21st 03 - 2017 | no comment »

Austerlitz (2016)

Director: Sergei Loznitsa

2017 European Union Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

In 2008, I interviewed Errol Morris about his then-new documentary, Standard Operating Procedure, which tried to make sense of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal of the Bush Jr. administration. We talked about why he thought one of the scapegoats who took the fall for the administration photographed the humiliations and torture in which she took part. He said:

In a way, it’s an essential question, and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.

This is certainly one of several possible reasons we take pictures, and tourists are especially keen to document and view themselves in places they may never visit again as a kind of highlights book of their life. What I find peculiar is not necessarily reality, as Morris suggests, but the urge not only to visit places like Auschwitz or Gettysburg, but to stand smiling before a camera at these sites of mass slaughter. Austerlitz, an unnarrated look at visitors to the Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp in northeastern Germany, raises these and other issues, and causes a unique kind of self-questioning in audiences who view it.

There are few things more boring than looking at someone else’s vacation pictures, and it is perhaps with this wry thought in mind that director Sergei Loznitsa places his static camera just inside the camp gate to film a long opening sequence of arriving visitors. Several tour groups deposit large clots of tourists outside, many with cameras dangling around their necks or selfie sticks at the ready. We also see family groups pushing buggies and baby strollers, and couples having a day out together. All the visitors are dressed for summer in slogan- or logo-tagged t-shirts, shorts, tank tops, and other light gear.

Many are drawn to having their picture taken in front of or standing like inmates behind the bars of the wrought-iron gate into which the message “Arbeit Macht Frei” is twisted, including a man wearing a yarmulke. That infamous phrase assures us that we are not at just any tourist attraction, but one specifically linked to mass murder. Loznitsa’s choice to shoot the entire film in black and white recalls the monochrome pictures and newsreels that are many people’s only exposure to period images of Nazi prisoners; thus, this choice has the effect of marching these day trippers in the shoes of those who would never emerge from this camp again.

Loznitsa sets his camera up at various locations, but aside from crematory ovens and a tiled room that was probably an exam or autopsy room, we don’t see most of what the visitors see. We watch people standing and moving down a long corridor pocked with doors, some looking briefly inside one of the rooms and at least one woman examining the contents of one for a long time, obstructing other visitors who want to see it, too—is it curiosity about what she’s seeing or just another stop on the tour to be checked off? After she finishes her examination, the camera catches her in the corridor looking grave and isolated while foregrounded by a child moving swiftly in her direction.

It is truly remarkable how a static camera can capture people randomly arranging themselves in very artful compositions. A bridge over a closed-up half-square is empty as a lone figure positions herself in front of the sealed opening to listen to the explanation of what she is seeing on the handset for her self-guided tour. Caught in the narrative, she must stand in place until it is finished as the bridge fills up with tourists moving in either direction. We, then, are the observers of a pure abstraction of disquieting beauty.

Loznitsa offers some details about Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg by way of the tour guides who provide information about the camp to their groups. One Italian guide describes the treatment of the political prisoners who formed the majority of the camp’s residents and the agonizing pain they went through when they were tied to pillars in the yard, their screams unnerving the other prisoners who were being interrogated. Again we see the spontaneous pull of the narrative as one member of the group puts his back to one of the pillars and stretches his arms up as though tied to it to pose for a picture.

What are we to make of this action? It’s a kneejerk reaction to condemn the apparent insensitivity of so many of the people who walk like seemingly mindless cattle through the camp—but then, weren’t Jews mocked for being sheep to the slaughter? Perhaps the photo at the pillar offers a graphic “caption” of how these pillars were used for the edification of unknown viewers in the future. Loznitsa is careful to ensure that we see the look of horror on some visitors’ faces at certain points, particularly at one exhibit we know must be especially meaningful because a large bronze sculpture commemorating the dead and suffering inmates stands opposite it.

We can’t expect people who are not living in emergency to act as though they are. This is history, an edifice devoid of actual threat that, nonetheless, bears witness to the fact that atrocities under the Nazi regime took place here. Those who choose to visit concentration camps may just be along for the ride, to see but not learn. But I imagine many of them and those who watch this film are drawn to examine a side of humanity most have never seen, to learn more about what their ancestors went through, or even to search their souls for their own capacity to do evil. The film takes its title from German writer and academic W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel Austerlitz. Like most of his works that deal with personal and collective memory, his novel depicts a man who fled Czechoslovakia during World War II as part of the kindertransport who works to reclaim his history, which had been banished from memory by the foster parents who took him in and adopted him. Although Loznitsa’s Austerlitz may try some viewers’ patience, it is an excellent reminder that all works of art ultimately are examinations of the relationship of human beings to themselves, each other, and to the world.

Austerlitz screens Sunday, March 26 at 3:15 p.m. and Wednesday, March 29 at 6 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Eva Nová: An alcoholic actress faces her family’s rejection and the harsh reality of being old in a profession that worships youth in this compassionate look at human fragility and the need to survive. (Slovakia)

J: Beyond Flamenco: Master dance filmmaker Carlos Saura offers up another fascinating look at dance styles from Spain, this time, jota, a folksy, upbeat style from his native province of Aragón. (Spain)

Portrait of a Garden: This contemplative documentary shows a year in the life of a 400-year-old estate garden and a loving look at two master gardeners trying to pass on the wisdom of many years of working with plants, soil, and climate. (The Netherlands)

Tomorrow, After the War: A detailed look at wartime betrayals that threaten the tranquility of a small village when a Resistance fighter returns home and starts digging into a murder case. (Luxembourg/Belgium)

My Name Is Emily: A teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny when she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)


5th 02 - 2016 | 10 comments »

Blowup (1966)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Michelangelo Antonioni

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By Roderick Heath

Michelangelo Antonioni was a relatively minor figure in the European film scene until 1960. The former economics student and journalist entered that scene in the days of Mussolini’s regime, and started his directing career making documentaries. His early labours offered hues of the oncoming neorealist movement, depicting the lives of poor farmers in Gente del Po (1943), plied under the nose of the dying Fascist state but then lost amidst its collapse. He had the honour of being sacked by Vittorio Mussolini, was drafted, started fighting for the Resistance instead, and barely escaped execution. But when he made his first feature, Cronaca di un amore (1950), Antonioni began to blaze a trail off the neorealist path, following a contrapuntal instinct, a readiness to look into the voids left by other viewpoints, that would come to define his artistry. Although slower to make his name, he nonetheless formed with Federico Fellini the core of the next wave of Italian filmmakers. Antonioni helped write Fellini’s debut film The White Sheik (1951) before he made his second feature, I Vinti (1952), a three-part study of youths pushed into committing killings, a sketch for Antonioni’s recurring fascination with characters who barely know why they do what they do. Antonioni’s sudden ascension to cause celebre and acclaimed director had to wait, however, until his L’Avventura (1960) screened at the Cannes Film Festival. This remains one of the legendary moments in the festival’s history, as the film was met by jeers and anger from some of the audience and greeted as a ground-breaking masterpiece by others. L’Avventura took on a relatively obvious but powerful idea: what if you set up a film as seemingly one kind of story, then changed tack, refused to solve the mystery presented, and used the resulting discord and frustration to infer a different, more allusive meaning?

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Antonioni sold this idea as something like a Hitchcock film without the suspense sequences and reduced to the studies in emotional tension Hitchcock usually purveyed under the cover of such gimmicks, with rigorous filmmaking and an antiseptic approach to his characters’ private obsessions that left them squirming without recourse before his camera. Antonioni was now hailed as the poet laureate of “alienation” cinema, a filmmaking brand digging into the undercurrent of detachment, dissonance, and unfulfillable yearning lurking underneath the theoretically renewed, stable, prosperous world after cleansing fires of war allowed the ascent of modernity. His was the intellectual, continental, Apollonian side to the same phenomenon observed in the more eruptive youth films in the U.S. and Britain like The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955); eventually Antonioni would try to unify the strands with Zabriskie Point (1970). Antonioni followed his breakthrough with two films to complete a rough trilogy, La Notte (1961) and L’Eclisse (1962), and his first colour film, Il Deserto Rosso (1964). For Blowup, he shifted to London and its burgeoning “swinging” scene. Blowup, like L’Avventura, superficially repeats the gimmick of setting up a story that seems to promise regulation storytelling swerves, and then disassembles its own motor. Blowup’s murder mystery seems designed to point up a cocky young photographer’s defeat by ambiguity and lethargy and the dissolution of his own liminal senses. Or does it? Again, there was a Hitchockian side to this, taking the essence of Rear Window (1954) and its obsessive correlation of voyeurism with filmmaking, whilst inverting its ultimate inference. But Antonioni took his motivating concept from a story by Argentine author Julio Cortazar, “Las babas del diablo,” based around a man’s attempt to understand a scene featuring a pair of lovers and a strange man he spots in the background of photos he takes of Notre Dame.

