the Federal Court remains implicit.  This is a bold narrative gesture, enhanced by film's strategy of using the hapless Nick Wasicsko as the vehicle for the story.  Wasicsko has exploited the dissatisfaction with the sitting mayor's failure to prosecute an appeal of the Court's desegregation order to get himself elected.  However, even before he takes office, he learns that the appeal on which his election was based has been lost and that he will have no choice but to preside over implementation of the desegregation order.  In effect, he has inherited an untenable political situation in which there is nothing he can do but comply with the Federal Judge's ruling, action that exposes him to the hysterical wrath of the townspeople, including threats of assassination -- he wears a service revolver around his ankle for protection. 

Show me a Hero is based on real events and the characters have been cast to look like their actual counterparts.  Like Salvatore Giuliano, the film was shot, when possible, in the actual locations where the events depicted occurred.  David Simon produced the film; he is famous for creating The Wire, a similarly forensic-oriented series.  Paul Haggis directs.  In the opening two hours, the film flags a little on the basis of repetitiveness -- Yonkers' lawyers keep appearing in Court only to receive increasingly severe lectures by the Federal Judge.  There are also repeated scenes of angry voters and tumult at the City Council meetings.  The repetition of these sequences, which really don't develop the story, seems unnecessary, although this stalled narrative structure strongly enhances the sense of paralysis gripping the city.  The political plot is intercut with scenes involving people of color, apparently, we surmise, those who will move into the housing required by the desegregation order. (Like Haggis' Crash, the show seems designed to gradually unify these narrative strands, ultimately bringing the White and Black characters into violent contact.) These scenes have no clear relationship with the narrative about the desegregation order -- Haggis and Simon's point is simple and devastating:  the people who are at the center of the storm have no idea that there even is a desegregation order.  This point is made dramatically twice in the early parts of the film.  A Black couple strolling down the street in Yonkers is handed a political flyer by Nick Wasicsko -- they don't even look at it and the woman drops it in the gutter.  (Wasicsko is campaigning on his promise to appeal the desegregation order.)  Later some Black drug dealers glimpse the NAACP housing consultant, a white man with an Amish-style beard, hustling through the high-rise ghetto with some blueprints in his hands.  The kids deride the man's appearance, calling him "an Abraham Lincoln-looking motherfucker".  "He's not delivering no emancipation proclamation for me," one of the boys says. 

Clearly, HBO didn't know how to market this series and has, essentially, decided to conceal it from the public.  Although the show enjoys a 97% positive rating from those who have seen it, the series is now relegated to late night -- the first four episodes aired in prime-time; the last two programs aired after 10:00 pm.  The title of the program is not promising.  It's derived from a statement by F. Scott Fitzgerald -- something to the effect that "if you show me a hero, I will show you a tragedy."  The program is built on an epic scale, with plots and subplots, dozens of characters, and a densely realistic, almost documentary mise-en-scene.  The show isn't flawless -- an excursus to the Dominican Republic seems filler and doesn't contribute to the narrative -- but it's better than just about everything else on TV at the end of August and, for better or worse, will be a landmark in the history of TV.  I recommend that you find this show on-demand and watch it. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Elena and her men

Jean Renoir's  1956 Elena and her Men is a minor film in the great director's oeuvre, difficult and challenging and, also, atypical.  The movie's thesis is that the reason French politics is a disorderly shambles is that the French people are too readily distracted by appearance, by spectacles and parades, and that they prefer making love to casting votes in elections.  Renoir makes these points aggressively, by emphatic speeches by his characters, but, of course, it remains his verdict that love-making is more important than the franchise and that politics is a silly, self-defeating venture -- the dismissive stance that his film takes toward political issues is itself the best illustration of its premise. 

Elena, played by the ravishing Ingrid Bergman, is a Polish princess, although, really a kind of high-class courtesan.  Elena's specialty is inspiring men to achieve greatness.  She is the widow of a Polish anarchist, also a prince, whose hobby was making bombs to "throw at the Tsar" -- in the course of this avocation, the Prince blew himself and his palace to smithereens; presumably, Elena survived the blast because she was absent pursuing one of her love affairs.  At the outset of the film, Elena, whose emblem is a daisy, inspires her lover to compose an opera.  Once her inspiration as a muse has borne fruit, Elena loses all interest in her lover and dismisses him.  During a frenetic Bastille Day celebration, Elena who has agreed to marry a wealthy shoe manufacturer for  his money, meets a slender, witty fellow who squires her around Paris during the jubilant festivities.  This man is her opposite -- he aspires to nothing at all and his idea of utopia would be sheer idleness.  Of course, in the economy of the film, this man will be Elena's ideal lover, although their passion, which the heroine can't recognize at first, is not acknowledged until the last ten minutes of the movie.  Renoir's ironic point is Elena, who's desire seems focused on driving men to greatness, will find her most congenial lover in a man who has no ambition of any kind at all.  This is demonstrated rather schematically by the film's principle narrative -- the rise to political power of a soldier named General Rollan.  Rollan is a cavalier, "almost damned with fair wife" in the form of a loyal, longsuffering and highly ambitious mistress.  Rollan is not exactly interested in political power but his liaison with Elena leads him ultimately to something that seems suspiciously similar to a coup d'état.  Of course. Rollan's seizure of power, that is, the success foisted upon him by the relentless Elena, renders him uninteresting in her eyes and she can move on to her next erotic adventure.  

Elena and her Men is shot by Renoir's brother, Claude, and it is antithetical to the director's works from the 1930's that channel the impressionism of Jean Renoir's father, August.  This film is in gaudy, hyper-bright Technicolor, overlit and garish -- the movie is intentionally ugly:  the interiors are full of all sorts of late Victorian frou-frous and chinoiserie -- everywhere the eye encounters lurid-colored Moroccan rugs, highlights of scarlet and orange, weird statues and mannequins, nasty-looking Academic portraits of gypsies and Arabs in the style of Bouguereau, the Victorian equivalent of paintings on velvet.  The sole evidence of good taste in this carnival of the vulgar is Elena's garments -- they are exquisite and she is a beacon of refined beauty in all the squalid ugliness of these nouveaux-riche interiors.  (The color scheme is like Matisse in his tropical phase but without any evidence of that artist's design or taste.)  At the end of the movie, Renoir has everyone kissing -- the director is so erotically generous that even Rollan's ministers, a dour group of grotesques like the professors in Howard Hawks' Ball of Fire, end up with compliant and voluptuous younger women, mostly maids, it seems, and peasants.  Rollan escapes into fame while the idle hero, who has unsuccessfully courted Elena, kisses her, pretending to be the great general who has fled through the mob outside the Inn dressed as a gypsy.  The film slows down and its hectic, farcical action subsides for a moment -- a sad-eyed gypsy girl sings a song about love and says that the night is warm suddenly, and has paused so that the lovers can avail itself of its generosity.  Renoir cuts to a long montage of people kissing in the darkness, foremost among them Elena and her new lover, a man completely unsuitable for her, and, then, with a final enigmatic shot of the lonely and pensive gypsy girl, the only person without a lover, the film ends. 

My description of Elena and her Men makes the film sound better than it is.  In fact, the movie is a bit tedious and the long stretches of frantic bedroom farce, upper-class brutes pawing and mauling semi-accommodating lower-class maids, are too grotesque and politically incorrect for comfort.  Renoir's movie is partially about politics, although the film rejects politics in the end, and so it is crammed with the "people", visualized as crowds of colorfully dressed extras --Zouaves and beplumed guardsmen, acrobats and circus clowns out of Picasso, courtesans and generals.  The crowds mob stairs and block doorways and fill the screen with super-abundant carousing -- there are songs and rowdy parades, attempted rapes, drunks staggering all over the screen, and hunting parties, elaborate war games with artillery and cavalry, duels and threatened duels, sumptuous feasts and fistfights throughout the picture, an elaborate, continuous excess.  I think Elena and her Men is considerably more intelligent than it seems -- you tend to lose the thread of the films rather nihilistic argument in all the festivities and raucous partying.  But you can think about the movie productively when all the sound and fury subsides, can consider the merits or demerits of its hierarchy of values (Liebe ueber Alles) and, indeed, the film is sophisticated and probably profound in its anti-profundity message:  life is to be enjoyed and love is the most enjoyable of all human activities, a proposition startlingly embodied in the supernaturally beautiful and vivacious Ingrid Bergman.  

Friday, August 28, 2015

It Follows

Reviewed in The New Yorker, David Robert Mitchell's horror film It Follows (2014) has the reputation of being an intelligent and thought-provoking genre picture.  In fact, the movie is poorly written, implausible, and strangely absent-minded about its own premise.  It is also completely humorless, lacking the wit of meta-horror films like The Cabin in the Woods.  Like Whedon's picture, the film makes explicit the underlying implications of a hundred other movies of its kind -- sex is deadly.  In It  Follows, the consequence of having sex is pursuit by zombie-like "followers."  The "followers" are, apparently, both material and immaterial -- sometimes they can be killed by gunfire, other times, they resist bullets and walk right through fusillades.  The "followers" seem to have super-human strength and malice aforethought -- if one of them kills a victim, then, the curse reverts to the preceding person in the sexual chain.  The effect is like La Ronde only with zombies.  No explanation is given for this phenomenon.  Commentators on the film laud the movie's refusal to supply explanation as creating "mystery".  But these commentators are pretty obviously fools and the lapses in the script are not explained by enigma but laziness. 

The film is elaborately produced with languorous slow steadi-cam movements tracking characters or revolving in 360 degrees (and, then, back again) across landscapes or dimly lit interiors.  Camera movements of this kind are always gripping and the film creates a false sense of doom and gravitas through these elaborately preordained tracking shots.  The director is skilled in mobilizing off-screen space to create dread and the movie is shot in convincingly dingy middle-class homes and romantically desolate urban wastelands (It Follows takes place in Detroit.)  But all of these effects are not only obvious, but painfully obvious -- an open door suggests the onslaught of a monster and the slow zoom toward that door with jangling-on-the-nerves music enhances that impression.  Whether the monster appears or not is immaterial -- the effect is one of dread but produced by the most oppressively manipulative measures.  None of this is rocket science, just production values applied to hackneyed material.  In general, the comely threatened teens sulk and brood and act in ways that make no sense at all:  in the opening scene a girl mostly naked but in what appears to be high-heels flees from a house.  An unseen zombie is after her.  So where does she go?  To an isolated beach where she sits all alone in the darkness under picturesquely stormy skies until the inevitable happens.  Similarly, the teens stalked by the monsters, of course, retreat to the familiar cabin in the woods for the show-down with the spooks.  The climax of the film in a big rundown swimming pool invokes The Cat People book lacks any of that film's wit or intelligence -- for some reason, the kids think they can lure the monsters into the water and electrocute them.  But the monster outsmarts them -- not hard to do since they are obviously idiots -- hurling the various appliances that the kids were using for sources of electricity at the heroine who stands in the middle of the swimming pool.  This sequence has some showy shots of bullets ripping through the water and a big flamboyant swirl of blood in the monochrome darkness of the haunted natatorium but the entire scene makes no sense at all.  Apparently, It Follows' whole budget was devoted to steadicam effects because the zombies are just naked people or kids in pajamas ambling along at a slow pace with a vacant look on their face -- the monsters would not be frightening at all except for the elaborate camera set-ups and portentous sound-cues that presage their arrival.  Films involving extraordinary and monstrous events that require suspension of disbelief must be scrupulously logical and consistent within their premises.  But It Follows doesn't make even elementary sense.  It's a pretty, but completely vacuous film. 

