Gay Panic


Jean-Marc Vallée, Dallas Buyers Club, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 117 minutes. Rayon and Ron Woodroof (Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey).

JEAN-MARC VALLÉE’S DALLAS BUYERS CLUB is a docudrama of a Texan who died of AIDS in 1992 called Ron Woodroof. Yes, that’s his real name, not a gay-porn moniker; Ron, in fact, is aggressively not homosexual. We hear Ron before we see him: He softly grunts and pants, pressed between two women in an empty paddock at a rodeo. After this sex sandwich breaks apart, we can view the actor who plays Ron more clearly: It is Matthew McConaughey, whose perilously low body mass index is the star of this movie.

The actor lost nearly fifty pounds (and grew a chevron mustache) to play Woodroof, an electrician and small-time hustler who is told that he has a T-cell count of nine in 1985, the same year that Rock Hudson succumbed to AIDS. Ron calls the actor “a cocksucker” to a group of poker-playing buddies, all with a similar bushy strip of hair above their upper lip; after given his diagnosis at Dallas Mercy Hospital, he growls at his physician, “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker.” The protagonist’s bona fides as poon hound and homophobe thus established, the film spends the next hundred or so minutes complacently recounting how Ron, after being told that he has thirty days left to live, extended that death sentence by seven years through amassing antiretroviral meds and flouting FDA regulations. He becomes an unlikely hero for Lone Star gays living with the disease, here mainly relegated to nonspeaking walk-on roles—an inadvertent reminder that silence = death.

But to soften and further ennoble their bigoted subject, screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack do give Ron an invert sidekick: the fictional Rayon (Jared Leto, who also drastically stunt-dieted for the film), a tragic, Marc Bolan–worshipping, drug-using tranny in a pale-pink cable-knit cardigan also dying of AIDS. For her ability to sweet-talk potential clients at gay bars, Rayon becomes Ron’s business partner in the buyers club, an enterprise in which members pay $400 a month for access to the unapproved pills and treatments that Ron has brought back from his global travels. Ron displays uncharacteristically selfless behavior when he defends his high-femme associate in a grocery store; from then on, Rayon exists in the movie only so that she may perish, but not before uttering this prayer: “God, when I meet you, I want to be pretty.”

Despite the cadaverous appearance of its lead actor, Dallas Buyers Club wants to be pretty, too, presenting a tidy, uplifting history of the years when unconscionable inaction and prejudice toward those with AIDS were a matter of federal policy. Those who fought the longest, hardest, and most successfully against this bureaucratic indifference—ACT UP, of course—are referred to in passing by Ron when he says he “got the idea” for his buyers club “from some faggots in New York City.” Other oblique references to those faggots include a fleeting glimpse of Gran Fury’s “AIDSGATE” poster and a thirty-second news report about the takeover by the activist group—never mentioned by name—of the FDA headquarters. According to the press notes, Vallée asked his cast and crew to watch How to Survive a Plague, David France’s stirring chronicle of ACT UP released last year. But Dallas Buyers Club shows how little Hollywood dramas about AIDS have advanced since Jonathan Demme’s (homo)sexless, sanitized Philadelphia (1993).

Melissa Anderson

Dallas Buyers Club opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 1 and nationally on November 22.

Werner Herzog, Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979, 35 mm, color, sound, 107 minutes.

“NOSFERATU. Does this word not sound like the deathbird calling your name at midnight?” The rhetorical question of this introductory title card in F. W. Murnau’s 1922 film Nosferatu would seem a heavy-handed addendum to Bram Stoker’s classic. And yet, few films of the silent era can lay claim to a more nuanced treatment of gothic gloom than Murnau’s. Film Forum offers up this hymn to the night just in time for Halloween, along with a 1979 homage by Werner Herzog. With outsized ears, rat-like teeth, and two sets of hideously long nails, Herzog’s eponymous count—played by the controversial Klaus Kinski—rivals Max Schreck’s famously creepy incarnation in his longstanding monopoly on the School of Dracula. The terror of Schreck’s performance was abetted by the film’s compulsory silence, made as it was on the far side of the talkie era. Murnau made haunting use of the actor’s hunched form and fearsome face, setting it into sets no less uncanny which—along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)—have long stood as touchstones of Expressionist cinema.

Still, Kinski exploits gesture and movement as nimbly as his slithering dialogue, making the most of his turns on screen. “The children of the night make their music,” he remarks, as wolves howl at the Carpathian moon. The chill of Kinski’s glower and shadowy castle are duly offset by the charisma of a dashing young Bruno Ganz as Jonathan Harker, and Isabelle Adjani in her wide-eyed guise as his vulnerable wife. Herzog maintains a striking fidelity not only to his cinematic predecessor, but also the literary original. Some of the narrative unfurls through Harker’s anxious letters home, maintaining something of the novel’s intimate, epistolary format. So, too, does Herzog turn to painting—like Murnau before him—in conjuring up a particularly gothic stimmung. A shot of Adjani from behind, seated in a cemetery by the sea, brings one of Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic scenes to melancholy life. But the director also uses the power of his own medium to full effect, as when he cuts between shots of Lucy Harker in bed plagued by nightmares and Nosferatu hovering over a terrified Bruno Ganz.

Ara H. Merjian

Nosferatu and Nosferatu the Vampyre are now playing through Thursday, November 7 at Film Forum in New York.

Jehane Noujaim, The Square, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 104 minutes. Khalid Abdalla and Ahmed Hassan.

IN THE TEN MONTHS since it won the audience award at Sundance, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square, about the political upheavals that have been convulsing through Cairo for nearly three years now, has proved almost as unpredictable and unwieldy as its subject. The version that screened in Park City, Utah, began with the protests on Tahrir Square, which were initially organized, at the outset of 2011, as a response to police brutality and the case of Khaled Saeed, a young man who had been beaten to death six months earlier by the Egyptian security services in Alexandria, and then escalated so intently that the country’s autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak, resigned after thirty years in power.

The version of The Square that opens at Film Forum on Friday, which won a second audience award in Toronto, begins exactly the same way but ends in a very different place. The Sundance edition, retroactively defined as an unfinished cut, concluded in the summer of 2012, with the rise of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the long-suffering Muslim Brotherhood. Now the film ends a year later, in the summer of 2013, with Morsi’s arrest by the Egyptian military. Not yet folded into the drama of an already highly dramatic film are the shocking eruptions of violence that followed, burned through the summer, and left thousands dead and thousands more tortured and traumatized.

This raises one obvious question: Will Noujaim’s documentary ever really be done? It also hints at several others: What does a director do with a subject that refuses to settle down? How do audiences respond to a story that is clearly still searching for an ending? Does the need to convey a coherent narrative mean that any film about the tumult in Egypt is bound to betray the realities on the ground? At what point does a filmmaker cede the complexity of a situation to the clarity of an argument? And what do we do if the clarity of that argument cuts through the complexity of that situation, and still finds meaning elusive and the moral to the story false?