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Cortazar’s main character became lost in the unreal space between the photo and his own imaginings, projecting his own anxieties and emotional biography onto the people he inadvertently captured, particular his sexual apprehensions. Antonioni skewed this template to serve his own purposes and to reflect the strange new zeitgeist festering as the 1960s matured. The assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 sent ripples of profound disturbance and paranoia through the common experience. Conspiracy theorists began scouring photographic evidence for evidence to support their claims even before the Zapruder film came fully to light. Antonioni tapped into a percolating obsession, which joined also to a growing mistrust of public media at large, by reconstructing the central motif of Cortazar’s story to become one of apparent murder—perhaps an assassination. But Antonioni had been delving into some other ideas present in Blowup since his career’s start. I Vinti contained one story set in London, depicting a shiftless young poet who discovers a dead body and tries to sell the story to the press: there already was the peculiar ambiguity of approaches to crime and the weird mix of venality and empathy that can inflect the artistic persona. Antonioni seems not to have lost the reportorial instinct honed in his documentary work. Like Dostoyevsky, he took on tabloid newsworthy stories about murder, vanishings, delinquency, and the sex lives of a new class jammed just between the real masters of society and its real workers. He followed such lines of enquiry through the social fabric of his native Italy at first, and then out into the larger world.

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The aura of abstract elusiveness Antonioni’s works give off tends to disguise how much they are, in fact, highly tactile films, defined by an almost preternatural awareness of place, space, and décor, constructing mood and inferring meaning through the accumulation of elements. Where Fellini increasingly celebrated the inner world and the furore of the individual perspective in the face of a strange and disorientating age, Antonioni became more interested in the flux of persona, the breakdown of the modern person’s ability to tell real from false, interior from exterior, even self from other, and had to find ways to explain this phenomenon, one that could only be identified like a black hole by its surroundings. Cortazar’s protagonist, moreover, was a writer who also dabbled in photography. Antonioni made his central character, Thomas (David Hemmings), a professional photographer whom he based on David Bailey, quintessential citizen of Swinging London, an angry Cockney kid who became the image-forger of the new age. Thomas’ sideline in harsh and gritty reportage from the edges of society for a book on the city he’s working on—he’s first glimpsed amongst a group of homeless men he’s spent the night taking clandestine shots of—suggests Antonioni mocking his own early documentaries and efforts at social realism. Thomas has a side genuinely fascinated by the teeming levels of life around him, but in a fashion that subordinates all meaning to his artistic eye and ego. He shifts casually from wayfarer amongst the desperate to swashbuckling haute couture iconographer, engaging with haughty model Veruschka in fully clothed intercourse, and irritably bullying another cadre of models until he gets fed up, projecting his own tiredness and waning interest onto them, and walks out.

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Thomas takes time out with his neighbours, painter Bill (John Castle), and his wife Patricia (Sarah Miles): Thomas takes recourse in Patricia’s wifely-maternal care now and then, whilst Bill stares at his old paintings and explains that he has no thoughts whilst making them and only finds hints of meaning later, a statement that recalls Antonioni’s own confession that he approaches his works less as systematic codes than as flows of epiphanies eventually gathering meaning. Thomas is nakedly on the make, a businessman-artisan who longs for wealth to become totally free. He has designs on making a real estate killing, hoping to buy a mangy antique store in a rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood (“Already there are queers and poodles in the area!”) from its young owner, who wants to sell up and hit the seeker’s trail to Nepal. Wasting time before the store’s owner returns, Thomas starts clicking snaps in a neighbouring park, eventually becoming fascinated by an apparently idyllic vignette of two lovers sharing the green space. The woman (unnamed on screen, called Jane in the credits, and played by Vanessa Redgrave), who’s much younger than her apparent lover, spots Thomas and chases after him with a frantic, breathless desire to obtain his pictures. Thomas haughtily alternates between telling her he needs them—he immediately sees how to fit them into his London panoramic, as the perfect quiet diminuendo from all the harsher facts on display—and promising their return, but is surprised later on when she actually turns up at his studio. There have been signs that she and an unknown man might have been trailing him around the city, including watching him during his lunch with his agent, Ron (Peter Bowles).

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Thomas’ studio, usually a scene where his will reigns, now becomes a kind of battleground, as Thomas, fascinated by Jane’s manner, at once nervous and uncomfortable but also sensual and self-contained, keeps using promises of the photos to get her to stick around; she, desperate to obtain the pictures, tries using sex appeal to prod him into submission. The two end up merely circling in a toey, searching dance (albeit with Thomas briefly schooling Jane on how to move to Herbie Hancock’s jittery grooves), their actual objectives unstated. Jane’s pushy determination arouses Thomas’ suspicions, so he allows her to finally dart off after trading her scribbled, fake telephone number with a roll of film—a blank roll in place of the one she wants. Thomas then begins studying the pictures of her and her lover in the park. Slowly, with a relentless and monstrous intimation, Thomas begins to see signs that far from being a romantic tryst, he was actually witnessing an intended crime, with Jane acting as the honey trap to bring the man to the scene, whilst her unknown partner lurked in the bushes with a gun. At first, Thomas thinks hopefully that his presence foiled the killing, but on looking even more closely, realises the target had been gunned down whilst he was arguing with Jane, or is at least apparently lying motionless on the ground. “Nothing like a little disaster for sorting things out,” Thomas says with glib, but minatory wisdom to Jane, in reply to her cover story about why she wants the pictures. Eruptions of irrational occurrence and suddenly, primal mystery in Antonioni’s films don’t really sort anything out, but they do tend to expose his characters and the very thin ice they tend to walk on.

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Like the punch line to a very strange joke, Blowup became a pop movie hit, mostly because it became prized as a peek into a scene many were fascinated by and fantasised about, and the allure of that moment, captured forever in Antonioni’s frames, now precisely a half-century old, still lingers in exotic fascination for many as time capsule and aesthetic experience. Blowup’s strangeness, implicit sourness, and assaults on filmic convention might even have helped its success, the aura of shocking newness it exuded perfectly in accord with the mutability of the moment. The ironies here are manifold, considering Antonioni’s insinuation that there’s no such thing as the sweet life and that cool is a synonym for wilful ignorance. One could suspect there’s a dash of the dichotomy apparent in Cecil B. DeMille’s religious epics, plying the allure of behaviour the moral framework condemns. But that would come from too glib a reading of the total work, which, in spite of its stringent evocation of a helpless state, is a lush, strange, attractively alien conjuring trick, a tale that takes place in a carefully cultivated version of reality, as much as any scifi or fantasy film. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) perhaps owed something to its patient, subliminal method and seeming ambling, but actually highly controlled form. Hitchcock himself was transfixed by it. Its spiritual children are manifold, including not just Brian De Palma and Francis Ford Coppola’s revisions on its themes (The Conversation, 1974; Blow Out, 1982) and attempts by later Euro auteurs like Olivier Assayas (demonlover, 2002) and Michael Haneke (Cache, 2004) to tap into the same mood of omnipresent paranoia and destabilised reality, but more overtly fantastical parables like Logan’s Run (1976) where youth has become a total reality, death spectacle, and nature an alien realm, and The Matrix (1999) where the choice between dream and truth is similarly fraught. There was often a scifi quality to Antonioni’s films, with their sickly sense of the landscape’s colonisation by industry and modernist architecture like landing spaceships, the spread of a miasmic mood like radiation poisoning, the open portals in reality into which people disappear.

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Blowup is a work of such airy, heady conceptualism, but it is also ingenious and highly realistic as portraiture, a triumph of describing a type, one that surely lodged a popular archetype of the fashion photographer in most minds. Thomas is a vivid antihero, but not an empathetic one. In fact, he’s a jerk, a high-powered, mercurial talent, a bully and a sexist with hints of class anger lurking behind his on-the-make modernity given to ordering his human chess pieces how he wants them. Hemmings, lean and cool, the fallen Regency poet and the proto-yuppie somehow both contained in his pasty frame, inhabits Thomas completely. When he and Redgrave are photographed shirtless together, there’s a strong erotic note, but also a weird mutual narcissism, as if both are a new species of mutants Antonioni can’t quite understand that will inherit the earth, able to fuck but not reproduce. Thomas seems like a glamorous, go-get-’em holy terror for much of the film, a study in prickish potency and constant motion—perhaps deliberately, he’s reminiscent of Richard Lester’s handling of the Beatles in places, the free-form artists at loose in the city with a slapstick-informed sense of action. But Thomas slows to a dead stop and fades away altogether by the film’s end.

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Space is the subject of a silent war in Blowup. Within his bohemian studio Thomas is king, able to construct a world that responds entirely to his needs. Antonioni uses its environs to create a system of frames within frames, subdividing his characters and their interactions. Thomas’ ambition to annex the antique store represents a desire to expand a kingdom, and he roams through London keen to the process of the homey old city putting on a new face, whilst energetic young students engaged in the charity ritual known as the “rag” dress as mimes and roam at loose, claiming everything as their own. The empty public facility of the park becomes, ironically, a cloistered space to commit a murder. Later, when Thomas returns to the spot, he finds the victim’s body still sprawled, pathetic and undiscovered, upon the greenery. “He was someone,” is all Thomas can bleat at one point as he tells Patricia about the business, indicating both his bewildered lack of knowledge about the man to whom he’s been left as the last witness, and also his forlorn realisation that the man’s death is the mere absence of his being.