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Winter Sleep

Shakespearian theater is about motivation.  The characters discuss their motivations endlessly; at times, they turn to the audience to confide the reasons for their actions.  For modern audiences, a play like Othello often seems overly explicit -- every nuance of the title character's suspicious actions is carefully disclosed and defined at great (and, if truth be told, sometimes tedious) length.  Nuri Bilge Ceylan's new film, the much-lauded Winter Sleep (2014) involves a man of the theater, Mr. Aiden, apparently once a famous actor, who lives in his family's business, the Hotel Othello, in scenic Cappadocia.  Ceylan's master is Chekhov, although Shakespeare and Dostoevsky are also named in the credits, somewhat comically, as inspirations for some of the dialogue and situations.  Ceylan refuses to provide any clues as to motivation.  We are forced to infer why the characters perform the actions dramatized.  In Winter Sleep, Ceylan's strenuous absence of speeches defining motivation leaves the film a bit unfocused, blurry, not around the edges which are well-defined with interesting and vivid supporting characters, but, at its very center.  An example must suffice for many:  late in the film, someone points out that Mr. Aiden, after a devastating earthquake, opened his hotel to foreign relief organizations -- but he, also, refused to allow local victims to stay in the Othello.  This is clearly crucial information and, certainly, illuminates Mr. Aiden's prickly and flawed character.  But we are left to speculate as to whether this conduct partially explains his isolation and the evident distrust and, even, hatred that some local people feel for him.  Was Aiden's arrogant and insensitive behavior after the earthquake a major cause for his dilemma or is it, merely, minor and incidental?  Why did Aiden refuse to help local victims, letting foreigners stay in the hotel but not actual homeless victims?  What was his motivation?  We can certainly infer some of Aiden's reasons -- for instance, he clearly prefers cosmopolitan foreigners to the local peasants -- but the weight that we should give our inferences is unclear and ambiguous.  Some ambiguity is good for an audience -- but with too much uncertainty, the viewer is likely to feel that the film is unresolved and, even, evasive, not good traits in a picture exceeding three and a quarter hours in length. 

Much of Winter Sleep is brilliantly realized.  The Cappadocian landscapes are astounding, pale, ghostly badlands against an infinite barren plain, and the acting is uniformly superb.  There are spectacularly conceived sequences and much of the dialogue is fascinating.  The film is sprawling in its ambition, a variant on Chekhov's Uncle Vanya with elements of Dostoevsky, speeches recited from Shakespeare, and, even, echoes of Ibsen's Doll House.  A local grandee, Mr. Aiden is a famous actor who has returned to his home village in Cappadocia to run his family's hotel.  Aiden's embittered sister, Necla, seems to have tended to their aging parents and the family enterprises (they own much property and are hated as landlords).  Aiden was apparently estranged from his parents; at one point, his sister accuses him of not going to their graves for "even a minute."  Aiden has a much younger wife, Nihel, the Desdemona/Nora figure in the plot.  Shakepearian in its scope, the story has three principal strands:  one plot, primary to the film, involves Aiden's conflict with a shabby, ingratiating local imam, Hamdi Hodja.  Hodja is the brother of local hothead, Ismail, who has been in conflict with Aiden over rent (Aiden has hired a brutish collection agency to repossess the family's TV set and refrigerator and air-conditioner.)   The hotheaded brother's small son hurls a rock through the window of a Land Rover that Aiden uses to patrol his properties setting up a tense confrontation between the peasant family and landlord that the smarmy Imam attempts to mediate.  At the climax of the film, Aiden's wife, Nihel, is drawn into this dispute.  The second plot strand involves Nihel's operation of a non-profit corporation from the hotel.  Nihel is raising money for impoverished local schools.  Aiden thinks his wife naïve and idealistic, and, further, believes the non-profit will be a vehicle for authorities to attack him and his family -- the film has long sections in which Aiden berates his wife citing tax exemption, record-keeping, and deductibility laws applicable to non-profits.  The message is clear enough -- Nihel has been infantilized; she is a trophy wife like Nora in The Doll House, and any independent action on her part is intensely threatening to her domineering husband.  The third element in the plot involves Aiden's internet ad for the hotel that suggests that the place owns horses.  Of course, there are no horses but when a guest draws this to Aiden's attention, his vanity is wounded and he engages a local man to capture and tame one of the mustangs apparently roaming the badlands.  Scenes involving the capture of the wild horse are disturbing and memorable -- the horse, it seems, would rather die than be captured.  This part of the film involves wild-west panoramas and looks like something out of John Huston's 1960 The Misfits.  Aiden is trying to write a history of Turkish theater, a book that the film suggests may not be worth writing.  The three plots don't exactly coalesce at any point and the story about the horse is embarrassingly emblematic -- near the end, Mr. Aiden lets the poor horse free.  The problem with the film is that it has three or four extended dialogue sequences -- two of them involving Aiden quarreling bitterly with his sister.  These scenes drag the movie to a complete stop and are conspicuously over-written and theatrical:  the scenes aren't sufficiently interesting to carry their length and the audience loses the thread of the argument in any event.  The plot involving the insulted and injured Imam and his dysfunctional family -- his brother is violent drunk, a wife-beater, who has served six months in prison -- is the most interesting part of the film; Winter Sleep comes fully alive when this narrative is underway.  But this plot accounts for only a quarter of the film -- the equally long story about Nihel's non-profit corporation is tedious and Aiden's objections, which are really about his wife's attempt at independence, are in such bad faith and so ludicrous that the viewers loses all respect for the character.  The last quarter of the film involves Aiden's failed attempt to leave Cappadocia for Istanbul (in a blizzard) and Nihel's equally doomed effort to effect a reconciliation with the local Imam and his family.  (Aiden writes for a local newspaper and in his column has attacked the Imam in a patronizing and cruel way.)  At the end of the film, Aiden has got drunk to the point of explosive vomiting, gone hunting, and shot a rabbit.  The rabbit provides him with an excuse to return home, presumably so that the poor beast can be prepared and cooked -- Nihel gazes down at Aiden as he stands shivering in the snowy courtyard of the Hotel Othello with his pathetic trophy, the great white hunter returned from his exertions. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Da Vinci codex at MIA

Security is tight at the Minneapolis Institute of Art where patrons enter an exhibition devoted to pages from the Leicester Codex, a notebook made by Leonardo Da Vinci.  Burly thugs strip-search customers and conduct body cavity inspections, a generally degrading experience that dampens the art lover's enthusiasm for the rather dour and arcane specimens of late 15th century calligraphy on display in the darkened galleries.  I didn't mind the rectal probe or the urethral sounds, but was quite upset when my pens, mechanical pencils, and highlighting magic marker were unceremoniously snatched from me, put in a sealed plastic bag and deposited with a receptionist for later retrieval.

It's hard to know why this heightened level of security is necessary.  The exhibit consists of three darkened rooms each containing about ten pages of Da Vinci's notebook.  The pages are covered with tiny reverse handwriting -- Da Vinci used "mirror writing" to encrypt his observations.  In the first room, the pages enclosed front and back (recto and verso) are entirely covered with microscopic inscriptions -- some vaguely worded labels explain in very general terms what Da Vinci wrote on the page.  A page covered with writing, probably about eight-hundred words is summarized in three or four sentences.  In the second two rooms, the pages in their plexiglass cases have minuscule drawings on them -- the drawings are elegant depictions of swirling water, intersecting river currents, angled excavation and earth-ramming equipment, little scaffolds, and pulley and lever mechanisms.  The images are very small, sketched with a spidery precise line, and fairly interesting -- but the notes don't provide enough context to understand exactly what we are seeing and the sketches are marginal to long columns of handwriting.  There's no reason to travel to see these things.  Images that you can summon to your computer will show you these codex pages more clearly than you can see them in the darkened rooms with crowds of people.  Furthermore, the sketches are not particularly interesting -- they have the artistic qualities of extra-lucid illustrations in an old Victorian science book or a nineteen-fifties Scientific American.  The rest of the exhibition, ostensibly something about creativity, with one exception is devoid of any interest, artistically or otherwise.  This part of the show consists of engineering sketches for automobiles, some eccentric inventions, and drawings mapping the evolution of such important developments in world culture as "in-line skates."  A gallery full of crocheted facsimiles of coral reefs is particularly pointless.  It's obviously intended to be a sop to women viewers since the rest of the show seems to pretty much adamantly imply that creativity and inventiveness is a male characteristic -- but it seems condescending and dimwitted to suggest that female contribution to the world of imaginative creation is limited to textile work, colorfully, if inaccurately, simulating coral reefs and their creatures.  One great work is on display in the galleries annexed to the Da Vinci codex pages -- this is Bill Viola's The Raft.  This high-definition digital video shows 11 people of various races and ages standing together, apparently waiting for a bus or train.  In super slow-motion, the people look down at their shoes, congregate more tightly together, mostly ignoring one another while reading books or checking on their cell-phones.  Seven people join the group.  Then, great jets of water are blasted into the crowd, horizontal waterfalls smashing against the people from both sides.  The water cannons continue to inundate the people, knocking them onto the ground, for about three minutes.  Then, the flood gradually subsides and we see the people, bedraggled and disoriented, several of them embracing as they attempt to help fallen, and, possibly, unconscious members of the group.  The video raises many thought-provoking questions and is spectacularly gorgeous -- the actors stand against a black background and the torrents of water look like jets of quartz; a woman shaking her head and long hair after the assault casts strings of glittering diamonds into the air in graceful slow-motion arcs; the drapery of wet clothing is, itself, very beautiful.  Some material introducing the "creative process" that engendered the work show references to Gericault's great and terrible painting The Raft of the Medusa.  Although Viola's video is wonderful on its own merits -- both beautiful and disturbing (do people really only interact meaningfully in the face of calamity?) -- the work is only tangentially related to the Da Vinci codex pages (like them, it features swirls of water) and not connected at all to the embarrassing coral reef simulacrum or the wacky (and not-so-wacky) inventions in the room with the engineering diagrams.  In general, the theme of the exhibition seems questionable:  if you buy yourself a notebook and write down your observations, you will be a creative person. 

