“Writing in Artforum in 2009 about what he called ‘the New Real-ness’ of digital cinema, critic J. Hoberman identified two basic tendencies present at cinema’s inception, contrasting the ‘undirected’ actualities of the Lumière brothers with the trick films of Georges Méliès,” begins Paul Dallas at Indiewire. “In the former, the camera primarily captures recognizable images of the real world. In the latter, camera and editing conspire to produce filmic effects, and to create a reality that we can only experience through film. A trip to the moon, for example.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real, opening today, “is as much a celebration of cinematic invention as it is a thorough acknowledgment of the medium’s longstanding influence on how we view our world. Curated by FSLC’s director of programming Dennis Lim and independent curator Rachael Rakes, this expansive 16-day festival includes six North American premieres, world premieres of three new short works by James Benning, and screenings of seminal works of non-fiction by masters such as Paulo Rocha [more in the Notebook here and here] and Raymond Depardon.”
For Fernando F. Croce, writing in the Notebook, the series “could not have possibly asked for a more appropriate film with which to kick off its exploratory ruminations on documentary filmmaking. Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s La última película is, among several things, a meta-commentary on its own layered being, a jocular doomsday journey through the collapsed scaffolding of the medium itself. Largely riffing on Dennis Hopper’s 1971 acid anti-Western The Last Movie (as well as its behind-the-scenes companion piece, The American Dreamer), Martin and Peranson employ varying film formats—everything from Super 8mm to HD digital—to weave a postmodern quilt that’s forever ripping at the seams.” Earlier: Reviews from the Fall 2013 festival season.
The North American premiere of Corneliu Porumboiu’s The Second Game is, appropriately enough, the second opening night film, and Porumboiu will be on hand for tonight’s screening. I posted a few notes when I saw it at the Berlinale and added links to reviews from others as well.
“A highlight of the series is the closing-night film, Robert Greene’s extraordinarily accomplished, vertiginous Actress,” finds the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “Greene (who here does most of his own camerawork) films the daily life of a woman in suburban Beacon, New York. The woman happens to be Brandy Burre, who had a recurring role on The Wire but then withdrew from acting to care for her small children with her partner, Tim Reinke, a restaurateur. Now Burre has decided to reignite her career, and Greene follows her with the camera, even in surprisingly intimate situations… Actress is, above all, a triumph of cinematography: Greene’s calmly unsparing images, with their canny framing and sense of shadow and color, set the self-conscious Burre in a fiction-centered schema akin to a Douglas Sirk melodrama.”
“Even considering its outdated video format, Anna [1972-1975], newly restored, still seems ahead of its time,” writes Eric Hynes in the New York Times. “There’s hardly a formal conceit that the directors Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli don’t try in this three-and-a-half hour study of a pregnant Sardinian 16-year-old they found living among homeless hippies in the Piazza Navona in Rome…. A portrait, an experiment in human behavior, a vérité document of Europe’s struggles to recover from the tumult of the ’60s, and a precursor to both reality TV and man-on-the-street stunt satire, Anna exposes its own hypocrisies alongside those of its subjects, and never comforts the viewer with resolution. Are the directors questioning the exploitation of the young woman or participating in that exploitation? And what in the end is the difference? Forty years on, such questions still haunt the work, and remain an integral part of its radical artistry.” The screening on Tuesday will be introduced by Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers.
The Whitney Biennial has collaborated with the FSLC on special focus on Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab and included in the Art of the Real series are Stephanie Spray’s As Long as There’s Breath (2009), Véréna Paravel and J.P. Sniadecki’s Foreign Parts (2010), Robert Gardner‘s Forest of Bliss (1986), Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1954/1967), Jana Ševčíková’s Jakub (1992), Vincent Monnikendam’s Mother Dao, the Turtlelike (1995), Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor‘s Sweetgrass (2009), Ernst Karel’s Swiss Mountain Transport Systems, Radio Version (5.1 mix) (2001)—and Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana (2013), which also opens at the IFC Center on April 18. Benjamin Mercer in the L: “At once a heady structural exercise and a deeply endearing look at people just taking in the scenery, this outstanding documentary unfolds entirely within the 5-by-5-foot confines of a cable car, moving along over a Nepalese valley bounded by foothills and dappled by forests and farmland.” Earlier: Reviews from festivals in Locarno and New York. Scott MacDonald interviews Spray and Velez for Film Comment.
