Nicolas Rey, Anders, Molussien (Differently, Molussia), 2012, 16 mm, color, 81 minutes.

JUST A DECADE OLD, the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival—more commonly known as CPH:DOX—already occupies a sizable footprint on the European festival landscape. This ambitious, outward-looking event now boasts multiple ancillary initiatives, including a financing forum and a cross-cultural production project, but at its heart is a strong curatorial stance, an idea of documentary film that is at once distinctive and expansive. Fittingly, one of the themed programs for last month’s tenth anniversary edition was titled “Maximalism,” and it stretched to encompass Leos Carax’s Holy Motors, Raya Martin’s psychedelic road trip Buenas noches, España, and an Animal Collective performance. Countering the stodgier impulses of more established documentary venues, the programming has both a hipster bent and a welcome sense of showmanship; even the occasional gimmickry is endearing. Denis Côté’s animal study Bestiaire was shown one afternoon at the Copenhagen Zoo. A double bill of Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s immersive, convulsive Leviathan, shot entirely aboard (and off the side of) a fishing trawler two hundred miles off the Massachusetts coast, and David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Kingdom of Animal, a one-take tour of a Maine fish factory, was followed by a dinner of fish soup (by all accounts delicious).

While Leviathan won the New Vision competition for formally innovative works, the prize in the main competition went to The Act of Killing, one of the most talked-about films at Telluride and Toronto this year, as well as a Danish co-production. Directed by American-born Joshua Oppenheimer with the help of many crew members who remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, the film induces several elderly Indonesian men who slaughtered hundreds during anticommunist purges in the 1960s to relive their crimes (for which they have never been punished and apparently feel no remorse).

It’s a startling gambit, not least because the restagings, with the filmmakers’ help, take the form of movie spectacles by turns kitschy and grisly. Bizarre and boldly sensational, The Act of Killing has already found vocal fans in Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, who promptly signed on as executive producers. Its political significance is not to be underestimated: The film brings to garish light a horrific, still-suppressed chapter of modern Indonesian history, and it says plenty about the way its antiheroes see themselves and rationalize their actions. But some of its implications verge on glibness. The emphasis on violent Hollywood movies as an influence on the massacres, however much the thugs admired Marlon Brando, seems like a flashy red herring (especially given the US government’s actual complicity), and a glimpse into the delusions of a few murderous sociopaths, however vivid, is very far from a truth and reconciliation process. Less exposé than stunt, The Act of Killing builds to an implicit endorsement of its own queasy methods, filmmaker and subject alike affirming the cathartic potential of reenactment.

Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn, and Anonymous, The Act of Killing, 2012, color, 159 minutes.

My highlight of CPH:DOX was catching up with one of the year’s most resonant political films (and best films, period): Anders, Molussien (Differently, Molussia), the French experimental filmmaker Nicolas Rey’s attempt to adapt an untranslated, posthumously published novel by the German philosopher Günther Anders, set in the total dark of a penal colony in an imaginary fascist state called Molussia. (It was shown as part of a themed program titled “Empire,” riffing on post-Negri/Hardt notions of imperialism and also featuring Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme [2010] and the late Gerhard Friedl’s Farocki-like essay film Wolff von Amerongen: Did He Commit Bankruptcy Offenses? [2004])

Rey’s film has had a healthy festival life, and is effectively a world premiere every time it shows: It’s divided into nine reels, and the order of presentation is selected at random by the projectionist at each screening. (A deck of cards is provided to aid the process; 362,880 permutations exist.) What we hear, in addition to intricate field recordings, are excerpts of the text in German: a Platonic dialogue of sorts between two prisoners about the outside world. What we see are agrarian, industrial, suburban views of today, shot on expired 16-mm stock, at times with a rotating camera. Part dystopian science fiction, part landscape film, Anders, Molussien sustains an endlessly evocative dialectic between sound and image, the past and the present, the real and the fantasized. An essay on the visible and invisible manifestations of power, it’s also a testament to the political uses of imagination (which is also, as it happens, the subject of The Act of Killing, albeit in a grimmer and more literal sense).

Anders, Molussien screened at Copenhagen’s Husets Biograf, a cozy neo-grindhouse that Rey called a “temple to analog.” It’s also a reliable site for strange chance happenings. Last year, a print of Kenneth Anger’s eruptive Lucifer Rising (1972) caught fire midscreening; this year, as Rey answered questions after Anders, Molussien, the lights abruptly went out, plunging the audience into pitch darkness. As the film suggests, Molussia is indeed everywhere.

Dennis Lim

The tenth CPH:DOX ran November 1–11.

Quentin Tarantino, Django Unchained, 2012, 35 mm, 141 minutes. Django and Brunhilda (Jamie Foxx and Kerry Washington).

AS IRRITATING, if not quite as inflammatory, as a hemorrhoid, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained makes a queasy Oscar-season obverse not to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, as some have suggested, but to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Though operating in vastly different genres—ZDT is a fact-based thriller about events of the past eleven years, Django Unchained an antebellum freed-slave revenger deeply in thrall to spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation movies—both are responses to eras in which the torture and subjugation of other human beings was part of US policy. One film unequivocally presents the horror of legally sanctioned physical abuse; the other is a little turned on by it.

Django Unchained, Tarantino’s eighth film (or seventh, if you count the bisected Kill Bill as one entity), operates in the same avenging-angel vein as his previous movie, the World War II–set Inglourious Basterds (2009), in which Nazis are scalped and set aflame. In both films, the writer-director imbues his florid cinephilia, the engine of all his productions, with the power to wield divine retribution, to turn history’s most vile abusers into its most cowering victims. This cartoonish fantasy works quite well in Inglourious Basterds: There is indeed something deeply, perversely satisfying about watching SS officers beg for their lives or the instantaneous combustion of the higher-ups of the Third Reich, gathered to attend a screening of a Nazi propaganda film.

Yet the cathartic thrills of witnessing that righteous, murderous revenge are gravely compromised in Django Unchained by Tarantino’s obsession with the ghastly torments inflicted on those who were considered chattel. The film opens in 1858 in Texas, where Teuton bounty hunter King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), posing as a dentist, buys Django (Jamie Foxx) from his masters. In exchange for the now-freed slave’s assistance in a contracted kill, the good German promises to reunite Django with his wife, Brunhilda (Kerry Washington, her character’s improbable name explained in a signature Tarantino digression), and rescue her from the sociopathic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in deepest Mississippi.

A whole mess of nasty peckerwoods and slavers will get their due, either from bullets pumped into them or from sticks of dynamite detonated. These are high-volume, generic deaths, filling the screen with so much red or orange. Where Tarantino really likes to pull the camera in close is during those moments that further objectify the already abject. Punished for trying to run away, a slave is torn to pieces by dogs (a scene returned to in flashback); two shirtless, perspiration-soaked black men bare-knuckle battle for Candie’s pleasure (the victor of this “Mandingo fight” being the one who doesn’t die). Most egregiously, a slow pan down the body of a naked Django, strung up by his feet and only seconds away from castration from a Candie henchman, captures every taut muscle, every bead of sweat.