Prodigious, if disturbing, creativity is on display in the adjacent galleries, a big exhibit devoted to work by Mark Mothersbaugh, the founder of the indy rock band DEVO, and a composer of some note.  Mothersbaugh seems to have to made postcards his preferred métier and the results are astounding -- for more than 40 years, he has made one postcard-sized work of art a day:  the post cards are bound into photo albums and off-loaded onto pallets so that viewers can bend down to inspect them by flipping through the pages of the albums.  Mothersbaugh's post cards are all different and all wildly, if grotesquely, inventive -- he favors parodies of 1950's educational and scientific images, modified in monstrous ways.  In his music, Mothersbaugh adopted the persona of a masked figure called "Booji Boy" and videos show him prancing about in that guise.  There is a horrifying image of oozing bandages being unwound from the head of an insectoid creature that, then, takes up an electric guitar or keyboard to play DEVO rock and roll.  A sort of improvised pipe organ periodically plays herky-jerky calliope tunes -- the Rube Goldberg style machine is far larger than the music that it produces, an amusing disproportion.  Another gallery is devoted to images that Mothersbaugh made as parodies of daguerrotypes -- the pictures use the simple, if alarming, effect of mirroring right and left, creating eerily symmetrical faces either too wide or narrowed to the point of heads looking like hairy vulvas with ears.  In another room, armies of kewpie dolls splashed with paint stand on carpets of artificial grass.  Mothersbaugh's mutant-geek aesthetic has an authentic counter-cultural edge -- we are taught to regard artists as hip, cool seers, but, in fact, the show discloses an unhealthy, half-crazed wallowing in the deformed and desperately uncool and unhip. Perhaps, this sort of stuff is best experienced in small doses, but the exhibition has a real power and is far more fascinating, and disquieting, than most of the stuff in the prestigious, adjacent Da Vinci show.  If Mothersbaugh illustrates unfettered creativity, it's clear that this faculty is closely related to unwholesome obsession -- maybe, a little creativity goes a long way.

Also on display is a small but beautiful show of paintings collected by a Twin Cities businessman, Myron Kunin.  The show is comprised of "American Modernist" canvases, an unhelpful title for a variety of ingeniously painted pictures including a powerful New Mexico landscape by Marsden Hartley, some Bowery-style "ash-can" realism by Paul Cadmus and Reginald Marsh (in particular a Goya-esque painting of a line at a soup kitchen called "Holy Name Mission.")  Kunin liked to collect erotic images and I wonder what his private stash looked like -- the show features three ripe nudes of the kind that used to grace the wall behind old-time saloons.  These are unashamedly pornographic (or verging on the pornographic) works by Robert Henri and John Steuert Curry. 

The MIA's greatest painting, Bonnard's paradisical and uncanny "Dining Room in the Country" is on loan.  An interesting small show on the 2nd floor features anatomical engravings and a frontispiece to a folio-sized treatise by Vesalius reminds us in a startling way that during the 17th century dissection was like grand opera, a form of decadent entertainment. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015


Once I was hiking in a western National Park, a place with desert and mountains.  The trail began on a nondescript salt flat and, then, wandered to some low, parched boulders.  Although the guide-book promised all kinds of marvels, I didn't see much of anything but sun and the baked carapace of "desert concrete" and, then, a furnace-like trough in the outcropping where the path led upward over barren boulders.  Emerging from a slit in the stone, I suddenly found myself among pinnacles and minarets of wind-sculpted rock, a whole army of stone chess-men strewn across a basin drifting with multi-colored sands.  The walk to what appeared to be just another burnt rock formation led to a wonderful, hidden landscape.

 The 2014 Argentine film, Jauja, attempts a similar effect.  (The film is Lisandro Alonso's fifth feature -- apparently, all of his movies are similar to this picture.)  Although there are people in the movie, they exist only as cursors dragged across vast empty landscapes.  The idea is to transport the people that we see dwarfed in these landscapes into the space of the sublime and wonderful.  If there is a plot of Jaujau, it is about a man's incursion into a strange landscape and the things that he beholds in that place.  As the film opens, we see a man and his daughter dressed in Victorian clothing sitting on a rocky beach among terraces of rock eroded into bath-tub-shaped tidepools.  The girl asks her father to get her a dog that "will follow me wherever I go."  Her father says he will do this -- but only when they return to Denmark.  It's a strange landscape with living things in the remote distance, perhaps, small seals although we can't see the creatures distinctly.  A man bathes in a pool rhythmically masturbating.  Later, this man dons bright red trousers and asks the hero, played by Viggo Mortenson for his daughter -- the man says he will buy her for a horse since the person who rides in these wild parts "rides like a King."  There is talk of a military ball at a nearby fort -- we never see the fort or the ball -- and a renegade named Zalauga who may be leading the local Indians in an uprising.  The men call the Indians "cocoa-nut heads" and vow to exterminate them.  In one of the tidal pools, someone finds a six-inch tall toy soldier with a red coat and musket.  In the night, the hero's daughter elopes with a young soldier who seems to be half-Indian, a man named Corto.  The guy in the red pants offers to hunt Corto down, but Viggo Mortenson's character (significantly, he is called Colonel Dinesen) says that this is his duty.  He departs on horseback across the desert.  The lovers embrace at a stream surrounded by flamboyantly tall and exuberant grasses.  Dinesen encounters a crew digging a ditch, possibly for a railroad, and, then, finds a man tortured to death among strange totem poles on a hilltop.  After more traveling, he finds Corto dying with his throat slit -- the girl, Ingeborg, is nowhere to be seen.  While Dinesen is trying to saw-off Corto's head with his sword, a dark hand enters the frame and steals the European's rifle and, later, his horse.  On foot, Dinesen wanders through the wilderness. A Norwegian wolfhound with a raw sore on its side appears in the desert and Dinesen follows the animal through the wasteland. He comes to a volcanic caldera where there is a spring and a weird woman living like a troll in a rocky fissure.  The woman tells Dinesen that "One man is not all men" -- reversing the Borgesian formula -- she also asks "what is it that makes a life go forward and function?"  Dinesen continues his quest and falls asleep under a sky full of smeared stars.  Without any advance warning, the film cuts to elegant-looking European chateau with stone towers and immense gardens.  The young woman played by the actress in the role of the vanished daughter, Ingeborg, wakes up.  She has breakfast (the house has modern appliances) and, then, goes outside to tend her pack of Norwegian wolf hounds.  One of the dogs has a sore on its side, but her father, who is grooming the animals, says that with antibiotic and lotion the dog will soon be better.  The father says that dogs obsessively scratch and lick themselves when something bothers them that they can't figure out.  The girl leads the dog away from the estate, passing through a symbolic-looking gate that could furnish a painting by Caspar David Friedrich.  With the dog, the girl explores a lush forest where there is a tiny lake.  The girl finds a six-inch tall wooden soldier.  She tosses the wooden soldier into the pond and, then, the landscape blurs into an image of the stony beach where the film began, the inscrutable living creatures wriggling a little on horizon.

The film presents an enigma organized around certain images:  the toy soldier, the compass in its wooden box that the girl takes from the encampment when she elopes, the dog with its wounded side.  All shots are static and last from 30 seconds to a couple minutes in length -- generally, the shot simply shows someone approaching the camera or departing toward the Patagonian horizon, crossing an immense, silent, and motionless landscape.  There is very little dialogue and the speech that we hear doesn't clarify anything -- in the first twenty minutes there is lots of talk about a ball at the fort that is completely meaningless and leads nowhere.  After the girl elopes, the film is distilled to its essence -- a pure chase or pursuit across impassive and, increasingly, hostile landscapes.  The film suggests archetypes -- the image of a lone wanderer chasing a woman who can not be seen and who leaves increasingly few traces seems integral to the movie:  in some ways, the picture is a meditation on John Ford's The Searchers.  The toy soldier that appears mysteriously in the desert, on the seashore, and, then, in the lush Danish woods seems to symbolize the lone searcher -- a figure with which the woman plays, but, then, discards.  The film is full of startling images but paced slowly that it is difficult to stay awake if you are watching this picture alone in a warm room before going to bed -- sleeping during the film doesn't harm the experience:  in fact, it makes the movie seem even more hallucinatory and visionary:  I fell asleep as the man was entering a cleft in a rock, woke briefly to see him sitting with a strange older woman, a kind of Norn, in a grotto that looked like it was made of black mirrors, and, then, opened my eyes again to see a castle in Denmark and a dock extending over dark water -- the membrane of the water seems to flex and repel reflections when the girl walks out onto the dock to throw away the toy soldier.  The picture is shot in a curious aspect ratio -- it is pillar-boxed and this gives the viewer the effect of seeming the images as if projected by some kind of ancient magic lantern system or a toy viewmaster (the images are shot 4:3 in what is called Academy ratio with the edges of the frame elegantly curved.)  It's an uncanny film that requires more research -- it's also slim and enigmatic to the point of vanishing, the distillation of Antonioni's L'Aventurra to its quintessence.  When asked at a film festival Q & A, Alonso said he didn't know himself what the movie meant.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Maps to the Stars

In the first twenty minutes of David Cronenberg's film, Maps to the Stars (2015), lawyers, a psychologist, and the parents of a child star meet to discuss the 13-year old boy's substance abuse.  The kid, apparently modeled on Macauley Culkin, feels that he is a has-been at 13; he acts like an aging diva from a movie like A Star is Born.  The sequence is filmed in shots showing each interlocutor facing the camera, only one person in each frame with the editor cutting between the people as they speak -- in other words, the effect of the sequence is spatially disorienting with nervous jump-cuts to shots that otherwise match except for the identity of the person speaking.  The sequence is abstract, alienating, and designed to emphasize the isolation of the people involved in the meeting -- each man or woman or child occupies his (or her) own space discontinuous with the space of others.  Cronenberg's icy technique highlights the film's themes -- everyone in the movie is radically isolated from everyone else by their self-absorption, narcissism, and cruelty.  One of the only two-shots in the entire film is the last image, showing two doomed characters together on the front step of a burned-out house:  the characters are allowed a brief communion because they have embarked on a mutual suicide pact.

