Tay Garnett, Her Man, 1930, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 83 minutes.

IF YOU WERE TO DEVISE the platonic ideal of a pre-Code movie it would probably look quite a bit like Tay Garnett’s 1930 barrelhouse melodrama Her Man, which transposes the Frankie and Johnnie story—then recently recorded to great acclaim by musician Jimmie Rodgers—to a blind tiger in Havana, where the dregs of all nations congregate and copulate.

While Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein has made pre-Code his bailiwick for years, the Museum of Modern Art gets to plant its flag on Her Man, which will be playing at Fifty-Third Street along with four other Garnett films and Chester Erskine and John H. Auer’s 1936 Frankie and Johnnie, one of the last screen appearances of the troubled, wrenchingly emotive torch singer Helen Morgan.

Her Man establishes itself as something special from the opening credits—written in wet sand on the beach, with each “card” washed away by the surf—and within the first reel vaults into the sublime. After being turned away from US soil and hopes for a new life, tattered and used-up b-girl Annie (Marjorie Rambeau, in a performance that anticipates Susan Tyrell’s Fat City souse) heads back to Havana. Her walk to her accustomed haunt, the Thalia, is recorded in a tracking shot which follows her down the teeming main drag of the pleasure district, ducking heedless horse carts and familiarly making her way through the rowdy, brawling polyglot masses literally tumbling out of every saloon door. The concert of casual gestural precision and individual detail that Garnett gets from his crowd scenes, here as throughout, is electrifying, while the fluidity of the camera movement and dense tapestry of sound give the lie to the persistent idea that cinema’s transformation into an audiovisual art sent it back to the drawing board.

The real focus of the story isn’t Annie, who soon settles back into a fog of blue ruin and self-pity, but one of her younger coworkers, Frankie (Helen Twelvetrees), who is handled by slickster pimp Johnnie (Ricardo Cortez) and has somehow retained a glimmer of goodness despite making her living picking pockets while batting her doll eyes at suckers and spoon-feeding them sob stories. The trouble begins when she levels her eyes at Dan Keefe (Phillips Holmes), an angelically handsome sailor on a stopover whose only possessions are a medal attesting to uncommon valor, a striped sweater that gradually disintegrates through the course of the movie, and a dream of clean living.

Moviegoers acquainted with the period will undoubtedly find some key elements of Her Man familiar. The setting and setup are reminiscent of Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York (1928); Dan and Frankie’s rebirth before a church altar might very well have been cadged by Leo McCarey for his Love Affair nine years later; and the raucous, reckless shore-leave atmosphere is akin to that of Raoul Walsh’s Sailor’s Luck (1933)—though it should be said that Her Man deserves extra marks for sozzled sordidness, and the climactic barroom brawl contains backbreaking suicidal stuntwork of a sort rarely seen outside of 1980s Golden Harvest productions. And gourmands of period argot would be hard-pressed to find a more sumptuous spread, starting with Frankie’s sisterly admonition “You got the heebies bad, grab yourself a coupla snorts.”

The reappearance of Her Man was precipitated by the discovery of the original camera negative in the Library of Congress’s Columbia Pictures collection—the 4K DCP playing MoMA is the result of a collaboration between Sony Pictures and the Film Foundation. To see the film in its original format in New York you’d have to have been around in 1967. In Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, published the following year, the author, still fresh from seeing Cinémathèque Français loan prints of Her Man and The Spieler (1928), defined Garnett’s personality as that of “a rowdy vaudevillian.” To this I might add that he shows significant control in the midst of knockabout chaos, and that Her Man exhibits several resourceful examples of visual synecdoche, such as representing Annie’s return to Havana entirely with shots of her legs and worn-down pumps, swabbed out of the way on the ship’s deck like so much refuse.

Garnett was a former gag man for Hal Roach and Mack Sennett, and that pedigree is certainly more evident here than in what is his best-known work, the 1946 film of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. MoMA’s program offers a selection of rare, lesser-known Garnett titles. Most of these come from the late 1920s and early ’30s—including a single screening of The Spieler in the late afternoon on Thursday—with 1953’s Main Street to Broadway an outlier. Outside of Her Man, the rest of the program is 35 mm: the Main Street print from the MoMA archive; The Spieler in what adjunct curator Dave Kehr describes as a “gorgeous” print from the Eastman Museum; and Celebrity (1928), “an on-the-fly ‘restoration’ composed of reels from two incomplete prints, one from MoMA and one from the Library of Congress.” It’s more Garnett than has been seen in one place in many moons, and if it’s even still a thin slice to evaluate a fifty-year career on, there’s no denying that Her Man is a rolling, heaving, helluva a good time—and that’s on the level.

Nick Pinkerton

Her Man: A Forgotten Masterwork in Context” runs March 29 to April 4 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Too To


Johnnie To, Office 3D, 2015, color, sound, 119 minutes.

A 3-D MUSICAL BY JOHNNIE TO, Hong Kong master of balletic gun battles to the death: Who could ask for anything more? To’s Office (2015) is certainly the most kinetically entertaining, ingeniously staged spectacle in town, and the splendid projection at the new Metrograph theater is bound to do it justice. But as a movie about the capitalist greed and corruption that has replaced communist greed and corruption in China, it lacks the satiric bite and inspired insanity, not to mention the moral complexity, of The Big Short’s vision of greed and corruption, American style. Nor does it have the energy and noir elegance of To’s signature movies, PTU (2003) and Triad Election (2006). I’m sure there are nuances which I lack the cultural background to parse, but for me Office is less than the promise of its parts.