About the one white man who isn’t a blue-eyed devil: Schultz is unmistakably a benevolent force, but Waltz is essentially reprising the role he played in Inglourious Basterds, in which he dominated the screen as the suave Nazi colonel Hans Landa. Both Landa and Schultz are exceptionally eloquent polyglots whose perorations seem to punctuate every scene. So much screen time, in fact, is devoted to Schultz’s orotund speeches that taciturn Django (“I don’t know what positive mean”) is frequently overshadowed. In this, Tarantino’s film, for which he has coined a new genre, the “southern,” resembles not so much his beloved spaghetti westerns or Richard Fleischer’s notorious, similarly themed 1975 melodrama, Mandingo (which the late, great critic Robin Wood passionately, if not altogether convincingly, once hailed as “the greatest film about race ever made in Hollywood”), but The Blind Side.

Melissa Anderson

Django Unchained opens December 25.

Echo Park


Left: Cover for Cunningham Dance Foundation, Park Avenue Armory Event, 2012. Photo: Stephanie Berger. Emma Desjardins and Brandon Collwes. Right: Cunningham Dance Foundation, Park Avenue Armory Event, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 53 minutes. Andrea Weber and Brandon Collwes.

ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF 2012 was not released in theaters or shown at any festivals or streamed on Netflix or anywhere really but is only available on DVD through a small San Francisco–based nonprofit art-film distributor. The Park Avenue Armory Event, a capstone of one of the great achievements in art of any era—the technique and choreography that travels under the vulpine name “Merce Cunningham”—is now viewable on a three-DVD release from Artpix.

Park Avenue Armory Event: six performances featuring fourteen dancers dancing “excerpts” of fifty years of choreography on three separate stages in that massive, titular space over the course of three nights, December 29–31, 2011. It was the final performance of the Cunningham Company and a goodbye to modern dance. It was a delirious, historic occasion. Lessons in seeing. Lessons in getting lost. Lessons in coming up for air and finding that not all air is like every other air. It was the sort of thing you can get all glowy about. There will never be anything remotely like it again.

The Artpix release, produced by the Cunningham Dance Foundation and accompanied by a pitch-perfect essay by Douglas Crimp, is as smart and elegant an homage to the actual events as one could have hoped for. It’s a miracle the filmmakers were able to do Park Avenue Armory Event justice at all. That they’re able to capture it this vividly is remarkable. Dancer and videographer Nic Petry edited footage culled from nine cameras and two performances into a single, fifty-minute film synthesizing the action on all three stages. The camera-eye is different from the human-eye, and the dancers it anoints for history are different from the ones my own memory chose. I wonder, too, if the camera-eye will eventually overwrite my mind’s-eye. But in the end it doesn’t matter. Let my memories and these edit-memories mingle and swell.

If you feel cramped by the jump-cuts, disc two features uncut views of the dancing from each of the stages. Disc three includes excerpts from sixteen dances—from Suite for Five, 1956–58, to Nearly Ninety², 2009—reprised during the Cunningham Company’s two-year valedictory Legacy Tour. Here’s original footage from RainForest, 1968, where you can see Cunningham himself dance his mad, inimitable solo, swiping at and about Warhol’s sublimely in-the-way silver balloons. It all makes a perfect companion to Aperture’s iPad-only release from this summer, Merce Cunningham: 65 Years (a crucial update to the classic Merce Cunningham: 50 Years). A compendium of journal entries, videos, drawings, essays, and photos—all chronicled by Cunningham’s longtime archivist David Vaughan—the App is its own special event, an engaging history/biography/information-bank that really fulfills the promise of “multimedia.” The trove includes (among many great moments) a dusty film clip of a young and buoyant Cunningham dancing with Martha Graham and Eric Hawkins in Graham’s Every Soul Is a Circus, 1940. That Cunningham feels a million miles away from the Cunningham memorialized in Park Avenue Armory Event feels a million miles from the land of no-Cunningham now.

David Velasco

The Park Avenue Armory Event DVD box set is now available through Artpix and Microcinema International. Merce Cunningham: 65 Years is available from Aperture.

Worlds Apart


Ron Fricke, Baraka, 1992, 70 mm, color, 97 minutes.

RON FRICKE’S BARAKA is a curio of 1990s filmmaking. Part nature documentary, part animated panorama, the film and its epic, breathless ambitions failed to ramify. Viewed today, the singularity of Baraka’s style lends it the dated feel peculiar to projects that fashion themselves as self-consciously cutting-edge. Inspired by Fricke’s stint as a cinematographer on Godfrey Reggio’s cult classic Koyaanisqatsi, Baraka was one of the final films to be captured on Todd-AO 70 mm, a lush, high-definition format abandoned to the cost-effectiveness of digital. The camera, computerized and custom-built for Baraka’s extended time-lapse shots, was Fricke’s invention, and the film reads as a eulogy to its powers. Now angled at the vaporous cascade of Argentina’s Iguazu Falls, now surveying the airy dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Fricke’s camera glides, swoops, and tracks across six continents. Screening as part of Lincoln Center’s late-December ode to 70 mm alongside such stalwarts as Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967) and Steven Lisberger’s Tron (1982), Baraka’s sumptuous succession of images fascinates, perplexes, and perturbs in equal measure.

Defining its scope in the broadest possible way—the world, in totoBaraka’s pretensions are sweeping: to effect, in Fricke’s words, “a guided meditation on humanity” that transcends the bounds of language, nation, and religion. The fullness and lucidity of 70 mm made it the ideal medium for Fricke’s project, which strove to bracket thorny questions of politics in favor of a seamless, absorptive experience. Stripped of context, each of the film’s 152 locations is grounded only by those details immanent in the images themselves. An air of unreality thus pervades Baraka’s run-time, as if its scenes were less tangible places than stock signifiers of nature and natives, culled from the collective imaginary of a society reared on the Discovery Channel. Fricke’s camera movements are minimal, limited to smooth pans and slow tracking shots, and his cuts are frequent. Hypnotic views of mountains, tides, and clouds punctuate rapid juxtapositions of disparate forms of worship—Buddhists in Kathmandu, Hasidic Jews at the Western Wall, and whirling dervishes in Istanbul—as if to imply that everything in the world is composed of the same spiritual stuff. In lieu of identifying the sites imaged, Fricke gives us the eclectic, incongruous instrumentals of world music, where Japanese koto drums mix with bagpipes and Tibetan water music.

It’s this exasperating, seductive jumble that both defines and dooms Baraka. “It’s not about where you are, or why you’re there, but what’s there. It’s like doing a painting,” Fricke remarks in an interview on the film’s Blu-ray release. His approach to the world, indeed, partakes in that of a painter—albeit less a modernist master than an eighteenth-century landscape artist, enraptured in distanced contemplation of nature’s picturesque vistas, their pure aesthetics divorced from the gritty realities of history and power. Yet, confronted with the silent gaze of a sex worker in Bangkok or burning oil fields in Kuwait, abstracting from politics becomes impossible. Fricke’s New Age rhetoric, steeped in the pop mysticism of Joseph Campbell, at times cloaks a disturbing conservatism that reinforces notions of the third world as static and ahistorical, removed from the frenzied flow of time that structures life in the West. At its worst, Baraka devolves into a neo-imperialist fantasy, its euphoric jaunt around the globe collapsing cultural difference into the easy, untroubled exoticism of a tourist’s souvenir.

This willful naïveté is Baraka’s knell. Enamored of nature’s grandeur and the novelty of cross-cultural contact, the film attempts to elide its implication in the global economic order that produces the very inequities that it laments. Symptomatic of the contradictions of well-meaning humanism, Baraka neglects the central lessons of post-’60s filmmaking: that no image is innocent, no depiction of the world eternal.