Cronenberg is fundamentally a horror film director and Maps to the Stars draws on tropes from that genre -- the characters are haunted by apparitions of the dead who appear from time to time.  People die by fire and water -- death is elemental.  The protagonist is said to be "disfigured" by burn injuries and her scars are emblematic of the secret deformities afflicting the other characters.  Horror is generally a morally unambiguous genre -- physical monstrosity reflects moral evil and Cronenberg metes out brutal, gory justice to the various villains inhabiting the film.  Of course, the problem with post-modern horror is that there are no redeeming characters in sight -- everyone in Maps to the Stars deserves their awful fate and, of course, there is no virtuous heroine to be saved (and no brave hero to rescue her).  The premise of the film is that a 13-year old child star lives with his parents, a famous psychiatrist with highly idiosyncratic modes of treatment, and his wife, a hysterical stage-mother.  For reasons that are completely unclear to me, the child-star's parents are incestuous, a brother and sister -- this incest will mirror the relationship between the 13-year old actor and his mentally ill (and disfigured) sister.  It seems that this sister, Agatha, burned down the family's house seven years earlier, suffering injuries in the course of that fire.  Agatha has taken a bus to Hollywood where she intends to confront her brother and parents.  In Hollywood, Agatha finds a boyfriend, a limousine driver played by the callow and annoying Robert Pattinson.  Agatha is friends with Carrie Fisher who finds her a job working as a personal assistant for a famous actress played by Julianne Moore.  Moore is on the verge of a crack-up -- she is desperate to be cast in the main role of a remake of a famous Hollywood picture in which her mother starred (and for which her mother received a Golden Globe).  Cronenberg and his screenwriter like dubious symmetries -- Julianne Moore's mother died in a fire.  Before the film ends, people will be burned to death or drown in swimming pools or be bludgeoned beyond recognition -- a shaggy dog even gets gratuitously gunned-down.  Agatha's arrival destabilizes the fragile equilibrium.  Julianne Moore decides to have sex with Agatha's boyfriend, probably to reassure herself that she remains young and desirable.  Agatha witnesses this betrayal precipitating the various calamities that comprise the film's denoument. 

Everyone in the movie is on the edge of hysteria.  Dead children haunt the boy-star and drive him to viciously assault his co-star, a little kid who is about seven years old, but already a scorpion who seems motivated to displace the actor as star of the Bad Babysitter franchise.  Julianne Moore is filmed in a way contrived to humiliate this actress -- she appears in a three-way sex scene with another woman, flees the bedroom, and, then, admits that "I am a bad dyke."  She has to masturbate to excite Pattinson's character and, then, has to wriggle around in a degrading sex scene with the actor. At one point, Cronenberg puts her on the toilet, showing her flatulently defecating -- the picture makes you wish that Cronenberg was willing to show this actress a bit more chivalry and cut her a little slack.  (I don't know who Cronenberg is revenging himself on, the film after all is a sort of roman a clef -- but his revenge is not a pretty picture.)  Moore's character is so repugnant that when she is beaten to death the audience is supposed to cheer her bloody demise, a scene that channels Carrie since the burn victim's menstruation triggers the assault.  Cronenberg's cold, analytical style and resolute refusal to employ any melodramatic methods to emphasize this material is at odds with the film's lurid themes and garish emotional overtones.  (I suppose a more robustly melodramatic mise-en-scene would simply ladle additional hysteria on a narrative that is already hysterical enough).  The prudish Canadian sensibility moralizing the material also makes the film's prurient subject matter vaguely risible.  (The movie is a Canadian-German co-production.)  As you watch the picture, you think to yourself -- this must be an adaptation of some ancient Greek tragedy to modern Hollywood.  But you can't think of the tragedy and, after a while, the proceedings with their auto-da-fes and other brutalities comes to seem just a wee bit ridiculous.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sherman's March (film group essay)

Sherman’s March: A Meditation on the Possibility of Romantic Love in the South in the Era of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

Like most citizens of TV-land, I enountered Ross McElwee’s documentary Sherman’s March as a PBS special sometime in 1987. Ads for the show didn’t appeal to me. The movie had something to do with the Civil War and a modern-day Southerner’s romantic adventures. At that time, I construed the film to be a variant of the famous PBS show, An American Family (1971), the proto-type of all reality TV shows and a program that I had loathed. PBS’ promotional materials suggested that the film was a "slice of life" and that, if you enjoyed An American Family, you would like McElwee’s movie. I had never heard of Ross McElwee, disliked the South and Southerners in general, and wasn’t interested in another reprise of the dull, and remote, American Civil War. So I made up my mind to avoid the show.

One evening, while channel-surfing, I came upon a film that had a curious, self-referential tone. The movie was underway and I wasn’t sure what it was that I was watching. The show was quite funny, but, also, erotic in a mournful, self-deprecating way and I was immediately drawn into the film, intrigued by its sexual undertones and the obvious intelligence with which the movie had been made. I watched the last hour or so of the picture only to discover that it was Sherman’s March. In those days, PBS mercilessly recycled its documentaries and so I had plenty of later occasions to see the movie – however, I don’t know that I have ever watched the entire movie in sequence, from beginning to end. Rather, I dabbled in McElwee’s odyssey, dipping into the long picture like you might dip into the essays of Montaigne. The movie was comprised of a series of romantic adventures, most of them near-misses and, apparently, unconsummated, that follow in a bizarre way the course of Sherman’s devastating March to the Sea. I thought the movie was charming and ingeniously made. The historical references were fascinating and the film’s general thesis was clever, even profound – a great conqueror strides across the South destroying its culture and, then, 120 years later, a nebbish follows in his footsteps completely incapable of conquering anything, let alone the headstrong women that he encounters. I developed an admiration for the movie when I overcame my resistance to the Southern accents. It is pretentious to admit this but, when I imagined the film in French or German, with subtitles, I was able to appreciate the film on its own merits. Even today, I think, I would most like to see Sherman’s March dubbed into German and, then, subtitled. (In fact, the full, extended title to the film sounds distinctly Brechtian.) If I can admire greatly, Chris Marker’s San Soleil, then why do I have a resistance to Ross McElwee’s work, films that resemble those by the French director?

McElwee was contracted to produce three documentaries for PBS. Sherman’s March was followed by Time Indefinite (1993), a documentary about death and dying, and, also, a very funny film. The Six O’clock News is the third of the PBS-sponsored films. It was first shown on the network in 1997. I don’t believe that I have seen this movie, apparently, a meditation on the media. In 2003, McElwee’s Bright Leaves, a picture about his family’s historical involvement in the South Carolina tobacco industry was released and, also, shown on PBS. That film was also very interesting, wry, and quite funny.

McElwee’s films are primarily about his response to his Southern heritage and have an autobiographical, even diary-like, structure. The protagonist of many of McElwee’s films, but most notable Sherman’s March is a droll, bemused everyman, a character called "Ross McElwee" who, I suppose, bears as much resemblance to the real Ross McElwee, a 67-year old film maker from Charlotte, North Carolina as "Borges" bears to the writer and librarian Jorge Luis Borges from Buenos Aires – a fancy way of saying that McElwee’s persona, of course, is a fictional construct. Some critics complain that McElwee is relentlessly self-absorbed – this is true, but beside the point: making this criticism of McElwee’s work is like condemning Proust for writing long sentences or denouncing Michael Bay for explosions in his movies – a McElwee film predictably records the directors reaction to certain important aspects of the human experience. The curious thing about McElwee’s films, a characteristic of documentary, is that the movie’s are oddly decentered, something like Salvatore Giuliano – they are about a character that we only rarely see since, of course, McElwee is operating, and, therefore, behind, his camera.

Islands and Bombs

The least interesting character in Sherman’s March is Ross McElwee. This is a conceit, an intentional fiction – clearly McElwee must be an interesting fellow to attract the remarkable women who populate the film. But the movie depicts a man with a camera so obsessively committed to recording his life that he forgets to live. How many times is he embraced by someone while still resolutely holding onto the camera and operating it? The woman about to depart approaches for a clinch, she blurs out of focus, and McElwee’s camera turns sideways to loiter on some meaningless detail of landscape or decor. There seems little doubt that he filmed sex scenes with, at least, some of these women – I wonder in what attic at PBS that footage lurks, waiting to be discovered.

Two broad themes underlie McElwee’s voice-over narration and his editing. (Voiced commenatary and editing establish the meaning of documentary footage in general; from raw material consisting of thousands of feet of filmed imagery, the documentary director assembles a selection of pictures to illustrate his theme and create his narrative. If the pictures can’t support the theme and narrative, the film maker can add his own commentary in the form of a voice-over.) These themes can be roughly characterized as follows: first, the film maker hides behind his camera to avoid commitment; he is radically disengaged from encounters with other people because these interactions are always mediated by the camera. The second theme developed in the movie is a question as to why the film maker avoids commitment – this is an exploration of the director’s psychological aversion to commitment. McElwee posits two theories for his aloof stance – he implies that trauma at an early age (his witnessing a H-bomb blast from a Hawaiian island) has left him with profound fears about nuclear catastrophe; these fears seem to undercut his desire for meaningful relationships with women – what’s the point of forming a bond with a woman, marrying, and having children if we are all going to snuffed out by a thermonuclear apocalyspe. McElwee’s second hypothesis as to his unfortunate love life relates to his ambivalence about participation in life – he is like his historic mentor, William Tecumseh Sherman: he both loves the South, as exemplified by the women he encounters, and, yet, seems to despise it as well. McElwee is a Southerner who nostalgically longs for his home, yet spends his professional life in Boston. Film making for him is war – it’s the conquest of an adversary both feared and desired. Making a film is inimical to participating in life – Charleen challenges him with the words: "This isn’t art, it’s life" and, repeatedly, demands that he put the camera down and engage in life, not making art. But McElwee understands that the appeal of art exactly is that it isn’t life. That’s why we make art – to avoid life and its miseries and to escape to rational beautifully organized structure of meaning. McElwee’s life bears no resemblance to Sherman’s march to the sea – the metaphor is baroque, metaphysical, like one of John Donne’s conceits. But the metaphor, although practically untrue, is a way of making sense of reality and McElwee is going to stick with it through thick and thin, even though the abeyance to his persona as a detached, ambivalent, artistic observer disqualifies him from life.