Adapted by Sylvia Chang from her stage play Design for Living, the film is set in 2008 just before the unraveling of Lehman Brothers. A mainland Chinese trading company, Jones & Sunn (the name suggests the film’s mix of cute and ham-fisted) is preparing for its IPO. Not only is the company’s timing a disaster in terms of the approaching financial tsunami, Jones & Sunn itself is collapsing, the result of exploitative relationships and mendacious financial practices.

Office opens not in Jones & Sunn headquarters but in a hospital room, where the company’s chairman, Ho Chung-ping (Yun-Fat Chow), is at the bedside of his comatose wife, clipping her fingernails. This show of tenderness is the only emotion manifested by the character in the entire film, and it soon becomes evident that To’s great star is either too tired or bored to turn in a performance, and one can’t really blame him. Ho is a thankless role. The chairman owes his position to his wife’s family fortune, but far from a faithful husband, he’s carried on a twenty-year affair with his CEO, Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang), who is now desperate to hold onto her status in the face of her lover’s waning affections. To complicate matters, Ho has hired his Harvard MBA daughter Kat (charming ingénue Lang Yueting) for a plum entry-level job but stipulates that she keep her identity secret lest he be accused of nepotism.

But enough of the plot. Although Office is a musical, the less said about the vaguely Brechtian score the better. What makes the film dazzling to watch is the combination of To’s camera movement, Yun Ng’s choreography (the office workers’ routines suggest Busby Berkeley combined with Maoist Red Army film musicals, which, ideologically speaking, is precisely the point of the entire enterprise), and, the biggest surprise, William Chang’s production design. Celebrated for his sensuous, tactile sets for Wong Kar-wai, Chang has created a steely, spikey opposite. The multilevel Jones & Sunn Tower looks as if it is made entirely of oversize pick-up sticks. The double metaphor: The new Chinese capitalism is anything but solid, and its secrets and lies take place in plain sight of everyone on the take and also those left out in the cold. It’s nice that the set has meaning as well as style. What counts however, is that when the moving camera sets those struts and fluorescent sticks awhirl, the pleasure is purely cinematic, and 3-D seals the deal.

Amy Taubin

Johnnie To’s Office 3D plays March 25–31 at Metrograph in New York.

Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Henri Roger, British Sounds, 1969, 35 mm, color, sound, 54 minutes.

GODARD HAS ALWAYS made an art of his petulance. For as long as anyone can remember he’s been the stroppy malcontent, spitting rebuttals to Hollywood and the state, to the middling film industry and its slack-jawed forms. Hence his late-1960s dalliance with Maoism, his retreat into agitprop, and his decision (shocking at the time) to shirk the mantle of “auteur” and cofound the Dziga Vertov Group, a collective that, from 1968 to 1972, would inflict upon us the most ruthless works of his career.

The editing got brutal; the politics, caustic. Italian militants belt out pledges and manifestos; Palestinians shout oaths in the desert; and the camera itself, swiveling to eat up more and more of our bloody, dialectical world, is singled out for censure and critique. (This is my favorite Godard.) But if Godard was a brat, at least he was (to paraphrase Woody Allen) a brat for the left. “I was from a rich, bourgeois family,” Godard says, “and then I escaped from this bourgeois family by joining show business. And then it took me quite a lot of years to discover that show business was a bigger bourgeois family than the one I escaped from!”

These words are flung, cream pie–like, in the face of legendary critic Andrew Sarris a third of the way through Ralph Thanhauser’s Godard in America (1970). Behold Godard at his most sneering and ideological; follow him on a lecture tour of American universities, pumping packed auditoria with gaseous pronouncements on the Revolution. He’s contemptuous, charming—and punitively French. And he’s accompanied, of course, by Jean-Pierre Gorin, the young comrade with whom he would collaborate for the entirety of his Dziga Vertov period. (Gorin went on to create his own whorled, scintillating essay films in the 1980s.)

On March 31, Godard in America will screen along with the Dziga Vertov Group’s British Sounds (aka See You at Mao, 1969) as part of BAMcinématek’s series “From the Third Eye: Evergreen Review on Film,” curated by Ed Halter. The two-week program—which also features Frank Simon’s 1968 The Queen and films by, among others, Susan Sontag and Jean Genet—valiantly recovers works either championed or distributed by Barney Rosset, the publisher behind both Grove Press and the countercultural vade mecum Evergreen Review. The latter was a kind of house organ for the American radical left, where from 1957 to 1973 the Norman Mailers and Samuel Becketts jousted and recanted and pontificated on sexuality, politics, Vietnam—and yes, film.

But the Godard program sparkles with a witty and, well, Godardian contradiction. It pits Godard the righteous ideologue working in a radical, collective mode (British Sounds) against Godard the squirming celebrity, snarling into the microphone (Godard in America). The result is a blurred picture, as if captured by a wobbly lens: As Thanhauser announces at the start of Godard in America, the college tour was meant to “promote” British Sounds, and it was only undertaken to finance the Dziga Vertov Group’s film about Palestine. We have on the one hand Godard the slave to capital, selling his brooding image to scores of kids, and Godard the full-throated propagandist, slapping together strident images—or really sounds—from an England in the throes of revolutionary overhaul. Both films see Godard’s entanglement in the asinine processes of production, distribution, advertising—the niggling necessities and howling inanities of the system he’s trying to topple.