Courtney Fiske

“See It in 70 mm!” runs December 21–January 1 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Still from Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 156 minutes. Maya (Jessica Chastain).

KATHRYN BIGELOW’S ZERO DARK THIRTYone of the best films of the year, and the best-titled—begins in literal darkness. Over a black screen, the recordings of those trapped inside the twin towers on September 11 (“I’m gonna die”), and those of the 911 operators who tried to calm them (“You’re doing fine, ma’am”), buzz and crackle, building to an excruciating cacophony of terror and chaos. What follows is the decadelong hunt for the man who ordered those attacks, Osama bin Laden: ten years of black sites and stygian nightmares.

ZDT, like Bigelow’s previous film, The Hurt Locker (2008), about a three-man bomb-disposal team during the Iraq Waq, was written by journalist Mark Boal. Where the earlier movie, though informed by Boal’s having been embedded in 2004 in Iraq with an explosive-ordnance-disposal squad, consisted of fictional characters, ZDT hews closer to the historical record, the result of Boal’s extensive interviews with the CIA operatives tasked with tracking down bin Laden.

The monomania of one of those agents, Maya (Jessica Chastain), based on a real CIA officer who remains undercover, serves as the organizing principle in this supremely taut compression of a decade’s worth of international politics, further terrorist attacks, CIA infighting, and intelligence dead ends, culminating in the successful raid on bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad on May 2, 2011. That we learn little of Maya’s backstory—she’s single; recruited out of high school, she’s worked for the agency for twelve years, focusing solely on bin Laden—further heightens ZDT’s immediacy, its reckless, runaway forward motion.

What ZDT conveys better than any other film made about September 11 or its aftermath is the dizzying sense of the globe spinning off its axis, of moral compasses spiraling wildly with no fixed poles—of a world in which innocent civilians are blown up and odious practices become national policy. As you may have heard, ZDT contains scenes of a prisoner, Ammar (Reda Kateb), a presumed Al Qaeda operative, being tortured: He is waterboarded, held in chains and caked in his own shit, sleep deprived, sexually humiliated, and forced into a box the size of a child’s bureau drawer. These unsparing episodes of the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” imperative to include in an accurate account of the agency’s tactics to find bin Laden, have been wildly misread by film critics and other journalists as Bigelow and Boal’s endorsement of torture. (For one pundit, not seeing the film did not prevent him from attacking it or from making analogies between Bigelow and Leni Riefenstahl.)

These detractors, who equate the depiction of an event with “glorifying” it, argue that Ammar’s later providing a name crucial to the bin Laden hunt means that the filmmakers are explicitly making a case for the efficacy of torture. But they have missed ZDT’s larger, more nuanced points. The scenes of Ammar’s abuse are unyieldingly repugnant: Disgust is registered more than once on the face of Maya, here serving as the audience’s surrogate. At one point the detainee babbles nonsense “information” just to make the torture stop; when he does offer up the important name, he does so not after being roughed up but after more humane treatment. Most significantly, the torture scenes are dwarfed—in both length and significance to the bin Laden mission—by Maya’s tenacious intel work.

Her tenacity is matched by the film’s laser-sharp focus; ZDT unfolds like a detail-crammed dossier. The specifics are indelible: an IM exchange between Maya and another agent as a source arrives (“He’s here! BRB.” “Cool!”); one of the Navy SEALs listening to Tony Robbins (“I got big plans after this”) in a helicopter minutes before the Abbottabad raid. Though all are potent, no one image in ZDT quite matches the power of its final shot—a summary of the horror, grief, and ongoing despair of the post-9/11 universe.

Melissa Anderson

Zero Dark Thirty opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 19 and nationally on January 11.

Amy Taubin’s 1000 Words with Kathryn Bigelow appears in the January issue of Artforum.

Dear Diary


Left: Jonas Mekas, Lost Lost Lost, 1976, 16 mm, color and black-and-white, sound, 178 minutes. Right: Jonas Mekas, My Paris Movie, 2011, video, color, 159 minutes.

JONAS MEKAS turns ninety this Christmas Eve, and a dozen-odd gallery, museum, and cinematheque shows have been organized worldwide in his honor, including a complete film and video retrospective in Paris at the Beaubourg (through January 7) and an exhibition in London at the Serpentine (through January 27). One of the more modest celebrations, a selection of well-known masterworks, curiosities, and a few New York premieres, begins tonight, December 17, and continues for a week at Mekas’s home base, Anthology Film Archives, which he cofounded in 1970.

Beginning with Diaries, Notes & Sketches (Walden) (1969), which showed at Anthology earlier this month, Mekas edited the raw, silent, diary footage that he had been shooting since his arrival in the US in 1949. Together, these moving-image works form a multilayered autobiography of a filmmaker and poet in exile from the Lithuania of his childhood, searching for glimpses of a remembered Paradise in the place that he shaped with nonstop labor and the force of his imagination into a new home.

Mekas’s first-person films are meditations on memory and history that contain some of the most expressive combinations of image and sound in the history of cinema. If you can see only one movie in this series, make it Lost Lost Lost (1976), which comprise footage Mekas shot between 1949 and 1963. The film bears witness to the transformation of American culture from the repression of the Eisenhower years to the euphoria of the early 1960s. You also see the parallel development in Mekas’s visual language from straightforward documentary realism to the fragmented, handheld poetic imagery that characterized his work until he exchanged his 16-mm Bolex for a consumer- grade video camera. The other major work in the series is As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2000), which is devoted almost entirely to the filmmaker’s domestic life—a long marriage during which two children are born and grow into adulthood. Less abstract than Stan Brakhage’s home movies, the film finds other ways of avoiding sentimentality, and despite its 288-minute length, it is Mekas’s most successful audience pleaser.

From the end of the 1990s to now, Mekas has recorded his diaries almost exclusively in video. The new technology brought about radical aesthetic changes in his work—primarily the substitution of sync sound for the elaborate soundtracks that he had built for the films. In his editing room, Mekas used to record his own associative commentary on the images he had filmed, some of them shot only yesterday, some decades before. The images were ghosts of the past; the words revived them, transformed them, and would give them a vibrant presence on the screen. The texts of the films were largely first-person improvised monologues. The videos are constructed largely as conversations among the people we see on the screen. The layering of time (the time of shooting and the time of editing) is less important, as is Mekas’s guiding presence.

Some of the videos in this series were made to be seen on the web, and their intimacy is lost when they are projected. Throughout 2007, I got in the habit of looking at Mekas’s 365 Day Project on my computer first thing every morning. The videos themselves varied in interest, but the direct daily connection between me (the viewer) and Mekas (the artist) was transformative. Mekas’s most powerful use of video—the five-hour collage of television footage that comprises Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR (2008)—is not included this series, nor is the beautifully ragged Sleepless Nights Stories (2011). There is however one New York premiere, My Paris Movie (2011), which begins brilliantly and I fear outstays its welcome.

