Ron Shelton, White Men Can’t Jump, 1992, 35 mm, color, sound, 118 minutes.

IN A STORM-TOSSED MODERN WORLD, Wesley Snipes’s Twitter feed is an island of calm. It’s heavy on nostalgia—with production photographs from the set of White Men Can’t Jump (1992), for example—and rather profound conversation prompts (“At what age did you realize the world you live in was not your friend?”), as well as ice-cold troll executions and sage declarations that merge the Afrocentric and humanist, a typical sampling being: “Every ethnicity is absolutely beautiful and worthy. I’m simply reminding my brothers and sisters WE ARE OF ROYALTY.” He seems like he’s in a good headspace, which is an odd thing to say about an actor who you’ve never met, but dammit, I’ve always wanted the best for Wesley Snipes, who embodies a rare combination of traits: an imperious and, yes, royal gravity, and an irresistible common-man likeability.

Snipes is the subject of an eleven-film career overview at BAMcinématek, for which no excuse is necessary, though it can be explained as a homecoming for the onetime resident of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, or as a birthday party, celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of White Men Can’t Jump. Written and directed by Ron Shelton, the don of sports films, the film stars Snipes as gravity-defiant Los Angeles streetballer Sidney Deane, florid in his play and his trash talk, who sets up a lucrative pickup game hustle with Woody Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle, who opponents assume can’t ball because, well, he looks like Woody Harrelson. A peerless crowd-pleaser with a persistent downbeat undertone and a democratic spirit that doesn’t see fit to sidestep interracial jibing and ball-busting, it’s a beautiful bit of pop moviemaking. As the most across-the-board nightmarish presidential election in memory was getting well underway last summer, it took a rewatch to remind me that I usually dig this country.

Snipes wasn’t a hoopster as a kid, but a dojo rat. Born in Orlando, and raised mostly in the Bronx, he split his early years between Karate and acting. Most of the world got their first glimpse of him in one of the few moving-picture works of the past thirty years that most of the world actually saw, the eighteen-minute Martin Scorsese–directed short film/music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” where he barked the eternal question “Are you bad or what?” at MJ in a tenement lobby. He registers as pure ebony opposite the pale Jackson of 1987, a time that favored lighter-skinned black actors—but the calls started coming in. Morris Chestnut, in a 2013 interview, credited Snipes for “bust[ing] the mold open.” If “Bad” made Snipes a known face, he became a star by way of Major League (1989), something like the platonic ideal of a ragtag-bunch-of-losers sports movie, in which he played mouthy center-fielder Millie Mays Hayes, a speed demon on the base paths whose batting average malingers beneath the Mendoza Line. By the time a sequel came along in 1994, Snipes was out of their budget.

Snipes had turned down a part in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) to take the Hayes role, but would work with Lee on Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Jungle Fever (1991), and, most recently, the misbegotten Chi-Raq (2015), in which Snipes is easily the best thing. Watching Jungle Fever, which will play BAM, one is reminded how even in Lee’s early, hungry years, his style—expressionistic camerawork, caricaturist characterization, Brechtian breakthroughs—was always flirting with catastrophe. Revolving around a midtown tryst between a married black architect (Snipes) who lives in Harlem and his Bensonhurst-based Italian American secretary (Annabella Sciorra), the movie packs in a hallucinatory visit to “the Trump Towers of crack dens,” clunky depositions on colorism, the most alarming final shot in film history, and a whole lotta scenery-gnawing supporting performances, both bad (Anthony Quinn, as the father of Sideshow Bob–haired John Turturro) and good (Samuel L. Jackson’s sniveling addict Gator).

Released the same year as Jungle Fever, Mario Van Peebles’s New Jack City offered more crackhead histrionics—these courtesy of Chris Rock—and more ruminations on African American/Italian American relations in New York City. “Fuck them scungilli-eatin’ motherfuckers. This is our thing. They don’t want to roll with it, we’ll roll over them,” declares Snipes’s drug kingpin Nino Brown after hearing something he doesn’t like from La Cosa Nostra while on his way to taking over the underworld, opposed by the erstwhile “Cop Killer” Ice-T, embarking on a long acting career in the police department. The part established Snipes as a heavy, while Passenger 57 (1992) was his leap to bona fide hero status, one of a long lineage of plane-hijacking action pictures from Cy Endfield’s Jet Storm (1959) to Jaume Collet-Serra’s Non-Stop (2014). If nothing else, Passenger 57 is remembered for Snipes’s delivery of the one-liner “Always bet on black,” delivered at the end of an emphatic dolly shot recalling the one that introduces John Wayne in Stagecoach (1939)—to be a fly on the wall when they were getting that one off!—but there’s some good close-quarters hand-to-hand and crisp roundhouses, and it goes down easy with a couple of beers. Demolition Man (1993), certainly one of the decade’s oddest blockbusters, returned Snipes to villainy—his dastardly Simon Phoenix and supercop nemesis John Spartan (Sylvester Stallone) are tossed into “cryo-penitentiary” in 1996 and unthawed in the gelded, politically-correct dystopia of 2032. The feature-film debut of multihyphenate artist Marco Brambilla, it plays a bit like one of Paul Verhoeven’s stupid-smart satirical blockbusters if Verhoeven couldn’t direct his way out of a wet paper bag, but it deserves credit for locating the latent camp potential of Snipes, who’s in fine fettle. As Phoenix, Snipes wears the blond high-top fade decades before Odell Beckham Jr., and his sartorial daring transcends the rote comedy of the drag-queen road trip To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), whose entertainment value rests heavily on Snipes’s snaps and costume changes.

Walter Hill, Undisputed, 2002, 35 mm, color, sound 94 minutes.

A couple of what I rate as Snipes’s best early films won’t be playing BAM—Abel Ferrara’s King of New York (1990) and James B. Harris’s Boiling Point (1993), which fall into that category of crime-thrillers that were usually called “neo-noir” in the 1980s and 1990s for lack of any better descriptor. The latter film, in particular, which has Snipes’s Treasury officer trailing trigger-happy young Viggo Mortensen and old-timer Dennis Hopper through a contemporary Los Angeles where the World War II–era dance emporiums are still open for business, shows how this actor better known for showboating was also more than capable of playing things close to the vest. (I make this aside about the absence of these titles knowing full well that these sort of peanut gallery “But what about . . .?” complaints are easy for journalists to make but don’t take into account the exigencies of getting projectable materials, and only to say that both titles are worth seeking out.)