The Square is Noujaim’s fifth feature-length documentary. As the director of (2001), about the boom and bust of young Internet ventures, and Control Room (2004), about Al Jazeera, the military, and media bias in relation to the war in Iraq, she is no stranger to difficult subjects that demand ambiguity and ambivalence on screen. As an Egyptian-American filmmaker, she is also quite palpably torn by the path her country has taken. It should be said from the start that The Square is complicated, argumentative, and incongruously beautiful to behold, thanks to the astonishing camerawork of Mohammad Hamdy, Noujaim’s director of photography. Hamdy’s tilt-shift style gives the film a striking and peculiar sense of depth, accentuating Noujaim’s obvious affection for the architecture and urban texture of Cairo while continually refocusing our attention on her three main characters: Ahmed, the working-class secular rebel; Khalid, the incredulous expat, also a relatively famous actor; and Magdy, conflicted member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is emboldened by independent thinking but in the end shuts it down.

Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy—men in their twenties, thirties, and forties, respectively—become friends on Tahrir. They disagree but they can sustain a dialogue, trading ideas about rights and possible structures for a new regime built on justice, dignity, and respect. That is the wonder and promise of a revolution that turns out to be elusive, possibly fictive, and by now a cruel mirage. As revolution descends into counterrevolution, corruption, and coup d’etat, the rapport among Noujaim’s characters falls apart. Ahmed tells Magdy he loves him but hates the Muslim Brotherhood. From one scene to the next, Ahmed lurches from precocious young man and natural-born leader to a tantrum-throwing teenager who, not unjustifiably, goes in for some rock throwing and, almost immediately, gets struck in the head by a rubber bullet.

Magdy, meanwhile, absorbs all manner of Tahrir-style truth-out critique. Weakly, he offers up his scars in return, his body marked by years of arrest, abuse, and imprisonment under the Mubarak regime. The liberal camp is unconvinced, his son swings over to the hard-core religious side, and he is set adrift in emotional, intellectually uncertain seas. Throughout, Khalid tries to keep his hopes for a better future alive despite a barrage of bad news and crass politicking by Morsi, the military, and the Muslim Brothers. At one point, he shakes his head in disbelief, noting that a standing president has just called for the slaughter of his own people on television. Khalid’s father, a former dissident, Skypes in from London to tell him, sagely: “The rich don’t want freedom because they already have it,” a trenchant reminder of the economic roots of the Arab world’s current malaise.

The Square threads a number of possible arguments about sacrifice and civil rights through the tangle of recent events in Egypt, ultimately settling on the somewhat bland notion that what the revolution needs now is a conscience. True enough, but as for conviction, it is tentative at best. A raft of other characters, most of them women, fall by the wayside—including the tough-talking human rights lawyer Ragia Omran and the actress Aida El-Kashef, one of the tender young founders of the consequential video collective Mosireen—like material left over for another film (or for when the time comes, once again but always too late, to wrestle with the gender question).

As early as the fall of 2011, in the New York Review of Books, the writers Hussein Agha and Robert Malley predicted many of the sorrows that have followed the so-called Arab spring:

Revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it. Revolutions almost invariably are short-lived affairs, bursts of energy that destroy much on their pathway, including the people and ideas that inspired them. So it is with the Arab uprising. It will bring about radical changes. It will empower new forces and marginalize others. But the young activists who first rush onto the streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow. Members of the general public might be grateful for what they have done. They often admire them and hold them in high esteem. But they do not feel they are part of them. The usual condition of a revolutionary is to be tossed aside.

In a way, one watches The Square hoping Noujaim’s characters will escape that fate, while already knowing they won’t.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square opens on October 25 at Film Forum in New York.

Alain Resnais, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 115 minutes.

THIS IS TO ANNOUNCE that Alain Resnais is not having a retrospective in New York at the moment. What we have instead is a window of opportunity to enjoy a brief Resnaissance of sorts (pardon, but the pun wrote itself). Currently on view is an exhibition titled “Last Year at Marienbad Redux” at EFA Project Space; its titular inspiration, Resnais’s masterwork Last Year at Marienbad (1961), is screening at Film Forum; and his most recent release, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2012), is having a weeklong run at Anthology Film Archives. Neither exhaustive (nor exhausting), this convergence invites an audience to play a looser, simpler game of connect-the-thoughts regarding Resnais and his achievements in this, the year he turned ninety-one and completed his fiftieth film.

When it first screened, Last Year at Marienbad was both lauded and loathed by critics and audiences, an unsurprisingly polarized response to a film that remains by turns scrupulously refined and comically oblique. “You hardly seem to remember me,” Giorgio Albertazzi (as X) tells Delphine Seyrig (as A), “Try to remember.” So begins the cat-and-mouse game of memory and refusal, storytelling and seduction, as X tries to prove to the doubting A that they met the year before, became lovers, and made a plan to run away together. Much ink has been spilled about Marienbad and its lavish austerity, the intoxicating agency of its architecture, and the seemingly evaporated consciousness of its characters (the latter is often attributed to the influence of its screenwriter, author/theorist Alain Robbe-Grillet). The film is, among many things, a model for cinema as pure concoction. Even the rambling grand chateau in which the story unfolds is, in fact, a fabrication, constructed in the editing room from footage shot at three different locations (a sneaky aide-mémoire that suggests how in the spaces of film things are only ever what they appear to be).

None of the fourteen works on display in the exhibition “Last Year at Marienbad Redux” engage with Resnais’s film directly, even if the title denotes that the show will perform some sort of hybrid form of film criticism. Instead, curator James Voorhies invokes Marienbad to brand a curatorial query that marks certain points of interest along the fact/fiction continuum, and explores the ways in which visual artists use cinematic devices to produce “memory, meaning and, ultimately, an understanding of reality.” Reflective panels hang throughout the gallery, surely an homage to the “hall of mirrors” in which Resnais’s characters are captured; other than that, the film is disappointingly immaterial to the conversation at hand, except in the broadest sense. Nonetheless, there are gems in the show that bend both time and attention to the desired effect.

Tacita Dean’s Washington Cathedral, 2002, is easy enough to breeze by and believe you’ve got it in a single glance; closer study—better yet, a collector’s eye—reveals that the 130 postcards of the gothic cathedral that make up this work are not images of the actual landmark, but of the projected vision of the building that took decades to complete. Gordon Matta-Clark’s Blast from the Past, 1970–72, presents us with a small handful of litter including cigarette butts, screws, and stones as well as a photograph documenting the way in which it was strewn on his studio floor. “All the parts necessary to recreate this compelling scene from history of my floor,” Matta-Clark writes to instruct the debris’s new owner, a delightful dig at the ease with which history may repeat itself, while Allan Sekula and Noël Burch’s Reagan Tape, 1984, a ham-fisted mash up of Ronald Reagan’s first State of the Union address with clips from his Hollywood films, rouses a worrisome nostalgia in a contemporary viewer for 1980s-era Republicanism.