Commissioned by the Musée de Jeu de Paume to contribute to a celebration of cinema, My Paris Movie is a three-hour-long edit of film and video shot during Mekas’s many trips to a city whose culture values him as an artist—and movies as an art form—far more than does New York. Early in My Paris Movie, Mekas recounts how in 1963 he smuggled Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour through customs with the help of Harold Pinter, whom he met on the plane to New York. It’s a hilarious piece of personal and cultural history, and the difference between this subversive period of underground filmmaking and today’s acceptance of the artist’s home movies into the museum and gallery system is made more poignant through cutaways from the casual video diary shot largely in 2009 to film sequences from the ’60s and ’70s. Mekas’s Paris movie is a celebration of much wine, raucous song, and a few women (there’s a lovely portrait of agnès b. working in her atelier). But there are so many close-ups of wine in glasses and wine in bottles and so much drinking in bars, hotel rooms, and at dinner parties that the movie seems to be courting a stern rebuke from someone concerned about Mekas’s health and the potential loss of his fine-tuned aesthetic sensibility. Or perhaps it has functioned as a kind of exorcism, which, without getting too personal, reportedly has been successful. My Paris Movie definitely has its positive aspects but aesthetic satisfaction is not among them.

Amy Taubin

Jonas Mekas Turns 90!” runs December 17–23 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Salò, o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom), 1975, 35 mm, color, sound, 114 minutes. Photo: Criterion Collection.

PIER PAOLO PASOLINI first visited New York City in late 1966, and what he found there surprised him: In the heated context of the antiwar movement and the struggle for civil rights—which he characterized forcefully as a “civil war”—the forty-four-year-old Italian poet and filmmaker rediscovered a spirit of political and cultural renewal that he had experienced only once before, during the last months of World War II, when the Italian partisans rose up against Nazism and Fascism in what was itself largely an internecine conflict—one that had claimed his brother’s life.

In America, if only during a very brief visit, I lived many hours in the sort of climate of clandestinity, revolutionary urgency, and hope that belonged to the Europe of 1944 and 1946. In Europe now, everything is finished; in America, you get the feeling that everything is about to begin. . . . People live there as if on the eve of great things. The people of the New Left (which doesn’t exist—it’s just an idea, an ideal) recognize one another at first sight, and a sort of love is born between them, just as happened among the partisans.¹

Pasolini found this spirit of resistance in the Black Panthers he met in Harlem, in members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and Students for a Democratic Society, in union organizers, in hippies he watched singing peace songs to neo-Nazis, and in some American artists and poets he met, Allen Ginsberg foremost among them. “I love Ginsberg,” he remarked at the time. “It’s been a long time since I read poems by a brother poet.”² And he found a perhaps unexpected audience for his work. His first film, Accattone (1961), and his newest one, Hawks and Sparrows (1966), were both projected at that year’s New York Film Festival, and he was happy with the reception they were given in spite of their many pointed references to American foreign policy and the Hollywood studio system. He would leave New York with a renewed aesthetic enthusiasm, which would find expression in his 1968 film Teorema (whose concluding howl in the desert represents a striking homage to Ginsberg and the New Left), as well as in a screenplay for a film about the life and apostolic mission of Saint Paul set, in part, in contemporary New York.

His faith in poetic creativity was revived in an America still free from the intellectual traditions—including the traditions of the Left, he said—that asphyxiated him at home. As he wrote to Ginsberg after his trip:

All Americans are forced to be inventors of words! In Italy, instead, we (even those now sixteen years old) already have our revolutionary language, with its own ethics behind it. Even the Chinese speak like civil servants. Even myself—as you see. . . . I never succeed in forgetting, not even at this moment, that I have linguistic obligations.³

It is this struggle with “linguistic obligations”—the traditions and conventions of the languages of poetry and, most of all, film—and this desire to be an “inventor” of forms that characterize Pasolini’s project, as a writer and as a filmmaker.

Now, nearly fifty years after his first visit to the city—long after the “eve of great things” that Pasolini once predicted for our country—the Museum of Modern Art in New York is presenting its second complete retrospective of his work.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Il fiore delle mille e una notte (Arabian Nights), 1974, 35 mm, color, sound, 129 minutes. Photo: Rue des Archives/Granger Collection.

PASOLINI WAS AN EXTRAORDINARILY IMPORTANT figure in Italian and European culture, leaving his mark not only as a poet and filmmaker but also as a novelist, a journalist, and a theorist of the arts. It is no exaggeration to suggest that he is the most influential cultural figure in Italy since the Second World War, and his influence remains largely undiminished since his assassination in 1975—a crime still shrouded in mystery and often likened, by Italians, to the assassination of JFK (both in terms of its cultural significance and in acknowledgment of the multitudinous conspiracy theories that surround it).

Although he is lionized today, Pasolini was, to say the least, a challenging presence in Italian cultural and political life, ever questioning dogma all along the ideological spectrum, beginning with his own political and artistic stances, which were often profoundly contradictory. He was, after all, a gay Catholic Marxist. His was a persona that brought together three presumedly mutually exclusive identities, a persona that reflected the political and ideological fault lines and institutions that conditioned Italian social life: the Roman Catholic Church and the Christian Democratic Party that represents it, on the one hand, and the Communist Party, which emerged victorious from the Resistance and stood in opposition to the church, on the other. Being a Catholic Marxist was exceedingly difficult in the aftermath of the war in Italy; to be gay, as well, was all but unthinkable. It was perhaps this untenable combination of identities within Pasolini’s complex character that formed the matrix for his unorthodox approach to art and politics, resulting in a discomfiting and often scandalous body of work and leaving behind a legacy of radical questioning and intellectual vitality for the generations of filmmakers and artists who came after him.

Pasolini was born in 1922 in Bologna. His father was an officer in the Italian army, his mother a schoolteacher from Friuli, a region in northeastern Italy. For much of World War II, Pasolini’s family took refuge in his mother’s hometown of Casarsa, while his father served in Africa, where he was eventually taken prisoner. In the last months of the war, Pasolini’s brother Guido joined the partisans and was killed in a dispute with a rival partisan group in the hills of Friuli. His death would leave a profound mark on Pasolini’s work, right up to the end.

It was during these years of war that Pasolini began to write poetry in Friulan, one of the many linguistically distinct local dialects that coexist with standard Italian.⁴ In the early 1940s, Pasolini’s choice of Friulan was significant for several reasons. First of all, during the Fascist period, Benito Mussolini had outlawed any use of regional dialects, in order to strengthen the culture of the nation-state by making a single language the basis of a national identity. To write poetry in a dialect was an act of resistance that was at once literary and political. Pasolini’s early refusal of standard Italian was a rehearsal for his turn away from literary writing toward filmmaking in the early ’60s, when he made Accattone, whose main characters all speak Romanesco. But another motivation for Pasolini’s adoption of Friulan was his identification with the peasant farmers, or contadini, whose rural traditions and regional culture were, he thought, in the process of being wiped out by the nationalistic culture of modern, industrial Italy. Pasolini would never abandon his loyalty to the peasantry or to the local languages and cultures of Italy’s lower classes, either in his writing or in his films. One of the most controversial choices he made in his 1971 adaptation of Boccaccio’s Decameron, for example, was to have the characters speak the dialect of Naples rather than Boccaccio’s Florentine, the idiom that laid the foundation for the standard Italian adopted as the national tongue after the country’s unification in the late nineteenth century.

But on a more basic level, Pasolini chose to write poetry in Friulan because it was his mother’s dialect; it was the mother tongue that enveloped him as a child. To write in this language represented a return to origins, a regression to the lost paradise of the maternal bond. Nico Naldini, Pasolini’s first cousin and biographer, observed that when Pasolini began writing in dialect in the early ’40s—before his homosexuality led to his banishment from Friuli and his expulsion from the homophobic Italian Communist Party in 1949—each poem represented the invention of a new poetic language, the fresh translation of sounds and meanings into written form.⁵ When he turned to cinema in the ’60s, he was attracted to motion pictures as a language that, like dialect, was not burdened with centuries of accumulated traditions or “linguistic obligations”—a visual language of great expressive energy that was universally accessible.