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The giant airplane propeller Thomas buys from the antique store delights him, a relic of technology, the promise of movement now purely a decorative motif for his studio. Thomas craves freedom, but has no sense of adventure: “Nepal is all antiques,” he tells the store owner when she says she wants to escape her wares and their mustiness. Thomas’ talent has made him a magnet for wannabes, a fetish object himself in minor celebrity. His curiosity for Jane, with her intensity pointedly contrasts his insouciance towards two would-be models (Jane Birkin and Gillian Hills) who come hoping for a shooting session, but essentially become a pair of temporary houris for the flailing macho artist. The sequence in which Thomas is visited again the two girls, known as only as the Blonde and the Brunette, sees Thomas revealing a scary side as he monsters the Blonde, only for this to quickly transmute into a gleefully childish, orgiastic moment as the three wrestle and fuck on the floor of the studio. Afterwards, the two girls worshipfully put his clothes back on. For them, it’s a graze with success in all its filthy glory and a moment of holy obeisance to the figure of mystical power in the new pop world. For him, it’s a moment of barely noticeable indulgence, a distraction from the far more interesting mystery before him, which in itself stirs a need in him he barely knows exists, like Jane herself. During their long scene together, Thomas pretends a phone call, possibly from Patricia, is from his wife, apparently just to tease Jane. He casually invents a history and a home life that he then completely revises until he’s left in honest limbo. The image of elusive happiness of Jane and the man in the park and the mystery of Jane stirs a wont—and then proves a total illusion, a siren call to annihilation.

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The film’s crucial movement, a high point of cinema technique and style, comes as Thomas investigates his pictures. He zeroes in on anomalies and blurry, seemingly meaningless patches, even the inferences of his “actors”’ body language, and marks out points of interest and uncertainty. He then makes new prints blowing up these spots. Each reframing and zoom is a partial solution to the last puzzle and the start of a new one, until his studio is festooned with what seems an entire story, which Antonioni can now move through like a primitive flipbook protomovie. It’s a miniature film theory class, a lesson in constructing to elucidate a reality that would have otherwise been missed in the clumsy simplicity of human perception. It’s also a journey in transformation, turning the idyllic moment Thomas prized so much into a menacing and terrible opposite, and dragging Thomas himself through alternating states of obsession, pleasure, depression, and finally nullification, the film character invested with the same alternations of emotion and perception as the audience watching him.

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Blowup fades Thomas out before it fades out itself, and his subjects are revealed as even stranger than they seemed: Jane’s frantic attempt to ward him off, the man’s slightly sheepish, slightly haughty disinterest. In both readings of the situation, something shameful is happening. The lurking killer’s posture and shadowiness are reminiscent of Reggie Nalder in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), but the thunder of Hitchcockian climax has been replaced by the shimmering, Zen-touched hiss of the trees. The aesthetic key comes from Bill, an artist working in a purposefully diametric medium, the man trying to make form out of his own strange chaos, even stating, perhaps superfluously, that it’s like tracking a clue in a detective story. The two art forms collide, mingle, reforge. Aesthetic is no longer décor, but challenge, way of being, even a danger.

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What was profoundly disturbing in Antonioni’s moment has become a playful norm. Today, the manipulation and transformation of images, usually for trivial purposes and day-to-day entertainment, is commonplace. YouTube is crammed with ingeniously faked reels of monster sightings. Anyone who’s worked on retouching a picture with Photoshop has been through the experience of Thomas seeing, say, the eye of a beautiful woman turning into a swirling galaxy of colours and then an array of completely abstract cubes. The difficulty of manipulating film, with its complex chemical properties, has given way to the perfectly malleable states of digitisation. The idea that photographic evidence can automatically or even momentarily be granted complete trust is archaic. Cinema verite gave way to reality television. More seriously, huge amounts of time, energy, and bandwidth have been devoted by some to investigating footage of the moon landings and the 9/11 attacks for proof of conspiracy and mendacity, often provoking staggering incredulity over how different people can look at the same thing and interpret it in vastly different ways. Antonioni was looking forward to our time even as he rooted his film in the mood of a particular time and place—the saturation of the image and the charged, near-religious meaning it takes on in spite of being evidently profane. Many in his time saw a Marxism-inflected, Sartre-influenced meaning in his work as diagnoses of the eddying feebleness that descends when political and social motivation are subsumed by a meaninglessly material world. This was almost certainly an aspect of Antonioni’s thinking, though it also feels reductive: like all art, it wouldn’t exist if what it said could be summed up in a pamphlet. The experience itself is vital, the passage its own reality.

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Thomas’ ultimate confrontation is not simply with impotence, but also with the vagaries of experience itself, as all proof of his experience vanishes and with it, assurance it ever happened. Antonioni toys with the idea that revealing the truth is only a matter of looking closely and seriously enough for something, but then undercuts it, suggesting that on a certain level, reality breaks down, or perhaps rather like the sense of matter in subatomic particles, is displaced and transmuted. Thomas becomes half-accidentally the witness to a murder, not just because he sees it, but because his merely human memory is the only repository for it after his photos and negatives are stolen. Once the murder’s done there’s no real purpose to action, something his “he was somebody” line again underscores—the only real spur to intervene in a crime is to prevent it, whereas anything afterwards is only fit for an undertaker. Thomas finds the man’s body in the park, but the drama’s over. He can’t do anything except try to enlist Ron to give independent testimony to his witnessing. Perhaps, far from simply accusing contemporary artists and audiences of ditzy political detachment, Antonioni was most urgently trying to portray his experiences as a filmmaker, his attempts to capture raw and unvarnished truths on film and then seeing that truth dissolve because of the vagaries of life and the medium shift under study. At the same time, Antonioni imposed rigorous aesthetic choices on his creation, going so far as to repaint houses in the streets where shooting took place to communicate interior states through exterior sign play: he had become an imperial creator even as he mocked his own ambitions.

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The famous performance of the Yardbirds towards the end of the film in which Jeff Beck smashes his own guitar is crucial not as a mere indictment of a slide into neon barbarianism many of Antonioni’s generation saw in the rock ’n’ roll age, though that note does sound, but also a summary of Antonioni’s confession. Here is an artist’s anger with his art and his tools, his sense of form and purpose breaking down in the increasingly nettled sense of what to say and how to say it in the face of a modern world slipping away from any coherent design of understanding. The hip audience watch mostly with faces of stone, happy to let the artists act out their feelings, sublimating temptations towards excess, destruction, anarchy. Although Antonioni’s recreation of the mood of the time was the very opposite of the florid unruliness we associate with the era’s cultural scene, there’s definite sense and accuracy to his portrait, his understanding of the underlying psychic transaction. This scene converts the film’s larger experience into a jagged epigram.

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Thomas needs and uses the mystery he uncovers to shock himself out of a stupor, only to find it doesn’t transcend his situation, only exemplifies it. The film’s last few reels turn into a dumbstruck odyssey for Thomas as he seeks Ron to take him to see the dead body, but is distracted by seeing someone he thinks is Jane enter a mod concert venue. He ventures into the concert looking for Jane, whose brief seeming appearance and then disappearance is one of Antonioni’s finest sleights of hand, and comes out instead with the guitar’s neck as a battle trophy, like the two models with him earlier, for the attention of the famous, only to toss the trophy away, its momentary totemic power spent. He then tracks Ron to a posh party where everyone’s doped to the gills and can barely lift a finger in response to Thomas’ news.

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Some complained at the time that Antonioni’s tendency to find the same qualities in the countercultural youth and bohemians he studied in Blowup and Zabriskie Point as he did in the tepid bourgeoisie of Rome was wrongheaded and phony. But time eventually proved him right in many ways. There’s a cold, mordant honesty to the sequence in which Thomas sits watching a bunch of bohemian toffs getting high, the new lotus eaters buying out of a reality they’ve barely glimpsed anyway, faintly anticipatory of Kubrick’s historical wigs with people underneath in Barry Lyndon (1975), glimpsed in Restoration artlike friezes, and grindingly familiar to anyone who’s been surrounded by very stoned people at a party. Thomas’ resolve dissolves amongst their uninterest and his own exhaustion. He awakens the next morning, restored but now with the grip on his fever dream lost.

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The closing scenes provide a coda much like the one Thomas wanted for his book: perhaps he’s projected himself after all into the zone of his fantasies, a state of hushed and wistful melancholy. Thomas finds the body gone. The drama he happened upon has now dissipated, replaced by the gang of students who have been crisscrossing his path since the start, making up their own realities. Tellingly, these characters are the only ones who have ever made Thomas smile. Thomas finally finds solace, or something, joining in, to the point where the sounds of a real tennis match start to resound on the soundtrack to accompany the fake one the mimes are playing. It’s easy to read this as the final collapse of Thomas’ sense of reality, but it’s also the first time he simply stands and experiences without his camera, his interior reality allowed scope to breathe. Perhaps what we’ve witnessed is not the defeat of the artist but rather a rebirth.