British Sounds opens with a taut declaration from a regal English voice as the camera zooms in on the Union Jack: “The bourgeoisie creates a world in its image. Comrades: We must destroy that image!” Then a fist punches through the paper flag—the film will end this way, too—and the scene cuts to the screeching and whizzing of a car factory, where a red automobile is bolted together while a voice reads a (modified) version of the Communist Manifesto for ten minutes. But the voice is obliterated by the dreary workshop’s clanging machinery and sparking metal. This will happen often: Sounds muddle and mix, skating along the surface of Godard’s images or blasting them out of our minds. The point is to “destroy that image,” to stanch the gush of pictures: As he announces in Godard in America, we have so many ghastly photographs of Vietnam, which have done nothing to dent the Western public’s blithe irresponsibility, as smoke rises over the Mekong. The image has ceased to be revolutionary; we must assault the ear.

There’s something deflating and blue about seeing these films in 2016, as the American empire stomps into the new century. Godard’s bombast has quieted in the intervening decades. Film production has become more bloated and mercenary, and those who find themselves tilting against the coercions of capital have few revolutionary models to look to—or, as in Godard’s case, to fetishize. Two years ago, around the release of Godard’s Goodbye to Language, I found myself thinking of the fists of British Sounds that poke through the screen’s skin. But in the Great Man’s first experiment with 3-D, that membrane is durable, elastic—it stretches and wobbles, as snouts, limbs, objects lunge from the screen. But nothing punches through.

Tobi Haslett

Godard in America and British Sounds screen Thursday, March 31, at BAMcinématek as part of the series “From the Third Eye: Evergreen Review on Film.”

John Lee, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, 2016, color, sound, 89 minutes.

SO IT APPEARS THAT The Archies have become “dark.” Due to a big brand revamp a few years ago, Riverdale’s now overrun with murder, zombies, witchcraft, and a fine powdering of incest. Who knew? It’s making Archie Comic Publications, Inc. a great deal of money, certainly—even NPR approves. But isn’t this Frank Millering of juvenilia a cynical and predictable strategy of revivification? If you want challenging literature about the vicissitudes and complicatedness of life, maybe grow up and read Tolstoy? Kathy Acker? Karl Ove Knausgård? Lena Dunham?

A new Pee-wee Herman movie from the inimitable Paul Reubens (paid for and released by Netflix), Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, starts streaming Friday. This scintillating new venture, long awaited but hardly overdue, could’ve easily taken an Archiean turn toward the morose, pandering to contemporary sensibilities. (It is, after all, produced by king of dudester fart comedy Judd Apatow and directed by John Lee, of the satanically brilliant looks-like-it’s-for-kids-but-it-definitely-isn’t MTV2 series Wonder Showzen [2005–2006].) Thankfully it doesn’t. Pee-wee’s always been twisted—that’s part of his DNA, his loveliness. But Pee-wee’s not the Joker—his humor will never handicap, orphan, or draw blood. Of course, it’s tempting to conflate Reubens’s personal foibles with the character he created (getting arrested for expressing a bit of erotic jouissance in a Sarasota porno theater in 1991; getting arrested again in 2002 for possessing “child pornography,” i.e., vintage twink pics à la Bob Mizer) for a hipper, more sexually “deviant” Pee-wee. But how interesting is that? Sex was always a part of Herman’s universe, but it’s playful, flirty, goofy. Dippy preadolescent insinuation is its draw, its strength—not pubey, sweaty full-frontal.

The genius of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the generously funded CBS children’s show that won a slew of daytime Emmys and ruled the latter half of the 1980s, was that it brought psychedelic East Village art-school freakiness to suburban kids everywhere. Playhouse didn’t water down its look, attitude, or style for anyone. It had punk illustrator Gary Panter on set design; Cyndi Lauper crooning along to Mark Mothersbaugh’s ragtime-meets–Banana Splits opening score; performance artist and comedian John Paragon as Jambi the Genie; and even a pre-Matrix Laurence Fishburne as the baby-faced and more-than-slightly gay Cowboy Curtis. Look at pictures of old performances from the Pyramid Club or Club 57, or watch Tom Rubnitz’s Pickle Surprise short from 1989, and compare them to Playhouse—the only discernible difference? Budgets.

Big Holiday is very close in spirit to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, the 1985 movie that introduced Reubens/Herman to a wide audience. (It was Tim Burton’s first major movie too.) And, like Adventure, it’s a road-trip movie—not in search of a lost bike, but friendship—full of sight gags, corny jokes, and refreshingly lo-fi set pieces. Buxom he-man Joe Manganiello, playing “Joe Manganiello,” rides his hog into the wee town of Fairview—a tchotchke-laden paradise flush with 1960s decor and folksy manners—where Pee-wee’s an overworked helpmeet at the local diner. They become pretty fast “boy”-friends, bonding over milkshakes and root beer barrels. Before Joe goes back home—to New York—he invites Pee-wee to his upcoming birthday bash, daring him to leave his safe environs for a bit of fun and glamour. (“Breaking rules and breaking hearts is what life’s all about!” says Joe.) So Pee-wee goes, meeting a motley of open-road stereotypes—a traveling novelties salesman, Farmer Brown and his battalion of randy daughters, a Kate Hepburny heiress, among others—along the way. (The plotlines in Pee-wee movies are as complicated as an issue of Highlights magazine—Godard this is not.)

Reubens is now sixty-three—he moves, laughs, and screams with a little bit less of that famously manic Pee-wee energy (and, according to a recent New York Times interview, a great deal of the movie’s costs involved CGI makeup to make him look youthful…It works!). But the cheer, spirit, and weirdness is all there—canyon-loads of it—good for parents, and necessary for kids. Cameos and kitsch abound, including a fabulous Alia Shawkat, formerly of Arrested Development, as a tenderhearted female hood in a girl gang pulled straight out of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Big Holiday is cotton candy—fluffy, delightful, and sweet—as Pee-wee always was and as Pee-wee always will be, forever.