For Pasolini, the language of poetry and poetic art, including the cinema, was one of great vitality that could reconnect the writer and his audience with the most elemental aspects of life. Indeed, Pasolini would come to argue that the language of the cinema was perhaps the most poetic of all and could break through the conventions and clichés of culture, putting spectators in touch with reality itself. While, for example, the word tree, written or spoken, is purely conventional—or “arbitrary,” as linguists say—the filmic image of a tree is indexically related to that tree; that is, to the thing itself. For Pasolini, a “cinema of poetry” can expose us to things themselves in a way other languages and media cannot, which explains his almost mystical faith in the medium of cinema. Accused by the structuralists of semiotic naïveté (most forcefully by Umberto Eco, whom Pasolini then parodied as one of the absurd Dantean dentists in Hawks and Sparrows), the director defiantly labeled his attitude toward film as “heretical empiricism,” and his ideas about the signifying force of film remain radical today.⁶ Pasolini’s “empiricism” would translate, in practice, into films of often brutal realism and extraordinary authenticity.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Mamma Roma, 1962, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 111 minutes. (Center) Mamma Roma (Anna Magnani). Photo: PA Picture Alliance.

BUT PASOLINI WOULD NOT make a film until he was nearly forty years old, long after he had established his reputation as a poet, novelist, and short-story writer. By the time he shot Accattone, he had published several volumes of poetry, including his best-known collection, titled The Ashes of Gramsci and dedicated to the heroic anti-Fascist and cofounder of the Communist Party of Italy Antonio Gramsci, who died in the mid-’30s after a decade of incarceration in Mussolini’s prisons. Much of Pasolini’s work was produced under the sign of Gramsci, and the poet’s own brand of Marxism owed more to the Italian political theorist, who assigned to the arts a great importance in preparing the way for social change, than it did to Marx himself. Indeed, Pasolini inherited his belief in the revolutionary potential of the arts directly from Gramsci.

Pasolini was also profoundly influenced by the Neorealist filmmakers and writers of the 1940s, who insisted on political and cultural engagement. His novels of the ’50s can be seen as examples of late-Neorealist literature, with their stories of lower-class characters—what he called “preindustrialized humanity”—struggling to survive in the ghettos of Rome after the disasters of World War II. When Pasolini began to make movies in the early ’60s, including his first two films, Accattone and Mamma Roma (1962), he would set his narrative in these same Roman ghettos and shantytowns, which had sprung up after the war on the outskirts of the city, and focus on the underworld’s cast of petty thieves, grifters, pimps, and prostitutes. Like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, Pasolini chose, for the most part, to shoot his films on location and use nonprofessional actors in an effort to increase the realism and authenticity of his work, a practice he adhered to throughout his career. There was a strong documentary impulse in Pasolini—a desire to carefully record the faces, bodies, gestures, and languages of the people of Italy and to represent the landscapes and cityscapes of his country, especially the Italy of the dispossessed, the new ghettos inhabited by ex-farmers and migrant laborers forced to abandon the farmland their families had worked for centuries, as the nation rapidly industrialized.

Pasolini would never abandon his dedication to the victims of modernization—those who, like the characters Ettore in Mamma Roma and Stracci in La Ricotta (1963), failed to adapt to the new economy and new lifestyles of modern Italy in the years after the war: the peasants, the subproletariat, and the toiling classes. For this reason, he would frequently be accused of nostalgia and of failing to understand or acknowledge the benefits of modernization. Pasolini’s critique of modernity and his insistence on the destructive nature of modern capitalism, its obliteration of local traditions and cultures in favor of international markets, were largely misunderstood by his contemporaries. Today, however, Pasolini has become a hero of no-global movements around the world, and his work has found a new resonance in today’s political and cultural debates concerning the impact of globalization.

It was precisely Pasolini’s knowledge of the Roman underworld—especially his familiarity with ghetto dialects—that led to his first encounters with the cinema. Most important, Federico Fellini hired him in 1956 to help write Nights of Cabiria (1957); Pasolini was asked to be a sort of script doctor, ensuring the authenticity of the lower-class characters’ speech and offering suggestions about slum locations where Fellini might shoot. Pasolini had an enormous impact on the film and would go on to collaborate with the maestro once again on the screenplay for La Dolce Vita, which premiered in 1960. While the actual nature of the creative partnership between the two men is only now beginning to emerge, as Pasolini’s contributions went mostly uncredited, it is certain that Fellini’s debt to Pasolini was great; perhaps in recognition of this fact, Fellini would not only encourage his protégé to make a film of his own but arrange for him to have access to the equipment and technicians needed to begin shooting Accattone. However, once Pasolini showed him footage, Fellini rejected the novice’s work and withdrew his support from the project. Their friendship never fully recovered.

Presumably what Fellini spurned was Pasolini’s naive style of filmmaking—his refusal to compose his shots or to edit his films according to cinematic conventions. Bernardo Bertolucci, who got his own start in film as the assistant director on Accattone, has described Pasolini’s style as “deliberately naive,” with the director approaching the cinema through the traditions of literature and painting rather than through the history of the cinema. Fellini, and others, probably mistook for incompetence Pasolini’s refusal of the “best practices” of the craft. For Bertolucci, to the contrary, watching Pasolini make Accattone was like being present at the birth of cinema: “One day Pasolini wanted to do a traveling shot. . . . It was like watching [D. W.] Griffith, like witnessing the invention of a new language. And he never spoke of cinema, only of drawings and paintings, altarpieces.”⁷ His was a profoundly original mode of filmmaking, which, like most innovations, was not immediately appreciated. What would eventually be recognized, however, was the extent to which Pasolini’s unique style of filming combined what we might call a naive realism, or a documentary impulse, with a highly cultivated repertoire of visual vocabularies and iconographic traditions inherited from the past.

IT IS THIS PARADOXICAL SYNTHESIS of extreme simplicity and extreme stylization that identifies Pasolini’s idiosyncratic style of filmmaking from the beginning of his career to its end. In his early films, including Accattone, Mamma Roma, and La Ricotta, Pasolini’s lowlifes, petty criminals, and prostitutes are filmed in the squalor of their slums as if they were saints in a medieval or Renaissance altarpiece, the close-ups of their faces taking on the expressive intensity of religious icons, images designed not only to record appearances but also to transmit sacred energies and offer mystical experiences. The frames of Pasolini’s films combine the language of the cinema with the figural traditions of painting; his images are often equal parts Rossellini and Giotto, Mizoguchi and Bosch, Chaplin and Pontormo, Dreyer and Brueghel. Examples of this sort of visual bricolage abound in Pasolini’s work, from Mantegna’s Dead Christ quoted at the tragic conclusion of Mamma Roma to the remakes of Descents from the Cross by the Mannerists Rosso Fiorentino and Pontormo in La Ricotta; from Giotto’s Last Judgment in The Decameron (1971) to Bosch’s Table of Wisdom in The Canterbury Tales (1972); from the erotic Persian miniatures in Arabian Nights (1974) to the cubo-futurist paintings in Pasolini’s last film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). In Pasolini’s magnificent adaptation of Boccaccio’s Decameron—the central themes of which are sex and money, desire and moral probity—the director inserts a cinematic “remake” of Brueghel’s Fight Between Carnival and Lent as a sort of tableau vivant representing the struggle between the energies and impulses of the human body and the forces of social institutions exerting control over it. It is an epic representation of the traumatic domestication of the flesh—the carne, or carnal matter, of carnival against the repressive impositions symbolized by Lent.