If the exhibition does illuminate one thing about Marienbad, it is that the film has become a shorthand invocation of certain productions of cinema, and that it is a touchstone for popular conversations around the subjects of narrative, memory, and film’s complex constructions of realities. Which brings us to Resnais’s latest: You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, an adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s plays Eurydice (1941) and Dear Antoine: Or, The Love That Failed (1969). Here, a deceased playwright named Antoine d’Anthac (Denis Podalydès) posthumously invites a group of actor friends (played by an ensemble that includes Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric, Sabine Azéma, and Anne Consigny) to gather at his chateau to attend the reading of his will. Once together, the group watches a video made by d’Anthac before his death, asking them to act as the executors of his estate and approve (or not) a taped rehearsal of a young theater troupe that has asked permission to perform his adaptation of Eurydice. As the play unfolds on the screen before them, the guests—all actors who have performed the playwright’s Eurydice at one time or another—slowly begin to take on their roles, first speaking the lines in sync with the young troupe in the video until they finally (re)create an entirely new production.

Resnais further complicates the story’s playing spaces: The actors in the video begin to interact with the actors gathered to watch (and vice versa) as the film’s audience watch all of their performances converge across time, space, and media. The director also employs some rather goofy and graceless CG effects—a door appears just as an actor’s hand reaches for the knob; a hotel room appears so acid-warped and eye-wrenching that one can only hope it was a choice made in post-production. At its core, the film remains true to the story of Eurydice: Death looms over our lovers—here and now, then as always—once upon a time because of a deal with the underworld, now a little closer for our actors mourning the loss of their playwright. If the film’s final coup de théâtre feels a bit of a cheat, it’s not a surprise; after all, Resnais has always been a director with more than a few tricks up his sleeve.

If one is in a mood to be wistful, there are echoes of Last Year at Marienbad in the new film, so much so that at times, it seems as though You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet could be read as a kind of final bow for the auteur. Both films begin with its actors in the role of audience members; both tell a story of doomed lovers (Orpheus tries to retrieve Eurydice from Hades, while X struggles to return A to her memory); both stage their dramas inside an imposing, shifting architecture. Though many parallels are certainly present, there is no need for nostalgia. With a new film currently in post-production—and as Resnais’s title suggests—there is still more to come.

Jennifer Krasinski

“Last Year at Marienbad Redux” is on view through Saturday, October 26, at EFA Project Space; You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet runs from October 18 to 24 at Anthology Film Archives.

John Krokidas, Kill Your Darlings, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 104 minutes. Lucien Carr and Allen Ginsberg (Dane DeHaan and Daniel Radcliffe).

THE BEST THING about the enthralling, super-smart Kill Your Darlings is director John Krokidas’s ability to capture the excitement of young men’s minds on fire, a delirium fueled, in this case, by literary ambition, hormones, bennies and weed, freedom from parental restraints, and the perversion of the closet. Set at Columbia University in 1943–44, Kill Your Darlings is the first film about the origins of the Beat movement that gets many things right.

The story, largely told through the romantic imagination of the young Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe), is styled as something of a 1940s film noir sieved through a 1960s Claude Chabrol New Wave murder mystery, with occasional hits of contemporary pop (TV on the Radio) mixed with bebop, blues, and the Andrews Sisters. This is Krokidas’s first feature, and it’s astonishing that he, with the aid of cowriter Austin Bunn and cinematographer Reed Morano, pulls off a seamless fusion of periods while smoothly uniting his own POV with that of his protagonist, all without ever suggesting anything as banal as universality. Killer Films, which nursed Kill Your Darlings through its long development, also deserves credit for supporting Krokidas with its own expertise in movies based on real-life incidents involving queerness and murder, Kimberly Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and Tom Kalin’s Swoon (1992) being notable examples.

Leaving his troubled, working-class home in New Jersey, seventeen-year-old Ginsberg arrives at Columbia and promptly falls into some heady company. Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), a poor little rich boy who Ginsberg first encounters defying the sanctity of the rare (or, more excitingly, banned) books library by leaping onto a table and declaiming passages of Henry Miller, takes scruffy Allen under his gilded but, as it turns out, all too fragile wing. “Lu” introduces Allen to Village jazz clubs and to the salon of his much older lover, David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), who trashed his academic career to follow Lu to New York. Kammerer writes Lu’s papers in exchange for sex, but their symbiotic relationship is deeper and more twisted. Through Lu, Allen also meets William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), and the foursome undertakes, in somewhat desultory fashion, upgrading the poetics of Yeats’s “Vision” to “the New Vision.”

Allen falls into unrequited love with Lu, who exudes the glamour and charisma of a badly wounded narcissist. The plot hinges on the Carr/Kammerer affair as observed and eventually imaginatively reconstructed by Ginsberg, who is forced to make a moral choice after Carr murders Kammerer and asks Ginsberg to ghostwrite his statement to the judge, in which he wants to claim that he was acting in self-defense as a heterosexual warding off Kammerer’s unwanted homosexual advances. The grisly murder, which climaxes the movie’s second act, is depicted as part of a montage which also includes Burroughs shooting up alone, Kerouac going nuts after learning that a buddy has been killed in the war, and Ginsberg finally losing his virginity in a one-night stand. That none of this seems overwrought is again a testament to Krokidas’s tonal control, and also to the first-rate performances of all the actors.

The burden of the film rests on Radcliffe, and although many will buy tickets in order to see Harry Potter butt-fucked, no one should look lightly on the subtlety and solidity of the now twenty-four-year-old actor’s performance. Radcliffe is more comely than Ginsberg ever was, but more important, he is thoroughly convincing as a budding poet who will become an enduring leader of the counterculture throughout the second half of the twentieth century. DeHaan rightfully claims unwavering attention whenever he’s on screen—not by sheer panache and beauty, but because of the desperation beneath his cool surface. Still, it’s Foster who gives the most revelatory performance. Not only does he have Burroughs’s voice, with its strangled inflections and percussive rhythms, down cold, but he also has a moment in which he reveals, through almost invisible body language, an aspect of Burroughs that certainly this writer never before considered. It occurs in a scene where Burroughs’s extremely proper and very annoyed father comes to take his junky son home. Beneath the insectlike protective carapace of “Willy’s” barely adult body, we sense an uncontrollable cringing and a barely choked-back rage. Without being simplistic, we might now add this humiliation of the son by the father—which Foster and Krokidas pinpointed—to the psychic cauldron from which the sardonic, unrelenting fury of Burroughs’s prose will emerge.

Amy Taubin

Kill Your Darlings is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 133 minutes. Edwin Epps, Patsey, and Solomon Northup (Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor). Photo: Francois Duhamel.