Unbeknownst to all involved, midrange macho genre works like Ferrara’s and Harris’s films—or even Passenger 57—would become an endangered species in the twenty-first century, increasingly marginalized in favor of triangulating tentpoles based on preexisting properties, superhero characters above all. Snipes would suffer from this change in time, but not before he profited from it, starring in Blade (1998), the first commercially successful attempt to transfer a Marvel Comics creation to the big screen, with Snipes giving a gruff, grave performance as a “daywalker” half-human half-vampire who’s sworn to destroy the Nosferatu, a character who’d been around in comics since the early ’70s. I didn’t cotton much to Blade when I saw it as a teenager, but nearly twenty years and ten thousand overstuffed superhero movies later, it’s harder to resist the genuine eccentricity of a picture that begins with a bloodbath rave and features Kris Kristofferson, Traci Lords, and Udo Kier, whose explosion is a highlight in the bonanza of cheapjack CGI.

Blade, which plays BAMcinématek along with the inferior Guillermo del Toro–directed sequel, gave Snipes a franchise, a steady paycheck, and a “martial-arts choreographer” credit, but he saved his best shots for Walter Hill’s combination prison/boxing picture Undisputed (2002). Snipes is Monroe Hutchens, an undefeated fighter who has held on to his title for an astonishing ten years—the ten years he’s been locked up at Sweetwater prison on a life-sentence homicide rap. His stiffest challenge arrives when big, bad George “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames), the champion of the outside world, arrives in Sweetwater to serve time on a rape charge—the Mike Tyson parallels are not coincidental. Chambers gets more screen time than Hutchens in the lead-up to the inevitable bout, but Snipes makes every minute count, playing a tight-lipped, Spartan protagonist of the sort that Hill had been specializing in since his Charles Bronson–starring directorial debut, Hard Times (1975). Hill’s preoccupations dovetail perfectly with Snipes’s meditative philosopher-warrior persona—in both Passenger 57 and Blade he burns incense; here, he builds a pagoda of toothpicks and offers pearls such as, “In the end, everybody gets beaten. The most you can hope for is that you stay on top a while.”

Despite meager box-office takings, Undisputed became a minor cult item, followed by three-and-counting direct-to-DVD features with significant charms of their own, two from the master of the discount bins, Isaac Florentine. Snipes himself was increasingly relegated to work in nontheatrical films in the years ahead, which was really the least of his problems, as Undisputed began to look like a harbinger of things to come. Beginning in 2006, he was the subject of a very public tax fraud investigation, which ended in a stay at the McKean Federal Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania from December 2010 to April of 2013. Since coming out, the work has been lean, though The Expendables 3 (2014)—the only fully satisfying entry in that series—gave him a great prison-breakout set piece as a kind of welcome back, and found him still spry and dead game. Now he’s got a new movie coming along in the summer and is apparently working on something called “Project Action Star,” which looks like either the semiretirement of reality TV or a pyramid scheme. Hopefully, there’s still more to come, but like the man says, “The most you can hope for is that you stay on top a while”—and his has been a fine, benevolent reign.

Nick Pinkerton

“Major League: Wesley Snipes in Focus” runs March 31 through April 9 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.

Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes.

THE PROBLEM WITH BEING SEMINAL IS THE SHRINKAGE. In 1995, Mamoru Oshii adapted Masamune Shirow’s late 1980s manga Mobile Armored Riot Police, subtitled Ghost in the Shell in tribute to Arthur Koestler’s 1967 book The Ghost in the Machine, into an anime film that for many years functioned as a subcultural gateway drug, hiding out in the more unclassifiable sections of American video stores. Its VHS cover design threw it under the cartoon category, but the prominent display of heroine Motoko Kusanagi’s enormous tits and her gun hovering over the title gave pause as to its suitability for children, or even YAs. While the internet was still catching on in the United States, GITS was often the sole exposure one had—unless you stumbled across the horrific, original English dub of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira (1988)—to a small, distant island nation’s powerhouse animation industry, or it was a brief taste of something that you took to Geocities to search for more. And, indeed, there is a lot out there. GITS is a blockbuster franchise in Japan, with several subsequent films in addition to Oshii’s original, an early 2000s TV anime, four video games across multiple systems, and more action figures residing in the rooms of Japanese hikikomori and Western weeaboo than you could count. The specter of the Major—hardware designed to give rise to and sell anything at all—keeps slipping through the multiple mediums of her empire.

Ghost in the Shell did not change my life; that would be Sailor Moon. If one seems to strike you as more serious than another, please know that most anime is just trauma in a cute outfit. But, somehow, I got it home from that rental-store shelf because I knew, from chatrooms where masculine usernames typed as if they knew things while I was sure of nothing at all, that I was supposed to. For years, all I remembered of GITS was the Major falling from a great height: This woman—who is not a woman, though her body goes through a multistep assembling operation during the opening credits that will hit femme-identifieds as close to home—falling into a futuristic city of no place, toward canonicity.

It starts ominously enough, white kanji text on a black screen informs us that “despite great advances in computerization, countries and races are not yet obsolete.” Sci-fi is so prescient! Our heroine is effaced from the start. Known as “the Major” to her colleagues, due to her rank in the federal Public Security Section 9 of an unnamed country, she is a cyborg, or, as Donna Haraway would put it in her 1985 manifesto, “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” whose “main trouble . . . is that [she is] the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism,” but I suppose that’s extratextual. What is definitely canon is that her number one hobby is diving: The most beautiful scenes in GITS involve water, both the depiction of and the Major’s movement through it, most memorably when she KOs a two-bit criminal with her thermoptic camouflage turned on, rendering her invisible and becoming visually nothing more than the pressure on his bones or a ripple in the air as the shallow waters around their feet gracefully confirm the martial choreography.

Mamoru Oshii, Ghost in the Shell, 1995, 35 mm, color, sound, 82 minutes.

The story is ostensibly about international cybersecurity, involving the pursuit of a bodiless American hacker known as the Puppet Master. It shapes up into a case that may have been assigned to the Major’s unit as a smoke screen to destroy her along with him. As to why another government unit would want to destroy her remains unpacked. But that’s where multipart franchises come in handy.