But the painting does not only serve this thematic purpose, reiterating Pasolini’s messages in The Decameron (and throughout his “Trilogy of Life”) about liberated human bodies, a de-domesticated Eros; it also offers the director the opportunity to contaminate the filmic with the painterly, to mix languages, draw our attention to the expressive textures and materials of film, and reconnect film to a long history of visual codes that predate motion pictures but nevertheless culminate in the cinema. It was Pasolini’s way of giving expression to what he called an “eclecticism” at the heart of his cinema of poetry. His films offer a philology of visual idioms and iconographic traditions. And this visual amalgamation of styles and traditions is accompanied, on his sound tracks, by unusual mixtures of musical sources as well, in films that variously bring together Wagner and rock ’n’ roll, Vivaldi and the Twist, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Ray Charles’s “I Got a Woman,” Iranian love songs and Tibetan bells. Elaborated in collaboration with such composers as Luis Enríquez Bacalov, Benedetto Ghiglia, Ennio Morricone, and Carlo Rustichelli, Pasolini’s sound tracks bring together the high and the low, the sublime and the kitsch, in unusual and challenging combinations.⁸

Pasolini would refer to his practice of melding various styles and traditions as a form of pastiche or contamination, and such fecund cross-fertilization, he believed, would produce a filmic language offering novel and profound aesthetic experiences. His style was unlike that of any other filmmaker before or since. The cinema of poetry he practiced constituted a resistance to the homogenized and formulaic style of commercial narrative films, which Pasolini called the “cinema of prose,” and embodied new possibilities for communication between social classes, between the traditions of the past and the forces of modernity, and between the resistant cultures of the marginalized and the technocratic cultures of the late-capitalist center.

It may be interesting to note similar uses of iconographic tradition in the work of directors such as Peter Greenaway and Jean-Luc Godard, who also reanimate paintings as tableaux vivants in their films (though precedents for this may be found from the very beginnings of cinema). It is possible to view Godard’s later films and his meditations on the iconic power of visual images (in his Dantesque Notre Musique [2004], for example) as carrying on a dialogue with Pasolini about visual language and the history of cinema that the two men began in the mid-’60s. For both Pasolini and Godard, the essentially visual medium of film has suffered from the domination of language and narrative, especially since the arrival of sound in the late ’20s. Pasolini, for his part, stated repeatedly that his turn from literature to cinema was motivated by his desire to use a nonverbal language that had a more direct connection to the world he wanted to describe and to the transnational audiences he wanted to reach.

Pier Paolo Pasolini, I racconti di Canterbury (The Canterbury Tales), 1972, 35 mm, color, sound, 123 minutes. Photo: The Kobal Collection.

ACROSS THE BODY of his filmography, Pasolini would sharpen his ideological and aesthetic messages—messages of resistance. While his early films were largely concerned with Italian history and domestic audiences, in his later work he would broaden his perspective dramatically in order to critique the global commodity capitalism that, he said, was transforming human beings into a chain gang of consumers. He described this with greater and greater urgency up to his death in 1975 as a “genocide” of the working classes of the world, who were being transformed, body and mind, into an alienated and neurotic petite bourgeoisie, a new global middle class regulated by technology. He condemned obligatory public education and the mass media (particularly television but also commercial cinema) for this genocide of the popular classes across the planet. In Hawks and Sparrows, for instance, he allegorized the goals (and perhaps prophetically predicted the outcome) of his radical film practice as a neo-Franciscan attempt to learn the languages of the predatory capitalists (hawks) and the preyed-on working classes (sparrows) in order to convince them of the folly of their ways: The film concludes, famously, with the murder and consumption of Pasolini’s alter ego, the Gramscian crow whose lectures of fraternal solidarity provoke the wrath of Cicillo (Totò) and Ninetto (Ninetto Davoli), ex-farmers with bourgeois ambitions and little patience for talk of resistance.

Between 1971 and 1974, Pasolini made the three films of the “Trilogy of Life”—The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, and Arabian Nights—adapting these masterworks from premodern literary traditions, he said, in order to allow a forceful recollection of the historical past to contest the alienating present, to blast audiences out of the obscure moment into historical reflection. And though the films that constitute the trilogy may not be overtly ideological (this was the criticism of the Left in Italy) and do not share the dark tone of some of Pasolini’s late films—the notoriously pessimistic Porcile (Pigsty, 1969) and Salò, for example—they are nevertheless challenging in their investigation of taboo subjects, in their frank representation of the human body, and in their defense of the local languages and cultures of the subjugated classes of Italy and beyond. They are also remarkable models of an alternative cinema evolving outside and against the dominant modes of commercial moviemaking. Indeed, it was probably for all these reasons that Pasolini once claimed that the films of the “Trilogy of Life” were the most ideological he ever made.

But the film that has come to sum up Pasolini’s contempt for the culture and economy of mass consumerism, represented as a new form of homicidal totalitarianism requiring new forms of resistance, is his scabrous Salò—the film most identified with Pasolini’s own murder, inasmuch as it premiered soon after his death and immediately began its adventures with censors and other defenders of decency and good taste. Undoubtedly because of the extreme violence and degradation of its unflinching depiction of the anarchy of power, Salò is the film that has been singled out most frequently over the years for censorship; but, as Pasolini Foundation director Laura Betti has documented, censorship (or, as she more forcefully calls it, persecution) was the norm for nearly every film or novel Pasolini ever produced.⁹ Certainly, his films have not stopped scandalizing audiences, which suggests they still pack a useful punch.

PASOLINI’S INFLUENCE continues to be felt in culture and politics; indeed, the filmmaker has become a symbol of resistance to neoliberalism and globalization—a “Chomsky all’italiana.”¹⁰ Demonstrators at the tragically violent 2001 G8 Summit in Genoa condemned the ruling elite of Italy by holding up a banner bearing the filmmaker’s likeness, chanting, “Contro Berlusconi e contro Fini abbiam portato Pasolini!” (“Against Berlusconi and Fini we have brought Pasolini!”) And the very vocabulary of contemporary analysis of global neoliberalism is largely inherited, in Italy at least, from Pasolini’s controversial essays on the rise of transnational consumer capitalism, written in the last years of his life—before his brutal murder would lead to his sanctification as a martyr of the antiglobalization movement. He remains, of course, an influential figure for cineastes, novelists, and poets, as evidenced by the films of Bernardo and Giuseppe Bertolucci, Gianni Amelio, Nanni Moretti, Mario Martone, Antonio Capuano, Daniele Ciprì, and Franco Maresco and in the writing of Roberto Saviano, Tiziano Scarpa, and the late Elio Pagliarani (whose poetic remakes of Savonarola’s sermons against greed and corruption were offered as an homage to Pasolini). And though often underappreciated, Pasolini’s impact on debates in semiotics and critical theory has been enormous, as seen clearly in the influence of his thought on Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and, perhaps most of all, Gilles Deleuze, whose philosophy of cinema was developed in dialogue with Pasolini’s writings on the “cinema of poetry.”