24th 01 - 2013 | 11 comments »

High Art (1998)

Director/Screenwriter: Lisa Cholodenko

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

One of the worst films of 2010 was The Kids Are All Right, a sitcom of a movie in which straight actors Annette Bening and Julianne Moore play a lesbian couple dealing with the appearance of the sperm donor who is the biological father of their two children. Given the chance to reach a mainstream audience with a realistic portrayal of a family headed by two females, The Kids Are All Right instead self-consciously backs away from gay sexuality as fast it can, hiding a scene of lesbian sex under a heavy blanket and then rushing Moore into straight sex with the sperm donor. The only thing missing from the conventionality of this flat film is the nightstand sitting like a sentry between two single beds.

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I wouldn’t have given The Kids Are All Right a second thought if not for the fact that it was cowritten and directed by Lisa Cholodenko, representing a shocking fall from grace for a director/screenwriter who created one of the most memorable feature debuts in many a year—High Art. High Art is everything The Kids Are All Right is not—assured, unapologetically frank about lesbian sex, nuanced, and authentic. Perhaps most important, Cholodenko offers a look at lesbians leading lives that contain as much love, dysfunction, ambition, and familial relationships as any other way of life.

High Art

High Art begins with Syd (Radha Mitchell) sitting in a small office examining slides submitted to Frame, the New York-based photography magazine where she works as an assistant editor. Her tragically hip boss Harry (David Thornton) dismisses her as his glorified gofer, though his condescension is a cover for his lackadaisical attitude toward his job and its subject matter. Dominique (Anh Duong), the editor of Frame, started as a receptionist at Interview, and her drive to succeed, her immersion in the art scene, and her cutthroat instincts form a mirror in which we can view Syd’s career aspirations.

Syd lives with her boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann) in a rundown apartment run by a slum landlord in the making. One evening, as she relaxes in a hot bath, she notices that the crack in the ceiling above the tub is starting to leak. She goes to the apartment above to let the tenants know about it. At the door is a thin woman about twice Syd’s age. After some perfunctory talk, the woman, Lucy (Ally Sheedy), promises to contact the super. Because service is slow to the point of nonexistent in the building, Syd returns to Lucy’s apartment several times to try to fix the leak herself.

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The leak becomes a convenient excuse for Syd to explore an attraction to Lucy subtly encouraged by Lucy herself and the quality of the photographs hanging all over Lucy’s apartment. It doesn’t take long for Syd to discover that Lucy was once one of the hottest photographers in the New York art scene. The engulfing attention and demands made on her caused her to flee to Europe, where she became involved with Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a has-been Fassbinder actress, and spent most of her time snorting heroin and taking pictures as more of a reflex than as a serious pursuit. Her return to New York after a 10-year absence may signal that she is ready to start making photographs again, but the downward pull of Greta and the rest of their heroin-addicted circle of friends seems to be keeping Lucy in a holding pattern, that is, until Syd enters the picture.

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As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and the obviously modest budget of High Art brought out the best in Cholodenko’s creativity, something the high-budget, high-profile The Kids Are All Right buried. The handheld camera work and settings—the apartments, the Frame offices, an upscale home where Lucy goes to visit her rich mother (Tammy Grimes), a restaurant, a mountain retreat—all must have been places opened to the cast and crew by friends and family. The lived-in, hazy look of Lucy’s apartment creates a realistic milieu for the kind of crash pad/opium den atmosphere needed to suggest the subterranean hideout of Lucy’s spirit. The unsuccessful photographs depicting Greta underwater reflect Lucy’s muffled talent. By contrast, the photos she takes of Syd when they go away together for the weekend to consummate their love are alive, vital, compelling.

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The strong subtext of Syd and Lucy’s desire is ambition. There’s no question that the two women are in lust and could be falling in love, but what really pushes them together in an irresistible way is their individual hopes for themselves. Syd has a good eye and immediately recognizes that Lucy could be the great discovery that could raise her profile at Frame and help her push past her clueless boss. When she realizes how big her discovery—rediscovery—is, there is no stopping her from picking a fight with James, with whom she seemed to be happy, and running straight into Lucy’s arms. Lucy’s overtures to Syd are, to me, more touching. She seems to want to be saved from herself, from the pull of heroin and her codependent relationship with Greta. She is feeling the advance of age, signaled by her desire to return to New York and spend time with her aging, if difficult, Jewish mother, fearing the future, fearing her own mortality. Becoming the Lucy Berliner again seems a plausible way to ensure that her life will count for something once more, and continue after death.

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The central performances by Sheedy and Mitchell are a master class in the way women love each other. Mitchell moves her braless torso in gentle curves, half-aware that she is being watched, not only by Lucy, but also by Greta. Cholodenko frequently directs shots that put Syd in the foreground, with Lucy in a corner of the frame looking at her with the eye of both a photographer and a seducer. Sheedy invades Mitchell’s space casually, agilely, but fixes her with her intensity. Syd’s response must feel like the kiss of life after Greta, who nods off in a drug haze when Lucy starts to make love to her. Indeed, although her German accent waxes and wanes, Patricia Clarkson plays a very believable Fassbinder actress, her superficial, needy vanity peeking out perfectly under her drug-layered performance. Overall, the drug scenes are very realistic—we can actually see Syd getting off after snorting her first line of heroin, and junkie-in-arms Arnie (Bill Sage) laying back in supreme pleasure after shooting up in Lucy and Greta’s bedroom.

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The script is a bit precious at times, but often witty and revealing, such as when Syd holds forth on one of Lucy’s compositions, and Lucy responds ruefully, “I haven’t been deconstructed in a long time.” Perhaps at that moment she sees the true foundation of Syd’s affections toward her, but chooses to ignore it. Harry’s pretense that he knows who Lucy Berliner is when questioned by Dominique is appropriately sleazy and hilarious. Greta’s dialogue seems to have been lifted in part from a Fassbinder film, which is either very lazy or very clever—I haven’t made up my mind yet. The most touching scene is when Syd and Lucy are about to make love and Syd says, “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” The tenderness and reassurance Lucy provides, and Syd’s genuine tears of love and gratitude, are pitch perfect.

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High Art offers a point of view in its final act. Photography—and by extension, film—captures moments in time that can move us with their emotional and physical content. The more universal the image, the more timeless it can be. Mere ambition and even enormously hard work have amazingly short shelf lives. True art can only come from those who can face the pleasure and pain of being alive and project that honestly.


12th 01 - 2009 | 183 comments »

The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club: The True Meaning of Pictures (2002)

Director: Jennifer Baichwal

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There’s a saying that a picture’s worth 1,000 words. While this statement is a bit vague, I think I’m safe in saying that, generally, it means that a photograph can convey more information instantaneously than can be gotten from reading 1,000 words on the same subject. Photos are documents—living memories, even—of what we looked like at a certain time of life, where we’ve been, things we’ve seen, and people we knew and met. They tell us truths about ourselves that the vagaries of memory may have erased or distorted. They bear witness. But is a photograph a reliable witness? I’m going to quote from an interview I conducted with Errol Morris earlier this year regarding his film Standard Operating Procedure (2008) that sums up his belief about information contained within the borders of a photograph. My questions are bolded:

But you talk about putting the photographs in a context, otherwise we don’t really understand what we’re seeing.

And to that end, am I required to interview every single person in the U.S. government? You have so much god-damned context. America puzzles me at the moment. There is an immense amount written about the higher-ups. What the fuck does America need to be convinced that the material is staring them in the face? Do they have to be hit over the head with a smoking gun? What would you like? What is your dream interview that you would have liked to have heard in this particular movie to clarify things for you?

Not to clarify…

Then to do what?

If you’re only going to present, just as in a trial, only the evidence that the lawyers want you to hear. I’ve been on a jury, and I had lots of questions that I was not allowed to ask. I only got what they wanted me to see, and from my point of view, if I just look at what these people are saying and what they’re doing…

If it seems like I’m saying they’re lily white, I’m not saying that, and my apologies, because I’m not making that argument. But I’m making a somewhat different argument that…hard to know where to even start. You look at a photograph, you think you know what the photograph is about. You don’t. You look at the photograph of Sabrina Harman smiling next to Al-Jamadi’s corpse, you think she’s responsible for the murder. She isn’t.

Anyone who makes pictures, still or moving, and anyone who looks at them create consciously or unconsciously a context for interpreting those images. That context may be as simple as “that’s pretty” or “that’s ugly” based on the image and one’s visceral or instinctual reaction to it. In the case of art photography, which is designed to do more than document reality, more complex contextualization often is required to interpret not only the “text” but the “subtext.” And without those 1,000 words, viewers must rely on their storehouse of information about subjects similar to those depicted by the photographer. This fact is precisely what makes Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs of poor residents of the hollers of the Appalachian Mountains near Hazard, Kentucky, controversial in the larger world.

Noted Canadian documentarian Jennifer Baichwal traveled with Adams to Appalachia to talk with and film him and his models at work and at rest. She also interviewed a sociologist, several art critics and photographers, and one former holler resident to provide the widest possible context for the viewers of her film to decide for themselves, as one holler resident puts it, “the true meaning of pictures.”

The opening shot is a straight-down aerial view of a dense forest. It is lushly green with shadows and shapes suggesting texture and depth, but like the screen on which it is viewed, it remains essentially flat and free of telling information. We bring our knowledge of the film we are watching to it; thus, we assume it is in Appalachia, though it could just as easily be a wood in Baichwal’s native Quebec.