Motoko Kusanagi may not be human, but she seems to know the limits of making things personal. After a dip in the depths around New Port City, she tells Batou, her partner in stopping crime, of her concern for “things needed to make an individual what they are,” including “the expanse of the data-net my cyber-brain can access. All of that goes into making me what I am, giving rise to a consciousness that I call ‘me.’ And simultaneously confining ‘me’ within set limits.” (Ray Kurzweil immortalists, take note.) She listens to the “whisper from my ghost,” as souls are colloquially referred to, and can make intuitive decisions, such as in the film’s climax, when she dives into the Puppet Master’s consciousness via what appears to be a USB cable connection, which has taken up residence in a broken blonde female’s bust.

The Puppet Master has already requested political asylum in this purportedly Asian country, proclaiming, somewhat generically: “I am a lifeform in the sea of information.” Aren’t we all, even if some can swim better than others? And yet the creators have insisted that these characters should appear in femme forms, fan service with a thesis. Motoko was built to look not merely female, but bodacious—her shell made by a shop called Megatech Body—and viewers are supposed to accept that this is the model best suited to transmitting nagging, ghostly whispers about the indelible momentum of identity, to say nothing of participating in stealth combat missions. (Heidi Montag is another figure in this tradition.) “I’ve heard celluloid dolls can have a soul,” Batou says. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it had a soul.”

Rupert Sanders, Ghost in the Shell, 2017, 3D IMAX film, color, sound, 106 minutes. Major (Scarlett Johansson), Dr. Dahlin (Anamaria Marinca).

Spoiler alert: Women are made, not born. The female figure carries an imperative for maintenance, conservation, and regular upgrades while also serving as gendered proof of Hortense Spillers’s thought that flesh is empathy. But female flesh is also material, weaponized for affect across genre. Same shit, different canon: Creative men like to gather up their most radical—at least to them—ideas and test-drive them on a form not their own.

And now, another man (Rupert Sanders) in another country (USA! USA!) has made a new Motoko Kusanagi (Scarlett Johansson), kitted up in updated technology and ham-fisted ideological poses to meet contemporary action-movie standards. For instance, the Major is now a refugee, a victim of terrorism, salvaged by a certain Hanka Robotics company, whose CEO—named “Cutter” (Peter Ferdinando)—takes a zealous interest in his investment. In place of a personality or any particular motivations, he has the unenviable task of swaggering around as a caricature of capitalism, declaring, “I think of her as a weapon,” or, all but smacking his lips, lauding her as “the future of our company,” or, most confusingly, since it comes right before the climax and seems neither literal nor metaphorical, saying, “The virus has spread!” All he’s missing is a moustache to twirl, but I guess dissolving into a pile of silver cubes at will is the future’s version. “The Major” is also apparently now her name, rather than her job title. (The blurring of work and life!) Her identity is cleaved in two, with tragically misguided results.

Johansson never struck me as a bad fit for the role, despite the whitewashing casting controversy that has dogged this live-action adaptation for months. Given her previous work in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin (2013)—a great film—and Spike Jonze’s more regrettable Her (2013), I had faith that she could pull it off. The film just had to leap far enough away from the source material and avoid pretensions of cultural authenticity. Instead, the writers lean into the cross-cultural tensions and try to have it all ways: The story is a radical departure, but it brings race along for the ride as a loaded caboose that runs off the rails and comes back around to smash right into the film’s beautifully made-up face. This is on a fan-fiction level, and it only resembles the anime insofar as it also has a tiresome habit of throwing a barrage of beautiful images and sequences at a viewer without any context to understand the connections between them. But the grace to let a picture hold without an explosion or a clever aside is wholly, predictably absent in the translation from animation to live-action. Rupert’s ghosts are anxious, dashing things desperate to prove their conviction; Oshii’s could at least stay still long enough for us to have a thought to ourselves.

Rupert Sanders, Ghost in the Shell, 2017, 3D IMAX film, color, sound, 106 minutes. Major (Scarlett Johansson).

The first movement in the symphony of tone-deafness begins when the Major, in a sulky mood—her emotional range has been greatly expanded; women without a vivid diversity of feelings just aren’t very likable—comes across a black girl on the street. She asks her whether she is “human.” Somehow, this comes off as a proposition. And yes, it gets worse: The girl (indeed human) peels off her makeup, and ScarJo paws her calm face and caresses her lip, asking her how it “feels.” End scene.

But wait, there’s more. With a quick stop for a tranny joke in a men’s bathroom, the movie canters through a confrontation between the Major and the vengeful Kuze—played by a wheezy Michael Pitt, who’s revealed to be a discarded Hanka prototype—and speeds toward the revelation that the white Major was once an Asian teenager who, as her mother explains in broken English in a ramshackle Frank Lloyd Wright x Guggenheim–inspired apartment building, ran away to the town’s “lawless zone” long ago to write “manifestos” about the evils of modern technology.

The Major’s doctor (Juliette Binoche) calls her “the best of us,” which I find hard to believe, since she tears out without even finishing tea with her new mom—no manners at all! Earlier, the Major had a vision of a small hut; it turns out this was where the girl Motoko and boy Hideo—who became sad-cyborg Kuze—had their own DIY jamboree, which was violently broken up by authorities, and the young leftist radicals were separated and turned into sexy cybernetic white people. To wrap insult tightly around injury, the film closes with the Major and her newfound mom hugging, a multicultural feel-good touch. Even if this could be mildly entertained as a critique of dystopian, authoritarian regimes cracking down on dissidence, or an allegory about resistance and rebellion, it quickly sinks into a hopelessly, unbelievably, hysterically, maddeningly silly plot frothing over a foundation of careless racist nonsense, to say nothing of its continual usage of “consent” as a buzzword.

Kenji Kawai’s entrancing, sparkling score for the 1995 film is allowed one meek chime in the intro to Sanders’s first action sequence, and is then given rein to keen throughout the final credits, like a sloppy high-five to the origins of this sloshy travesty. Perhaps our only comfort, and it’s a stretch, is to remember Haraway: “Illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.” Yes, the body of the seminal work has now been resuscitated with a foreign breath, and yes, it is a bastard. The 1995 film ends with a diminutized Motoko looking out over a city, saying, “The net is limitless.” In 2017, the takeaway is that she is “built for justice,” and I wonder what happened to net neutrality in the interim.

Paige K. Bradley

Ghost in the Shell (1995) is now available with limited SteelBook packaging in Blu-ray. Ghost in the Shell (2017) opens Friday, March 31, in theaters nationwide.

Sondra Perry, Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One, 2015, two-channel video, color, sound, 25 minutes 24 seconds.