Alex Jovanovich

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday premieres Friday, March 18, at 12:01 AM PST, on Netflix.

New to You


Anna Rose Holmer, The Fits, 2015, color, sound, 72 minutes.

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS, jointly cohosted and coprogrammed by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, has through its forty-five-year history acted as a slightly chancier analog to the New York Film Festival, willing to roll the dice on properties who are as-yet unproven, at least with NYC audiences.

As I am far from the first person to note, the status of a “New Director” has never been conferred according to a hard-and-fast law. (The criterion has in the past half-jokingly been stated as “New to us.”) To take one example, I first became aware of the film work of multidisciplinary artist Zhao Liang through his documentaries Crime and Punishment (2007) and Petition (2009), embedded studies of endemic corruption in his native People’s Republic of China looking respectively at the operations of the People’s Armed Police on the North Korean border and goings-on at the “Petition Village” spread around the State Bureau of Letters and Calls in the shadow of the Olympic cleanup. Behemoth, Zhao’s latest, is shot in the coal mines and pig iron foundries of Inner Mongolia, framed as the troubled vision of a narrator who describes his Dantean vision of a guided tour into the abyss—a Chinese nightmare to contrast Mr. Xi Jinping’s recently coined Chinese Dream. Zhao alternates between landscapes and worker portraits, both ravaged terrain, his measured horizontal panoramas detailing a total despoliation that has begun gradually to encroach upon the neighboring pastures. Between stygian hellscapes, Zhao revisits the image of a nude sleeper reposing just in view of the pillaged earth, the screen fretted with oblique lines that fracture the image. Through clouds of soot and exhaust Zhao finally arrives at his kicker, one of those immaculate new outer-ring suburbs made up of identical, as-yet-unpopulated high-rises: “the paradise of our desires.”

Behemoth, with its textured high-definition imagery and measured pace, like that of a lumbering land monster, is Zhao’s most polished work—enough to make you worry that the rough-and-ready smuggler of Petition might in the future succumb to arty arthritis. Another Chinese entry at ND/NF, Bi Gan’s mysticism-tinged drama Kaili Blues, is distinctly the work of a young man chockablock with ideas, displaying both a winning willingness to try on and dispense with various storytelling modes and the nuts-and-bolts know-how to pull off most everything that it tries, including a bravura centerpiece, an unbroken sequence shot that carries on well past the boundaries of narrative logic and ergonomic probability. A sometimes poet who studied television production, Bi Gan is in his mid-twenties, like Raam Reddy, director of the Indian entry Thithi, a multigenerational folk-comedy that is also steeped in the rhythms and textures of village life, and also tags its young director as someone to watch. Both films are part of a significant contingent at ND/NF of films which premiered at last summer’s Locarno, which also included the 317-minute Best Actress award winner Happy Hour by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, which I am clearing a significant chunk of my schedule for, and a handful of films whose charms evaded me on first blush, including I Promise You Anarchy, Lost and Beautiful, and Tikkun.

Ted Fendt, Short Stay, 2016, 35 mm, color, sound, 61 minutes.

This year’s American contingent is also nothing to be ashamed of. There is Ted Fendt, a figure known in New York cinephile circles for his work as a projectionist and his feats of inhuman prestidigitation in live soft-titling unsubtitled foreign films at local repertory houses. His compact (sixty-odd minutes) feature Short Stay, which was preceded by a string of comic shorts, is unsurprisingly a work of not-insignificant control, doing precisely what it sets out to do—telling, in a procession of unprettified deadpan vignettes usually not punctuated by more than the simplest of pans, the story of a lumpy schlemiel from suburban New Jersey who sublets a friend’s apartment in Philly, gives halting walking tours of the Old City—used here for antiscenic effect—and profoundly fails to leave a lasting impression on anyone.

A wallflower movie if ever there was one, Short Stay isn’t the sort of thing to set the world on fire—which of course such a wet blanket of a movie isn’t intended to do. (It obliquely reminded me, in its economy if not in its laconic humor, of Marcel Hanoun’s 1959 Une simple histoire, though this might have something to do with the fact that I saw the movie projected by Fendt.) Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, however, seems fairly poised to be a breakout. Produced through the auspices of the Venice Biennale, who previous underwrote Tim Sutton’s inert curio Memphis (2013), Holmer’s film brings the Lincoln Rec Center to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, shot on location and starring the habitués of a community gym in the West End of Cincinnati, Ohio. (The movie deserves credit for portraying inner-city African-American life as not a tragic anomaly but a workaday reality that millions of people find in no way strange or remarkable.)

Royalty Hightower stars as Toni, an introverted adolescent girl who is lured from the boxing gym and the company of the boys by the pull of the competitive drill dance squad recitals in an adjacent gymnasium (the Lionesses, played by Cincinnati’s Q-Kidz). What seems at first to be a tomboy’s gradual initiation into the rites of femininity—pierced ears, nail polish, and girl talk—turns into something slightly more malevolent as an undiagnosed seizure-inducing illness begins to lay the Lionesses low. At certain points one wishes that the movie had just a few more moves in its repertoire, but the finale is a showstopper, a payoff that justifies the overall strategy of withholding, and there are some beautiful bits of observed business spread throughout, like the little dance that Toni’s friend Beezy (scene stealer Alexis Neblett, who will be at the Q&A) does around Toni’s mop as she polishes the basketball courts. It is with such details, as well as with grandiloquent gestures, that the best first impressions are made.