Also in the L, John Oursler on Derek Jarman‘s Blue (1993): “This is a rare 35mm screening (introduced by the artist Carolee Schneemann) of Jarman’s melancholy swansong, which was filmed after the groundbreaking queer director lost his eyesight in the throes of late-stage AIDS complications. Consisting of a single frame of blue, the film features narration from Jarman, longtime collaborator Tilda Swinton, and other actors revisiting the director’s life and work.”
I’d recommend all these overviews of the series I’m pointing to, but if you only have time for one, make it Max Nelson‘s for Film Comment. Besides his insightful notes on the films he’s chosen to focus on, he also places them in rich historical context. At one point, he notes that a “three-sided dance between a filmmaker, a subject, and a place comes from Mati Diop, still perhaps best known for her sublime central performance in Claire Denis’s 35 Shots of Rum, but at this point a highly accomplished filmmaker in her own right. Mille soleils [A Thousand Suns, 2009] picks up a thread left hanging by Touki Bouki, the 1973 Senegalese classic directed by Diop’s uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty.” That film’s stars grew apart over the years. “In the contrast between the sunbaked streets of Dakar and the wide-open, snow-covered Alaskan hills, she found an effective visual metaphor for the way desire operates—and occasionally breaks down—over distance; and, in Tex Ritter’s ‘Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’,’ one of the most poignant expressions of longing I know of in recent cinema.”
Narimane Mari’s Bloody Beans (2013) “has the lucid, meandering structure of a dream,” writes Ela Bittencourt at the House Next Door. “In it, a group of children sunbathe and doze on an Algerian beach, talking of hunger and games. A lively exchange about black versus white beans’ effect on farting leads one boy to say, ‘You’re starting to fart like a Frenchman,’ a first hint that Mari, who situates her story in ordinary gestures and parole, wants to employ them metonymically as vestigial remnants of colonialism.” Marsha McCreadie talks with Mari for Film Comment.
Colin Beckett in the Brooklyn Rail on Thom Andersen: “In the eight films and videos he has made since 1965, he has worked cinema to its limits, not in the service of formal exercise or psychological realism, but in order to uncover precisely what kind of reality film is capable of disclosing of its subjects, and in doing so, has crafted new, particularly cinematic methods of practical, political, and, ultimately, moral instruction…. Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer  examines the philosophical force of Muybridge’s proto-cinematic innovations and precisely locates the social and technological underpinnings that distinguish his zoopraxography from the cinema proper. Red Hollywood , made with Noël Burch, looks at the neglected works of blacklisted Hollywood leftists and insists we take seriously the sociopolitical content of their work.” Jordan Cronk in the L on the latter: “A work of both acute cinephilia and noble conviction, this historical rejoinder to an era of rampantly misplaced paranoia traces an alternate cinematic history that nevertheless played out before our very eyes.” See, too, Jonathan Rosenbaum‘s review for the Chicago Reader.
Suggestions for further viewing: Explore our latest Spotlight, Stranger Than Truth.
Updates, 4/12: “One of the most winning aspects of this current documentary movement—if anything so diffuse, defined by a rejection of the hegemony of doctivist didacticism rather than united by any common cause, can indeed be called a movement—is the scrupulous attention to its own history,” writes Nick Pinkerton for Artforum. “Like Renaissance artists, these filmmakers are eager to establish themselves as part of a lineage which, taken altogether, forms an alternate history of documentary cinema. So the ‘Focus on the Sensory Ethnographic Lab’ sidebar offers Forest of Bliss (1986), in which Robert Gardner, longtime director of Harvard’s Film Study Center, recorded death rites in the sacred city of Benares, India along the ghats of the Ganges, all when most of the SEL directors were still in short pants. As in Manakamana, there is a focus on ritual, though unconstrained Gardner emphasizes the extravagantly wasteful, the florid and fetid. His film is the ravishing record of an American observer abroad, in its eye for atmospheric detail, the cinematic equivalent of one of Whistler’s Venetian notebooks.”