MIGRATING FORMS IS NEW YORK’S WEIRD FILM FESTIVAL. I say this with the greatest of affection, for through the years it has, often well ahead of the curve, provided a theatrical showcase to up-and-comers working in all manner of moving-image mediums: Ed Atkins, Ian Cheng, Jacob Ciocci, Laida Lertxundi, James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Zhao Liang, and many more others than I can at this point remember.

Tradition holds that around this point one has to mention that Migrating Forms is the reincarnation of the New York Underground Film Festival, but by the time of its eighth edition it has very much taken on an identity of its own. That identity, however, is one that cannot be clearly defined, and is in constant flux. In its last outing, the fest changed from the previous pick-and-mix format, which meant grab bag thematic shorts blocks, and instead dedicated each program to a single artist. And in recent incarnations, Migrating Forms has distinguished itself as a point of intersection between avant-garde film and digital age new-media art, though this time around works that could be classed with the latter are somewhat thinner on the ground.

An exception is Sondra Perry’s Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One, 2015, a two-channel video which has previously been presented as an installation at venues including MoMA PS1, in which a wandering cursor leads the viewer across two conjoined computer screen desktops and through a personal history that begins with footage of what appears to be a black family’s get-together in which all of the participants are wearing neon-green ski masks, then continues to documentary interviews (though other footage reveals that everything we’re seeing has been staged for the camera) with a grandmother who later sings The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton,” a performance that shares space on the soundtrack with Roy Ayers, a club track repeating the refrain “Beautiful gorgeous golden girl,” and a YouTube video playing Soundgarden’s “Fourth of July” with Spanish subtitles. The setting is Perry’s hometown of Perth Amboy, New Jersey, a pretty ordinary looking seaside ’burg, but the footage unfolds on multiple overlaid panels, a proliferation of individual windows skewing at queer angles or drifting against the green backdrop as though floating in space. There’s a lot going on amid the overlaid frames, and a lot of ideas to unpack about the construction of African-American identity here, but there’s no doubt that Perry, at thirty, has come onto the scene with a sensibility fully formed.

Though previous incarnations of Migrating Forms have never shied away from overtly political content—past editions have included a Glauber Rocha retrospective and The Irish Tapes, John Reilly and Stefan Moore’s 1974 video documentary of The Troubles, for example—this seems the most engaged version of the festival that I’ve seen. Amid the new work there are moments of levity, lightness, and play—Cauleen Smith’s Lessons in Semaphore (2015), a brief urban-bucolic reverie that screens before her straight narrative 1998 feature dryslongo, or Wilkins’s trailer for the fest, a flickering montage of faces that may seem eerily familiar, because in fact they are the stars of the ubiquitous “If You See Something, Say Something” subway ads—but elsewhere we find work that’s wounded, wary, combative. Arthur Jafa’s montage film APEX_scenario (2014), for instance, is an eight-minute sustained assault through image, with scenes of violence and assertive, theatrical confrontation, including performers from Black Flag to Miles Davis to the Geto Boys, and slam-bang art-historical juxtapositions (John Steuart Curry’s 1939 painting John Brown to Caspar David Friedrich’s nineteenth-century Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog), amid all of which the most distinct recurring image is that of bared fangs. It is a film that you might love or loathe, but which is impossible to watch with indifference, a thrown gauntlet.

Jafa is a cinematographer whose high-profile credits include ex-wife Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) and the second-unit work on Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and is also a combative essayist who in 1992 wrote in the pages of Artforum of the “proposition of an authentic black cinema, a cinema as rich in its power and alienation as black music.” If his name is unfamiliar then it’s because he has done a fine job in maintaining his truculent outsider status. In the mincing-no-words department, he’s given a run for his money by General Idea’s Shut the Fuck Up (1984), a response to media attempts to create a domestic pet of the “eccentric” bohemian that combines direct-address testimonies and excerpts from mainstreamed works that make the artist into a figure of fun: The razzing of Yves Klein in proto-shockumentary Mondo Cane (1963), or The Joker’s completion of his art-hoax “masterpiece,” a blank canvas which he titles Death of a Mauve Bat, taken from the Burt Ward and Adam West era of Batman (1966–68).

General Idea was a Canadian artists’ collective comprising AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal active from 1969 to 1994, when Partz and Zontal died of AIDS. The two-part General Idea retrospective continues an ongoing partnership between Migrating Forms and video-art archive and nonprofit Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI)—they also represent Perry—as well as a running tradition of mini-revivals. Also in the retrospective section this go-around is a ramble through four decades of Leslie Thornton’s work, including her early films; her tributes to the late actor Ron Vawter, Strange Space (1993) and The Last Time I Saw Ron (1994), are at once phantasmagoric and terribly physical; and the unveiling of Peggy and Fred in Hell: Folding (2016), Thornton’s latest (final?) iteration of her open-ended, ever-evolving signature work, which one can contrast with the 2004 edit Peggy and Fred in Hell: Beginning Middle End, also screening. Unfortunately, the archival item that I was most gassed for was unavailable to see before the beginning of the festival, so I will be watching Robert Kramer’s four-hours-and-change end-of-the-’80s Maine-to-Florida road-trip epic Route One/USA (1989) along with the paying public, and here can record only my anticipation.

Tomonari Nishikawa, Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon, 2016, 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes.

While Kramer, no less than Jafa, was an urgently contemporary filmmaker, the work of Tomonari Nishikawa seems almost out of time—you could imagine one of his Super 8 “Sketch Film” series being projected on a sheet at a ’60s loft party, though in fact they come from the mid-aughts, around when he would have graduated from SUNY Binghamton, the kingdom of professor emeritus Ken Jacobs, where Nishikawa now teaches. Each of his films is a game with rules of his own devising, usually revolving around finding what can be done with the physical film strip within imposed parameters. They’re short—the longest tops out at around ten minutes—in many cases by necessity; the “Sketch” films, for example, are diabolically complex, the first a flickering of single-frame street scenes edited in-camera, a whirl of constant change while carrying on a play of dancing diagonals from one frame to the next, discovering recurring patterns in the urban landscape.