It is primarily on account of his literary works and his singular, stubbornly unsettling body of films that Pasolini’s legacy will endure in spite of the violent elimination of the exemplary artist and thinker who bequeathed it to us. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s work survives as the bittersweet fruit of a hard-won and fiercely defended freedom.

The film retrospective “Pier Paolo Pasolini,” organized by Jytte Jensen, runs December 13 through January 5 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The Criterion Collection’s box set of the “Trilogy of Life” was released this past November.

A professor in the department of French and Italian at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Patrick Rumble is the author of Allegories of Contamination: Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Trilogy of Life (University of Toronto Press, 1996).

This article appears in the January 2013 edition of Artforum.


1. Pier Paolo Pasolini, “Guerra civile,” Paese sera, November 18, 1966. All translations in this essay are mine.

2. As quoted in Nico Naldini, Pasolini, una vita (Turin: Einaudi, 1989), 307.

3. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Lettere, vol. 2 (Turin: Einaudi, 1988), 631.

4. It might be useful to note, since it helps to understand Pasolini’s films, that nearly all Italians are bilingual, speaking both standard Italian—the official language of Italy—and one of the country’s regional dialects, which are often mutually incomprehensible.

5. See Naldini, Pasolini, una vita, 31–34.

6. See Pasolini’s essays on film in Heretical Empiricism, ed. Louise K. Barnett, trans. Ben Lawton and Louise K. Barnett (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

7. As quoted in Maria Pia Fusco, “Pasolini, un genio che reinventò il cinema,” La Repubblica, November 5, 1995.

8. For an extraordinarily rich study of music in Pasolini’s work, see Roberto Calabretto, Pasolini e la musica (Pordenone, Italy: Cinemazero, 1999).

9. See Laura Betti, Pasolini: Cronaca giudiziaria, persecuzione, morte (Milan: Garzanti, 1978).

10. Romano Luperini, “L’asimmetria di Pasolini,” Carta, no. 10 (March 2002).

Matthew Mishory, Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean, 2012, 35 mm, color, 93 minutes. James Dean (James Preston). Photo: Iconoclastic Features.

THE BIOPIC is not typically revered by serious cinephiles. Its generic restrictions as an exercise in hero worship or, worse, food for the celebrity lore–hungering denizens of the culture industry, tend to transform the most earnest endeavors into sentimental odes to Everymans. If the subject was recently or is still alive and well known, then there is little left for the critic to judge other than how much the portraying actor is “like” the actual person, thus debasing the dramatic art, reducing the creator of a complex character to that of a mere mimic.

Indeed, against mimetic standards, it would be unfair to judge Joshua Tree, 1951 as a James Dean biopic. As its subtitle makes clear, the film is actually an exercise in portraiture. If biography serves as a literary aggrandizement and idealization of its subject, portraiture’s value is situated in its inherent criticality—not only toward its human focal point, but against the world that he or she inhabits. Those eager for “the real story” of James Dean will have to wait a little longer. Matthew Mishory, in his directorial debut, has chosen to focus on the year before Dean’s star rose. By homing in on this seemingly tiny slice of time, the film manages a nuanced portrayal of an entire era, as well as a somewhat damning appraisal of the Hollywood system that endures to this day.

For Mishory, Dean was the twentieth-century reincarnation of Arthur Rimbaud, whose words introduce the film: a rebel queer icon whose story is equal parts myth and truth. Despite what contemporaneous propaganda bespoke, Joshua Tree, 1951 shows James Dean (played by James Preston) as the gay man he in fact was, a figure who, in spite or perhaps because of his genuine talent, knew that the only clear way to stardom and iconhood was through the use of his looks and his body. The film’s script relies on firsthand accounts by many in Dean’s inner circle, and depicts the complex mentoring arrangement he entered into with Hollywood man-with-connections Rogers Brackett (Edward Singletary), his relationship with roommate/lover William Bast (Dan Glenn), and his various flings along the way, effectively mapping that troubled terrain where ambition and desire become conflated. The empty desertscapes of Joshua Tree National Park, through which Dean often wanders, thus serve as an escape from the ravenous machinery of Los Angeles, implying that it is the sole place where he is able to attain an untroubled and unitary conception of self.

This is not to imply that Dean merely fucked his way into Hollywood; rather, Joshua Tree gives us an account of the process by which Hollywood molds an individual into its systemic image of a star. That it accomplishes this through a formal subversion of Hollywood’s stylistic code—with its deliberately slow rhythm and acute attention paid to photography, nearly every image resembling a still—makes the message all the more subtle.

Travis Jeppesen

Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean plays Wednesday, December 12–Tuesday, December 18 at the Art Theatre of Long Beach.

Jem Session


Jem Cohen, We Have an Anchor, 2012, color HD and black-and-white 16 mm, 85 minutes.

LIKE SO MANY OF JEM COHEN’S efforts to marry images and sounds since his early collaborations with friends like R.E.M. and Fugazi in the 1980s, We Have an Anchor is as beguiling as it is unclassifiable. Presented at a two-night run at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, it combines live musical performance with a multiprojector presentation of footage principally shot by Cohen during a decade of travels through Cape Breton, a rugged island off Canada’s east coast. As the DC-bred, New York–based filmmaker admitted after the first performance, he’s still unsure whether it’s a concert or a movie.

It could, of course, be both those things. It’s become a dernier cri for contemporary musicians to perform live scores for films, much as their predecessors did in the days before sound cinema. In recent years, everyone from Tindersticks to Tune-Yards to Tom Verlaine has been turning their instruments toward the flickering screen. Here in Toronto, local hardcore heroes Fucked Up got in on the action by providing a memorably thunderous score for Tod Browning’s West of Zanzibar (1928) at last year’s Images Festival.

Yet We Have an Anchor, which Cohen first presented in Troy, New York, last April and makes its Canadian premiere in Toronto, functions differently from other music-and-movie mergers. For instance, Cohen’s illustrious band––made up of Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, Dirty Three drummer Jim White, film composer T. Griffin, Toronto singer Mary Margaret O’Hara, and members of Montreal post-rock heavyweights Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra––cease playing for significant stretches, thereby allowing natural sound, the voices of Cohen’s subjects, and even moments of silence to take precedence over any musical Sturm und Drang.

Such restraint is welcome given the bombastic tendencies of so many other live scores (Fucked Up’s included), though some audience members might’ve liked to hear more of O’Hara, who’s had only a sporadic presence on the music scene since the international success of Miss America in 1988, an album much adored by the likes of Morrissey, Bono, and Radiohead. Her contribution to the performance is limited to two fleeting renditions of the hymn for which We Have an Anchor is named. (O’Hara also stars in Cohen’s new feature Museum Hours, a lovely ode to art and friendship set in Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum.)

Trailer for Jem Cohen’s 2012 documentary We Have An Anchor about Cape Breton.

The piece diverges from conventions even further in respect to its visual component. Shot on Cohen’s signature black-and-white 16 mm and on HD video, much of the imagery boasts the same rough-hewn beauty that distinguishes many of Cohen’s mesmerizing portraits of people and places, be it the gloriously grubby Atlanta neighborhood occupied by the subject of 2000’s Benjamin Smoke (codirected with Peter Sillen) or the disparate but interchangeable shopping mall and hotel spaces in 2004’s CHAIN. The more exhilarating sequences also display the brute force of the many concert segments in Instrument (1999), Cohen’s filmic history of Fugazi.