Nick Pinkerton

The forty-fifth New Directors/New Films runs March 16th to 27th at the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Pat O’Neill, Where the Chocolate Mountains, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 55 minutes.

CALIFORNIA ABOUNDS WITH BEGUILING PLACE NAMES. The divergence between promise and reality may be no greater than in the case of the Chocolate Mountains. Stretching more than sixty miles across the Colorado Desert that traverses Riverside and Imperial counties in Southern California, they form a geography that few Californians have seen, let alone visited. Home to the Chocolate Mountain Aerial Gunnery Range, a practice site used by the Navy and Marines and inaccessible to the public, the region’s arid and inhospitable topography is magnified by the unsettling thought that somewhere over a distant crest shimmering in the heat the weapons that will be deployed in the wars of tomorrow are being tested today.

Pat O’Neill’s Where the Chocolate Mountains (2015) nimbly plays on these associations. Although we never actually see the mountains, we hear their name spoken by a character on the sound track of an old film noir, one of many elements that O’Neill transforms into a wholly new and vital substance, confirmation that he remains the master alchemist of Los Angeles experimental cinema. Instructional films, B movies, Caruso, and 1920s jazz are but some of the ingredients in a rich visual and sonic mix realized with his longtime collaborator, George Lockwood.

O’Neill has been working as an artist, photographer, and filmmaker in Los Angeles for six decades, during which time he has gained prominence for his investigations of land- and cityscape, as well as his deft command of the special effects initially associated with celluloid cinematography and optical printing but today involving digital technology. Not infrequently, he has worked for Hollywood and provided technical expertise and solutions for big-budget extravaganzas.

Where the Chocolate Mountains fully delivers the richness, sophistication, and allusiveness one has come to expect from O’Neill’s work. It makes a compelling case for his unparalleled skill as a creator of densely layered images and sound mixes and as a virtuoso of the mono genre—the urban essay film of hallucinatory intensity that ranges freely across culture and cinema history—for which he attained wide acclaim with The Decay of Fiction (2001).

Unlike that film, which explores the Ambassador Hotel—the landmark building in which Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 and that was demolished in 2005—the spatial locus of Where the Chocolate Mountains is more ambiguous. Hovering above the street grid and the freeways, tracking past cacti in the desert, or plunking the viewer into the middle of a frightening street in downtown LA, Where the Chocolate Mountains evokes an investigation of the city’s unconscious, a reading made plausible by its continual return to the Los Angeles River, long associated with malevolence (epitomized by the giant mutant ants that make it their home in 1954’s Them!) but today the center of efforts to remake the city in a more benign guise.

Awash with references to the work of other photographers and filmmakers (Eadweard Muybridge, Hollis Frampton, Yvonne Rainer, Kenneth Anger, Chris Marker), film genres (science fiction, film noir), the circular purgatory of Dante, and the symbolism of Roman Catholicism, Where the Chocolate Mountains is simultaneously a rigorous investigation of two wooden cones in motion, surveyed from a shifting variety of perspectives from which they alternately appear as an alien spacecraft, a missile, a celestial object, or body parts. Visually unpredictable, chromatically arresting, and quietly witty, this may be the darkest of O’Neill’s films, suffused as it is by repetitive looping structures and the implication that a death drive and the military industrial complex pervade Southern California. Sparks fly and quietly conjure the bombs released over the Chocolate Mountains.

Bits of dialogue, images of a woman, and references to a character called “Alicia” heighten the mystery. As an interim report on the incomplete project that is Los Angeles, Where the Chocolate Mountains compellingly supplements the city’s established tropes with the infinite resources of O’Neill’s imagination. At one point, an intertitle reads “Hell really isn’t all that bad. There are things you need to know.” Many of us who love Los Angeles couldn’t agree more and remain grateful to O’Neill, our cinematic Dante.

Edward Dimendberg

Pat O’Neill’s Where the Chocolate Mountains has its West Coast premiere Saturday, March 12, at REDCAT in Los Angeles.

Come Undone


Tamer El Said, Akher Ayam El Madina (In the Last Days of the City), 2016, color, sound, 118 minutes.

IMAGINE. A shitty day in the loud, aggressive city you adore and deplore. You’re trying to work out a mess of impossible problems in your head when suddenly, in a place of some eighteen million people, you see someone you know. In fact, someone you once loved. And seeing her now, sitting alone in a café across the street, you realize you still love her. And so shitty is your day that you think, what the hell, and you call her. And then, holding the phone hopeful to your ear, you wait, feeling better already, about to smile at the sound of her voice. Or not. Because what happens next? She looks at her phone, spins it around, and lets it ring, her face clouded by a storm of emotions you won’t know. She doesn’t answer, and all you can do is watch while knowing that she would rather ignore you than see you, hear you, or share with you a serendipitous moment in the life of this grand, hopeless city of Cairo.

This scene transpires about halfway through Tamer El-Said’s majestic new film, In the Last Days of the City, a lionhearted elegy for the Egyptian capital, artistic heritage in the Arab world, inspired politics, and hope itself. It isn’t the emotional linchpin of the film. But it is emblematic of Said’s method, setting dramatic events in motion without any direct dialogue whatsoever, and it exemplifies the kind of everyday urban sorrow that layers the narrative and lends texture to the plot.