Nishikawa’s practice is, in much the same manner, consistently inconsistent, with each film spring-boarding from the last, introducing a new element: whipping camera movement in Sketch Film #3 (2006), color in Sketch Film #4, a switch to bucolic settings in Sketch Film #5 (both 2007). After this cycle Nishikawa began to work with larger gauges of film, a development that opened up new possibilities, and for the past several years he has returned repeatedly to making works that divide up the frame, with each sector representing a different temporal and sometimes physical zone. 16-18-4 (2008) was shot, per the artist’s website, “through a toy camera with sixteen lenses” at the Tokyo Yushun horserace and cuts the 35-mm frame into quadrants, each showing a slightly temporally staggered scene. The 2010 companion films Tokyo – Ebisu and Shibuya – Tokyo go still further, shooting stations on the Yamanote line of the Japan Railway by exposing different sectors of the same film-strip individually to create ghostly effects—a commuter’s disembodied legs appear and then disappear as an approaching train evaporates into thin air. A similar effect is at work in Ten Mornings Ten Evenings and One Horizon (2016), the most recent of Nishikawa’s films and perhaps the most lovely, with views of bridges over the Yahagi River, near where the artist grew up in Japan, which are vertically divided into six strips, half exposed at dawn and the other half exposed at dusk, with the overall effect suggesting a folding byōbu screen.

Nishikawa’s method inevitably opens the work to discussion in terms of “process,” but it’s also worth noting that they’re films concerned with results—some of them are exhilarating, some implacably sad in a way that’s hard to place, and each is an exquisite, precision-crafted object. For the opportunity to see Nishikawa’s works altogether, the introduction to Perry’s oeuvre, and many other challenges and inducements, mercurial Migrating Forms is to be cherished. There isn’t a Death of a Mauve Bat in the whole bunch.

Migrating Forms runs Friday, March 24–Thursday, March 30 at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn.

Nick Pinkerton

Malcolm Le Grice, Horror Film 2, 1972. Performance view, Raven Row, London, March 4, 2017. Photo: Mark Blower.

VISITORS DRIFTED IN AND OUT of London’s Raven Row all weekend, lying on the floor, sitting on the stairs, waiting out an unexpected power cut, chatting and mixing gin and tonics in the interval (with lemon, of course). The convivial occasion was a weekend devoted to restaging a selection of expanded cinema works by the Filmaktion group, widely recognized as central to the history of artists’ film practice in Britain yet rarely seen due to the difficulty of orchestrating their display.

Curated by Mark Webber, the program formed part of Raven Row’s ongoing episodic exhibition “This Way Out of England: Gallery House in Retrospect.” Open only on weekends from February 9 to March 26, in a different iteration each time, the show draws attention to and reactivates the ethos of Gallery House, an influential but short-lived venue for experimental, interdisciplinary art. In 1972, the German Institute in South Kensington (now the Goethe-Institut) took over the townhouse adjacent to its own with plans for expansion. Gallerist Sigi Krauss was recruited to organize an exhibition program in the empty space prior to the beginning of construction—an undertaking that lasted only until the summer of 1973. A decidedly risk-taking, noncommercial space, Gallery House provided support for emerging artists’ film practices, particularly those that pushed beyond the confines of the movie theater to interrogate the apparatus and its relation to the viewer in an expanded context.

In March 1973, the space hosted a group of filmmakers who would soon assume the name Filmaktion. Eager to move their 16-mm projectors out of soundproof booths and into the proximity of the audience, this loosely affiliated group consisted of core members Gill Eatherley, Malcolm Le Grice, Annabel Nicolson, and William Raban. At Raven Row, all but Nicholson were on hand to present their own works and, when needed, collaborate in the staging of others’. Using multiple projectors and often involving the presence of the filmmaker’s own body, the pieces on view tended to emphasize the liveness of the encounter between viewer and screen, extricating the moving image from an economy of the multiple to insist on its status as a performing art.

William Raban, Take Measure, 1972. Performance view, Raven Row, London, March 4, 2017. Photo: Mark Blower.

A statement on a leaflet produced for the June 1973 Filmaktion week at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool captures the group’s anti-illusionist interests: “From a broad base of using film as film, materially and formally, a concern has developed to treat the projection situation as an immediate reality in time and space.” Each artist’s practice explores this in its own way. Le Grice, for instance, shows a keen fascination with the nonnarrative attractions of early cinema: In Horror Film 2 (1972), shown publicly for the first time since the 1970s, he combines anaglyph 3-D, shadow play, and the rear projection of silent horror films in a spectacular dissection of cinema’s basic principles. Eatherley, meanwhile, often explores the relation between an object—chairs in Chair Installation (1972), the artist’s body as she holds a broom in Aperture Sweep (1973)—as it is at once represented on-screen and materially present in the room. Nicolson’s single-screen shorts Shapes (1970) and Frames (1973) testify to the centrality of contact printing to much of the Filmaktion work. And Raban, in now-legendary interventions such as 2'45'' (1973), as well as lesser-known works such as Diagonal (1973) and Surface Tension (1974–76), turns his attention to the limits of the frame, destabilizing the naturalness of the single rectangle.

The Filmaktion weekend was above all a tremendous opportunity to encounter hard-to-see classics—and for free, no less, as they were at Gallery House. But bringing the group of artists together and presenting their work within the context of an engagement with a historical exhibition space adds significantly to the importance of this event. The promise of a history of exhibitions is to move away from narratives of artistic production founded in the agency of the lone individual. Too often, this commitment is betrayed, as a history of artists gives way not to a network of affiliation but to a history of star curators. “This Way Out of England”—and in particular Webber’s Filmaktion weekend, with its emphasis on the liveness of artworks and friendships alike—offers a glimpse of what the history of exhibitions can be when it refuses to devolve into a history of curators. The event made a case for the importance of considering the networks of support, whether interpersonal or institutional, that undergird artistic practice. The return to Gallery House speaks to the special power of those off-kilter, idiosyncratic spaces that operate outside the norm, producing an impact out of proportion with their size. As Raven Row prepares to close its doors to the public for an unspecified period, it’s something worth remembering.

Erika Balsom

“Filmaktion: Expanded Cinema and Film Performance” ran March 4 and 5 at London’s Raven Row as part of the exhibition “This Way Out of England: Gallery House in Retrospect” (through March 26).

Of Montreal


Donald Shebib, Goin’ Down the Road, 1970, 35 mm, 90 minutes.

IN HIS NEWLY PUBLISHED AUTOBIOGRAPHY, Director’s Cut, the filmmaker Ted Kotcheff, a son of Toronto’s Cabbagetown slums, recalls his response to reading his friend Mordecai Richler’s novel The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravtiz for the first time, in the late 1950s, when the two Canadian expats were cohabiting in London. “‘Not only is this the best Canadian novel ever written,’ I declared, ‘but one day I am going back to Canada and make a film out of it.’ We then both laughed at the absurdity of the idea because, of course, there was no Canadian film industry whatsoever at this time.”