There is a third basis for McElwee’s refusal to "passionately" (to use Charleen’s word) engage with life. As a son of the South, McElwee is too chivalrous to state this basis for his aloof stance, but it’s relatively apparent from the film. The women that McElwee encounters are, more or less, crazy, themselves, highly eccentric. On some level, there is something wrong with the women that McElwee selects as actual (or potential) romantic partners.

Pat, the would-be actress, is vain, narcissistic starstruck – she announces the film’s obsession with Burt Reynolds as the epitome of the perfect male – and eccentric to the point of apparent mental illness. She seems only remotely connected with reality. The linguist living out a version of Thoreau’s Walden, although with sex, is simply too smart and too weird for McElwee – she’s also, apparently, half-crazy. When McElwee asks her about sleeping with linguistics professor she admits that "at that time in (her) life," she was interested in only two things "linguistics and sex." The anti-nuclear activist is too saintly and ascetic for McElwee, too committed, it seems, to the idealistic task of improving the world. Didi, the Mormon, is obsessed with the end of days and can’t marry outside her religion – she seems frighteningly, if sweetly, fanatical about her religious convictions. Joy, the night-club singer, is like Pat; she’s a self-absorbed exhibitionist and the social distinction between her and McElwee render any meaningful relationship impossible: Joy seems to epitomize a "White Trash" subculture very remote from McElwee’s genteel family and most of the women in which he expresses an interest. Karen, the only woman for whom McElwee turns off his camera, is like him – an intellectual leading an experimental life: she is lawyer, prosecutor, and avid Feminist, although there is something highly ambivalent and conflicted about her Feminism. Even women peripheral to McElwee’s sexual ambitions seem bizarre, half-crazed – his sister and the woman modeling clothes at the fashion-show seem obsessed with physical perfection; McElwee’s stepmother has an odd affect and a nagging, glittering eye.

Central to the film both thematically and structurally is the astounding Charleen, "my old teacher," McElwee tells us. Flamboyant and fantastically articulate she is a spokes(woman) for real life, for love, passion, and obviously sex. (When Didi turns out to be unacceptable as a mate for McElwee, Charleen offers him another woman, "a real doll...and she sleeps around.") Charleen is wonderfully exuberant, excessive, and charismatic – she is like a female Falstaff or Chaucer’s Wife of Bath and her exhortations to McElwee to abandon his camera and passionately engage with life echo the audience’s perception at the point in the film when things start to repeat and our attention to the long movie flags. But there is something a bit eerie about Charleen also – it seems apparent that she is sexually interested in McElwee despite being married and considerably older than the film maker. Her quest to get McElwee laid seems to originate in perverse vicarious urges in her. She delights in dressing provocatively for McElwee’s camera, flaunting her enormous bosom and her Dolly Parton-like Barbie-doll features, and we see her leading McElwee into some kind of long, dark tunnel, obviously a sexual referent, a kind of lover’s lane, a sort of Walmart Venusberg. She is by far the most attractive figure in the film, the warmest and most accessible of the women with whom McElwee transacts his abstract busines – yet she also seems remarkable excessive like a figure from a Fellini film. (Indeed, McElwee’s movie bears more than a passing resemblance to Fellini’s 8 ½, a picture about a film director stymied in his effort to produce a movie by the predatory and rapacious women around him.)

As with Once upon a Time in Anatolia, McElwee uses the great length of the film for artistic purposes. Everything in the film seems to repeat albeit with slight variations. The movie’s length is used to signify its epic ambitions – the hero is a kind of Lohengrin or Tannhauser engaged in a sexual quest through terrain that equates with the ideology of southern womanhood. But this quest is doomed to failure – and McElwee’s search for a woman fails at length. This failure is not the result of personal deficiencies or accidental failure to encounter the right woman. To the contrary, McElwee samples just about every possible version of White Southern woman and finds that none of them suit him (or if they suit him, these women are inaccessible). McElwee’s failure is construed as heroic, massive, and systemic – he has explored the entire world of the old South, been assisted by a formidable pander in Charleen, and, yet, none of his encounters yields any lasting satisfaction. It’s important to the film that McElwee fail and, further, that he fail on an epic scale. Hence, the film’s pattern of doubling and tripling events: there are two groups of Doomsday preppers, two crazy and narcissistic show-biz women – further, all of the women have roommates who seem also to have some interest in McElwee and are also possibly available to him. Events repeat in variations establishing complex thematic patterns – the film is full of different kinds of ruins, rivers, islands. Pat’s imaginary island is mirrored by the strange, chigger-infested island where the linguist lives. In an early scene, McElwee records Scottish "Highland Games" at some kind of Celtic gathering: in a comical vignette, a burly fellow struggles to raise a huge tapered pole, the most obvious of all phallic images – it is a "Caber Tossing" event. Later, we see men similarly laboring to raise a cross, an image inducing an unsettling allusion to the phallic competition at the games. In Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, a German proverb is cited: Einmal ist Keinmal – that is, "one time is nothing." McElwee edits the film so that it is voluptuously replete: in large part, the rhetoric of the film is demonstration by repetition.


The Georgia Guidestones

In Sherman’s March, McElwee’s method is elliptical. Ellipsis is necessary, of course, because McElwee can’t film the intimacy with the women that he is seeking. Certainly, it is obvious that the relationship with several of the women is sexual – however, the sexual encounters are chivalrously implied, but not stated. As a son of the South, McElwee is a gentleman: he doesn’t kiss and tell. But this limitation on what the film represents also "decenters" the movie – it is about something that is barely mentioned, let alone shown.

Characteristic of McElwee’s reticence is a sequence involving a a visit to "America’s Stonehenge" – the Georgia Guidestones in Elbert County, on the border with South Carolina in northeast Georgia. In 1979, an unknown person (or persons) acting under the "pseudonyn" (sic) of R. C. Christian, contracted with the Elberton Granite Company (at the county seat) to erect five granite monoliths supporting a lintel capstone. The monoliths collectively weigh 240,000 pounds and stand on a knoll near an adjacent highway. Inscribed on the monolith are various admonitions repeated in eight language ranging from Russian through Swahili, Hebrew and Mandarin Chinese. A shorter version of the minatory text is incised into the capstone in Egyptian hieroglyphs, Classical Greek, Latin, and Babylonian cuneiform. The stelae are oriented according to astronomical principles. A smaller stone monument suggests explains the astronomical orientation of the monoliths, provides technical data as to their weight and height, and explains that the legend on the towering slabs is intended to guide mankind that a nuclear holocaust destroys civilization. Accordingly, the monument is explicitly post-apocalyptic and directly correlated to McElwee’s theme as to the hazards of love in the "era of nuclear proliferation." McElwee, however, uses the monoliths as a background to an encounter with one of the women, doesn’t specifically exploit the remarkable thematic connection between the stones and his narrative, and, in fact, leaves the audience with only a little information about the monument where the sequence is shot.

Several of the instructions carved into the stones have a direct connection to themes in the movie. The stone asserts that the population of the world must be maintained below "500,000,000." And the third instruction is "Guide Reproduction Wisely – maintaining fitness and diversity."


A Joke

McElwee is fond of monuments. The film documents his visit to Stone Mountain near Atlanta where the cavaliers of the Confederacy are carved onto a huge granite wall. Stone Mountain is sheer on one side but gradually sloping on its opposing face. A narrow-gage railroad leads to the top of the peak where there is a vista overlooking the escarpment on which the Confederate generals appear on horseback. McElwee shows this monument – in effect, a tribute to White Supremacy. We see performers in period costumes enacting some kind of shoot-out, possibly a scene from Reconstruction as imagined by Margaret Mitchell in Gone with the Wind. (I’ve been to Stone Mountain and recall its strongly racist ambience – but I don’t remember people tableaux along the side of the rail tracks leading to the top of the mountain.)

Toward the end of the film, we see Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ monument of General Sherman at the corner of Central Park in Manhattan. This monument, cast in bronze in 1902, shows Sherman on horseback, grim and battered like the God of War. He is led forward by a winged female figure bearing a palm of victory. The monument is gilded. A Southerner once remarked: "Sherman! Typical of a damned Yankee. He rides on horseback and makes the lady walk."



McElwee’s films espouse this method: if enough footage is assembled and, then, edited analytically, a narrative can be constructed with mythic overtones. The length and profusion of material in McElwee’s pictures allows him to devise structures (and systems of cross-referencing emblems) that give his films an archetypal resonance. This is particularly true with Sherman’s March.

An innocent, young man, perhaps a holy fool or a kind of knight, departs from his home on a quest. The young man is equipped with an unique gift, a well-nigh magical power, that will protect him against perils. In the course of his travels, the knight is tempted, typically by a seductive woman or series of women. He succumbs to temptation. Wisdom must be achieved by sexual experience and all knowledge, perhaps, is carnal. The young man loses his way in a labyrinth of sexual pleasure. However, in the end, he recalls his quest, repents his sexual indulgences, and attempts to return to the mission that has been appointed for him. In the German myth of Tannhauser, the Knight is a crusader, but departs from his quest when seduced by Venus and entrapped in her underground grotto and pleasure garden, the Venusberg. Tannhauser’s magical power is his ability as a singer (minnesinger) – that is, his ability to transmute his erotic adventures into art. Tannhauser awakens one day in his seraglio, senses that his life has become meaningless, and escapes the wiles of the seductress. He travels to Rome to ask forgiveness from the Pope. The Pope refuses Tannhauser’s confession and, cynically, says that the knight will be forgiven when the Pope’s wooden staff blossoms. Disappointed, Tannhauser leaves and, perhaps, dies of a broken heart. Three days after the knight has left the Pope’s palace, the Holy Father’s staff blossoms. Messengers are sent to recall the Knight but it is too late. The image of the dead phallus, the Pope’s withered and inert staff, suddenly blossoming signifies that Tannhauser’s way to wisdom through sexual excess was, in fact, holy.

Ross McElwee’s magical talisman is his camera, that is, his ability to transmute his experience into a film. The camera is both his sword and his shield – it protects him, while allowing the film maker to penetrate the experiences that he encounters. McElwee’s quest is to make sense of nuclear proliferation in light of the Old South’s tragic history as embodied in Sherman’s March to the Sea. But McElwee is diverted from his mission by the various women that he encounters. Central to those encounters is his meeting with Charleen, a figure like Venus herself. Ultimately, McElwee extricates himself from the women that he has been pursuing. We see him standing in a ruined plantation indicative of the apparent failure of his Quest. McElwee flees to a wintry New England, repenting his folly. But, of course, there he encounters another woman and, figuratively, his staff of dead wood blossoms again with the chorus from Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy" thundering on the soundtrack. This climax is a curious allusion to Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange – in that film, the hero, Alex, has been subjected to conditioning that has sexually anesthetized him; however, at the end of the film, Alex regains his sexual prowess and, in the final scene, is copulating with a woman to the music of Beethoven’s symphony.