The basics of the story are these: Khalid, a stand-in for Said and the second-person protagonist above, is working on a film he can’t finish and looking for an apartment he can’t find. In that sense, In the Last Days of the City follows the classic structure of an absurdist search. Khalid, played by the British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla, rakes through hours of footage with his increasingly frustrated editor, trying to fit a puzzle of scenes and story lines together. His mother is ill, his father has died, he lost his sister years ago, and his girlfriend Laila—the one we see dodging his call in the café, played by Laila Samy—has left him and plans to leave Egypt altogether as soon as she can. Every apartment he visits with an informal realtor is a wreck, except for one, which everyone admits only a criminal could afford. As Said’s film progresses, Khalid slowly dismantles his own apartment, the one he has to leave at the end of the month, like a man unraveling his brain.

With enormous windows opening onto the splendor of the Nile, the space is a real beauty as far as belle époque Cairene dwellings go. And under the guise of packing up a life’s worth of belongings, Said orchestrates a parade of photographs, cameras, and other image-making tools going into stacks, piles, and boxes. As events unfold and Khalid’s sadness begins to overwhelm his body, the physical deconstruction of the apartment becomes a larger, more consequential, and possibly generational dance of despair. In the Last Days of the City is certainly effective as a love story. It captures in atmospheric fragments the feel of a romance pulling apart. But the film is also an extremely precise and deeply moving enactment of a much bigger story—about what has happened in the last hundred years or so to Egypt and the Arab world, its artists especially.

The disparate materials of Khalid’s film—which is essentially the same as Said’s, blending his own footage with a series of video missives sent to him by friends and colleagues—all tend to concern creators of some kind: a calligrapher, a composer, the founder of a roving theater troupe. As he sits in front of an editing screen we see, over his shoulder, a world of actors, dancers, writers, and fellow filmmakers forming a loose composite portrait of cultural life in a perilous time and place. That almost all of them are trying (but finding it difficult) to mourn—for a father killed in a fire; for a home lost in Alexandria—tugs at the pervasive, epochal sense of melancholy that is at stake here, five years after the start of the Arab spring and the ill-fated Egyptian revolution, in a film that has taken Said nearly a decade to make.

Tamer El Said, Akher Ayam El Madina (In the Last Days of the City), 2016, color, sound, 118 minutes.

In the Last Days of the City premiered in February as part of the Berlin International Film Festival. It screened in the Forum and won the Caligari Prize. This month, it travels to New York for the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center. But the film is set back in December 2009, and most of it was shot around that time too. Which is to say, a full year before the twenty-six-year-old vegetable seller Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the streets of a Tunisian city to protest the lack of jobs and social justice, setting off a chain of protest movements that for one hopeful season swept across North Africa and the Middle East.

Said had started working on his film two years earlier. He cowrote the script with the Beirut-based writer and curator Rasha Salti, and the result of their collaboration is a gorgeously fractured text that sounds like a present-day version of Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, in Arabic. Where Pessoa wrote a kaleidoscopic requiem for early-twentieth-century Lisbon, Said and Salti have turned to Baghdad (destroyed by invasion, occupation, and insurgency), Beirut (battered by a fifteen-year-long civil war that continues, in a way, by other means), and Cairo (which, at the time of their writing, was creaking under the weight of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year dictatorship).

The breakup of Khalid and Laila may give the film its spine, but its heart is the story of four friends: Khalid in Cairo, Bassem (Bassem Fayad) in Beirut, Hassan (Hayder Helo) in Baghdad, and Tarek (Basim Hajar), also from Baghdad but now living in Berlin, with a refugee card that allows him to travel anywhere in the world, except home to Baghdad (which would void his asylum status). All are filmmakers, and after what appears to be many years of far-flung friendship, they are reunited for a conference on cinema in Cairo. The scenes of them squeezed around a café table, arguing on a rooftop, and circling the statues of downtown are pure magic. The four of them banter and bicker, pose painful questions (if only to film the responses), test out provocative ideas, share the plots and subjects of potential new films, and tussle each other warmly. Their camaraderie gives full expression to a fragile proposition: that the ardor among artists for these old Arab cities isn’t only a reflection of war in the present or nostalgia for the past, that it’s an expression of love forged through art and work, through the exchange among friends of composed images and recorded sounds that somehow document the lives of their place.

As a work in progress, In the Last Days of the City won a rush of early production grants and festival prizes. But Said seemed to struggle mightily to finish it. In 2011, I saw him speak on a conference not unlike the one portrayed in the film, and I would guess that the whole thing nearly killed him. Consider the context: As the film was under way, protesters toppled Mubarak’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood had a quick and disastrous run of the country, massacres occurred, infrastructure crumbled, and, most maddeningly of all, Egypt emerged even more authoritarian than it had been. In the latest season alone, the government of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi has jailed a novelist for writing a perfectly enjoyable sex scene and, far more damningly, sentenced a four-year-old boy to life in prison for murder and rioting. The temptation to acknowledge and incorporate these events must have been tremendous. It is to Said’s great credit that he didn’t touch them. The film remains fixed in its place, true to itself.

Tamer El Said, Akher Ayam El Madina (In the Last Days of the City), 2016, color, sound, 118 minutes.

In the Last Days of the City falls in line with a number of films about film, or about what it means to record the world and capture the unexpected, from Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). There’s also a great nod to Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). But the underlying inspirations are the three cities holding the four filmmakers captive. Cairo is a disaster, says Bassem. Beirut is a whore. Baghdad is the worst off of them all. When Tarek tells Hassan: “Don’t pay the price of war, don’t pay for dictatorship, don’t pay for Baghdad,” Hassan responds: “Baghdad isn’t a street, a song, an alley, my family, or my mother. Baghdad is a moment. You feel it; then it goes. I can’t live outside it.”