THE EMPHASIS ON BODIES IN EXTREMIS in Steve McQueen’s first two features, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), continues unchecked in his third, 12 Years a Slave. In a roundtable discussion recently published in the New York Times about the movie—which is based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York, who was lured to Washington, DC, under false pretenses and sold as human chattel in Louisiana—the director forthrightly discussed the impetus behind the project: “I made this film because I wanted to visualize a time in history that hadn’t been visualized that way. I wanted to see the lash on someone’s back. I wanted to see the aftermath of that, psychological and physical. I feel sometimes people take slavery very lightly, to be honest. I hope it could be a starting point for them to delve into the history and somehow reflect on the position where they are now.”

That McQueen, who began his career as a visual artist, winning the Turner Prize in 1999, has created searing images of barbarity in 12 Years a Slave is indisputable; these scenes certainly stand as a corrective to the sentimentalization of the “peculiar institution” found in films like Gone with the Wind (1939). But how laudable—or dubious—is this achievement? In other words, what does it mean to be a spectator to McQueen’s successful execution of this project? Do these depictions of cruelty really serve as a didactic tool, as Henry Louis Gates Jr., a consultant on the film, insists in a lengthy essay included in the press notes (complete with suggestions for further reading), extolling “this magnificent artistic achievement…by a Black British director”? Or does showing the bloody latticework of suppurating wounds on a young woman’s back after she’s been whipped by two different men, or a long take of Solomon, gasping for breath with a noose around his neck and excruciatingly balancing on tiptoes to avoid asphyxiation, simply lead to a kind of stupor? What kind of reparative, illuminating “reflection” could these impeccably staged, horrific tableaux possibly engender? (Apparently, assessments that include superlatives like this one from the New Yorker’s David Denby, words strung together with staggering dissonance: “ ‘12 Years a Slave’ is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery.”)

To even praise the acting in the film feels a bit obscene: How does one single out, particularly among those who toil on the same plantation as Solomon (and, yes, Ejiofor is formidable), who does the best “job” of being despised, degraded, broken, or dead? Is it instructive if I compare and contrast the debauchery of the slaver played by Michael Fassbender, in his third film with McQueen, with that of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s cartoon antebellum revenger Django Unchained (2012) or with that of the crazed crackers in Richard Fleischer’s swampy miscegenation melodrama Mandingo (1975)?

If these rhetorical questions—my non-review of 12 Years a Slave, a film that I can neither recommend nor dismiss—serve any purpose, it is to ask whether it is even conceivable to graphically represent the unimaginable without further cheapening the lives one sets out to honor or diminishing the horrors of a monstrous epoch (a query that Claude Lanzmann answers directly, of course, by not including archival footage of concentration camps and other atrocities of the Holocaust in 1985’s Shoah). In a typically piercing essay written for the exhibition catalogue Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America (2000), Hilton Als writes, “All of this is painful and American. Language makes it trite, somehow.” Sometimes films do, too.

Melissa Anderson

12 Years a Slave opens in limited release October 18.

Bruno Dumont, Camille Claudel 1915, 2013, 35 mm, color, sound, 97 minutes. Camille Claudel (Juliette Binoche).

A SUPERFICIALLY AUSTERE biopic that nevertheless indulges in garishness, Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel 1915 marks the first time that the writer-director, who often casts nonprofessionals in his films, has collaborated with a major star: Juliette Binoche. In contrast with Camille Claudel (1988), the Isabelle Adjani passion project in which she plays the tragic sculptor and Rodin muse and mistress, Camille Claudel 1915 forgoes epic sweep and bloat. Picking up where the earlier film left off, Dumont’s movie traces, during the year that the artist turned fifty-one, just three days of her grim life at the Montdevergues mental asylum near Avignon, where she had been committed by her family. (In a letter to a friend, Claudel refers to the “day I was taken via window.”)

Dumont’s film opens promisingly: Binoche wordlessly yet potently conveys her abject state, sitting vigilantly by a pot in which an egg and potato are being boiled; as a nurse explains to a physician, Claudel has been granted dispensation to prepare her own spartan repasts owing to her fear of being poisoned. But our hope that Camille Claudel 1915 will be a subtle, sober biopic quickly dissipates when it becomes clear that the writer-director has populated his docudrama with actual asylum patients, women with significant physical and mental deficiencies who are deployed not as background extras, but as “characters” with important minor roles.

The purpose of this act of bad faith, apparently, is to highlight Claudel’s comparative lucidity and intelligence, to emphasize the fact that her own family is keeping her incarcerated against her will. This specious authenticity, however, succeeds only in making the seams of the film visible. Like Charcot documenting his patients at the Salpêtrière, Dumont lingers long on these mentally ill women, particularly on the inmate played by Alexandra Lucas, whose horribly malformed teeth seem to have a special appeal for the director.

Rather than underscore Claudel’s helplessness and anguish, Dumont’s casting of real sufferers brings out his lead’s worst tics. In her scenes with other Montdevergues patients, Binoche, whose maximalist acting style makes Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010) nearly unendurable, cannot resist emoting “big”—whether in a gesture as seemingly small as a nostril flair or a too-long glower, or an action as outsize as gleefully shouting Mlle Lucas’s garbled cry of “Hallelujah.” The internationally feted performer seems to be operating on the fear that she will be upstaged by her novice costars.

Adding to the discordance is the abrupt shift, at roughly the film’s midpoint, to Paul Claudel (Jean-Luc Vincent), Camille’s younger brother and a renowned—and highly devout—poet. Dumont, once lauded as the artistic heir of Robert Bresson, has frequently been drawn to investigations of the spiritual (successfully in 2009’s Hadewijch, disastrously in 2011’s Outside Satan); here, Paul serves as a stock figure of piousness and hypocrisy. “We expect saintliness of you,” a priest says to Claudel frère after the latter’s long disquisition on Rimbaud’s effect on his deepening conviction—a telegraphed irony, considering Paul’s coldness and condescension during his visit with his sister a few scenes later. “Everything is a parable, Camille,” Paul patronizingly sniffs as his sibling grows more agitated. If there is an instructive lesson to be found in Dumont’s film, it may be that Adjani’s version of the sculptor’s life, despite its prestige-picture trappings, is the more courageous and profound one.

Melissa Anderson

Camille Claudel 1915 plays at Film Forum in New York October 16–29.

Chico Pereira, El Invierno de Pablo (Pablo’s Winter), 2013, monochrome video, black-and-white, sound, 76 minutes.

LOCATED ROUGHLY HALFWAY between Portland and Bangor on the Maine coast, Camden is the very definition of a picturesque New England seaside town. The prim harbor is gaily dotted with spruce vessels, the last rays of setting sun lighting the declivity atop Mount Battie form a vision of beauty, and so forth. For these reasons and others, little Camden’s population swells over the summer—and since 2005, at the tail end of Vacationland season, it has been host to the Camden International Film Festival.

In nine years, CIFF has found a place among the elite of documentary fests. It draws an audience made up of townies, summer colony stragglers, filmmakers, industry figures convening for the Points North Documentary Forum, and University of Maine students. One of the last group warily informed me that he’d watched the festival become more polished and posh, less mom-and-pop, through the years. I can’t speak to this point—this was my first outing—but it still seemed a ways off from corporate despoliation.