When he was in his mid-seventies, Joseph Campbell, famous for his scholarly studies of James Joyce and mythology, lectured at the University of Minnesota. Campbell was old and frail. Of course, he was a proponent of the idea of the mono-myth – that is, the notion that all world mythology comprised a single archetypal structure. This structure could be characterized as the story of a hero ("the hero with a thousand faces") who ventured from his home, was granted a mission (like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now) "for his sins," suffered during his Quest, and was ultimately tempted into abandoning that Quest. In the end, the hero grasps that his temptation, and his seduction away from his holy mission, was also a part of the Quest. Either he succeeds in achieving his objective, more or less accidentally, and, then, dies or fails heroically (and also dies).

I attended Campbell’s lecture presented to a large audience at the Coffman Memorial Union on the campus. Campbell was, then, teaching in an emeritus position at a women’s college, possibly Vassar. Campbell said that his students rejected his notion of the mono-myth as a typically male conceit. Campbell told us that he responded to one of the women who had challenged his theory by asserting that it ignored the experiences of "half of the human race" – that is, women. "I was incensed," Campbell said, "I said to her – what do you mean? A woman give birth to the hero, raises him, and teaches him her wisdom. A woman is the subject of the Quest. Women seduce the hero away from performing the Quest and are the objects of his striving. In the end, the hero dies and returns to the womb of the primordial mothers. At every step in the hero’s quest, women are involved. What more could you want?" The girl responded: "I want to be the hero."

Charleen Swansea was born in 1933 and, presently, resides in Chapel Hill. As it is said in some of the fairy tales collected by the Grimm Brothers: Wenn sie is nicht gestorben, lebt sie noch – if she hasn’t yet died, she still alive. She is most famous for appearing in four of Ross McElwee’s films. She is the subject of McElwee’s first film, a 59 minute documentary, named after her Charleen (1977). When Sherman’s March begins to flag, McElwee brings her into the picture and she revs up the proceedings, jolting the movie back into life. Charleen is also an important figure in McElwee’s Time Indefinite. In that film, McElwee’s musings on death and mortality, Charleen’s husband dies in a house fire. Charleen believes that her husband, who was suffering from lead poisoning, set the fire intentionally and died while playing the grand piano at the center of the blaze, a suitably operatic demise. Charleen is carrying her dead husband’s cremated remains which she can’t manage to scatter. For her part in Time Indefinite, Charleen Swansea was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, an extraordinary honor since she is, of course, not a professional actor at all. Charleen also appears in McElwee’s 1996 film The Six O’Clock News.

McElwee met Charleen when she was conducting poetry seminars in the Charlotte public schools. He filmed her working with largely African-American students in classroom settings in his 1977 documentary – Swansea is naturally photogenic, larger than life, and fantastically flirtatious and sexy. (Scenes in which she flirts with her male students are astonishing; today, she would be put in prison for some of her classroom tactics.) McElwee revered Swansea and regarded her as his muse and lifelong teacher.

Charleen Swansea was the daughter of a dentist who sold false teeth. She claims that she spent her childhood traveling around with her father, a sleazy con-artist, with a valise full of false molars. At 18. Swansea decided that she would find another, older man that she could appoint as her spiritual father. Using her beauty and feminine wiles, she hitchhiked around the country and finagled meetings with people like Albert Einstein, Conrad Aiken, e. e. cummings, and Buckminster Fuller, each of whom she claims to have studied with. Ultimately, she fell under the sway of Ezra Pound and spent several years visiting him daily at St. Elizabeths’ Hospital for the Criminally Insane (Washington, D. C.) where he had been committed after his treason conviction. Charleen credits Pound as her teacher. She married in 1956 over Pound’s strenuous objections – by this time, Charleen had acquired a degree in literature as well as an MFA in poetry. As a young mother, she edited the Red Clay Journal, an important Southern literary magazine and was instrumental in publishing a number of books by Southern writers. After divorcing her first husband, Charleen married again – it was her second husband, from whom she was estranged, who died in the house fire while playing their grand piano. McElwee met Charleen when he was hired to document some of her teaching activities in the Charlotte public schools. In the film, Charleen, she plots to sell Pound’s many letters to her – she is down on her luck and needs to make some money. She is shown teaching and, also, lecturing a group of old women at her mother’s Baptist Church.

Along the way, Charleen Swansea earned a doctoral degree in neurobiology. She published a number of books on brain science and became a consultant for Fortune 500 companies. At that point, she vanishes from history and the internet – the weblinks are all broken...

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm -- Take One

In certain types of Lutheran preaching, the pastor's first task must be to locate him- (or her-) self in the Biblical text.  "Where do I enter into this narrative?  How does it relate to me?"  After defining the preacher's relationship to the narrative, the sermon, then, adopts that stance as a platform for the message presented.  For instance, in the Biblical story of the prodigal son, do I situate myself as the father, the obedient son, or the prodigal?  And, then, what are the implications arising from my situating myself in that role.  A film, I think, might be encountered in the same way.  Where do I situate myself in connection with story dramatized on-screen?  With whom do I identify and why?

William Greaves' experimental film, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm - Take One, shot in New York's Central Park on no budget at all in 1968, edited together into a 70 minute feature completed in 1971, but not theatrically released until 2005 is an attempt to apply the principles of improvisatory jazz to film making.  (The picture has a scintillating score by Miles Davis with contributions from Joe Zawinul.)  The situation is simple enough:  a film crew under the direction of Greaves has assembled to film a scene between a man and his estranged wife.  In the scene, the woman accuses her husband of being a "faggot" and says that she is going to leave him; the husband unsuccessfully attempts to placate the woman.  The scene involves a couple of pages of dialogue, mostly the woman insulting the man while he asserts repeatedly that she is crazy.  (The crew members suggest that the dialogue is poorly written, implausible, and low-grade Edward Albee -- a riff on similar scenes in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.)  Various problems afflict the production and the scene is re-shot a half-dozen or so times, each version different from the others -- the effect is like jazz musicians improvising on a hackneyed theme, six variations on "My Funny Valentine."  At least, three different couples attempt to deliver the dialogue and their speech is directed in various ways -- in one version, the woman and man actually try to sing the lines.  The camera crew and director encounter a crazed homeless man who has been sleeping in the park and it is clear that he is more authentic and interesting than anything that the actors and crew can contrive from the unsatisfactory script that they are filming.  The picture ends with the homeless man delivering a lengthy monologue about politics and, then, inscribing his name on a release authorizing the use of his image in the film.  An interracial couple appears and begins rehearsing the same dialogue on which the film has foundered earlier.  From time to time, the film shows the crew without the director "rapping" about their concerns about the production:  the production crew debate whether Greaves as a director knows what he is doing.  At last, someone suggests that the film mirrors the chaotic social situation then-current -- the crew has been provoked by the director, appearing as a representative of the Establishment, into a rebellion. 

The movie is continuously interesting and, sometimes, quite funny.  It is pointless, more or less, but that is part of the film's charm.  Early in the picture, Greaves tells the crew that everything must be related to "sexuality" -- although the film isn't particularly sexual or erotic in any way.  He says this after we have been treated to close-up shots of comely African-American lady's buttocks, lovers grinding against each other on the grass, and, then, a female sound technician attempting to plug some kind of cord in Greave's groin.  A woman with big breasts rides by on  a horse and Greaves shouts:  "Get the shot.  Here she comes.  The woman with big tits.  Get the shot."  Attempting to discern some theme in the repeated iterations of the sub-Albee dialogue, the crew debate the merits of the text -- one of the technicians says that it is the typical American script:  all little girls learn from age four to accuse men of being "ineffectual -- that is, faggots;" all little boys learn to express this thought:  "Baby, you've got my balls in a vise."  Someone argues that the film can't be about the lame dialogue that they are shooting -- it must be "about layers of reality."  But another member of the crew notes that as far as the audience is concerned Greaves could be in the corner of the smoke-filled room where they are having their "rap session" directing that dialogue as well.  The two actors most prominently featured in the film are, apparently, minor players who have worked frequently on television ads.  The man says that he doesn't know how to position himself because there is no product that he can hold up to the camera.  The woman purports to be a thespian and denies that she has ever done work in TV soap operas.  The man debates with Greaves whether he should play his character as a "butch fag, a fag fag, or a closeted fag."  Ultimately, the actress, who accuses herself of overacting, stomps off the set.  A weird buzz afflicts the sound track.  Greaves doesn't cut it out -- he just uses the drone as a counterpoint to his jazz soundtrack. 

The movie was lost for many years and rediscovered by Steve Buscemi in 1993 when the picture surfaced at a film festival.  Steven Soderburgh, who has increasingly come to be an angel to American independent film (he rescued from oblivion The Exiles and Killer of Sheep) paid for the restoration of the movie and it was briefly shown in theaters in 2005 before release as a Criterion disc.  In an early scene in the film, a New York cop mounted on a horse asks to see the director's license for shooting in the park.  The license is shown to him and the police officer, who is polite and helpful, makes some notes.  He asks about the name of the film:  "It is called 'Over the Cliff'," Greaves says.  "But we don't have any cliffs around here," the cop says.  "It's right here," Greaves tells him.   The cop, then, gets back on his horse and rides away while Greaves, or a member of his crew, salutes him with the muttered words:  "Fucking idiot!"  But, of course, the poor guy is just doing his job and no one has clued him into the joke, the fact that the whole thing is some sort of "put-on."  I situate myself in the saddle with cop and am inclined to regard some aspects of the film as mean-spirited.  But, then, how do I know that this man is a real cop and that this encounter was not also scripted?  One of the continuing themes in the film is that no one has read the script and some even wonder whether a script exists.  "I've read the concept," one crew member says, " and it doesn't tell you anything at all." 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

True Detective (Season Two)

A hundred years from now, when this decade is not even a memory, someone may well appreciate HBO's second season of True Detective as a highly stylized, operatic work of art -- a kind of opera seria, contrived according to a set of formulae as strict as those governing the composition of Petrarchan sonnet.  For viewers in the future, unconcerned about what it was like to live in the year 2015, this glossy and expensively produced (and immensely pretentious) TV show may possess the charisma associated with certain aspects of the baroque -- abstracted from anything like truth, the show proceeds through a series of morose encounters, each staged with maximum portentousness, interrupted every hour or so by an aria of pointless and extravagant violence.  The show is totally predictable, conventional in every way, although all genre conventions are inflated to the point that they are no longer means to narrative or thematic ends, but ends in themselves.  Consider, for instance, the helicopter shot dragging a Steadi-cam over convoluted freeway intersections -- cop shows (and True Detective is a cop show) use this image as punctuation, a way of suggesting that are a million stories in the Naked City, as filler something like the blank space between non-enjambed stanzas of a poem.  In True Detective, these gliding eye-in-the-sky whirlybird explorations of the freeway and its interchanges take on a life their own -- it's as if the director didn't know why he was using these images, but had the budget to produce them on a grandiose scale and, so, simply inserts these sequences to afford the show an expensive-looking visual flair.  Like much of the scenery in True Detective, it's impossible to know what the shots are supposed to mean -- and, this, I think, is because they don't mean anything at all. 