By the time that Kotcheff finally made his Duddy Kravitz movie in 1974, the Canadian film industry had well and truly burst into being, a process already underway when Richler was finishing his novel, as his hometown of Québec was becoming a hotbed of documentary activity in the “direct cinema” style. In fact, someone interested in these bumptious years of Canadian cinema’s adolescence and young adulthood could put together a pretty good curriculum from Anthology Film Archives programming over the past year. The 2016 survey “Québec Direct Cinema” was followed by a program of tax-shelter films produced under the auspices of the Capitol Cost Allowance (CCA), and now following hot on its heels is “1970s Canadian Independents,” a four-film sidebar of outsider movies that wear the impoverished circumstances of their production on their sleeves.

Documentary has been the cornerstone of Canadian cinema from the days of the stern Scotsman John Grierson at the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) through the blossoming of direct cinema, and the documentary impulse is a factor in all of AFA’s featured independents—both indulging it and defying the rules of the self-appointed guardians of nonfiction purity. Perhaps the best-known movie playing Anthology is Donald Shebib’s northern Neorealist work Goin’ Down the Road (1970), a simple story, simply, truthfully, and forcefully told. Pete and Joey (Doug McGrath and Paul Bradley), two guys from the rural Maritimes facing the far side of thirty who’ve never had a pot to piss in, jump in their junk-heap Impala and head to the land of opportunity that is Toronto. The city air briefly awakens Pete’s aspirations to gentility: He looks for white-collar work at first, and when his buddies are shoplifting Hank Snow LPs from the Country & Western section in the basement of an A&A’s record emporium, he’s upstairs ogling a high-class broad listening to Erik Satie. Joey, who doesn’t have any of Pete’s highfalutin hang-ups, knocks up a waitress, Beth (Jayne Eastwood), and marries her in a sodden, sloppy, and very touching wedding ceremony that feels fly-on-the-wall observed. As the boys move from the promise of spring to a winter of discontent, however, they find themselves in the same jam—ducking landlords, working the worst jobs in Ontario, and finally brawling with a beefy checkout boy in the parking lot of a Loblaws supermarket after an ill-conceived shoplifting heist.

Shebib had made documentaries for both the NFB and Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and his cameraman Richard Leiterman, shooting handheld on 16-mm reversal, likewise had a nonfiction background. A great deal of the film’s enduring power lies in the sense of veracity they give it—in the unpolished performances by actors whose faces bespeak the city miles of working-class wear and tear, and in the presentation of crap bowling-alley, car-wash, and bottling-plant gigs. Goin’ Down the Road was influential in style and, if the films in “Canadian Independents” are to be taken as a representative sample, subject matter, for each film in the series is concerned, to varying degrees, with male friendships and with not making it Pierre Trudeau’s Canada.

Frank Vitale, Montreal Main, 1974, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes.

Larry Kent had been known for some years before the release of The Apprentice / Fleur Bleue (1971), identified in AFA’s catalogue notes as “arguably the first fully bilingual film to see commercial release in Canada.” I haven’t seen Kent’s student feature The Bitter Ash (1963) or High (1967), both apparently held to be groundbreaking efforts, but this story of Québécois layabout Jean-Pierre (Steve Fiset) lured into a life of larceny by his friend Dock (Jean-Pierre Cartier) while torn between a flighty Anglo model (Susan Sarandon) and his French separatist girlfriend (Céline Bernier) was a little too heavy on counterculture quirk to go down smooth. Fiset has the dark, horse-mouthed handsomeness of a young John Travolta, and Sarandon, in only her second screen role, makes an impression in a transparent, backlit peasant dress, but throughout Kent is over-reliant on low-hanging comic fruit like a priest smacking his lips while hearing of free-love escapades in confession. The seriocomic tone is more wobbly and uncertain than complex, right up to a miscalibrated tragic ending, and the political content seems decidedly glib and from an outsider’s perspective compared to something like Gilles Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac (The Cat Out of the Bag, 1964).

The series does contain real revelation, however, in the little-screened collaborations of Frank Vitale, Allan Moyle, and Stephen Lack. Vitale will be at AFA presenting both his Montreal Main (1974) and Moyle’s The Rubber Gun (1977) alongside motormouthed muse and performer Lack, who appears in both films. Vitale, born in Jacksonville, Florida, first came to Montreal in the 1960s to study at McGill University, where he met collaborator Moyle. Today, Vitale is an instructor at New York’s School for the Visual Arts, while Moyle has tasted respectable mainstream success with the superlative Pump Up the Volume (1990), but in the ’70s they were both regulars of the wide-open, skeevy scene on Montreal’s Boulevard Saint Laurent. This is the backdrop of Montreal Main, written by Vitale, Moyle, and Lack, and starring all three. Frank (Vitale), a bearded introvert described early on as “the noisy silent type,” is a photographer who’s spent time in New York but who now follows his tow-headed partner in crime, Bozo (Moyle), around French Canada. Given that the boys hang out in an almost-entirely homosexual milieu, they begin to suspect the nature of their friendship, but a desultory experiment in mutual masturbation in the VW bus that they cruise around in puts any question to rest. After this, the deceptively cherubic Bozo returns to playing sick-fuck misogynistic head games with teenage hippies, and Frank’s attention turns to the beautiful long-haired twelve-year-old son (John Sutherland) of some friends, with whom he begins a disconcertingly close relationship whose true nature he seems afraid to guess, though there’s a long, telling glance at the nape of the boy’s neck during a daytrip up the Colline de la Croix—the cult of unbounded introspective self-exploration leading to a frightening precipice.

Frank Vitale, Montreal Main, 1974, 16 mm, black-and-white, sound, 88 minutes. John Sutherland.

Vitale collaborated again with Moyle on his 1976 East End Hustle—unrepresented at AFA, but certainly worth tracking down—before leaving Montreal and returning to shoot The Rubber Gun (1977), in which Moyle stars and narrates as a McGill sociology student drawn, for ostensibly studious reasons, into the orbit of an amateur artist and professional drug dealer who exemplifies the gift of gab and has a stockpile of amphetamines to keep the gifts coming. The drug dealer is played by Lack, later the (much more sedate) star of David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), who made his screen debut in Montreal Main, shooing an old chicken-hawk away from a young Sutherland at a penny arcade before proceeding to rat-a-tat off stream-of-consciousness poetry about “decadent street janitorial paranoia, standin’ here on the tiled urinal of Babylon.”