I won’t spoil the plot, but in a film that is so much about stasis, something major does happen, and when it does, it’s utterly tragic. I had to remind myself that although it looks like a documentary, it isn’t. How that tragedy is conveyed shows how meticulously and intricately the film has been made. One layer gives meaning to another. The glitches where sound and image seem to slip away from each other create incredible dramatic tension. Talk of a senseless death early on means it will come to pass terribly, eventually. The violence of the world turns the intimacy of love inside out. Art is something to live for and, in certain extreme circumstances, to die for too.

But just so you know, before the film ends? She calls back. All that comes of it is sadness, but she does call back.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

In the Last Days of the City has its US premiere March 26 and 27 as part of “New Directors/New Films” at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.

Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Three Sisters, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 110 minutes.

VALERIA BRUNI TEDESCHI’S adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters is a remarkable film, perhaps the most brilliant version of the play I’ve ever seen on stage, screen, or television. It will be shown twice in Rendez-Vous with French Cinema at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, with Bruni Tedeschi doing a Q&A after both screenings. Because it is part of a series of collaborations between the Comédie-Française and the European television channel Arte, it’s unlikely to get commercial distribution in the US; these two screenings (March 9 at 3:30 PM and March 11 at 6:30 PM) may be your only chances to see it.

Family bonds and family secrets, impossible love, and characters given to wild emotional swings are the stuff of Bruni Tedeschi’s work as an actress and a director. Among her many memorable screen roles are the voluptuous, hilariously unassuming baker’s wife in Claire Denis’s 1996 Nénette et Boni; the self-dramatizing mourner in Patrice Chéreau’s 1998 Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (Three Sisters is dedicated to Chéreau); and the complicated, contradictory central characters in the three previous films she directed, It’s Easier for a Camel… (2003), Actrices (2007), and the over-the-top A Castle in Italy (2013).

Was there indoor plumbing in Russian countryside manors in 1895? Bruni Tedeschi’s Three Sisters opens in a gleaming white bathroom with Olga (Florence Viala) brushing her teeth over the sink; Macha (Elsa Lepoivre) soaking in a tub, a black bowler on her head and a ciggie dangling from her lips; and Irina (Georgia Scalliet) stark naked, sitting on the window ledge. They are getting dressed for Irina’s twentieth birthday party. Determining whether running water is or isn’t an anachronism matters less than that the surprise of seeing it immediately focuses our attention on time, and time is what Chekhov’s plays are about. Will we be forgotten, or if remembered, how so? Are the sisters already forgetting their parents, or Moscow, the place they once lived? Not a scene goes by in which the characters aren’t troubled about their posterity or speculating about a future they will never know. And that obsession about past, present, and future is what connects us to these plays. So in the film, when John Cale and Lou Reed’s “Small Town” is dropped onto the sound track again, it’s not an anachronism but simply another wrinkle in the timelessness of Three Sisters. Even more inspired is the choice to replace the samovar that, in the play, is a birthday gift to Irina, with a movie projector. Irina’s birthday is identical with the birth of cinema, and although it’s doubtful that projectors were available in the Russian provinces for another ten years at least, the moving images which seem so magical to guests at the party are precursors of the film that we are watching in 2016.

The replacement of the samovar with the projector as the object that gathers family and friends together is one of two significant changes Bruni Tedeschi and her writing partner, Noémie Lvovsky, made to Chekhov’s play. Otherwise the text is performed pretty much as written, albeit abridged by a third. (The film is in French with English subtitles.) Most of the Comédie-Française actors make the transition from stage to screen with notable ease, the camera intensifying the intimacy of their relationships. Fluid camera movements that often follow characters as they move between the interior of the Prozorov’s house and the surrounding garden and fields, and close-ups that focus on one or another of the characters’ reactions to the ceaseless, often hurtful or stupid, chatter give the film momentum and emotional complexity. And it’s also the camera that gives a kinesthetic dimension to the sisters’ desire for an elusive freedom and their resignation to the stifling society to which they’ve been consigned. This is a small town that is horribly close to home.

The Rendez-Vous program has a fair number of films about and/or directed by women. Philippe Faucon’s Fatima is a nuanced, unsentimental depiction of the relationship between a middle-aged Arab immigrant and her French-assimilated daughters, and how shame and pride condition their struggles to find a place from which to speak. Directed by and starring Julie Delpy, Lolo is a rom-com about a Parisienne fashion stylist who surprises herself by finding true love with a gauche, financial software wizard—that is until her possessive, lazy son gets in the way. The problem is that the son is worse than spoiled: He’s psychopathic to a degree that can’t be contained within a comedy. Danielle Arbid’s Parisienne is a showcase for a wonderful young actress, Manal Issa, who has the rare gift of communicating contradictory, unspoken thoughts and emotions. Arriving from Lebanon to attend college in Paris, Lina (Issa) is forced to flee her lecherous uncle’s house. Penniless and with visa problems, she finds temporary shelter with a succession of male and female contemporaries. Along the way she learns how to use her beauty as an advantage rather than a curse, and to follow her own desires rather than those that others have for her. Indeed, for those immigrants less beautiful than she (and thus unable to attract heavyweight lawyers to their cause), the dream of becoming a Parisienne is doomed to failure. At the last moment, the film becomes more than an immigrant teenager’s coming-of-age story. I wished that Arbid had begun where she ended.

Amy Taubin

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema runs through March 13 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Lolo opens in theaters March 11.

Frances Stark, [THIS IS NOT EXACTLY A CAT VIDEO] w/ David Bowie’s “Star Man”, etc., 2007, video, color, sound, 10 minutes 9 seconds.