The problem with True Detective is the adjective.  There's nothing "true" about the show.  Police procedurals are successful to the extent that the film (or show) conveys a plausible account of how law enforcement manages criminal investigations -- even garbage like Adam 12 had a certain gravitas because, it seemed, to be about how real police might work.  But True Detective, a show devised around the broad conventions of this genre bears about as the same relationship to the police procedural as Aida bears to Egyptian archaeology -- the people in True Detective are nominally cops, but, in fact, they are like the demi-gods and heroes in Handel's operas, quasi-mythical figures with certain characteristic and tragic defects who have superhuman qualities when it comes to suffering and inflicting violence on others.  The first series of True Detective was a master-class in competitive acting, a duel to the death on screen between two exemplars of masculine narcissism, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConnaughey, both in full diva mode.  As such the show was a success since both actors are intrinsically larger than life and their flagrantly over-the-top melodramatics were compulsively watchable.  Unfortunately, the second series of True Detective doesn't have the aura of hand to hand combat between preening stars that inflated the 2014 show beyond its questionable nihilistic pretentions and allowed the viewer to overlook a plot that became increasingly predictable and conventional with each episode.  In the 2015 series, the viewer's attention is divided between four central characters, all of them based on ancient clichés -- Colin Farrell sulks and moons around as the conventional brutish, and alcoholic ethnic-Irish copper; Vince Vaughn plays a mobster whose efforts at going straight are thwarted by a Vladimir Putin-esque (I kid you not) Russian gangster; Rachel McAdams who looks disconcertingly like a bedraggled big-eyed Keane painting is a sexually conflicted lady police officer, good with her fists and a knife; Taylor Kitsch is a tormented CHIPS cop, bisexual, apparently, but masquerading as straight (the show is so profoundly and archaically conventional as to suggest that his sexual orientation may be the result of having for his mother Lolita Davidovich, playing an erotically ravenous middle-aged bimbo.)  No member of this quartet is sufficiently interesting to power the show and, when the main characters, get together periodically to hole-up in motel rooms or have sex or prepare for shoot-outs they mostly speak in tough-guy epigrams that would have embarrassed Mickey Spillane, little bits of guttural poetry interspersed by long silences and significant glances.  The plot is just an excuse for ridiculously excessive violence or scenes in which one or the other of the tough guy heroes is forced to exhibit emotion -- a rigid jaw trembles and eyes well up with tears and, then, the actor trembling with emotion shows us the true price of being hard as nails and tough as leather, a torrent of feelings that is supposed to reveal his (or her) secret suffering self behind the façade of brutish cruelty and indifference.  Since the tough-guy/tough-gal façade gets ruptured about every episode for every character, the ultimate effect is the opposite of that designed by writer -- instead of tough guys concealing their wounded vulnerability, the show seems to be about effusive, histrionic weaklings periodically pretending to be cynical two-fisted hard-asses.  But the chief problem with the show is that it is flagrantly and idiotically unrealistic -- do wealthy land entrepreneurs really cavort naked at parties staffed by hundreds of sexually compliant beauties from Bulgaria and the Ukraine?  Does everyone continuously insult everyone else or make repeated threats of grotesque violence?  Are casinos really full of gorgeous women and well-dressed young men huddled glamorously over baccarat and roulette tables?  (I've been in casinos in Minnesota, South Dakota, Las Vegas, and Atlantic City and have never seen anything other than sad elderly women wearing out their elbows at slot machines.)  Do all confrontations between good guys and bad guys take place in picturesque urban wastelands?  Diagnostic as to the problem with this show are two scenes:  in one, Vince Vaughn tortures an associate and, then, shoots him in the intestines, pouring a drink as he impassively watches the man bleed to death.  Vaughn's gorgeous, demi-hooker, girlfriend, enters the room where this amusing interlude is underway, casts a brief glance at the villain writhing on the floor, and, then, stares soulfully into her lover's eyes to show him that she endorses his actions and will stand by him to the bitter end.  It's utterly ridiculous and you long for the woman to say, like Oliver Hardy to the hapless Stan Laurel, "Well, this is another fine mess you've gotten us into!"  In another showy sequence, repeated about every two episodes, Vaughn and Colin Ferrel get together to morosely slug down booze in a sepulchral tavern featuring a waifish folk singer crooning about death and fate while a waitress with a conspicuously scarred face, now and then, pontificates on the encounter -- the scene might as well be staged on blasted heath or feature the weird sisters or Wagner's norns.  (True Detective seems based on Curtis Hanson's L.A. Confidential, the movie version of one of James Ellroy's books -- both series have the same two-part structure:  that is, a crime seems to be solved in a violent confrontation half-way through the show, but, then, the purported solution turns out to be a mere diversion from deeper, more pervasive corruption motivating the initial crime.  The second season, in particular, with its quartet of protagonists is similar in structure to the group of several cops acting either against one another, or in uneasy alliance, in Hanson's .... film.)

Despite these criticisms, I continue to watch the show -- it's reasonably entertaining so long as you regard the show as typical HBO entertainment:  beautiful naked women every forty minutes or so, lurid sex scenes, protracted gunfights staged with all the firepower of the landing on Omaha Beach, and absurdly impressive displays of caricatured evil:  a rich Texas money-bags who gropes our heroine and earns a knife-thrust in the testicles for his villainy, various sexual perverts, a corrupt mayor who "tears a cat" with villainy that would have looked cartoonish in a silent film, a savage Mexican lowrider who gets his teeth extracted one by one by Vince Vaughn using a needle-nose pliers.  (This scene is also indicative of the series' idiocy:  an honest approach to this material would have had Vaughn pull out one tooth for a good measure or, in the alternative, rip them all out in real time on screen so that the audience and onlookers could protest the sheer stupidity of the gesture and its tedium -- amateur dentistry, after all, isn't all that compelling.  But the show portrays this with a quick shot of Vaughn yanking out a couple teeth with the plier that just happens to be conveniently most gangsters walk around with needle nose pliers in their pinstriped suits? ...and, then, a later shot that implies that Vaughn did indeed denude the guy of his entire grill.  Well, if that's the case, I want to see every tooth pulled-out while the extras and supernumeraries in the scene sit around yawning and muttering "enough is enough!")  It's sort of fun in a ridiculous way but, notwithstanding the great and sinister theme music by Leonard Cohen, you can't confuse this nonsense with art.   

Friday, August 7, 2015

Killer of Sheep (film group essay)


I judge films by the memories that they create in me. Charles Burnett’s film Killer of Sheep (1977) was known to critics and film students and, indeed, highly regarded. But, for many years, it could not be seen. In 2007, the film was re-released and, I think, I saw it on DVD about five years ago. The movie doesn’t have a story and I couldn’t discern its structure, but, nonetheless, I often found myself thinking about the film. I recalled tunes from the picture and a sequence modeled on Laurel and Hardy’s The Music Box involving two men lugging an immensely heavy engine block down a precarious flight of steps. Certain images remained stuck in my imagination. I also thought the film was astoundingly accurate to life, at least, true to the kind of life that I had experienced when I was a child. This is an odd assertion since I am a middle class White man raised in the suburbs and the film chronicles episodes in the lives of African-Americans living in Watts a decade after the riots in that ghetto. But certain rituals and aspects of childhood are, apparently, universal and the way that Burnett portrays these things rings true: the constant play-violence, the use of stones and dirt-clods as toys, the bicycles, the crowds of children doing things that would appall their parents, the forts in vacant lots, the unpredictable stray dogs, and the general dreamy squalor of childhood, all of this is shown in Killer of Sheep with lyrical precision and beauty. I remembered the film with affection and wished to see it again.

Hollywood is a dream factory and most movies trade in wish-fulfillment, enacting the consummation of desires that these films also induce in us. (In real life, I have no desire to see a tanker truck obliterate a dune buggy armed with razor-like appendages for slitting tires. But when watching George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road the film creates in me a wish to see such a spectacle and, then, fulfills that wish.) Burnett’s Killer of Sheep seems to be about real life and the way that dreams are not fulfilled. In this way, the movie presents us with a vision that is the opposite of Hollywood’s perspective, an account of living as bitterness suffused with moments of joy and beauty.



Charles Burnett is sometimes described as America’s greatest Black film maker. His pictures espouse a strong, persistent morality rooted in Burnett’s origins in the Deep South, but his work is neither didactic nor polemical. Contrasted with Burnett’s subtle and inconclusive films, the work of the more famous African-American director, Spike Lee, seems shrill and strident. Because his films can not be reduced to political slogans, Burnett has never enjoyed a large public and he has only been able to complete a few pictures.

Burnett was born in Vicksburg in 1944. When he was a boy, his family, like the families of many southern Blacks, migrated to Los Angeles. Burnett recalls that South Central and Watts were like southern villages transplanted into the Los Angeles basin. By most standards, Burnett’s family and the area where they lived was impoverished. However, as shown in the film the people didn’t think of themselves as poor – they had come from much more desperate circumstances, most of the men had jobs, and as Stan says in Killer of Sheep "could give stuff away to the Salvation Army" which meant that they were not poor. (Stan’s problem in the film is not economic, but existential – he is bored and depressed.)