Lack is a snapping live-wire presence, and the Lack-Moyle-Vitale movies represent a nervous, tweaked-out energy absent from the comparatively lugubrious Goin’ Down the Road—a beer-drinkers’ downer cinema versus a pill-poppers’ uppers cinema, you might say. Studiously reporting on his drug buddies in The Rubber Gun, Moyle’s character describes them as “vitalized by drug use,” but the potential danger of that volatile vitality figures throughout these films, which altogether make up a portrait of Montreal in a moment of deceptively jittery “post-’60s stagnation,” which Vitale described in a 2009 interview: “The Main was populated with Greek and Portuguese immigrants. The shops were owned by former immigrants, the Jews, who had moved to the suburbs. To the east the predominate French culture insulated us from the real world. For a group of us Anglophone artists, who lived on practically no income, the Main was a timeless backwater of communal dinners, art openings and parties.” To this potent brew we can add the intersection of the underground art and criminal communities, as united in Lack’s Rubber Gun character. As a body of work, these Montreal street sketches are among the most dangerous, fearless Canadian films that I’ve seen––proof that stagnation can be remarkably fertile.

Nick Pinkerton

“1970s Canadian Independents” runs Thursday, March 9 through Sunday, March 12, at Anthology Film Archives in New York.

Eduardo Williams, The Human Surge, 2016, 16 mm, Super 16, and HD video, color, sound, 97 minutes. Chai Fonacier.

AS THE CULTURAL CONVERSATION breaks down into spasms of splenetic indignation, the fear of being misunderstood runs to epidemic levels. In such an atmosphere, it is an increasing rarity to encounter artworks that come packaged without an instruction manual meant to clear up any potential confusion. And if you, like me, are bored to the point of catalepsy by the resulting parade of self-defining artwork that stretches limitlessly toward the horizon, perhaps you’ll make the ideal viewer for Argentinian director Eduardo Williams’s crackling The Human Surge, a dense snarl of a movie that only gets more spectacularly tangled as you try to unravel it.

Williams, who turns thirty this year, had already made a name for himself on the festival circuit with a series of distinctive, globe-trotting shorts when this, his feature debut, took the main prize in the Filmmakers of the Present competition at the Locarno International Film Festival. (The jury included Dario Argento, who knows a thing or two about formal bravura.) The Human Surge is a maverick work, the most obvious of its distinguishing traits being its triptych form, which individuates each section through location and visual texture. The first part, set in a flooded neighborhood in Buenos Aires, is shot on 16 mm. The second, in Maputo, Mozambique, achieves a unique palette with footage originally captured with a Blackmagic pocket camera that has been filmed off of a computer screen onto Super 16. In the final section, Williams takes a RED Scarlet digital camera to the Philippine province of Bohol.

None of these abrupt location changes are announced by signposting, and Williams takes no pains to keep a sluggish viewer abreast of what’s going on. Each section trots out new “protagonists”—I use scare quotes because it took me a second viewing to get a handle on the narrative elements, in no small part because I was gobsmacked by the total audacity of the thing the first time around. Even Williams’s cameraman doesn’t always seem to be clear on whom he’s supposed to be following, as subjects are picked up and dropped as if by caprice. A bit of dialogue that occurs late in the film—“Have you tried following a beautiful girl when you’re lost?”—seems close to the logic of the camerawork, which feels responsive, alive, unmoored, quixotic, erratic, obedient to whim. The film’s signature move is a wavering handheld sequence shot trailing behind or alongside a character or characters—not the intimate shoulder-perch shot familiar from the Dardenne brothers or a hundred Hubert Bals Fund movies, but one that instead keeps the camera carefully at an uncomfortable distance, where facial features, if visible at all, are just on the cusp of legibility, a distance that stirs a certain tension in the viewer, makes you feel like if you just squint and lean in a little you might get it. This is frequently combined with murky, grainy low-light or even pitch-dark settings, reducing the subjects to disembodied voices, as in a scene where the Argentinian kids pile into the hollow of a tree trunk.

Eduardo Williams, The Human Surge, 2016, 16 mm, Super 16, and HD video, color, sound, 97 minutes. Luca Julián Lopez, Ezequiel Cirigliano, Sergio Morosini, and Emanuele Serra.

Williams and his dual DPs, Joaquin Neira and Julien Guillery, have found their style and tone in part by pulling from the lexicon of amateur videography, from cell-phone video to pornographic webcam—as early as his 2011 short Could See a Puma, Williams can be found experimenting with similar free-floating cinematographic peregrinations. It’s an aesthetic appropriate to the film’s subjects: roving bands of twentysomethings, mostly male, mostly seen at leisure, on their way to nowhere in particular at a rambling, ambling pace, talking about nothing much at all. The dialogue is of tossed-off observations, frequently overdubbed, which occasionally veer into the territory of the poetic-philosophical. “Did you know the future’s silence is going to sound just like a crowded food court?” asks one boy. “I dreamt the sky was covered in advertisements,” muses another. The Argentine section revolves around Exe, one of the film’s more clearly delineated characters, living in his cramped family home, fired from a job as a supermarket stock boy, and keeping up a sideline in webcam exhibitionism with friends—there is an unstimulated sex act, startling precisely for how casually it occurs, for the sheer banality of the thing. In Mozambique, we pick up with another group of boys seen doing the same burlesque with less commitment, a way to make a quick buck between odd jobs—desultory office work, migrant labor, hanging out behind the counter at some kind of arcade. Finally, we surface on the other side of the world, in Bohol, where a cache of characters whose previous acquaintance is difficult to gauge wander through jungle undergrowth, congregating around a swimming hole, where they splash about while discussing, among other things, the possible location of a cyber café.

Up until a tripod-stabilized postscript inside an antiseptic Philippine factory that manufactures tablet devices, the film’s abiding aesthetic is ramshackle, slipshod, and willfully off-key, though Williams is very capable of creating very precise coup de cinema effects, reserved for the transitions between sections. Passing from Argentina to Mozambique, we seem to travel seamlessly through a computer screen to arrive on the other side, while the leap from Mozambique to the Philippines follows a stream of urine falling on an anthill to plunge into the underground tunnels, mingling in close quarters with the shiny black bodies of the teeming insects. (There are shades here of the dive beneath the manicured lawn in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet [1986].)