About as mom-and-pop as you can get, CIFF is the brainchild of one Ben Fowlie, a Camden native whose father owns the convenience store that you pass when coming into town on Route 1. By all accounts, CIFF has grown significantly in both ticket sales and scope through the years, and with this have come inevitable growing pains. The venues for screenings and events are spread among the towns of Camden, Rockport, and Rockland. This in turn spreads around experienced personnel, leading to at least one unforgettable AV blooper—a Satanic voice interrupting the emotional climax of a Danish film about people dying in hospice care. (If intentional, it would’ve been a helluva stylistic gambit.) To zip between venues, the pedestrian visitor relies on a mysterious, down-to-the-wire, but improbably efficient shuttle system. Despite the bucolic surroundings, the four nights and three days of the festival were hectic. I didn’t meet a soul who wouldn’t come back in a heartbeat.

The tight program, including thirty-four features and a selection of shorts, shows an active curatorial intelligence and trust in audience intrepidity, evidently rewarded. Even films obviously programmed with local interest in mind couldn’t be belittled as “concessions.” Jillian Schlesinger’s Maidentrip, pitched to local mariners, follows Dutch teenager Laura Dekker in her bid to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world. Composed largely of Dekker’s selfies-at-sea home video, Maidentrip follows a predictable coming-of-age arc, although it would take a true grump to resist its total earnestness. Night Labor, by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (Girl Model, Downeast), is a collection of vignettes from the life of a rangy, raw-boned Mainer who leaves his hermit’s hollow to work the lonely night shift at a lobster processing plant. Save for the sound of its subject’s Popeye-like under-his-breath muttering as he goes about his rounds, the film is almost entirely free of dialogue, though it has a simple but totally engrossing, process-oriented hook—watching the preparation of a factory floor, we see the readying of mysterious implements whose use will only become evident at the film’s climax.

A formally shot, black-and-white character study filmed in Almadén, Spain, Chico Pereira’s Pablo’s Winter is also, after a fashion, a hymn to a working man’s fortitude. Curmudgeonly seventy-year-old Pablo is introduced as a doctor warns that his chain-smoking will be the death of him. Through Pablo’s season of nicotine withdrawal, Pereira observes his subject’s interactions with his wife, friends, a local boy, and a contemporary world which he finds disappointing in every respect. As the film progresses, Pereira slowly pulls back the curtain on Pablo’s personal history, revealing the origins of the obscure wound that still rankles. Almadén is home to the world’s largest mercury mine, source of all prosperity, strife, and sickness. Pablo spent his best years in the mines, and left something of himself there. While absolutely sculpting every scene, Pereira was unobtrusive enough to catch moments where his guarded subjects let their stoic masks slip. His shooting of Pablo and wife at a Saint Valentine’s Day dance highlights his admirable balance, peering over the brink of sentimentality without ever taking the tumble. When Pablo finally lights up again, we understand how completely he’s earned it.

Pereira’s film makes no secret of the fact that it has been directed. The same care evident in the precision editing and sound design shows in every oblique composition. There’s scarcely any handheld camerawork, and many scenes are intricately constructed from multiple setups. This is in accordance with an ongoing movement by filmmakers of every stripe to acknowledge that binaries like nonfiction/fiction or documentary/narrative have always been problematic at best, and a new willingness to further complicate that problem rather than smooth it over or ignore it.

Sierra Pettengill and Jamila Wignot, Town Hall, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 74 minutes. John Stahl.

James N. Kienitz Wilkins’s Public Hearing is a case study in neither-fish-nor-fowl filmmaking. A self-described enthusiast of “Internet archaeology,” Wilkins pulled the transcript of a real 2004 hearing over the expansion of a Wal-Mart in Olean, New York, off of a town hall website. This artifact would become his film’s script, to be reenacted by a large, mostly amateur cast performing at wildly disparate levels of believability. The corporate hired guns representing Wal-Mart talk in an inscrutable patois of acronyms and abbreviations—SEQUA, DOT, FEIS, FAIS—while the assembled townsfolk, speaking for both sides of the issue, are many of them quite eloquent. The material would seem to demand institutional blandness of the visuals, but Public Hearing, shot in textured 16-mm black-and-white, is rendered in a series of close-ups, all landscape-like faces and fidgeting, impatient hands. Wilkins cited Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc as an influence, but the menagerie of American types represented within align it with the best of native satire—as well as the community theater tradition.

Another certain tendency in documentary filmmaking was on display in two noteworthy films, A. J. Schnack’s Caucus, and Town Hall, by Sierra Pettengill and Jamila Wignot. Both are empathetic portrayals of perhaps the last despised subjects that even a liberal festival-going audience will automatically recoil from—that is, Republicans. (I was picked up at the Portland airport by no less a personage than a Democratic member of the Maine House of Representatives.)

Raucous Caucus follows the various hopefuls in the months leading up to the finish-line squeaker at the 2012 Iowa Republican Caucus—by the end, indefatigable underdog Rick Santorum’s crooked visage has come to look downright noble. Made of unguarded moments captured on the fringes of the spotlight—an unexpectedly human moment with Rick Perry and an eighty-seven-year-old veteran, general weirdness from Michele Bachmann’s creepy-chummy husband—Schnack’s film looks at the national stage. Town Hall concentrates on the local level: Pettengill and Wignot follow two Tea Party activists in southeast Pennsylvania from their first euphoric breath of power in the 2010 general election to the comedown of the 2012 presidential defeat. The subjects are Katy Abram, a housewife who received notoriety for dressing down Democratic Senator Arlen Specter at a town hall meeting, and John Stahl, a former lingerie-outlet owner, fairly dripping with melancholy, preoccupied with caring for his ancient, disabled mother.

Visiting an Occupy Harrisburg meeting, Katy has the self-awareness to recognize a bizarro version of her own disenfranchisement—and watching these films, the leftish viewer can see obvious analogies between the apocalyptic rhetoric of the right in 2012 and that of the left in 2004. Drive-time right-wing radio is the refrain on the Town Hall sound track, immuring the true believer in a bathysphere of reinforced opinion, but both this film and Caucus pull a viewer out of the political comfort zone. This across-the-aisle curiosity is a move away from the didactic, “amen corner” movie-tracts of the “Buck Fush” era. (Also on hand, continuing a long festival tour, was Our Nixon, Penny Lane’s found footage chronicle of the thirty-seventh president’s travails, its emotional crescendo Nixon’s slurry goodbye to H. R. Haldeman.)

The filmmakers reported that both Santorum and Abram were pleased with how they appeared on-screen, and it’s not hard to see why, for both subjects are shown, at least in glimpses, at their best. This is undercut in Caucus by a wry bemusement, and in Town Hall by a hang-back-and-give-’em-enough-rope shooting style. (The observed material tends to be far stronger than the direct-address interview.) Nevertheless, Caucus and Town Hall both run the risk of confusing curiosity with advocacy—but what’s the point if you’re not taking risks?