THE AMORPHOUS MIGRATING FORMS FESTIVAL is regular in nothing, not even in calendar placement—its seventh installment arrives a year and some change after the last, which fell in December of 2014. Closest in spirit to the programming at Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s Light Industry, Migrating Forms may be said to cater to the slim Venn diagram overlap between the new-media-hip Rhizome crowd and the old-school Film Comment cinephile.

Reflected in the title of the fest, which emerged from the ashes of the former New York Underground Film Festival, is an ambition to adapt the idea of a festival to a culture of moving-image-based work that is in flux as it has never been since the days of The Jazz Singer. During a recent year-in-wrap podcast, my colleague Amy Taubin suggested that we might stop listing features and expand to “lens-based work,” a response, I suppose, to the difficulty in finding a distinctive definition of “cinema” as viewing formats become increasingly confused. As film history is frequently experienced on a laptop, BAMcinématek offers a theatrical platform to material that, in many cases, might seem more at home on Google Chrome—for example, last year’s Freshbuzz (www.subway.com), a real-time screenshot recording of Cory Arcangel exploring the various drop-down menus and subterranean caverns of the Subway website.

This time around we have, on opening night, a block of work by Frances Stark, including her Osservate, leggete con me, which since 2012 has toured various institutions, including Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, as a three-channel installation. BAM will play the piece, which renders the chat logs of Stark’s cybersex encounters with various (mostly European) men as white calligraphic text on a black backdrop over a loop of the “catalogue aria” from Don Giovanni, as a single half-hour projection. (The Los Angeles–based Stark will be present to discuss her work.) The following day brings a prime-time screening of the German artist Britta Thie’s Transatlantics, a serialized portrait of life among the German-Anglo-American artist community in Berlin working the gallery and kunsthalle circuit, saved from the rather routine serial-TV machinations of Dunham & Co.—name-checked in the blurb—by a penchant for disconcerting, digressive, free-associative video effects, many of them incorporating antique home video, and up-the-nose oddball camerawork. Thie herself stars and delivers the rhapsodic monologues, while the ensemble cast includes Internet rap-rock phenom Juiceboxxx and model Lily McMenamy, very funny as the awful, backbiting director of a local gallery.

In keeping with the inherent elasticity of Migrating Forms, the fest has been arranged somewhat differently this year. Pick-and-mix short blocks are gone, and each program is dedicated to a single artist or group—for example that of eight-person collective GCC, whose work focuses on nation building in the Persian Gulf. The four single-channel pieces were unavailable to screen at the time of press, though I can venture to say they are in keeping with the unusually politically oriented nature of much of this year’s programming, which includes a screening of the epic festival favorite Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) and a tribute to the late cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler. (BAM will screen a 35-mm print of Wexler’s 1964 The Bus and 1969 Medium Cool, as well as his 1974 document of a trip to North Vietnam with Jane Fonda, seen throughout exercising her smug listening face in Introduction to the Enemy.)

Ed Atkins, Happy Christmas!!, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 3 minutes 23 seconds.

Working off of Vimeo screeners and the like, it’s difficult to say how the change in arranging programs might affect the actual screenings in a theatrical context. In the case of the work of Brooklyn-based James N. Kienitz Wilkins, I found myself coming around from brow-furrowed hostility to a grudging curiosity and even pleasure as I made my way through four of his shorts all in a row, particularly struck by those which create elaborate backstories for junky found- and stock-footage images, expounded in affectless voice-overs written in deliberately off-key takes on vernaculars like hard-boiled gumshoe (TESTER) and pop-culture junkie delinquent (B-ROLL with Andre [2015]). In fact, I went through something of the same process of recoil-and-response when I encountered Wilkins’s Public Hearing (2012), a re-creation of a town meeting in Allegheny, New York, held over the possible expansion of a Walmart, done in a variety of mismatched performance registers that seems deliberately irksome. It takes some adjusting to Wilkins’s involuted sense of humor—say, the running-joke references to Panera Bread—but putting in the time, I’m halfway convinced that he’s managed to encapsulate something ineffable about the modern world.

I was, at any rate, thrilled to have the opportunity to catch up with more work by the UK artist Ed Atkins, whose name I first encountered at the 2013 iteration of Migrating Forms. The grayscale Happy Christmas!! (2015) may stand as a typical Atkins work: A dark-haired man, revealed after a moment of scrutiny to be a high-definition motion-capture creation, faces the viewer over the shoulder of another man with short blond hair, whom he holds in a motionless embrace. Without explanation the date “June 7” is emblazoned on the dark-haired man’s forehead, and a tag reading “2015” extends from the head of the blond man. In the foreground, half of the silhouetted head of another man, a silent witness, is visible. As the image zooms in and out slightly, the dark-haired man, with an expression that appears pained, rattles off a series of seemingly unconnected dates, as though just savoring the sound of them: “August the sixth in the year 2032…Christmas, 1905…Every Sunday in 1951…Midweek.” I’m not sure how Atkins arrives at the remote, morose locations that he does, but there’s a vague sense of implacable rue and even sorrow lurking behind his avatar-monologists and his carefully constructed sound collages of creaks, shuffles, and attenuated snatches of melody. (It should be said, also, that his arcane “Squinting through a prism of tears” audiovisual poetry, with its Ballardian bouquets of language, is impossible to imagine coming from any other time than Right Now.) After watching one of his shorts you may have a sense of being touched in an obscure spot that you did not know existed—and it is for such sensations that the willfully esoteric Migrating Forms is to be treasured.

Nick Pinkerton

Migrating Forms, curated by Nelli Killian and Kevin McGarry, runs Friday, March 4, through Thursday, March 10, at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.