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Our impression is reinforced by the sound of the voiceover that brought us into the film and that is now accompanying this image—a man speaking in the halting, ecstatic rhythms of a rural preacher. We move down into and through the forest and then view a series of still photographs: two weathered men leaning their bent elbows on the seat of the same chair, their bibles open, their hands clasped in prayer; a series of family portraits, including one with cows; lone images of an ancient woman, a white-bearded man holding a banjo. Finally, the camera moves into the black corner of one image, and we are transported to an art gallery full of city sophisticates looking at these photographs. One woman waves her hand in front of the picture with the cows, suggesting something about the composition to her companion.

Shelby%2010.jpgMore stills, including one of a man holding a hog’s head and smiling for the camera. An unidentified voice of a man saying he loves Shelby Lee Adams’ photographs, though he can’t stand to look at them for very long. “But I remember the people in them,” he says, and to him that’s just as important as the pictures themselves. Then Baichwal cuts to Adams instructing some Appalachian men on how to stand for a photo he is making; he speaks to them in a slangy, accented voice that matches their own. In three short minutes, Baichwal has deftly introduced us to the two worlds in which Adams operates, the photos he makes, the toughness of their content, and finally, to the man himself.

During the first part of the film, we spend considerable time with the Napier family, particularly with matriarch Berthie. She’s a tough woman who cut timber alongside her husband, bore him 14 children, and watched 10 of them die. She frequently tucks a pipe into her pinched mouth surrounded by rivulets of skin and oversize moles. Adams complains about concerns Mammy%20Yokum.GIFpeople have expressed that Berthie resembles Mammy Yokum from L’il Abner. It’s not his fault that comic strip was drawn, apparently to reflect real life. The real problem is not the drawing but the caricature of mountain people as dumb hicks fit for the funnies. One could argue that the Blondie comic strip similarly lampoons the middle-class readers of L’il Abner and even consumers of Adams’ picture books. Are Adams’ critics just blowing PC smoke?

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New York Times critic Vicki Goldberg complains about Adams’ set-ups that purport to show authentic holler life, but actually are historical recreations. Specifically, she mentions the hog butchering picture (above). Indeed, we see Adams’ own archival footage of the slaughter, with the Napiers explaining how it used to be done and then standing by during each part of the process as Adams films and snaps. The final photo is a rather gruesome family portrait, with the hog’s head resting in the foreground in a metal pan. There certainly are a number of ways to interpret this photo. It’s unlikely that the family would have posed with a hog in this way had they been able to photograph themselves; they’d be more likely to photograph the special occasion that surely would have required the slaughter of the costly animal the Napiers were furnished for the photo shoot because they were too poor to own it themselves. As I viewed the photo, I was reminded more of the sport fishermen and hunters—not poor by any means—who pose with their mammoth kills, or of the photos of picnics with a lynched man in the background. Goldberg’s objection to this photo as “set up” ignores the fact that photographers routinely stage their subjects. That Adams may be critiquing the consumers of this photo seems to escape sophisticated readers such as critic A. D. Coleman, who says, (correction from previous version) “These are late 20th century, early 21st century photographs with a great deal of visual sophistication to them, and I think that they call for a very sophisticated kind of reading. And I’m not sure that the people he’s photographing have the education, the visual educational background to understand how these pictures read. And if that’s patronizing, I apologize for it, but I just think it’s so.”

One critic who can’t be contradicted so easily is Dwight Billings, then a professor of sociology at the University of Kentucky: “The problem for me with these portraits is they certainly are telling stories, but the stories are kind of left to the reader to imagine, and we know what the reader is imbued with to imagine: a hundred years of stereotypes.” Baichwal immediately cuts in scenes from Deliverance showing the retarded banjo picker and the violent mountain men attacking Jon Voight and his friends. It’s true—popular culture hasn’t done holler dwellers any favors.

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Another authoritative critic of Adams’ work is Louise Hall, a holler native who escaped its poverty, got an education, and moved into the larger world. She is appalled by a photo Adams took of her beautiful, younger sister that shows her leaning through a torn screen door with a man smiling against a wall in the background. While Hall seems to think the poverty of the picture takes away from the girl’s beauty (and most likely finds embarrassing now that she has felt the sting of the outside world’s regard for her place of origin), I find this photo objectionable as a stereotype associated with child sexual abuse. The man in the background doesn’t appear just to be smiling—he seems to be leering. It would take a lot of exposure to the peculiar smiles of the holler dwellers to see this smile as normal and friendly, and I don’t imagine the casual observer would have that opportunity. Adams’ eerie use of lighting to accentuate his black-and-white photography gives this and many of his other photos a sinister, noir-like quality.

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Yet, it is Shelby Lee Adams himself who most calls his work into question. He says his family moved around a lot when he was growing up. But then he establishes his legitimacy as an insider by saying he grew up in Hazard. Which is it? He also says he was of the middle class in Hazard and came into contact with the holler folk, not that he actually lived among them and called them friend. He says he never publishes a photo not approved by his subjects; he certainly can’t afford to antagonize them, he says. He says he has made thousands of pictures that he gives to his subjects—a generous gesture, I suppose, given that he makes a fortune off the ones he makes for himself. (I have been able to find no evidence that he shares his economic good fortune with his subjects.) His accent and folksy talk disappear when he’s alone with Baichwal and her crew. He has a foot in both worlds, and yet he stands apart, insecurely, from them both. Why? Because he’s an artist? Because he’s a con man?

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Adams’ introduction to his book Appalachian Portraits says, “My work has been an artist’s search for a deeper understanding of my heritage and myself, using photography as a medium and the Appalachian people as collaborators with their own desires to communicate. I hope my photographs confront viewers, reminding them of their own vulnerability and humanity. I hope, too, that viewers will see in these photographs something of the abiding strength and resourcefulness and dignity of the mountain people.” There’s no question that he accomplishes most of these aims. Certainly, he records the dignity and strength of many of these people, from the awe-inspiring portraits of coal miners, to the community-centered home funerals, to the majestic landscapes of which they are a part.

He also plumbs some very disturbing depths, using, for example, a family with retarded and deformed “children” in diapers to examine his relationship to Christianity. Perhaps the holler dwellers were the stuff of nightmares during his years in Hazard, frightening images he recreates in order to exorcise them. Perhaps he finds appalling a community that accepts child brides and endless pregnancies that use up and kill its women. He almost never shoots people smiling, adding to the negative impression of his vision. And if his subjects don’t see these impulses in his work, even if they concede the man the right to make a living (something many of them can’t) and like the pictures he publishes, is Coleman right that they are being exploited? Are 1,000 words from Mein Kampf equal to 1,000 words from Othello? Do the two Adamses—Ansel and Shelby Lee—occupy the same moral universe?

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It’s clear from watching the comprehensive documentary Jennifer Baichwal has executed that these holler dwellers are well served by her more rounded view of their lives, the circumstances that made them and keep them grindingly poor, and an extended exposure to the people who might emerge from a Shelby Lee Adams photo primarily as grotesque. Of course, Baichwal’s camera can be deceptive, too, recording some moments, choosing to leave out others. And much can be done through the editing process—the order in which Adams reveals the seeming contradictions of his early years may have been changed for dramatic or persuasive impact. The shocking picture of the man and the pig’s head at the top of this review is part of a series of photos Adams took of people with animals; most of them are touching and even sweet. Baichwal spends a good deal of time on Adams’ work with the snake-handling sect of the Pentecostal church, which certainly tips the balance of the film into the bizarre; yet Adams’ photos of people and animals show dogs, cats, geese, chickens as well as snakes. I have a photo of my brother holding a boa constrictor as part of his docent duties for the Lincoln Park Zoo. Without his docent’s uniform, he might look just as bizarre.

Baichwal ends her film as she started it, with the implacable treetops filling her frame. Her provocative challenge remains suspended in air. What is the true meaning of pictures?

Visit Shelby Lee Adams’ home page here.


12th 10 - 2008 | 4 comments »

2008 CIFF: Everlasting Moments (Maria Larssons eviga ögonblick, 2008)

Director: Jan Troell

2008 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

“We are the last dinosaurs of Swedish film,” complained Ingmar Bergman to Jan Troell in 1983. It is strange to see Bergman so down on his lot in the Swedish filmmaking industry, since the director was one of the most recognized and lauded ever in world cinema. His penultimate work, a TV movie called Saraband, was eagerly awaited by cinephiles all over the world, and when he died in 2007, the tributes poured in by the hundreds. Bergman never doubted that Troell was his equal, yet Troell hasn’t gained that same level of respect from the cinematic world. When Everlasting Moments, his first full-length feature film in seven years, came out, the Toronto International Film Festival didn’t even schedule it; it was shown there only as a last-minute replacement for another film. That never would have happened to Bergman.

It’s hard for me to comprehend why Troell doesn’t seem to have the reach and appeal of Bergman. When I saw The Emigrants (1971) his towering epic of the Swedish émigré experience in America when it, too, arrived in America three years after its initial release, I knew I was seeing greatness. But very few of his works ever followed it to these shores. It wasn’t until the very first Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival in 1999 that I got a chance to see another film by Troell, a fascinating look at the strange marriage of Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun and his wife Marie in Hamsun (1996).