Rachel Boynton certainly ran her share in making Big Men, a sprawling tale of oil industry cupidity that moves among an upstart energy company in Dallas; a newly discovered offshore oil field in Ghana, the country’s first; and the heavily armed guerrillas sabotaging pipelines in Nigeria, with whom the filmmaker rendezvoused. Tribal violence and corporate skullduggery join a weekend of dying Danes, the Mexican cartel wars of Narco Cultura, suicide by cigarette, and doom-and-gloom conservatism. Yes, Camden is a small town, and CIFF is a mom-and-pop festival—but it definitely ain’t quaint.

Nick Pinkerton

The ninth Camden International Film Festival ran September 26–29, 2013.

Joe Losurdo, Sacrificial Youth, 2013, color, sound, 85 minutes.

“OK, LISTEN!” a hearty midwestern voice declares. Then: “This next song is about people trying to tell you what to do…” After a juvenile inventory of ways in which society circumscribes the individual, the vocalist, our soon-to-be-hero TJ (Rob Bakker), lets out one prolonged vowel, sending Sacrificial Youth, his three-piece band, into action and Sacrificial Youth—the first self-described “hardcore punk musical”—into its first act.

It’s fitting that a musical about a devout hardcore punk and his struggling posse should begin with the kind of diatribe that has become one of hardcore’s (and conservative libertarians’) constitutive contrivances. It becomes clear as the movie rocks on with its goofy Broadway-meets-Bowery (circa 1981–90) song hybrids that its creator, Joe Losurdo, himself a veteran of the mid-1980s Chicago hardcore scene, intends his picture to be an update on Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1970), one that simultaneously pays homage to hardcore as an enduring, multigenerational phenomenon. (Fans might also look to Menahem Golan’s biblical rock opera The Apple [1980].)

The equation of TJ and JC, a blatant hardcore-heterodox transposition of church and “scene,” resonates with tendencies prevalent among the ’core faithful. TJ is up against what all young punks are up against, namely: society. The world at large conspires to destroy him and all that he holds sacred: his music, his band, and the dwindling flock that fervently attend his sermons (shows) at the local youth center. The villain: an evil, monolithic enterprise seeking to harvest the souls of local youths by selling them on shitty emo and pop-punk and tempting them into a corporate blood pact with their best-selling product, Blüüd Energy Drink. In a stellar early sequence, sellout band Hellbound Boy performs a catchy jingle, with its “We’re Drink’n Blüüd” refrain, in a mock TV commercial for the diabolical beverage. It’s one of the film’s wittiest, most sophisticated moments of metacultural commentary.

All hell breaks lose when TJ and Sacrificial Youth open for Hellbound Boy at a local rock club. Backstage, Hellbound Boy’s manager confronts TJ, offering them a spot with the bullshit band. TJ refuses outright, but his bass player, Jud (Sam Porter), stays behind to catch the full offer. Jud sells out, joining Hellbound Boy and donning their dreaded black eyeliner. Betrayed, TJ tailspins, his world crumbling. He spends much of the film’s remainder running around, periodically bursting into song in a panicked frenzy as multiple subplots close in on him.

To be clear, this is a low-budget flick that features several less-than-skilled actors. Following the example set by Penelope Spheeris’s punk-rock drama Suburbia (1983), Losurdo and his production partner Christina Tillman opted to hire “real” punks. All the T-shirts, stickers, slogans, and slim jeans must be “just so” to pass rather than pose; the lines, plot points, and gags all evince insider “authenticity.” Sadly, cringeworthy acting is the price of such cachet. This is quite obviously a flick for sympathizers. Converts might be few. But isn’t that the point? If you don’t get it, fuck you! has always been the punker’s credo. With every scene and every joke, and even the very idea of a hardcore punk musical—one that plays off the recent success of mainstream franchises like Glee and the High School Musical series—Sacrificial Youth seeks to ingratiate itself with its subject. Consider it a camping of the punk-rock experience with a self-consciously B sci-fi/horror vibe added for effect. In turn, it’s up to those fickle bastards, the punks, to accept or reject the effort.

Nathaniel Lee

Sacrificial Youth has its New York premiere October 11 and 12 at Anthology Film as part of the CBGB Music & Film Fest.

Ernie Gehr, Signal—Germany on the Air, 1982–85, 16 mm, color, sound, 37 minutes.

ERNIE GEHR’S CINEMA GROUNDS ITSELF IN DISJUNCTURE. Best known for his 1970 film Serene Velocity, a convulsive portrait of a hallway lit by citrine fluorescents, Gehr mounts an exploration of the camera as an apparatus, its effects arising through a conjunction of framing and focal length. Seamlessness and suture are here terms of abuse. If cinema has traditionally aspired to a certain invisibility—an eclipse of the machine in a vague shroud of artificial darkness—Gehr’s four-decade-long project has been to make the camera and its conventions emphatically, even aggressively, visible.

Showing Tuesday, October 7 at Light Industry are two of Gehr’s late films: Signal—Germany on the Air, 1982–85, and Side/Walk/Shuttle, 1991, both shot on 16 mm. Each centers on a specific site: the first, West Berlin in its halting final decade; the second, the exposed glass elevator of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where Gehr settled after sweating out the 1970s and ’80s in New York. For those who know Gehr only for his staccato hallway, the pairing is revelatory, and unlikely to be screened again on film for some time.

Funded by a DAAD grant, Gehr’s Signal broaches autobiography by way of cityscape. The son of German Jewish émigrés, Gehr might have called Berlin home, had fascism not tragically intervened. The film takes its title from the Wehrmacht propaganda magazine of the same name, its opening shot backgrounded by a cropped view of the glossy’s cover. The explicitness of this reference comes as somewhat of a feint, as Gehr’s approach to history is otherwise oblique. Signal unfolds in a site of little dramatic consequence: an anonymous intersection, somewhere, we glean from interspersed street signs, on the Rheinstraße. Creamsicle trash cans, touting the slogan “Berlin…ICH MACHE MIT” (“Berlin…COUNT ME IN”), locate us in Germany’s capital. Yet Gehr withholds further orientation, the intersection’s nondescriptness repelling attempts to impute significance. Traffic signs pictographically proclaim “No Entry” or “Stop, Give Way,” less directing movement than obstructing it. Affectless and absent remark, this space seems not sited but suspended: an industrialized anywhere.

A clip from Ernie Gehr's Serene Velocity, 1970.