Eduardo Williams, The Human Surge, 2016, 16 mm, Super 16, and HD video, color, sound, 97 minutes.

Williams endeavors to pass through the wiring of intricate networks in the case of both the internet and the anthill. The casual air disguises The Human Surge’s thematic coherency, beginning with the title’s invocation of organic-technological hybridity, as echoed in the analog-to-digital progression of its format shift, or in a moment where a child is heard measuring the human genome in gigabytes. While precious few filmmakers have seriously attempted to address the enormous cognitive earthquake represented by the internet’s colonization of daily life, Williams dares and is actually up for the challenge. From an interview last year:

“My brain and practice have been transformed by technology. For example, by the video games that I played when I was young. In video games, you have these different levels that you advance to, moving through multiple spaces. And then the chats—at many points in my life, it seemed like online chatting was my only means of communication. It is a different way of speaking, of connecting. I didn’t think of it at first, but this is why I structure my films the way I do. It’s about how I see and relate to the world.”

Inasmuch as his film’s subjects have a single unifying purpose, it is to get themselves online—cadging working cell phones from friends or ranging around in search of a wifi signal. Binaries are invoked only to be busted wide open. Williams shows us ways of life at once state of the art and primitive, borderless and highly parochial, under the sway of both science and superstition. In a discursive conversation about “Black Magic,” two of the Mozambique youths muse over “people controlling one another from afar”—which, of course, is exactly what happens on the Chaturbate site they log onto. And while a sense of threatening environmental cataclysm hangs over the movie from the early images of streets flooded by an unspoken catastrophe, the film is also suffused with moments of bucolic natural beauty, of unspoiled beaches and forests and open fields in what seems like a perpetual gloaming. The mood of The Human Surge is mostly one of repose, but repose haunted by the prospect of work, the threat of which is felt throughout the film—shirking it, submitting to it, dreading waking up to it, getting fired, walking off of the job. (And yes, those are worker ants.) It makes for an exhilarating, boldly paradoxical experience—a headlong dive into the rich, knotty, sticky undergrowth amid a proliferation of tidy, well-lit paths.

Nick Pinkerton

Eduardo Williams’s The Human Surge opens Friday, March 3 at the Metrograph in New York.

Fernando Pérez, Últimos días en la Habana (Last Days in Havana), 2016, HD video, color, sound, 93 minutes. Diego (Jorge Martínez).

DIEGO (JORGE MARTÍNEZ) has been reduced to the status of permanent patient. Dying of AIDS, he lies in bed in the apartment he shares with Miguel (Patricio Wood), a friend with whom he has little in common other than that Miguel once defended him from bullies when they were adolescents. In the depressed environs of contemporary Havana, Miguel has gone into a sort of internal exile. By day, he scrapes by as a dishwasher at a restaurant; at night, he gazes at a map of the United States in the kitchen, dreaming of escape, while in the bedroom, Diego holds court with his ferocious wit in gossip sessions with neighbors, hustlers, and distant relatives.

Through this concentrated, rather minimal storyline, Últimos días en la Habana (Last Days in Havana), the latest from Fernando Pérez, evokes the essence of life in the Cuban capital today—the street-level feel of abject desperation mixed with riotous humor and a wealth of creativity in managing the challenges of quotidian life. These rich emotions specific to the Cuban experience reach their apotheosis at the film’s end, when, in an intimate and moving monologue, one of the characters confides, “My greatest fear isn’t change—it’s that nothing will change. That everything will remain the same.”

It was a cinematic force field such as this example for which the Berlin International Film Festival was built, and as its sixty-seventh edition wound to a close last week, I recklessly wandered through without submitting to any one particular program. There were too many discoveries to be made outside the feature competition: Últimos días, for instance, was in the noncompeting Berlinale Special program, while Bruce LaBruce’s latest, The Misandrists, made a splash in the Panorama section. Here, LaBruce returns to his enduring obsession with radical leftist clans, bringing back The Raspberry Reich’s (2004) Susanne Sachsse as the leader of an underground lesbian-separatist enclave in the rural outskirts of Berlin. With its international mix of professional actors and beautiful scenesters, The Misandrists is LaBruce’s radical feminist hijacking of the “women-in-prison” and “girls’ school” B-movie genres, demonstrating how humor as a political weapon is infinitely more tactical than didacticism . . . especially when it’s combined with didacticism! It is one of his best films in years.

All but ignored by critics and the jury, newcomer Liu Jian’s animated feature Hao Ji Le (Have a Nice Day) is a memorable black comedy–slash–violent thriller that centers on the theft of a bag containing a million yuan. The film’s colorful palette is a spot-on evocation of China’s neon-sleaze cityscapes, the voice-over acting is superb, and the sharp script offers a fresh take on materialistic obsession in today’s not-so-red China. Another genre mash-up, Japanese director Sabu’s Mr. Long begins as a blood-soaked martial-arts film before morphing into social drama, then melting into a tender romance, and then switching back to an edge-of-your-seat thriller culminating in tear-drenched drama. It could’ve been a mess, but Sabu’s expert direction, together with an understated performance by lead actor Chang Chen, made for a masterful piece of storytelling.

German filmmaking has never quite recovered from the storm of Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Watching a restored version of Fassbinder’s 1973 science-fiction miniseries Welt am Draht (World on a Wire) in a 205-minute-long marathon screening at the Berlinale pointed toward a gnawing lack: It all comes down to style. Fassbinder’s great accomplishment was to make films as though he had never seen a film before, as though he were both a cine-naïf and someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic art. Style is a heightening of affect that is unique to each practitioner, and Fassbinder’s position as a stylist is unparalleled. You can watch a work as masterfully and complexly scripted as Welt am Draht for pure style, following the magnificent Fassbinderian flow of affect: the 360-degree revolving shots, the sudden and inexplicable crescendo in a character’s spiel, the casting of exclusively smoky-voiced male baritones, the bizarre gesticulations of a supporting character in the distant background. Watching Fassbinder in the context of the contemporary filmmaking showcased by the Berlinale highlights the relative flatness—or affectlessness—that passes for style today, but which is actually a lack of style. In the end, the very presence of Fassbinder at this year’s Berlinale made the absence of any disrupting force acutely felt.

Travis Jeppesen

The Sixty-Seventh International Filmfestspiele Berlin ran February 9 through 19.