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Ghita Nørby played the frustrated Marie in that film, and she plays Miss Fagerdal, a rich wig maker whose home the central character in Everlasting Moments, Maria Larsson (Maria Heiskanen), used to clean. The Finnish-born actress plays the Finnish-born wife of Sigfrid “Sigge” Larsson (Mikael Persbrandt) and mother of his seven children. The story, derived from Agneta Ulfsäter Troell’s book of her family history, is told as a memory play by this couple’s eldest daughter Maja (played as young woman by Callin Öhrvall). There is an I Remember Mama quality to this turn of the 20th century saga spanning 40 years, but Sigge is no kindly Lars Hanson, and Maria Larsson’s biggest problem isn’t having her daughter reject a family heirloom for her graduation present but rather keeping Sigge from slitting her throat with a straight razor.

The legend of Sigge and Maria’s betrothal centers on a raffle in which they won a camera. Sigge said he should get the camera since he bought the ticket, but Maria said she was part of the idea. Maria said she’d let Sigge keep the camera, but he would have to marry her so that she could have it, too. He did. When we enter the story proper, Sigge is waiting along with other men for day work at the docks. Few men are chosen, but because he is strong as a horse, Sigge usually gets picked. Once the children start to arrive, Maria quits service with Miss Fagerdal. She takes in sewing to add to the family’s meager coffers.

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Maja is a good student who loves school and wishes to be a writer. One day, her teacher honors her with a visit to her home. In the middle of the visit, a very drunk Sigge is delivered to his door by two friends. Maja is humiliated, Maria is furious, and all of them pay a visit later on to the local temperance club where Sigge takes the pledge yet again. When they return home, the handsome and charming Sigge invites his wife to love; she only relents when he promises never to drink again, and they conceive Elon, child number 6. Sigge tries to keep his word, but The Captain (Antti Reini), a man who works with Sigge on the docks, likes his drinking partner.

Influenced by his best friend, Englund (Emil Jensen), Sigge becomes a socialist and joins the dock workers union. When the union calls a strike, Sigge has plenty of idle time to spend in the union hall. He walks a vivacious young barmaid named Mathilda (Amanda Ooms) home one day and begins an affair with her.

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With Sigge out of work, Maria tries to pawn the camera they won years ago to help pay the bills. Entering the photography shop of Sebastian Pedersen (Jesper Christiansen), Maria hears him behind a curtain playing a violin while accompanied by the howls of his dog Leo. He comes to the front, examines the camera, and says it’s a very fine one, a Contessa. It still has an unexposed photographic plate in it. Maria confesses the camera has never been used; she doesn’t understand how it could possibly make images. Pedersen shows her how the process works by removing the lens, holding it up to a window where a butterfly is fluttering, and casting its shadow through the lens onto Maria’s open hand. He closes her hand, showing that she can capture images through the camera lens. Maria is enchanted. Pedersen teaches her how to use the camera, and she takes it home and snaps a picture of her children. When she brings it to Pedersen to be developed, he is impressed with her eye. He sets her up with supplies, and says he will let her use the camera until he decides what to offer her for it.

Sigge changes jobs when a hauler finds out how good he is with horses and hires him. Finances are still tight, and domestic relations in the Larsson house remain tense as Sigge continues to drink and abuse Maria and the children. Maria, however, finds her photographic skills more and more in demand and her friendship with Pedersen a source of comfort. When Sigge suspects Maria is cuckolding him with Pederson, he flies into a rage, and that’s when the razor blade comes out. A defiant Maria dares him to use it, “just remember the children.” He lets go, but this is no simple domestic disturbance. He is thrown in jail for attempted murder, and we wonder if Maria might finally have a chance to break free of him now and find some real happiness.

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Everlasting Memories has an old-fashioned feel to it, and not just because it is set in the past. The film tells its story in a straightforward, conventional manner, including a voiceover style that harkens from another time. The look and feel of the film are like an overstuffed, high-back chair—full, handsomely hued in rich, deep tones that grow soft at the edges. The subject matter—a troubled marriage, family, and emigration as exemplified by Maja’s expatriate aunt—is pure Troell. Perhaps his reaffirmation of his style confirms Bergman’s assessment of him as one of Sweden’s dinosaurs of film. Yet, Troell really knows how to dig into the heart of characters and families, expressing their longings without revealing all their secrets. He makes ordinary people in dreary circumstances intriguing and compelling.

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Maria acts as our eyes onto the beauty of the world that can be found everywhere people normally find misery. A grieving mother asks Maria to photograph her dead daughter as a keepsake; Maria composes a picture of the young girl in repose that astounds the mother: “She never looked more beautiful.” A neighbor woman talks about her Down Syndrome child as one she’d have aborted had she known. Maria asks to photograph the child, bringing a luminous smile to her neighbor at the honor. Somehow, her appreciation for the good in all things extends even to her husband. “Maybe it was love,” a grown Maja tells us. It certainly is love that fills this film and reaffirms Jan Troell as a filmmaker who affirms life without sugar-coating it. I highly recommend this return of a true master.

Film trailer


17th 04 - 2008 | 17 comments »

An Interview with Errol Morris

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

There are few film fans and no documentary buffs who don’t know the name Errol Morris. During a long and distinguished career, Morris helped free an innocent man from prison with his investigative documentary The Thin Blue Line, had Gates of Heaven made one of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, and finally won an Oscar for his 2003 documentary The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara. Morris’ skillful blend of interviews, reenactments, and archival and new footage moved the documentary form away from the monotonous talking-head format and toward a more engaging, contemplative form. His new film, Standard Operating Procedure, mixes his time-tested techniques with the infamous photographs of the torture and humiliation of Iraqi detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison to help viewers get beyond the borders of the images and consider the bigger picture. How could an American president and his staff approve of torture and how could the American Congress and public sit quietly by and let the low-level MPs take all the blame?

My interview with Morris took place on April 15, 10 days before the film’s official opening. After a rocky start, we settled into a more contemplative conversation about what seems to be the (hopefully) temporary insanity of the American populace and America’s need to come to terms with a radical change in its self-image dating back perhaps as far as Vietnam. This article represents a nearly complete transcript of the entire interview. My comments are in italics.

After watching this film, I felt that the people in it were guilty as hell and being self-justifying.

Let me ask you a question. What is Sabrina Harman guilty of?

I would say that she participated in some of these abuses, and she didn’t speak up.

What would you have done if you had been at Abu Ghraib the night of Al-Jamadi’s murder, you saw that all of your commanding officers were participating in a cover-up, you realized that much of what was going on around you was a matter of policy, what would you have done?

It’s a difficult question. If it were me, I probably would have excused myself and gone somewhere else.

You’re in the middle of a war zone. Where do you go?

To my quarters, anywhere away from the abuse. But it’s a tight situation. The Army is chain of command. I suppose if you’re told to shut up, that’s exactly what you do. That’s what they felt they needed to do. But I will also say…

And yet Sabrina took these pictures.

And that’s a good question. Why? She said it was in order to document what was going on. There were a number of people who took videos, a number of people who took photographs, several hundred.

Thousands. And it was an amnesty period where the guy who essentially ran the prison ordered the destruction of all the evidence. These were not destroyed, I think, for one simple reason: they provided evidence to deflect blame from people who were really responsible.

And yet if they were destroyed, nobody would have ever known.

Why do you say that?

No physical evidence.

How do you think the media have become aware of these photographs?

I imagine somebody turned them over to a newspaper, a journalist.

Which is what happened. We live in a digital age in which it’s very easy to take photographs and easier to distribute photographs around the world. Hard to destroy everything. The photographs taken of Al-Jamadi, the corpse, we wouldn’t have any knowledge of this murder if they had not been taken by Ivan Frederick, Chuck Graner, and Sabrina Harman. They had nothing whatsoever to do with the murder or the cover-up. The people responsible have never been charged with the crime. In this instance, what makes them the center of evil?

I don’t think they’re the center of evil and I’m not trying to suggest that they are. I’m merely suggesting that was my reaction when I watched this film, and that I would have liked to get interviews with higher-ups.

I was not interested in interviews with higher-ups. If people want the same cookie-cutter movie about Iraq, there are plenty you can go see.

But you talk about putting the photographs in a context, otherwise we don’t really understand what we’re seeing.

And to that end, am I required to interview every single person in the U.S. government? You have so much god-damned context. America puzzles me at the moment. There is an immense amount written about the higher-ups. What the fuck does America need to be convinced that the material is staring them in the face? Do they have to be hit over the head with a smoking gun? What would you like? What is your dream interview that you would have liked to have heard in this particular movie to clarify things for you?

Not to clarify…

Then to do what?

If you’re only going to present, just as in a trial, only the evidence that the lawyers want you to hear. I’ve been on a jury, and I had lots of questions that I was not allowed to ask. I only got what they wanted me to see, and from my point of view, if I just look at what these people are saying and what they’re doing…

If it seems like I’m saying they’re lily white, I’m not saying that, and my apologies, because I’m not making that argument. But I’m making a somewhat different argument that…hard to know where to even start. You look at a photograph, you think you know what the photograph is about. You don’t. You look at the photograph of Sabrina Harman smiling next to Al-Jamadi’s corpse, you think she’s responsible for the murder. She isn’t.