Yet We Have an Anchor contains a startling array of moods and modes coexisting as a landscape study, an impressionistic travelogue, and a deliberately fragmentary history that prioritizes the words of poets over anything in the official record. Cohen also includes the voices of subjects such as sculptor June Leaf, a longtime resident of the island with partner Robert Frank, and a young fisherman who eagerly tells viewers of the mishaps that nearly cost him his life.

It all culminates in an earnest and largely effective effort to convey the essence of Cape Breton, a place so relentlessly lashed by the elements that it’s easy to see why one subject describes it as “beyond weather.” No wonder the score’s stormy swells seem perfectly apt, though more provocative links between sound and image are discernible in the hints of the island’s Celtic-influenced musical traditions provided by the violins of Jessica Moss and Sophie Trudeau. Various buzzes, squawks, and hums also highlight the curiously radiophonic history of a place that hosted one of the easternmost wireless stations built by the Marconi Company in the early 1900s.

When the ensemble reaches full force in tandem with a climactic series of images charting countless combinations of land, sea, and sky, We Have an Anchor achieves both a grandeur and a coherence that make this endeavor seem much greater than the two halves of concert and movie. It is, as Cohen puts it, a “love poem for a place”—one that’s as intimate and awestruck as this corner of the world deserves.

Jason Anderson

We Have an Anchor played at TIFF Bell Tower on December 4 and 5.

Larry Clark, Marfa Girl, 2012, color, 106 minutes. Adam and Marfa Girl (Adam Mediano and Drake Burnette).

FOR THOSE WHO FOLLOW this sort of thing, the recently concluded—and newly rebranded—Rome Film Festival doubled as a case study in the ambitions and contradictions of such events today. Seven years into its existence, this upstart festival—stuck, like so many others, in the quagmire of local politics—brought in a big gun, the veteran programmer Marco Müller, just off a widely lauded run at Venice, which happens to be not just the oldest film festival in the world but also Rome’s direct competitor. On paper, Müller’s mandate was clear enough: elevate Rome’s stature and clout by introducing the mix of glitz and seriousness that helped revitalize Venice this past decade. In practice, this was far from a simple task, given the minimal prep time for this hastily assembled edition and the crowded festival calendar: Promising sixty world premieres for an event that takes place two months after Venice and two months before Berlin is inevitably going to mean a somewhat padded lineup.

Despite these constraints, Müller and his team went some way toward putting forth what he has called “a vision of cinema at 360 degrees.” The something-for-everyone mission of a big-city festival, which can register as eclecticism, pragmatism, or simply incoherence, is a balancing act that takes time to master, and one year is probably not a fair basis for judgment. The program was notably more eclectic and adventurous than in previous editions but that didn’t seem to placate the local journalists, who had their knives out from the get-go and carped about everything from the high ticket prices to the lack of celebrities. The long red carpet that wrapped around the sprawling main venue, Renzo Piano’s Auditorium Parco della Musica, served as a conspicuous reminder that there were not that many stars around to walk on it. The biggest name turned out to be Sylvester Stallone, plugging his role in Walter Hill’s Bullet in the Head; the world premiere of Twilight: Breaking Dawn—Part 2 days before its global release failed to lure any of the movie’s undead heartthrobs to the eternal city.

The most obvious sign of the revamped festival’s ambition could in fact be found away from that red carpet and in a new section called CinemaXXI, a catch-all survey of “expanded cinema” and nominally innovative work, encompassing a wide swath of short and medium-length films and housed mainly at the flashy Maxxi Museum. The big draw here, Centro Historico, an omnibus film commissioned to mark the selection of the Portuguese city of Guimarães as a European Capital of Culture, is bookended by throwaway contributions from Aki Kaurismäki and Manoel de Oliveira. But the other two, memory pieces in very different ways, are strong enough to stand alone. Victor Erice’s elegiac Broken Windows lingers on the recollections—and the faces—of a shuttered textile factory’s former workers. In Pedro Costa’s Sweet Exorcist, the ghosts of the Carnation Revolution come home to roost in a purgatorial hospital elevator, as the filmmaker and his longtime collaborators continue their search for new physical and mental spaces to inhabit after the destruction of the Fontainhas neighborhood.

The documentary highlights in CinemaXXI included Thomas Heise’s Gegenwart, an absorbing Wisemanesque portrait of a Rhineland crematorium and the methodical, repetitive processes involved in reducing human bodies to ash, and Eugenio Polgovsky’s Mitote, which weaves its way through the hunger strikers, wrestlers, soccer fans and shamans at El Zocalo, Mexico City’s vast main plaza, evoking a snapshot of the nation from a slice of hallucinatory vérité. The CinemaXXI slate also offered strong signs of the continued vitality of Philippine independent cinema: Two of the boldest experiments here were Gym Lumbera’s wordless, often startlingly beautiful Tagalog, part of a feature in progress, and Sherad Anthony Sanchez’s erotic, sardonic Jungle Love.

In the main competition, the unambiguous high point was one of the late additions: Johnnie To’s Drug War. The first mainland China production by the prolific Hong Kong auteur is a visceral undercover procedural rich with role reversals and double crosses. The big money shot deploys an entire harbor’s worth of ships, and the final shootout, involving a hijacked schoolbus, is action choreography at its most ruthlessly efficient; there’s even a pointed comeuppance coda to please the powers that be.

Less happily, Eternal Homecoming, the latest from the high priestess of Soviet absurdism Kira Muratova, proved a banal exercise in repetition compulsion. Russian director Alexey Fedorchenko strings together some two dozen vignettes on female sexuality among the pagan Mari people for Celestial Wives of Meadow Mari, a bawdy, jokey, visually striking grab bag that suggests—not always flatteringly—some unholy union of Sergei Paradjanov and the Farrelly Brothers. More straightforward but also more satisfying, Jacques Doillon’s You, Me and Us stars the filmmaker’s daughter, Lou Doillon, as a young mother wavering endlessly between her boyfriend and the father of her daughter. As one might expect from the director of Ponette, the child—no mere prop or bystander— provides a crucial perspective on the solipsistic adults around her.

The jury, headed by American director Jeff Nichols, awarded its top prize to Larry Clark’s Marfa Girl, a roundelay of carnal and sociopolitical entanglements involving an oversexed Chinati resident artist, a half-Mexican teenage boy, a few post-hippie New Agers, and several border cops (one of whom is an obligatory nut job with an abuse backstory). The film has a pleasantly torpid semidocumentary vibe, but the only thing remotely new here for Clark is the Internet-only release. (It’s now streaming on Another old dog mustered a new trick of sorts: Paul Verhoeven’s Tricked, made for Dutch TV, is billed as a “user-generated” experiment. This breathless drama about an upper-class Dutch family and the many complications that result from the patriarch’s wandering eye, was written collectively and piecemeal, with audiences invited to develop the story as it unfolds. At under an hour, Tricked—which screened out of competition in the CinemaXXI section—is packed to a ridiculous degree with whiplash about-faces. But the filmmaker, an instinctive provocateur, transcends the crowd-sourcing gimmick, and in his hands, the twist-happy scenario becomes a gleeful subversion of the soap opera’s moral order. Supposedly authored by hundreds, this irresistible sudser is Verhoeven through and through: full-throttle entertainment with an acid sting.

Dennis Lim

The seventh Rome Film Festival ran November 9–17, 2012.