Signal’s advance is rigidly stylized, its adoption of structuralist techniques—fixed, frontal framing and the perpendicular, deep-focus long shot—marking it as properly avant-garde. Selected by Gehr’s Bolex, space spreads into an allover plane: One apprehends the images without knowing where, exactly, to look. Cuts are frequent and obtrusive, lending the film a stutterer’s cadence. Accumulating yet failing to cohere, their progression hews to a paratactic logic that loosens sequence from causality. Views recur in quick succession with slight differences, whether assayed from a novel vantage or figured elsewhere in time. Gehr couples this montage with segments clipped from a cheap German radio and street sounds that could, plausibly, emanate from inside the film, yet never quite align with what we see. Heels clack, buses stall, and conversations transpire over scenes emptied of all but asphalt and low-rises. The audio’s space-agey static and linguistic eclecticism—German tousled with English, Italian, and French—compounds our sense of dislocation. Human presence (in Gehr’s filmic universe, always incidental) yields to a concern with place.

Take Signal’s opening sequence: Gehr trains on an unpeopled curb; four cuts later, the curb returns, attended by a grizzled man in pastel blue. Several cuts intervene before a yellow phone booth appears, which goes on to feature six times in a minute-long stretch, its final cameo all but obscured by a black post. Other objects of Gehr’s recursive gaze include a red-awninged store, a windowless, white-tiled building, and a shuttered shop beetled by the word REAL in black sans serif. Such iterations produce a dual effect of familiarity and strangeness, furnishing views that are the same, though not quite. Coherent space, that fallacy of continuity editing, crumbles into a slew of dissonant perspectives.

Gehr’s banal is marked by a pressure for signification, his everyday all the more evocative for its seeming neutrality. Three minutes in, the camera cuts to a long shot of a tumbledown compound which, a peeling sign proclaims, was once a torture chamber of the Gestapo. Read against this concrete horror, a lone loudspeaker, a lamppost-flanked street, and two signless posts askew in the sand suggest something sinister. Gehr’s attention reverts intermittently to the compound, now rendered on a bias, now seen straight on. Static shots flank rapid pans which abstract landscape into blur. Sound, at first continuous with the preceding street view, periodically fades. The past becomes both bracketed and mobile, its matter-of-fact monumentality (the sign’s impassive “this happened here”) leaching into the present.

Later, in Signal’s most direct sequence, Gehr layers shots of stilled train cars with a found excerpt from a German-to-English language-learning program. A woman and man exchange phrases of rebuke—“It’s all your fault,” “You got us into this mess,” “Yes, I admit that,” “You can’t accuse me of that”—as the camera frames an overgrown stretch of rail. Absence is made palpable, history figured as at once irretrievable and open-ended. (Tellingly, though by no pretense of causality, West Germany’s historians’ controversy, or Historikerstreit, erupted just one year after Signal’s release.) Yet, for all of the rail’s muted melancholy, Signal’s enduring image is that of an analog clock poised atop a graphic of a free-floating eye: a readymade nod, together with the “Real” signage, to Buñuel. Whether advertent or not, there’s an element of the surreal to the clock’s entropic temporality: 3:45 PM becomes, in the next shot, 3:50 PM; three cuts later, it’s 2:55 PM. Time, like space, is troubled, advanced and rewound without motive, or halted by lacuna for which Gehr cannot account.

Side/Walk/Shuttle traffics in dislocation of a different sort. Its conceit is simple and, in a sense, brilliantly obvious: twenty-five takes, each just shy of two minutes, shot at various angles out of the Fairmont Hotel’s glass elevator. More than San Francisco’s vectored topography, the film’s subject is the camera’s frame, whose orientation Gehr playfully permutes, turning it upside-down or canting it toward either side. As in Signal, Gehr is fascinated by the number of ways in which a site can present itself to his lens, its monocular view proving anything but an analog for everyday vision. Seeing, Gehr’s films reveal, is the sum of so many fragments, the camera less a nimble tool than an awkward prosthesis, everywhere announcing its presence.

Courtney Fiske

Signal—Germany on the Air and Side/Walk/Shuttle play at Light Industry in Brooklyn on Tuesday, October 8, at 7:30 PM.

Catherine Breillat, Abuse of Weakness, 2013, color, sound, 105 minutes. Maud (Isabelle Huppert).

“IT’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, but it’s not a biopic,” Catherine Breillat, a writer-director who has frequently mined the first person, clarified over a spotty Skype connection during the press conference for Abuse of Weakness, her fifth feature to play at the New York Film Festival. A recounting of Breillat’s involvement with notorious con man Christophe Rocancourt following her stroke in 2004, Abuse of Weakness stars Isabelle Huppert (in her first collaboration with the director) as Maud, a filmmaker so willful that not even a brain hemorrhage will deter her from continuing her next project. Watching late-night TV, she comes across Vilko (French rapper Kool Shen), a high-profile swindler boasting of his exploits on a chat show. Transfixed, she is determined to cast him as the male lead in a tale of murderous amour fou. (The plot that Maud describes to Vilko is that of Bad Love, Breillat’s since-abandoned film that was to star Naomi Campbell opposite Rocancourt; the only reference to the supermodel is this arch line by Maud’s assistant: “Your leading lady won’t be easy, either.”)

What follows is a series of psychic seductions, the cocky, lupine flimflammer turned on by Maud’s indomitability (“You’ve got balls like a guy”), the physically debilitated, haughty auteur secretly delighting in the dutiful, if bullying, attention shown by her new star, who calls her incessantly. This folie à deux manifests itself in Vilko asking Maud for money for loans or ludicrous business schemes; she uncaps her pen after every single demand, writing, over the course of several months, sixteen checks to the criminal totaling 650,000 euros.

“It’s fascinating to observe yourself,” Breillat said at the press conference, echoing the out-of-body experience Maud describes to her family members, aghast at her horrible lack of judgment, in Abuse’s penetrating final scene. “It was me, but it wasn’t me,” she says of the divided self that allowed enormous funds to be drained. “I knew I had to stop, but I didn’t care. I must have done it, since I did it.” Simultaneously an unsparing recapitulation of her bad choices—her bad love—and a disavowal of them, Abuse of Weakness is not a tale of victimization but of Breillat score-settling with herself.

Claire Denis’s Bastards might be thought of as a scabrous examination of the abuse of both weakness and power. Inspired by William Faulkner’s 1931 novel, Sanctuary, and the Sadean sex parties attended by Dominique Strauss-Kahn and other French operators, Denis’s latest—her first to be shot on digital video by her frequent cinematographer Agnès Godard—centers on a tenuous revenge plot. Sea captain Marco (Vincent Lindon) reluctantly returns to Paris to assist his disgraced sister, Sandra (Julie Bataille): Her husband has just committed suicide, and her daughter, Justine—a nod to de Sade’s heroine?—played by Lola Créton, is recovering in a clinic for participation in carnal acts so extreme that an operation may be required “to repair her vagina.” Marco is convinced that Edouard LaPorte (Michel Subor), a DSK-like figure, is linked with both tragedies, though he soon discovers his sibling’s complicity in acts of unspeakable depravity. (Corn cobs and sex barns are involved.) If Bastards too often goes structurally awry with its actors’ fits of histrionics, it nonetheless leaves a scalding imprint for its unorthodox castigations. As the always pithy Denis herself explained after Bastards screened for the press, “I don’t want a film to give [women] only pity. I prefer to be fierce.”