“From the start, the documentary cinema was infused with French aestheticism and French psychology,” argues the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “The documentary was defined not as a naïve and spontaneous capture of preëxisting reality but, rather, as a creation, a work of art. So it’s no surprise that the virtual godfather of Art of the Real is a French filmmaker, Jean Rouch (1917-2004), one of whose films, Jaguar, is featured in the series. Rouch (whom I wrote about here a couple of years ago) is one of the great secret influences of the modern cinema.”
Updates, 4/20: “The films of Mati Diop conjure faraway places,” writes Genevieve Yue for Film Comment. “Characters both fictional and quasi-documentary long for locales beyond their reach, or sometimes, as if in a trance, they drift magnetically toward them. No matter where the films take place, there is always the specter of somewhere else, and, perhaps with it, the possibility of a different life. These evocations of distant locations—a friend’s tropical Yucatan adventures relayed by text message in Snow Canon (11), memories of home mournfully recalled in Big in Vietnam (12), and the idea of an opportunity-rich Europe worth risking one’s life for in Atlantiques (09) and A Thousand Suns (Mille Soleils, 13)—suffuse the concrete worlds her characters inhabit so that her films often seem to be in multiple places at once.”
The Silent Majority Speaks “is a pioneering example of why governments can no longer repress their people with impunity,” writes the FSLC’s Brian Brooks, introducing an interview with the filmmaker. “In June 2009, Iran’s presidential election unleashed a fervent of civil uprisings in Tehran and beyond. Supporters of candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi (represented by the color green) was the most reformist of the four candidates vetted by the Islamic Republic’s establishment and officially allowed to run. Masses of people took to the streets in a sea of green to show their support for Mousavi, who was up against the country’s hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Filmmaker Bani Khoshnoudi stealthily took to the streets along with fellow demonstrators to capture the moment.”
Brooks also talks with Davi Pretto, director of Castanha, a portrait of João Carlos Castanha, “a spirited 52-year-old actor and transvestite who lives with his mother in the southern Brazilian port city of Porto Alegre.”
Updates, 4/25: “For Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty re-staged scenes of an Inuit family at home, complete with an igloo constructed for the shoot. Getting to truth through fiction was an accepted practice for that non-fiction pioneer.” R. Emmet Sweeney surveys the program at Movie Morlocks: “Lim and Rakes make wide-ranging connections, from the ethnographic experiments of Jean Rouch (Jaguar, 1954/1967) to the SEL… Rouch practiced what he called ‘ethno-fiction,’ and with Jaguar, he took an anthropological film he had shot in 1954 in Niger, and asked its subjects to dub a commentary over it thirteen years later, where they try to recall their on-screen conversations and get sidetracked with jokes and digressions.”
At the L, Aaron Cutler recommends San Clemente (1982): “It’s February 1980, and cameraman [Raymond] Depardon and sound recorder Sophie Ristelhueber have come to a Venetian island’s 150 year-old mental institution, which will soon shutter, in order to film its residents going about their everyday lives. The two stay despite resistance from doctors and patients who question their reasons for being there, and turn defiance into agency by letting the patients guide them and help them select what they will show.”
Update, 4/26: “The notion that there is such a thing as the documentary/fiction hybrid… has been reinforced over the past 130-odd years by works as superficially disparate as Edison’s The Kiss, Warhol’s Blow Job, and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno,” writes Dan Sullivan for Film Comment. “With that, I present a by-no-means-exhaustive timeline of highlights that traces the idea of the docufiction from Muybridge’s Horse in Motion to the present.”
The FSLC’s Brian Brooks talks with Robert Greene about Actress.