To me, which is the worse crime—the thumb up or murder? People don’t see the murder. People are obsessed with the thumb and the smile. It’s an essay on the Cheshire Cat. You see the smile, you don’t see the cat.

You see what you want to see. I think that does stick out more than the gruesomeness. You can only handle so much gruesomeness, and there is a level of disbelief in the American public. These are not who Americans are.

It’s denial. Much easier for all of us to blame the seven bad apples. That’s the easy way out. I think it’s really interesting and I don’t think any accident here that both the left and the right accept them as monsters. It doesn’t matter. The left says, oh, they’re monsters because of the three-headed monster in the wings—Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. That three-headed monster made them into monsters in its own image. The right says no, no, no, no. They’re monsters to be sure, but they’re monsters because they’re monstrous, self-directed monsters, rogue monsters. Seven bad apple monsters. But monsters, both left and right.

It allows us to blame somebody, to actually push this away from ourselves and not deal with it. It allows us actually not to look any further than the photographs because then we can say, “Oh this is it. Done. Finito.”

It seems a theme through a number of your films to take the monster and put a human face on.

This is correct. Thank you.

I think this film carries on in that grand tradition. I also think it will be misunderstood.

I think all of them have been. Look, you’re talking about a film that’s coming out about a story that has fingerprints all over it. This is not The Thin Blue Line, this is not a story that people don’t care about, that they don’t know about. Everybody knows about it. They’ve seen the pictures. Along I come claiming there’s a story hidden here that hasn’t been seen that is also a story about scapegoating, that Abu Ghraib really needs to be investigated. It never has been. The photographs I think effectively prevented an investigation. Easier just to look at Lynndie England or Chuck Graner or Sabrina Harman and say this is the problem.

I even think the bad apples got George Bush reelected in 2004 because they gave him someone to blame. It’s them, not me. You want to know why the war is going south, why the insurgency is growing, why there are all these beheading videos. Actually, with the beheading videos it’s even more cause and effect. These guys embarrassed America. The crime here is so perverse and so odd, is not the stuff depicted in any one picture, it’s the existence of the pictures embarrassing the administration, embarrassing the Army, embarrassing America.

Why did they do it? Why did they photograph these things? Why did they video them?

Go back to Sabrina. In a way it’s an essential question and I don’t pretend that I have some definitive answer. I think, in general, we photograph things because reality is peculiar. Maybe we need to stop it and look at it and memorialize it so we can scrutinize it at some later time, refresh our memory of our own experiences.

Sabrina says she took the pictures, she says this again and again in the letters, to expose the military as “nothing but lies.” She was lied to. She also knew that a lot of the things around her—this is just the opposite of the faceless automaton picture we’re given of these people—she was aware that what she was doing was wrong. She was aware that there was some horrendous moral compromise here. She was uneasy with it. She imagined…that was a way of creating moral distance, but it was also a way of analyzing and also perhaps imagining yourself as the whistle-blower, imagining yourself as standing up against this. I somehow think that some of those pictures were acts of disobedience. They were saying, “We know what you’re doing. We can show people what you’ve been up to, the real cards you have in your hand.” The real irony of it is the pictures were turned around and used against them. They thought that in many instances they were protecting themselves.

It’s unfortunate that you were not allowed to talk to Graner. Graner certainly did seem to be the ringleader. Did you get that impression?

My impression is that this all comes down to one night, the night of the pyramid. There was horrible, horrible abuse in that place that goes far beyond some photographs. We’re fighting a war of humiliation—sexual humiliation. We have been from the very beginning, a war, I guess, to show Saddam who’s boss, who’s got the biggest stick. We’re a country of 300 million people who had a foreign policy of “Kill Saddam.” I don’t mean a foreign policy for the Iraq region or the Middle East. That was our complete foreign policy, the sum of it. What I’ve watched is a story of humiliation and rehumilitation, the administration’s attempt to humiliate Saddam, the use of women in American military prisons—American women to humiliate prisoners.

Do you think that was a specific directive to them?

Absolutely. It’s one of the sickest things about this war—how women have been used. To think the fact that there are women in the military, suddenly the military is egalitarian. I think there’s a sick—I don’t know how to describe it any other way—undercurrent to all of this. Using American women to humiliate Iraqi men.

Which is simultaneously humiliating to the women, who didn’t want to be in the picture in the first place.

There you go. I often think that Graner in his crazy-type way when he put Lynndie at the other end of that tiedown strap and took the picture and later cropped Megan Ambuhl out of the picture, that he was creating a little vignette about the war, you know, American male dominating his American girlfriend, who in turn is dominating an Iraqi man. It’s a crazy, crazy story. These bad apples humiliate America. The administration tries to humiliate them, and so it goes.

Somehow, we remain blissfully unaware of the real nature of this war, the real content.

I was looking at some polls, and only two weeks after the photos came out, the public were already not wanting to see them anymore. They said, the press has covered this too much, they were wrong to show those photographs. Just two weeks after, when earlier they said, this is an outrage. The American psyche switched that fast.

I really want to know where you read that stuff. That’s really fabulous.

I’m not saying anything remotely original or even interesting—we live in a world of spin. There’s a glut of information. It’s spun, the photographs come out, they essentially become a political football. Nobody stops to say maybe we should find out what really transpired there. There’s tons of investigations, a laundry list of investigations, none of which really produce a conception of what went on, almost as if the goal was obfuscation, and it becomes this crazy, polarized world where we’re all concerned with blame.

There’s information out there. If we wanted to, we could impeach this president. How many torture memos do you need to see before you realize the administration is into torture? The odd thing about the world we live in now is do people care about the information that’s right in front of them? I thought, and this is a crazy idea, to come at the story in a different way. It may irritate people because they have their own ideas of what the story should be, but if you approach it in a completely different way, you’re liable to find out something that people don’t know about. If you’re following that same herd path, the chances of finding something are much, much, much less.

It goes back to that Cheshire Cat concept. We see the smile, and we don’t see the murder. It’s almost a metaphor for the entire war. You can’t force people to see what they don’t want to see, what they’re not predisposed to see. I don’t really know how things have gotten to this point, it’s one of the great mysteries of America at the moment. The values that make this country a great one seem to be forgotten. And one value that I keep going back to is It’s a Wonderful Life and Potterville. It’s a movie in part about little guys sticking together against the big, bad guy. It’s almost like a version of It’s a Wonderful Life where we’ve jumped to blaming the little guys, that Potter and his cronies can walk away scot-free. I’m a populist. It’s not a level playing field, no society will ever be, but you can pay lip service to it, you can try to move in the direction of greater rather than lesser equality.

You don’t watch the big guys pin medals on each other’s chests and the little guys go to jail. I think restoring them as people is important, I really do. It’s a first step. I bristle at the idea of seeing them as evil incarnate because it’s a way of abdicating our own role.

If we don’t face our shadows, we’ll never conquer them.

I think you have to and I think one of our great shadows is this war. I feel it much more so than I did of the war during which I came of age—Vietnam. This one seems crazier to me. Maybe it’s ideology that I didn’t grow up with, but it’s hard to see rhyme or reason in any of this, and it’s hard to know why there is so little opposition in Congress and America to it.

Can we have an update on “Nub City”?

I still want to make it, I have the script. There’s two kind of quasi horror movies that I wanted to make. One of them is “Nub City” and the other the movie about Ed Gein. I think of all the movies I’ve wanted to make that I haven’t made. I’m too slow. Doing this kind of movie is just plain exhausting. But I hope it sparks questions.

My review of Standard Operating Procedure is here. Be sure to read Errol Morris’ blog on the New York Times.


16th 04 - 2008 | 4 comments »

Standard Operating Procedure (2008)

Director: Errol Morris

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Early in 2004, the world got a firsthand, uncensored, unorchestrated look at what American troops were doing in one corner of Iraq—Abu Ghraib, a prison formerly used by Saddam Hussein to detain and execute enemies of the state and then (and now) under the control of American and Coalition forces. Like Saddam, the American military used Abu Ghraib for the detention of suspected spies and insurgents and carried out interrogations there. The American military police who served as the prison’s guards were instructed to “soften up” the prisoners for interrogation, and by example and specific instruction, very little was off limits in the discharge of that duty. Just how little became clear as hundreds of the thousands of pictures taken by the MPs who performed this pre-interrogation softening were leaked to the press and made public.

SOP%208.jpgImages of naked Iraqi men apparently being taunted by female MPs Lynndie England and Sabrina Harman and posed in a human pyramid shocked the nation. Other photos of humiliation showed prisoners handcuffed in stress positions with women’s panties on their heads. One particularly heinous scare tactic was the use of attack dogs. And of course, the iconic photo of a prisoner nicknamed Gilligan dressed in sack cloth and a hood, awkwardly balanced on a box, his outstretched arms attached to wires became the image of torture Americans now had to understand was being done in their name. Perhaps predictably, the American public blinked. The “bad apples” were prosecuted, Brigadier General Janis Karpinski was relieved of her command of the 800th MP Brigade in Iraq and busted down to colonel, and Abu Ghraib receded back into its dark, dirty corner. Out of sight, out of mind.