Melissa Anderson

Abuse of Weakness screens at the New York Film Festival October 6 and 9; Bastards screens at NYFF October 6, 9, and 13 and will be released theatrically October 25.

Lois Patiño, Costa da Morte (Coast of Death), 2013, HD video, color, sound, 83 minutes.

WITH THIRTY-FOUR PROGRAMS comprising over two hundred films and videos, the seventeenth edition of Views from the Avant-Garde at the fifty-first New York Film Festival is more ambitious than ever. There are reprises and newly restored films by such masters as Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, Chris Marker, Raúl Ruiz, and Robert Nelson, as well as classic narratives—John Stahl’s Only Yesterday (1933) and Max Ophuls’s Sans Lendemain (1939–40). The latter are included not only because of their special significance for curator Mark McElhatten but also, he avows, as a gesture toward smashing artificial boundaries among kinds of cinema. This sentiment has characterized former Views programs, and it speaks to the frequent overlap between the main slate of the New York Film Festival and “official” avant-garde selections. In this year’s main slate, for example, Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs could easily be a Views selection, as could last year’s Leviathan. This is too complex an issue to be taken up here, but it certainly drifts in and out of mind as one watches the many selections in both camps.

More than one work in this year’s Views programs either toys with narrative material or provides the kind of atmosphere, context, and tension one finds in a narrative film. A distinction made decades ago between cinema resembling prose narrative and cinema closer to poetry because of its stress on imagery, rhythm, and editing not dictated by narrative logic still applies. The latter is exemplified in the richly textured and elegantly condensed Listening to the Space in My Room by Robert Beavers, as well as in two films by Nathaniel Dorsky, Spring and Song. These are among the must-sees this year. More proselike are such feature-length “personal” documentaries as Marielle Nitoslawska’s Breaking the Frame, an affecting portrait of legendary feminist artist and filmmaker Carolee Schneemann, and Talena Sanders’s Liahona, an arresting, deceptively low-key indictment of Mormonism composed almost entirely of found footage.

Marielle Nitoslawska, Breaking the Frame, 2012, color, sound, 100 minutes.

While several Views programs are repeated and others made doubly accessible via the amphitheater projections at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, even the most diligent enthusiast could not transcend overlapping scheduling and see everything. Many films were unavailable for previewing, including new work by Ernie Gehr, which undoubtedly merits attention. But if the definitive signs of the genuine filmmaker are a keen eye and an unerring sense of editing, one must single out such jewels as Rebecca Meyers’s exquisitely crafted murmurations, in which once again the seemingly ordinary—shots of skies, trees, birds, and animals—is transformed into extraordinary instances of the palpable but invisible rhythms of the natural world; Barry Gerson’s Late Summer, in which a severely limited visual field becomes a minilaboratory for experimental play with the optical and perceptual parameters of the medium; Fred Worden’s All or Nothing; and Robert Todd’s Threshold, which begins tamely enough before immersing the viewer in visual and sonic convergences.

Two major discoveries of this year’s Views are the Spanish Lois Patiño and the Portuguese Sandro Aguilar. Both tend to fuse poetic and narrative impulses. The former filmmaker is represented by the feature-length Costa da morte (Coast of Death) as well as by short landscape studies—Landscape-Rocks and Mountain in Shadows—that take the breath away. Shot from a seemingly impossible godlike perspective, the latter’s ski slopes, mountainous terrain, and waterfalls evoke an immensity even more pronounced by the tiny black human dots that move antlike across them. While human presence and dialogue are more integral to the feature, both are subjected to the overpowering natural environment. The scene is Galicia, an area of Spain whose rocky coastline has wrecked many a vessel through the centuries, leaving its inhabitants with numerous tales to pass on. Shots of the sea in its more turbulent moods recall such landmark works in the genre as Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934) and Jean Epstein’s Le Tempestaire (1947)—although Patiño exhibits a lighter touch, as when the idle chatter of the locals is at odds with their miniscule presence within the vastness of the land and seascapes.

Equally revelatory is Sandro Aguilar, represented by six compelling works—under the umbrella title “Dive: Approach and Exit”—whose complex, tantalizing flirtation with narrative belies their brevity and astutely restrained visual texture. While these works are a small sample of an apparently large output, they bear the sure touch of a natural, a filmmaker whose contact with the work of others (often as a producer) has clearly rubbed off.

Stephanie Barber, Daredevils, 2013, color, sound, 85 minutes.

An interesting area of comparison between narrative features in the main slate and those in the Views selections has often been a propensity for the long take. The shots that wait out shifting water levels in the locks of a flood-prone area in Kevin Jerome Everson’s The Island of St. Matthews rival the durations of those in Tsai’s Stray Dogs, though the former has considerably less psychological tension. On the other hand, in Stephanie Barber’s Daredevils, a fifty-minute shot/counter-shot conversation about the making of art between a young writer and an older female artist is followed by a fifteen-minute take of the former on a treadmill. Her internal processing of the conversation is revealed by the gradual shift from a blank facial expression to signs of emotional distress, all without breaking her stride.

Both Josh Gibson’s Nile Perch and Peter Hutton’s Three Landscapes use the long take as a tool to observe ethnographic realities. Gibson’s relatively short documentary is about the harvesting of the titular fish from the Nile, which, we are told, is second only to salmon in European markets. His clear-eyed, utterly fact-driven shooting style could easily make one miss the ravishing nature of his black-and-white images. Though also prompted by the nature of what he observes, Peter Hutton employs the long take in conjunction with long shots until we sense that he wants to suggest something beyond raw data. At first, Three Landscapes may resemble a James Benning movie, but “three” here refers not to the number of shots but to distinct locations. The “first” landscape is composed of more than one site and shot, all more or less with industrial structures of steel and cable towering against blue and gray skies that lend them an almost primeval stature. The second collates several farming scenes of plowing and harvesting in lush settings; and the third, filmed in Ethiopia, comprises shots of men in arid, desolate landscapes hewing stones into rectangular slabs suitable for building, which they then load onto camels to take back to their communities. In all three parts, people, while far from negligible, are dwarfed by their environments—whether natural or man-made—through the use of long shots. The final views of men and camels as they morph into quivering shapes distorted by heat waves before dissolving into an indeterminate horizon line evinces this most strikingly. Hutton’s work, like Patiño’s, might be said to fuse ethnography with philosophical ruminations via the singular aesthetics of cinema.

Since the poetic tradition of American cinema is indebted to the work of Stan Brakhage, it is fitting that three of his early films, preserved by the Academy Film Archive, will be screened in the penultimate program of this year’s Views: Anticipation of the Night (1958), Window Water Baby Moving (1959), and The Dead (1960). As strong and vital as they were decades ago, they remain an inspiration for present and future film and video makers seeking a form that fuses psychological necessity with artistic vision.

Tony Pipolo

The seventeenth edition of Views from the Avant-Garde runs October 3–7 at the fifty-first New York Film Festival.