At first, Burnett went to LA City College and studied to be an electrician. He wasn’t well-suited to the job and attended UCLA where he took creative writing classes. After the Watts riots in 1965, UCLA was the center of something called the Black Independent Film Movement, a group of young men and women who made documentary-influenced pictures about African American life. These young people were influenced heavily by one of their teachers, Basil Wright, a British emigre who had made many important documentaries in the United Kingdom about lower middle class life. Wright, a Communist, had formed the Third World Film Club devoted to screening movies from Cuba, South America, and Africa. The members of this film club became the nucleus of the Black Independent Film Movement. Shot in 1977, Killer of Sheep is an example of one of the pictures made by Movement members. Burnett wrote the script for another prominent Movement film, directed by a friend, Billy Woodberry, Bless their Little Hearts (1984). Burnett was the director of photography on another important Movement picture, Bush Mama (1979) about police brutality.




Burnett was entrusted with the use of a 16 mm. camera owned by the UCLA film school and used that equipment to shoot Killer of Sheep. He cast friends and acquaintances from his neighborhood in the movie. All of the leading actors were film students or enrolled in UCLA theater programs. (The actor playing Stan, Henry Sanders, a Vietnam veteran then studying theater at UCLA, remains active in character roles mostly on TV and has had many credits; the woman playing his unnamed wife has also appeared in several films. None of the other players had any professional aspirations – they don’t appear in any other movies.) Burnett recalled that his only expense was film stock. He estimated the cost of the movie as "less than $10,000." Editing equipment and lights were supplied by UCLA. Burnett’s script was submitted to UCLA as his Masters Thesis in the film making program and earned him a degree.

Local slaughterhouses in Los Angeles were sensitive to "protests by vegetarians" Burnett recalls and so he shot the packing plant footage over one weekend at Solano Meats, a place actually located north of San Francisco. The movie took several years to produce because all of the performers had jobs and shooting could only be accomplished on weekends and, then, only when Burnett had money sufficient to develop the film. (Delay occurred as well because one of the main characters went to jail for several months and production was halted until this man was released.) None of the actors were paid for their services.

Burnett recorded an elaborate soundtrack comprised of Blues and Soul music that was popular at the time that the film was produced. This soundtrack, integral to the movie, proved to be its downfall. Burnett couldn’t acquire the rights to any of the music heard in the movie and so was legally prohibited from showing the film for profit. As a consequence, the movie toured only briefly and was shown with no admission charged at museums and Black churches. The picture could not be commercially released and so Killer of Sheep was shelved.

Burnett assumed that the 16 mm. negative of the film was in a climate-controlled vault at UCLA. In 2006, he discovered to his horror that the negative was not in a climate-controlled environment and that his film was rotting. When he approached the UCLA film school with this information, a petition was made to the National Registry for funds to preserve this movie as well as other pictures created by the Black Independent Film Movement. The movie was carefully restored by UCLA preservationists and blown-up to 35 mm. so that it could be theatrically premiered. The director Steven Soderburgh donated the $150,000 necessary to secure rights to the music featured in the film. Killer of Sheep was shown for the first time commercially in L.A. and New York in 2007. A DVD was produced of the film and the picture was immediately hailed by many critics as one of the ten best pictures released in 2007.



Why haven’t you heard of Charles Burnett? And why aren’t you familiar with his films?

Although Burnett has worked on films assiduously for 40 years, success has eluded him. Burnett’s movies are always underfunded, almost never advertised, and released with stealth – ordinarily premiering in only a half dozen or so theaters and, then, vanishing. Three reasons account for Burnett’s lack of conventional success in the movie industry.

First, Burnett is an African-American who directs movies about African-American themes. Racism remains powerful in this country and, no doubt, Burnett has been the victim of institutional prejudice throughout his career. Type-cast as a director of dignified, didactic movies for Black audiences, Burnett has been shoved into a kind of cinematic ghetto – he doesn’t make the raunchy, vulgar comedies that have made Tyler Perry wealthy, nor is he willing to indulge in exploitation pictures targeted at disenfranchised teenagers and young men. Finally, he is less politically astute than Spike Lee. Lee uses fiery rhetoric, but produces movies that are subtle and thoughtful, often contradicting the director’s own statements about those films. Burnett is relatively unassuming, rarely makes political comments, and his films about race, as complex as Lee’s work, don’t receive the hype that attends the Brooklyn director’s films – Burnett isn’t seen at basketball games and hasn’t made commercials for sneakers like Lee.

Second, Burnett’s movies are regarded as without commercial value – in an industry geared to producing pictures involving super heros or low-budget horror films or comedies starring SNL stars, Burnett’s relatively quiet and pensive films are drowned-out by the digital din. An example is Burnett’s brilliant and jazz-inspired To Sleep with Anger (1990). In that film, the devil in the form of a Southern conjure-man played by Danny Glover comes to Watts and tempts the members of a family – the movie is uncanny, beautifully acted and filmed, and expresses a morality intrinsic to the African-American church. But it’s not an easy sell – there are no special effects, no one gets killed, and Danny Glover’s tempter is all unctuous easy-going charm; he is menacing because he is so attractive and likeable. Although the movie is a profound portrait of evil, the picture doesn’t have readily identifiable villains – even the Devil is ambiguous in his motivation. (The film ends with the suggestion that the Devil exists to keep us practicing our moral ‘chops’ – the movie’s presiding metaphor involves a boy practicing jazz riffs on his cornet. Even the Devil, in the end, contributes to our growth and wisdom – if we have to practice virtue, one day we will be "good.") This picture was one of the best of the decade but it was released on only 18 screens nationwide. And this was notwithstanding overwhelmingly positive reviews in prestigious magazines and newspapers. A similar problem befell Burnett’s The Glass Shield – a police film involving a young Black officers who learns that his fellow officers are corrupt. Burnett doesn’t use foul language in his films, scrupulously avoids gratuitous violence, and rarely shows sex – it’s as if he wants his films to be accessible to a broad and church-going public, probably because his intentions are generally didactic. The Glass Shield is very tightly scripted, plausible, and a realistic portrait of the subculture of policing. But because it lacks car chases and gun battles, the film was essentially unmarketable – you can’t make an effective cineplex trailer about someone’s gradual moral awakening.

Furthermore, several of Burnett’s most impressive productions were made for the Disney channel, that is for television. These include the alarming and cruel ‘Nightjohn (1990) about literacy, and the attempt to repress it, in slaves on a plantation in the Deep South. Intensely dramatic and powerful, the film is intended to convey a lesson – the importance of reading and writing. The TV show, handsomely produced and impressively mounted (it stars among others Beau Bridges) suffered in its prestige precisely for the reason that it was accounted a children’s film made by Disney. Another TV film made for Disney also is highly regarded, Selma, Lord, Selma (1999) – this picture depicts a 14-year old girl’s participation in the Civil Rights March on Selma. The film won about every award a TV show can win. But have you seen it?

The third factor confounding Burnett is a simple, but distressing one: the quality of his movies is highly variable. He has made some of the best American pictures produced in the last forty years. And he has made some of the worst, and most embarrassing, failures as well. The trend began as early as Burnett’s second feature film, My Brother’s Wedding, shot in 35 mm. color and (barely) released in 1983. In this film, Burnett’s attempts at comedy fail miserably and his eccentric characters seem merely whimsical. Burnett seems to have lost his touch with non-professional actors – the line readings seem almost phonetic and the characters either over-act or woodenly recite their lines, blinking nervously at the camera. In 2001, Burnett directed a romantic comedy starring Lynn Redgrave and James Earl Jones called The Annilihation of Fish. The film involves an interracial romance between two people with serious mental illness. The movie had its world-premiere at the Twin Cities film festival and was shown at the Parkway Theater in north Minneapolis. Local critics were respectful. But the national press was merciless in its reviews of the film and it has totally vanished – indeed, even websites connected with the film seem to have evaporated and the links are all broken. No one has seen Burnett’s epic film, Namibia, the Struggle of Liberation (2007) – the picture was shot in Namibia with over 200 speaking parts, but most of the actors and actresses used differing dialects (or spoke entirely different languages) and it is said that no one could understand anyone else on the set. I suspect that the film is also a catastrophe.



Although Killer of Sheep is generally accounted a film about racism, I think this interpretation is wrong. First, there are very few White people in the film and they have only peripheral roles in the narrative. Second, the film doesn’t feel angry. Burnett is not an angry film maker by temperament; rather, he is a cool, jazz-inflected analytical director at his best, somewhat like a Southern Black Brecht. In my view, Killer of Sheep is about melancholia and loneliness. In this respect, Killer of Sheep is probably more closely akin to European art films of the era – movies like Antonioni’s L’Eclisse or The Red Desert or the movies that Bergman was making at this time. (Burnet would deny these influences – he asserts that the film makers that he most admired at the time he made the movie were Basil Wright and Jean Renoir: Burnett says that he was influenced by Wright’s Song of Ceylon and Renoir’s The Southerner.) Stan, the titular character, is an unhappy man. And, in significant part, the film is about Stan’s attempts to deal with his sadness.

As classically imagined, melancholy involves the mind ranging outward and encountering only obstacles to thought. Melancholy is a restless disposition. Burnett’s film profits from the sorrow that Henry Sanders, the lead actor felt after returning from a "harrowing" tour of duty in Vietnam. Sanders, as Stan, seems unable to find anything that gives him pleasure. The sense that the world is inhospitable to him is made emblematic in the central sequence, a set-piece involving an attempt to salvage an engine. The engine is immensely heavy and Burnett stages the scene to emphasize the frightening weight of the engine block. An engine is a thing that drives a car and that might offer some escape for the characters in the film. But the engine block turns out to be too heavy to rescue and is left in the gutter. (The scene derives some of its resonance from a similar film: the famous Oscar-winning short by Laurel and Hardy involving two men trying to move a piano up an enormous flight of stairs – an absurdist enterprise like something imagined by Beckett that turns out to be totally unnecessary.) The savage weight of Burnett’s world is exemplified in the freight car that the children, training for adulthood, try to push unsuccessfully. The little kids are always in danger of being crushed – consider that one of their playgrounds is a construction site has been jacked-up to perch absurdly on stilts. The world is full of objects and these objects are malicious. Tires go flat and can’t be changed. Sheep have to be killed and their guts carted away. The children who seem to be learning to fly, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, alone are exempt from the desolate and slightly comical sense of things that are too heavy, weariness, a great opaque weight pressing down on the earth, the entropic force that makes things break apart and collapse.

When the film was restored in 2007, the rights to only one song were inaccessible. But this was the most important song, Irving Gordon’s "Unforgettable" played during the scene in which Stan dances with his wife near the end of the film. Instead, Burnett substituted "This Bitter Earth" by Dinah Washington. Some films are fortunate even with respect to accidents that befall them. Dinah Washington’s lament, played at the end of the film, greatly enhances the movie’s power.