SOP%2010.jpgErrol Morris didn’t forget. After an exploratory interview with Karpinski, he determined that the story of Abu Ghraib hadn’t been fully explored, that the pictures had, in fact, closed down a wider investigation of the truth because they made it so easy to point a finger at the grunts on the ground and be done with it. Morris was sure that there was a story outside the frames of those pictures, a human face to the low-ranked monsters who were punished that deserved to be seen as well, a cover-up to be investigated. Returning to the investigative mode he so brilliantly executed with The Thin Blue Line, Morris doggedly pursued interviews and information, eventually getting Javal Davis, Tony Diaz, Lynndie England, Megan Ambuhl Graner, Sabrina Harman, Janis Karpinski, Roman Krol, and Jeremy Sivits—all prosecuted or otherwise punished for the abuse—to speak with him. Former Abu Ghraib MPs Ken Davis and Jeffrey Frost provided their version of events. Military interrogator Tim Dugan discussed what he saw and gave his opinion of the effectiveness of the MPs’ softening techniques. Finally, Brent Pack, a special agent for the Criminal Investigations Division, showed how he put together a timeline of events and corroborating evidence of who took part in the abuse through the use of the photographs themselves.

Morris introduces us to the prison first. We learn about an elaborate tour of the facility that was planned for Secretary Rumsfeld’s visit in September 2003. Rumsfeld entered the room where hangings took place under Saddam, then hurriedly left the prison with an offhand “fine, fine” comment. When Major General Geoffrey Miller visited Abu Ghraib a day later, the results were more “fruitful.” He intended to run the prison in Gitmo fashion, and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez issued the now infamous Interrogation and Counter-Resistance Policy for Iraq, which tacitly and explicitly authorized certain forms of torture and humiliation in opposition to the Geneva Convention. With the necessary instructions now in place, the 372nd MP Company took up their duties in Abu Ghraib.

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Specialist Sabrina Harman’s letters to her “wife” Kelly start spelling out the oddity of some of the sights she’s witnessing. She snaps photos of a prisoner who is handcuffed to his bed with panties on his head. She continues to document many of the abuses she sees. She explains to Kelly that she is keeping a photographic record in case the incidents get them in trouble. She does not, however, refuse to appear in the pictures, often with the thumbs-up pose that seems so callous to the general public.

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Lynndie England, of leashed-prisoner photo fame, says all her troubles stem from a man—in this case Corporal Charles Graner, her lover, and a man officials refused to let speak to Morris. Graner seems to have been the ringleader for most of the staged photos of prisoner humiliation. England did what he said out of love and at other times, out of persistent coercion. She was, she said, unwilling to stand by one of the Iraqis who was forced to masturbate and only did so when Graner gave her little option. England also didn’t notice that Megan Ambuhl, who was present during many such incidents, was cropped out of the photos being taken by her secret lover and current husband—Charles Graner. Morris restores the original framing of one photo to show us the reality beyond the edges of the image.

This perspective is exactly what underlies Morris’ purposes in making this film—to show us that the reality we assume these photos show us is only partial. This presentation is, I think, meant to lead us to question what we think we know about Abu Ghraib and demand more answers to nagging questions about how widespread and systemic these abuses were (and are). He intends to show us that these “monsters” are human and, in fact, pawns who were nearly powerless to refuse to abuse these prisoners and predisposed by living in a hell hole in a war zone to dehumanize themselves and the detainees in their care.

I completely agree with Morris’ intentions with this film, but my gut reaction to what I saw was that with the exception of Jeremy Sivits—a classic wrong place, wrong time case—these people were guilty and self-justifying. To me, the film affirmed the bad apple theory, with Graner and Ivan Frederick (also forbidden from talking to Morris by prison officials) as the ringleaders, and the rest—especially the women—going along to get along. “I was only following orders,” comes to mind, a poor excuse in a post-Holocaust world. Despite Morris’ attempts to contextualize their actions by helping us to understand their chaotic surroundings, the examples and orders they were told to follow, the stress of living and working in a war zone, and their interpersonal relationships, I still found myself unmoved. More than anything, I felt these grunts were immature, improperly trained, and definitely not too bright. As the experienced and smart interrogator Tim Dugan said, these tactics were useless and actually encouraged detainees who had indicated a willingness to offer information to clam up.

The investigative arm of this film was tantalizing. I was enthralled by Brent Pack’s explanations of how he was able to cross-reference photos taken by different people to establish the dates on which abuses took place and who was present. If you like CSI, you’ll love this photographic forensic work.

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Of course, Morris stages reenactments to help us see what cannot be seen. Some people strongly criticize these reenactments, saying a documentary should deal in real documents, not reimaginings. I disagree with these critics. I want to get an idea of what happened visually, and Morris is careful to stage these reenactments based on the best available information. I think the fact that he does them so well is the major reason for the criticism—it’s sometimes hard to know if you’re seeing the real deal or not, and some people don’t like to be fooled, although that is not Morris’ intention. During the film, there is an insert of some footage, a small square in a large, black frame, detailing abuse. I watched it, trying to make up my mind whether it was shot at the time of the incident or a reenactment, so good are Morris’ set pieces.

SOP%209.jpgHis technique of placing artistically rendered mood pieces throughout the film to break up the talking heads presentation worked less well for me. Some of these visuals were so stunningly beautiful, coming as they did from ace directors of photography Robert Chappell and Robert Richardson, that they simply didn’t seem to belong in such a brutal film. Perhaps it was Morris’ intention to provide us with the equivalent of Yasujiro Ozu’s “pillow shots” as a way to take us out of the horror for a few moments and help us reflect on what we saw, or simply just rest our minds and eyes. The effect on me, at least, was a bit jarring and distasteful. Other reviewers have found Morris’ graphic depictions of the abuse excessive and exploitative, a charge with which I personally do not agree. A film about torture and humiliation shouldn’t worry about the taste or tolerance level of its audience. The detainees couldn’t back away from it; why should we, especially since it was done in our name.

My interview with Errol Morris can be found here.


15th 01 - 2006 | no comment »

Our Backstreets #3: Cindy Sherman: Deconstructing Image


By Marilyn Ferdinand

While browsing through the television offerings late in December, I came across a new documentary airing on PBS called “Imagining America: Icons of 20th Century American Art.” This show grabbed my attention because art has long been a passion of mine. I’d venture to say that I have a closer affinity for it than I do for film (though the two certainly are closely related); if I hadn’t chosen writing as my career, I most certainly would have tried to become an artist.

So, I tuned in and learned to my great delight that part of this 2-hour documentary would include a segment on Cindy Sherman, one of my favorite artists whose film-stills series leaves me breathless with wonder. Imagine my dismay when we were treated to endless footage of Jackson Pollock dripping paint on canvas, a more than healthy dose of Andy Warhol, and about 3 minutes total of Cindy Sherman, including exactly one sentence from the artist herself. The in-depth PBS description of the program doesn’t even mention her name! I guess men are still defining our culture, but at least with this blog, I can try to emulate Sherman by attempting to correct the imbalance.

Cindy Sherman (1954- ) is primarily a conceptual artist with a witty and piercing grasp of the manipulations of media (consider the irony of her art being all but smothered in the PBS show!). Her most famous and recognized works are a series of 70 photographs done from 1977 through 1980 called the “Untitled Film Stills.” In each photograph, Sherman depicts herself dressed and made up to appear like characters in B-movie scenes or European art films. Many of the poses seem deliberately overwrought, and it would be tempting to compare them with Roy Lichtenstein’s gigantic comic book panels of sob sisters in vulnerable situations. However, Sherman infuses her characters with a level of humanity that helps them break free of their iconic status and convey the pain and uncertainty that was at the core of the lives of real women who were objectified in these films.

A Cindy Sherman photograph dares the viewer to look beyond the surface, to imagine an iconic scenario from the photographed woman’s point of view. Those who do not “get” these works of art may not yet be ready to unpeel the packaging of social constructs they have been handed by the world in which they live. It is telling that another artist whose photographs challenge accepted social constructs by portraying homosexual sex and love in all its variety, Robert Mapplethorpe, received avid and creative support from Sherman. When he and Andres Serrano (“Piss Jesus”) were censored and lost federal funding in the late 1980s, Sherman produced her “Sex” series—photographs of medical mannequins in sexually explicit poses.

Sherman’s later works have an apocalyptic quality to them, appearing to present the world after a nuclear holocast. Debris is mashed chaotically onto dark, disturbed backgrounds. Sherman has been quoted as saying about her nightmare images, “it prepares you psychically for the potential for violence in your own life.” My own take is that Sherman was very distressed about the real and cultural wars occurring when she made these images and created an unfiltered look at chaos in her own mind and heart. Her latest projects have returned her to the center of her art, posing portrait-style as comic grotesques. It’s nice to see she’s gotten a sense of humor back, but I miss the edge toward which she had been creeping.

Just one more thing. Cindy Sherman directed a movie called Office Killer that I just ordered. Look for a review of the film from this singular, important artist of the 20th and 21st centuries. Better yet, look for her art.


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